During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, I had the privilege of speaking with Natalia Lema about her work, founding and running Cocoon – an early year’s support and playgroup for parents and their young children in East London. As a result of Covid-19, Natalia
had to quickly adapt Cocoon’s offer in order to meet the needs of parents and their young children living in Barking and Dagenham. Here is her story.
My name is Natalia Lema and I am a resident of Barking and Dagenham. I am an early year’s consultant, a mother, and the proud leader of Cocoon. I was born in Bromley, but my family moved to Colombia before my third birthday, where I later began my career as an early year’s professional. While living in Colombia, I amassed five years’ experience as a teacher, before moving back to the UK in 2008.
Over a period of nine years I grew my teaching experience, later becoming an early year’s consultant. However, following the birth of my first child, I felt strongly that I didn’t want toreturn to full-time work – a tough decision faced by many parents.
At times like this, lots of parents, often mothers, have to make difficult decisions about what they will do.
When my daughter was very young, I began looking for play groups to attend with her, but I quickly discovered that the services that had been in place were no longer running, due to funding cuts or other factors such as a lack of available community spaces. Additionally, many of the services that were on offer weren’t free.
In September 2018, after assessing the existing services in the borough and approaching the local authority, I set up Cocoon and began delivering fortnightly parent and child engagement sessions at Dagenham Library. What started out as a simple offer to parents, carers and young children quickly developed, with over 35 families attending in the first few weeks. I soon realised how important the sessions were, and I began delivering them on a weekly basis.
At the beginning it was challenging, and it was different to my previous experience as a teacher, but by developing relationships with the families, we began sharing ideas and resources, and supporting each other. The inclusive atmosphere we created was key to the success of the sessions in those early days.
Some of the carers attending are single parents. Many have only recently moved to the UK, and are facing other challenges because of language barriers. It’s really important that they can access provisions like this.
Due to health and safety measures, I was forced to cap the attendance at 25 families per session. But thankfully, in September 2019, I received funding to begin delivering two Cocoon sessions per week. As well as delivering sessions to more families, the funding also enabled me to develop the content of the sessions, bringing in professional storytellers, musicians, creatives, and fitness instructors.
At this point, I had been offering these services for nearly a year, on an entirely voluntary basis, with some support from families attending, but predominantly on my own. Fast forward six months from September 2019 and the world is facing a pandemic: Covid-19. Because of the lockdown restrictions, I began delivering Cocoon sessions over Zoom, reengaging with parents/carers and their children online. There have been logistical challenges, with perhaps the most unique challenge being coordinating singing with a group of 15-20 families.
We cannot do as much during these sessions as we do at the library, but we have been doing phonics practice, storytelling using twinkl resources, and lots of singing!
To me, it seems that many families have been doing well despite the pandemic. They have been accessing online resources and supporting one another while looking out for the most vulnerable members of our community. The main challenges are keeping the kids busy, and having enough resources to do this.
To combat the challenges presented by families having a lack of play resources at home, I have adapted a previous funded project: ‘Parenting Survival Kit’. I received this funding before the lockdown and have been distributing play and learning resource packs within the community to families who need them most.
Cocoon was born out of a personal experience and an identified need. In less than two years, it has blossomed into something very special within Barking and Dagenham.
You can find out more about Cocoon by emailing Natalia on – firstname.lastname@example.org or following her Instagram – @earlyyearscocoon