A strange turn of events

In his debut column, new dad Jon Willing sings the praises of daycare and its value to his young son

Columnist Jon Willing’s son, Miles Willing. Photo Courtesy Jon Willing

Like jailbirds scrawling the days on the prison wall, our small family was tracking our time spent semi-confined under the province’s emergency order related to the global pandemic.

My wife, Nicole, let Miles, our one-and-a-half-year-old son, choose a word of the day to plug onto a felt sign board alongside the day number. One day was “cookie.” Another was “wubba wubba.”

So, while out of daycare during the provincial closures, at least he was receiving a rudimentary education in math and language, even if it was the wubba-wubba of our revived Sesame Street vocabulary.

But I frequently thought about what he was missing from daycare and the wonderful teachers there. It didn’t take long for me to realize what an important part a daycare can play in a family’s life, and – as it turned out – our family’s life.

We immediately missed the routine, and while Miles rolled with structureless days, it was clear how important a schedule was for him. Playtime was sandwiched between conference calls as we juggled job responsibilities while working at home. An outdoor escapade lasted 20 minutes or two hours. At daycare, the day seems to have more predictable delineations with a clear start time (the drop-off) and end time (the pickup). At home, it was complete freestyle.

And when it came to hitting developmental milestones, I worried if I had blind spots as a new father. Daycare, under the leadership of early childhood educators, is a fantastic safety net for these kinds of things, and I’m not afraid to admit that.

There are toys at daycare that kids don’t have at home, but I feared the one toy that we, like most families, have in our living room was becoming an unfortunate crutch. Sure, television shows can be educational, but it was too easy to flip on an episode of Elmo’s World and have the boy transfixed on the magic video box so we could scarf down our breakfast and clean up.

That’s why I like the concept of daycare entertainment. There are no TVs. Activities are almost always participatory, whether it’s crafts, songs or even story times. It’s a sensory bonanza.

However, I think the most significant loss during the daycare closure was the socialization with other kids. 

The physical-distancing restrictions under the pandemic created an odd situation where kids, unless they’re living under the same roof, weren’t supposed to be within two metres of each other. The public health rules were for the greater good, of course, but it was heartbreaking to see parents try to keep their young sons and daughters away from other children as they passed each other on paths.

Kids learn so much from each other, and especially so, I would think, in a setting where they see the same faces everyday, working on the same activities.

To its great credit, our daycare started a superb daily Zoom video chat with all the kids and the teachers, who hosted a 15-minute “circle time” with stories and songs.

Of course, there was a huge upside to having our boy at home.

In a short period of time, we watched him learn the names of colours, improve his dexterity with small toys and dance to his favourite Elmo jams. He started singing melodies and stickhandling a hockey ball.

His time out of daycare probably provided the opportunity for more exercise, too. Unable to burn steam at the park under the closures, Miles’s daily outdoor romp involved dashing up and down our dead-end street with his music-making plastic push car, often stopping to throw rocks in potholes.

Still, we knew he was missing the variety that daycare provides.

I often wonder how his young mind processed this strange turn of events where for months, almost every day, we took him to this lively place so he could play with friends, sing songs and learn new skills, only to have it abruptly stop.