University of Oxford: Researchers and charities team up to support local families by creating free toddler activity packs

Since spring 2021, a team of researchers from five leading UK universities have been tracking the development of babies and toddlers growing up during the pandemic. Their latest report – led by University of Oxford researcher, Alex Hendry, and just published in the journal Infancy – shows that the more time parents were able to engage in a range of activities with their child, the better their child’s ability to control their impulses, hold information in mind, respond flexibly to the world around them, and work towards goals (known as thinking skills or executive functions). These skills are important for children’s long-term mental health, as well as academic success.

High screen use was associated with lower thinking skills and more difficulties with regulating emotions. The study results also highlight how external factors – such as access to space and resources – shape children’s access to enriching activities.

This observation prompted Dr Hendry, from the University of Oxford, and Dr Nayeli Gonzalez-Gomez, from Oxford Brookes University to find out more about the barriers that parents face to engaging in a range of activities with young children. Drs Hendry and Gonzalez-Gomez ran a series of online workshops with parents and early years practitioners.

Dr Hendry explains: ‘Parents are doing a fantastic job in really difficult circumstances at the moment. However, what came up in our workshops, again and again, is that many parents don’t have the time, space or confidence to do long, complicated activities with their children – and very young children often aren’t interested in those kinds of activities anyway. What parents need are ideas for simple, fun activities that don’t take ages to set up or clear up.’

With support from an ESRC Impact Acceleration Grant, and book publisher Faber, the team got together with the National Literacy Trust, Peeple, and Home-Start Oxford to put together 2 free activity packs for families, including a book, craft materials and suggestions for ways to use them. The packs are being shared with children’s centres and other organisations across Oxford that work with families with young children.

Dr Gonzalez-Gomez said: ‘We know that children depend on high-quality interactions to support all aspects of their development. We hope that these activity packs will help parents to build up their confidence and give them lots of opportunities to spend quality one-to-one time with their children.’

Sally Smith, CEO of Peeple, who helped to create the resources, said: ‘We are delighted to be able to share these packs with families at our Peep group sessions, and via our nursery, Little Peeple. They will really support parents to have fun with their children – and do more of the little things which make a big difference to their child’s learning and development!’

The full paper, ‘Not all babies are in the same boat: Exploring the effects of socioeconomic status, parental attitudes, and activities during the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic on early Executive Functions’, is published in Infancy.

• The Social Distancing and Development Study is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of the UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to COVID-19 (ES/V004085/1). The Social Distancing and Development Study has been undertaken by Nayeli Gonzalez-Gomez at the Oxford Brookes University, in collaboration with Alexandra Hendry at University of Oxford, Catherine Davies at the University of Leeds, Teodora Gliga at the University of East Anglia, and Michelle McGillion at the University of Warwick. Dr Hendry is supported by the Scott Family Junior Research Fellowship in Autism, at University College Oxford and by a NIHR and Castang Foundation Advanced Fellowship.
• The University of Oxford and Oxford Brookes babylabs community partnerships programme is funded by an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Impact Acceleration Award, and is also supported by book published Faber.

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