Expert insight: Early Learning Initiative covers Dublin's summer break


School's out, and Dublin's well-off families may be heading for the hills, the beach or the backwoods. For those left behind, some may nonetheless be enjoying weeks of traffic-lite and stress-free city living, saving their annual leave for another day.

For parents and children in Dublin's disadvantaged areas, however, July and August can be trying times: not only can it seem that there is nowhere to go and nothing to do; the end of the academic year closes the educational projects that often hold families within a social network. Without formal interactions, some feel isolated, if not excluded.              

The issue is the latest to be tackled by the Parent Child Home Programme, part of the Early Learning Initiative* (ELI) which this year celebrates its 10th anniversary at the National College of Ireland. This summer, the programme is running a full programme of summer activities for families.

With 33 home visitors calling twice weekly on 140 families, the PCHP works to change educational under-achievement in marginalised communities, focusing on pre-literacy and numeracy skills in pre-school children so that they flourish when the time comes to enter full-time education. According to ELI, children from middle-class homes enter school with 1,200-1,400 words in their vocabulary; children from disadvantaged areas arrive with only 400 words.

One-to-one attention

In Dublin, PCHP home visits focus on the Lower Docklands, which neighbour - but are a world away from - the steel and glass towers of the International Financial Services Centre and ‘Silicon Docks' IT area. One-to-one home visits with children and parents introduces them to interactive and creative play, reading as a fun activity, and encourages the verbal skills that breed confidence.

However, in the past PCHP has taken a summer break and, according to Marion Byrne, ABC 0-2 Years Coordinator: “From the family's perspective it can feel like there's all that support and the child in a good routine and then you're saying to them ‘I'm finishing now, I'll be back on September 2nd.”

In 2015, the ELI introduced the ABC 0-2 programme to offer a range of supports such as pre-natal visits, baby massage to promote bonding, support around weaning/sleep routines etc. While separate from the PCHP, the broadening remit highlights how programme suspension during July and August can hit the most vulnerable hardest, says Jennifer O'Neill, PCHP Coordinator.

“We've had our home visitors saying to us for years that we should do something, so securing the funding for staff over the summer is a very important next step for us,” she says. The new summer activity programme includes sight-seeing to local attractions such as a city farm (“a little gem that costs nothing”, says Byrne) and the Natural History Museum, but also toddler groups, fitness classes, storytelling, creative play and messy mornings.

Creative programme

As well as providing a welcome chance to get out of the house, the new programme is designed to open eyes and minds to potential. “When it comes to creative play some parents can be quite resistant if they think things are going to get messy,” says Byrne. “But when we get children in a room with musical instruments, a sandpit, a projector to make hand shadows, a painting and a Play Doh station, and chunky crayons with paper stuck to the wall to draw on, we get amazing feedback. Children are just engrossed in free play that's not adult directed, and all the time they're learning fine motor skills like holding a paint brush or beginning to understand and label colours.”

The NCI is always accommodating where facilities are concerned, O'Neill emphasises, but the institution itself currently has space issues: where necessary, the multiple sites used for the ELI summer programme have been donated, borrowed or even bartered. She said an initial creativity afternoon in the NCI quadrangle that had been promoted solely home visitor word-of-mouth had attracted 113 children and 80 parents.

After the first full week of scheduled events, Byrne said that the scheme had attracted around 100 families. “And the chances are that, as the word spreads, there'll be even more,” she added.

Alongside its admirable objectives, it is this kind of success that explains why the ELI is attracting funding from local employers, such as Dublin Port, Deloitte, Facebook, HSBC, and Samskip, which favour schemes that can have a lasting impact.

About the Early Learning Initiative

Name: Jennifer O'Neill. Job Title: Parent Child Home Programme Coordinator
Name: Marion Boyne. Job title: ABC 0-2 Years Coordinator

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