Remembrance Day: Tackling difficult topics in early years
Tuesday, October 17, 2023
When is it suitable to discuss subjects like Remembrance Day with young children? Meg Barclay, educational consultant and trainer, discusses how to approach sensitive and upsetting issues in a way that is still meaningful and safe for children in early years, in time Remembrance Day in November.
Remembrance Day and the Act of Remembrance can be a particularly difficult topic to explore with children as young as those in early years, given the nature of the often distressing and adult content which the day references. However, this day features widely in society and children in your setting will be exposed to it. The topic should not be glossed over or ignored, and indeed some of your children will have a direct connection to the day itself through family members, neighbours and friends. Or at the very least they may encounter something to do with Remembrance Day in their everyday lives, (for example seeing or meeting poppy sellers). Despite the difficulties it poses, it is best to be open and honest about Remembrance, looking at it with your children though age-appropriate methods and activities.
Every practitioner will have to judge for themselves the appropriateness of covering this topic, based on the ages of their children, their levels of maturity, backgrounds and whether they are already aware of Remembrance Day from experiences outside the setting. It may be that you simply think this is not a relevant subject to cover with your children. However, sadly war and conflict are always a part of our world and as such there are always children in early years whose lives are touched by it in some way. Current events, including the war in Ukraine may make Remembrance Day a useful way into covering such issues when children in your setting are directly affected.
A helpful place to start is having a general discussion with the children in your setting. Ask open-ended questions and find out what they already know, have encountered and may or may not be worrying about. This must be a safe conversation where children can share things and feel upset without having their feelings ignored or dismissed. Equally, maximum care must be taken that children are not unduly upset or that such potentially frightening issues are not dwelt on unnecessarily. It is always useful to reassure children that large, international organisations work daily for peace and conflict resolution in the world, and are actively doing so in places where war occurs.
One approach into this topic is through discussing the theme of loss. This is something that most children will have some comprehension and experience of by the time they are in a setting. This can be first explored through the idea of losing objects, or resources (perhaps a pen or pencil is lost) and explained through simple role-play and stories. The loss described in the story can then be developed, with children contributing different objects or items which were important to them that have been lost. The key to these discussions is for them to be both respectful and child-led, neither exploring things that the individual child doesn't understand or have experience of, nor dismissing and diminishing the trauma that more significant loss can cause for a child – such as losing a parent or family member, or even a beloved pet.
‘Every practitioner will have to judge for themselves the appropriateness of covering this topic, based on the ages of their children, their levels of maturity, backgrounds and whether they are already aware of Remembrance Day from experiences outside the setting.’
If questions or comments come up in group which practitioners judges are not appropriate for the rest of the children to hear and explore, take the child who raised them to one side, to a safe and cosy area which will help them feel secure and supported. Use open-ended questions to explore their concerns and comments further, being careful to not shut down the conversation as if its not important, or dwell on anything the child isn't comfortable with. Puppets/dolls can be useful to help a child communicate what they are trying to express without it being too personal, and asking a child how it makes them feel will allow you to validate their questions. However always be mindful to be led by the child and what they want to discuss or talk about. They may suddenly decide to go and do something completely different, rather than finish the conversation and that's okay! The aim is to allow the child the space and time to explore anything they would like to in a safe and validated way, without imposing this on the rest of the group who may not have experience of it or be developmentally ready for such a discussion.
There are lots of good books that can aid these discussions. A Cat Called Waverley (2021) by Debi Gliori is a poignant exploration of the effects of conflict on the lives of individual people, and touches on loss and war in a modern context. Although it's reading age is six to eight it could be used (or part of it could be used) with more mature children if you judge it to be of particular benefit to those in your setting. Other books to consider are Leaves (2021) by Stephen Hogtun which explores intergenerational relationships, memories and loss, which can help children to process loss in a safe and secure setting. And Daddy's Rainbow; A Story about loss and grief (2022) by Lucy Rowland and Becky Cameron which explores the loss of a parent in a gentle and sensitive manner.
If you are looking to explore the more historical aspects of Remembrance Day, Flo of the Somme (2015) by Hilary Robinson and Martin Impey is one to consider, which follows a World War One Mercy Dog called Flo through trench life and the many things that a mercy dog would experience. Such fictional picture books can help build children's understanding of World War One without going into the details of the reality of killing and death. Another example is The Little Hen and the Great War (2014) by Jennifer Beck. Again, both of these may not be appropriate for all children in your setting, with many of the more upsetting aspects of conflict depicted through the illustrations, so make sure you consider carefully if they are appropriate. But stories from the point of view of animals can be more easily relatable to and understandable for young children than following a human's experience.
Craft activities can also be great at introducing young children to the topic of Remembrance in a way that they feel comfortable with, without necessarily understanding the more negative and emotionally-overwhelming implications of war. Simple things like making tissue paper poppies while discussing issues around Remembrance can help give context to children so they understand a bit more when they see adults selling and wearing poppies, as well as helping build cognitive and fine motor skills. Depending on ability, simple sewing could also be attempted to make poppies using different fabrics and wool, as well as stencilling/tracing/drawing and colouring poppy outlines.
These can also be accompanied by other cross-curricular activities which support the other areas of EYFS learning. For example sorting and counting activities for different flowers, colours, shapes and sizes, as well as basic labelling of a flower diagram to include the flower, stem, leaves and petals to build vocabulary. Learning about the natural world can be extended through growing poppies from seeds – including growing different coloured poppies and associated wild flowers which often grow together. This can then be turned into a small Remembrance Garden where children can remember things they have lost (small and trivial as well as more meaningful and important), and in time become a small wildflower garden which can be used to learn about the insects which feed off these flowers.
There are many organisations which provide resources around Remembrance Day, however these can be quite generic or pitched at older children. It is always important to tailor resources to the children in your care and again be led by their individual levels of understanding and cognitive development. Indeed it is often easier to create your own resources specifically for your setting.
Another suggestion would be if any children have parents/carers who are in the Armed Forces, to ask them to visit your setting in uniform and talk to the children about their job. However, I would advise that you ask the parent/carer to keep things fun and light-hearted and frame their discussions in an age-appropriate way. One way into the discussion could be to ask the children to guess what the different parts comprising the uniform are for, or why the visitor is dressed that way. This can be a great way for children to explore these items themselves and support vocabulary acquisition and understanding of the world. It can also build strong parental relationships with your setting, especially if it caters to Armed Forces families. Be sure to brief whoever comes in so they know exactly what you want them to talk about, to ensure it will be developmentally appropriate for all your children – and have confidence to interrupt them if necessary. Encourage an atmosphere of exploration for children rather than any kind of lecture or talk, again so that everything discussed is child-led and appropriate for those in your individual setting.
It's important to note that any discussions and activities around Remembrance Day can be triggering, overwhelming and cause children to become upset. The utmost sensitivity should be employed, to ensure children feel safe and secure and have the option of choosing a completely different activity if needed. Consider the environment these activities and discussions are done in, which should promote calmness and one where children feel comfortable and safe. Keep the atmosphere light and fun without bringing your own personal, political or social beliefs about war and Remembrance Day into discussions. Always go with what your children are happy, comfortable and able to understand, tailoring your activities and resources to the individuals in front of you. If any children do become distressed, be sure to validate and support this, allowing space for children to communicate these emotions in a safe way. Having a calm area or timeout section of the room where you are working can help children work through their big emotions without disrupting the rest of the group.
Exploring Remembrance Day can be challenging with such young children, especially when it involves such upsetting concepts. However, such concepts are a part of life that many young children will be exposed to in some way. Framing discussions around loss and using activities which allows Remembrance Day and the act of Remembrance to become familiar to children is a helpful way to introduce this topic at an age appropriate level.
Educational consultant and trainer