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When space is short: giving baby a place to play and learn

Special playmat helps infants living in cramped conditions to develop, writes Katherine Donnelly


Shauna O’Neill, and her daughter Elise (12 weeks), Ringsend, Dublin do a favour for the Irish Independent and help to demonstrate benefits of the playmat with her friend Marion Byrne. Photo: Damien Eagers

Shauna O’Neill, and her daughter Elise (12 weeks), Ringsend, Dublin do a favour for the Irish Independent and help to demonstrate benefits of the playmat with her friend Marion Byrne. Photo: Damien Eagers

Shauna O’Neill, and her daughter Elise (12 weeks), Ringsend, Dublin do a favour for the Irish Independent and help to demonstrate benefits of the playmat with her friend Marion Byrne. Photo: Damien Eagers

Homelessness is a shocking reality for more than 1,700 families and almost 4,000 children in Ireland. Living in emergency accommodation or overcrowded, shared family homes impacts on every aspect of life, including a child's education, and may deny them opportunities for learning they will never get back.

Forced changes of address can affect a child's ability to get to school, meaning long commutes for many young students on top of the deprivations associated with living in cramped conditions. Lack of access to decent cooking facilities leaves many children arriving in class without breakfast or going home with no prospect of a decent dinner.

Finding quiet space to do homework can be impossible.

The issues are well documented in a recently launched resource, 'Homelessness in the Classroom', prepared by the Irish National Teachers' Organisation and Focus Ireland. It provides plenty of practical suggestions for teachers about how to support pupils and their families living in inadequate, cramped accommodation.

However, education does not start at school - it begins with the parent or caregiver in the home.

Children are learning from the day they are born and research shows that those who suffer a lack of stimulation and development in their early months and years may never catch up.

The skills nurtured in infants and toddlers through interactions at home and through play set the foundations for the formal education that follows in school.

When childcare worker Marion Byrne started her current job as a 0-2 years co-ordinator with the Early Learning Initiative (ELI) at the National College of Ireland (NCI), including a role on its home-visiting programme, the challenges for parents living in emergency accommodation were obvious.

On top of her job, Byrne also decided to pursue the Early Childhood Education degree that NCI launched the same year in 2015.

When it came to choosing a topic for her final year project, it was staring her in the face.

Her home visits included varying types of houses and apartments, such as shared accommodation where many generations were living in the same homes and some families in emergency accommodation.

"I had been visiting a family one day where three generations were living in a small house. The mam was aware this was her parents' living space too, so she had created a portable play mat for her baby. I could see how this could work with many of the families we were working with," she says.

She read up on research, both Irish and international, highlighting the importance of play for learning, from the earliest ages, and also noted health recommendations that infants should sleep on their backs, but how the amount of time they were also spending in car seats, buggies and bouncers was leading to a condition known as flat head.

Byrne says "the way to combat this is to provide tummy time, which is one of the main benefits of setting up a play space for young infants under 12 months".

The US-based National Scientific Council on the Developing Child states that early interactions with infants help to increase the volume of the brain and that positive stimulations from the main caregiver can strengthen and develop the brain. At home, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) says if the physical environment has a stimulating layout, it invites the child to explore and learn.

For her field work, Byrne provided a playmat, with a specially curated collection of toys to deliver essential stimuli, to a number of families with young infants, aged three to 12 months, and evaluated the outcomes. The mat provides a familiar space that gives the baby room to safely explore its surroundings and to practise rolling over and beginning to crawl.

It also has the effect of focusing adult attention on the baby for a time, encouraging more engagement and higher quality engagement, where colour, shapes and sounds are all talked about. Importantly too, it came with a cord, so it could be neatly packed away when there was a competing demand for the space.

Setting up a play space was a new concept for more than half of the families.

According to Byrne, the findings showed that a large number of activities took place over the course of the project.

"The parents demonstrated through their answers that these activities were suitable for each child's stage of development," she says. "This play space was an opportunity for all the infants involved to engage in some level of social play. The parents' responses showed the children displayed a level of confidence, independence and resilience."

Once finished, Byrne thought her project would "sit on a shelf", but when Clíodhna Mahony, Coordinator of the Dublin City North Child and Young People Services Committee (CYPSC), approached Area Based Childhood (ABC) Programme sites to work on an application to the Healthy Ireland Funds, the playmat fitted the criteria. The application succeeded, following which Focus Ireland and the Dublin Regional Housing Executive got involved.

ELI has trained staff in Focus Ireland to support parents, and 220 babies living in homeless accommodation in north Dublin have benefited from the programme. Parents are provided with a tip sheet to ensure babies get the most out of the mat.

As a next step, Dublin City North CYPSC will work with partners, including the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, to secure mainstream funding to support a national roll. Last month, Byrne won an Irish Health Care Award for the mat.

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