I began with thinking back to my time in a toddler room. Many of the children in my care came with teddies or blankets or even a pair of mums satin pyjamas! They clutched these items like someone thrown overboard would clutch a life preserver, as though if they let go of them, their little world would end. I could see it in their eyes, just how special these items were. Yet, we had a policy that these were kept in children’s bags until rest time, as though it were expected that this would be the only time the child may seek comfort. I can shamefully recall waiting for a child to drop their teddy as they climbed into the sandpit, then sneakily taking it to their bag, where it would be “safe.” In our minds we felt it was the right thing to do – enabling them to play freely, ensuring that the item would not be lost or damaged. But, as I reflect on it now, with the advantage of deeper knowledge, more experience and the arrival of three of my own children, I realise just how misguided this approach was.
Research shows that the majority of children do have some sort of comfort item and that when left in an unfamiliar environment with it, they explored more, played more and cried less than those without one. So there goes our “theory” that the child would somehow be inhibited by their comfort item and that by hiding them away, we would be freeing them to play.
As I have been reflecting on this concept, I have been watching my own children and others at shops, playgrounds, preschool drop-off and other “kid places” to see how their relationships with comfort items may be effecting their play or interactions with others. In short… it wasn’t! In fact, for some children, it was enhancing their play, giving them a prop, a way to get involved with other children – an ice-breaker even. So what would have happened if an adult had walked over, scooped up the item and said “it needs to stay in your bag until rest time”? What impact would that have had on the child’s sense of security?
I have reflected on how I would feel as an adult to come into a completely new environment – one where the people and the place were all unfamiliar. Where the furniture looked different to the furniture at my home and the smell was different too. I would cling onto the little things that made me feel secure and comfortable, until I felt comfortable in that environment. In fact, for some adults, despite reaching a place where they are comfortable in the environment, they continue to surround themselves with photographs of family or little treasures and trinkets that remind them of home. By being able to blend ourselves and our homes/families into our work environment in some way, no matter how small, we gain a sense of belonging. This is something we strive for in early childhood settings, a fundamental part of our Early Years Learning Framework. And yet, so many services go to extremes to do this – creating belonging trees, photo walls and other “belonging” displays. Maybe a family photo doesn’t actually resonate with each child in terms of feeling secure and a sense of belonging? Perhaps we need to allow each child to find their own comfort in a way that is meaningful to them. For some children, this may mean that a teddy bear accompanies them as they dig in the mudpit, or they take a raggedy old blanket with them to paint at the easel. The important thing as that we as educators respect their need to seek comfort and familiarity in an object that is important to them. So, how do we do this?
- Welcome comfort items/toys into your service – Ensure that children and families know that their comfort items are welcome in your service. You may still request that they be appropriately labelled and may need to advise that while you will do your best to “look after” the item, things happen! (such as dirt, paint etc)
- Include them in experiences - If a child has a teddy that they bring to the role play space, ask if they would like a teddy carrier or pram. Always ask a child before touching their comfort item though.
- Avoid the phrase “you’re too old for that!” – While this may be well intentioned and you may have concerns about a child’s emotional wellbeing if they still have a comfort item at age 4 or 5, this will do nothing but upset the child. Rest assured that they probably won’t still be carrying their teddy around when they head off to high school and they will part with it when they feel ready.
I would love to hear your experiences with comfort items in early childhood services!