At Little Angels we’ve discovered that empowering our staff and children is the most powerful tool in developing creativity throughout our setting. And that empowerment starts from the youngest babies who join nursery and each newly qualified employee or student who comes to Little Angels.
How do we empower our children?
We focus on Personal Social and Emotional Development (PSED) from our first point of contact with parents. Forging early and strong partnerships with parents ensures a two-way flow of information between nursery and home so that critical information is shared about the child’s achievements and interests in both the home and nursery environments.
Groupings of children in our under-2s rooms are deliberately kept small to foster a homely feel to nursery. It doesn’t maximize profit… but it maximizes quality and means children’s emotional security is strong throughout the setting. Visiting professionals and prospective parents often comment on how they don’t hear children crying and that our children are very confident.
Achieving this in a setting where we welcome at least 90
children daily is a challenge, but it has become the norm for us. Children often initiate conversation or approach visitors to ask them about their clothes or what they’re doing at nursery. For example, a small group of two-year olds were very proud to show their discoveries of very precious gemstones found in a donated (clean!) coal scuttle to our Ofsted inspector. Children will often wave spontaneously through their windows if they see a visitor, or the window cleaners.
Carefully planned transitions retain that emotional security. Four-week transitions between age groups involve an exchange whereby existing key workers visit the new groups with their children, while new key workers visit the children’s previous group. At each point of transition (there are two transitions for children who have joined as babies and stay until school age) parents and key workers jointly review a transition document which updates information on each child’s achievements and interests, and what makes them special. We have also found it useful to pinpoint changes in routines at home or any new interests a child may have developed. These run alongside once-a-term parent open evenings where key workers put on display a range of photographs and even video clips of children during their days at nursery.
Offering regular feedback in daily diaries for under-3s and staff handover notes for over-3s keeps parents in the loop if children forget or can’t yet communicate to their carers what has happened during their day.
We share with parents how our youngest children learn through schemas and how those insights help us to offer the widest variety of experiences and exploratory learning, particularly for our under-3s. As children grow they become more able to articulate their needs and their interests, and so we can respond to these. In our pre-school, for example children have recipe cards and they can choose what to cook on the day. This sometimes involves a trip to the shops to buy what’s needed, but the learning that takes place throughout the session is led by the children and takes on more meaning because of this.
During our cooking sessions, each child has their own bowl and set of scales, so they are always actively taking part in the activity. They develop many skills in creating something that they can later eat as part of their meal at lunch or take home to share with their family. They have child-sized sinks, a hob and microwave that they use, all within their base room. Risk assessments and stringent procedures to ensure their safety when using such equipment offers children the opportunities to take calculated risks – because we believe that nurturing creativity means making sure that our children can be independent and make their own choices.
While planning sheets are developed with individualised learning programmes for each child on a daily basis, staff and children are still encouraged to respond to significant events that happen throughout a day – it might be something relating to the weather, an unannounced woodcutter on neighbouring land or a grasscutter on the field behind nursery.
Getting the environment right
Our environment is crucial to offering appropriate challenges through planned purposeful play and it has taken us many years to get to where we are now. A timely refurbishment as part of the Neighbourhood Nursery Initiative in 2004 ensured that we were able to introduce a multi-sensory room that offers visual stimulus, particularly for the youngest babies but also for all children who love to visit the relaxing, quiet space. We also created our over-3s kitchen and tailored all the rooms to have baby change facilities and art sinks in every base room, or just off the base room. This means our staff have everything to hand when they are in the play spaces and the routines of the day flow with minimal interruptions. Handwashing before meals and toothbrushing afterwards have become much more straightforward - but more importantly it means that children receive more time throughout their sessions for children to direct their own play.
Our work on schemas has challenged us to review our environment to make sure that children who have pronounced schemas have opportunities to explore the world around them using their schema. We also make certain that all areas of learning in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) are covered and regularly reviewed. Learning opportunities in each area are discussed at staff meetings and reviewed periodically to guarantee that new and exciting stimuli are regularly introduced. These are displayed in each area: voiles hang from the ceiling, and balloons or natural materials from outside such as twigs and leaves or spring flowers reflect the seasons.
Our garden is ever-evolving - two thirds of our children would regularly choose to be outside and so we spend as much time developing the outdoors as the indoors. We now have a homemade workbench, a touch-table where children can explore seaweed, pebbles, soft sand and grasses. We have had an iron bedstead ‘planted’ into the garden, a ‘talking tent’ and a sand play shed. Our most recent addition is a recycling centre in another shed where storage boxes are filled with every imaginable recyclable material and the children have the opportunity to create whatever they would like on a table next to the shed.
It gives shilcren the chance to develop their fine motor skills as well as exercising their creativity. They cut, stick, staple, sellotape, join, label and simultaneously put pipes and offcuts of plumbing parts together. They have ribbons, string, treasury tags, crinkly paper, smooth paper, plastic and corrugated card. By photographing their creations and explaining to parents in a letter what learning has taken place has prompted a steady supply of goods!
We have a secret garden too, where children can go to be furtive - they are told that if they water the plants in that part of the garden it will keep the magic lights working. The children also reap vegetables and fruit that they have sown earlier in the year and until recently they were able to pet our friendly, well-fed rabbit, Harvey, who sadly passed away this summer.
Our under-2s garden has a covered bandstand, which can also be used by children with additional needs who struggle with large outside spaces that are sometimes noisy with the older children. There are hanging ‘bottles of fun’ – sealed-up bottles containing different textures and colours. Spiral hanging whirligigs stimulate visual development and we attempt to recreate homely environments by offering a grassed play area and a patio area. Intentional differences in floor levels support children’s gross motor development as they develop awareness of differing step heights. Willow structures in both gardens make great hiding spaces and offer opportunities for weaving. Mark-making opportunities exist in both gardens - chalk boards and painting frames not only present continuity and developmental challenges but also cover additional aspects of creative and exploratory learning.
We have analysed the timetable carefully so that each day, free-flow play is offered for at least an hour and a quarter per education session. Children attending for daycare obviously have much more than this but within the funded early education sessions we have reviewed our timetable to allow for uninterrupted play, so that children can develop decision making skills and explore areas that interest them. We have also developed a tracking analysis of how long individual children spend in each area: if they are not taking part in an adult-led or facilitated activity, we want to know that they are engaging with the environment fruitfully. Tracking sheets are used periodically to make sure that the environment is serving the needs of individual children.
When Ofsted inspected our setting in May 2008, this is how the under-2s provision was described:
“They achieve so much because staff provide the resources and environment which enable them to explore a wealth of media and materials at their own pace and with increasing challenge.”
If we want our children to lead their learning, the environment is absolutely critical. As Ofsted’s Leading To Excellence publication states, “inspiring environments enable children to thrive, well supported by knowledgeable adults who keep close watch over children’s development and monitor progress”
Empowering our staff
Our mission statement, set in 2002, still stands as a firm foundation of our philosophy at Little Angels: “Empowering individuals to achieve their full potential.” While new legislation will soon require all staff to secure a level 3 qualification in childcare, we look for a passion for children when we interview and shortlist applicants. Many staff who have come to us with level 3, whether recently qualified or not, are fully inducted into our philosophy - and we often find that they require a good deal of support adapting to the high level of expectation that we have as a management team. This sometimes means that our turnover is higher than average during the probationary period, but it is imperative we have the right people in our organisation. We have recently started using management profiling to ensure that the key skills required by a typical early-years practitioner are assessed following a successful first interview. It’s costly, but less costly than recruiting the wrong people.
Following our award-winning four-week induction, staff are allocated to a base room. The manager decides which room is best for the new recruit in terms of the balance of the team, the experience of the team, the age group of the children and the skills within the team. Character traits at this point are highly relevant in determining whether the new recruit will be able to flourish and all the issues discussed above in relation to settling a new child are equally important when settling a new recruit into the organization. They are allocated a buddy who takes them through the induction and a mentor who is from outside the base room to touch base on a weekly basis and then monthly.
Our staff attend monthly meetings and periodically we hold quizzes and presentations at these meetings to support new initiatives and to establish a sense of belonging. New staff are encouraged to stand up and introduce themselves to the rest of the team and share a bit about their background. While this may be unnerving to some, it sets the tone for their time at Little Angels. Teams are sometimes set the task of preparing a presentation to the rest of the meeting or to share their achievements and what has worked well.
Every one of our team and room leaders and managers has been ‘home-grown’. We have our own team-leader training package and have sourced our own teambuilding training, facilitated by an experienced consultant who has delivered programs for us on several occasions. We have followed the NDNA Quality assurance scheme over the past few years and this has provided us with a strong and detailed development tool that we can use to identify our strengths and development areas.
While my managers and I spend less time now working directly with the children we pride ourselves in the many and varied achievements of our staff team. Taking visitors around our nursery fills me with pride as I see the wide and varied range of experiences we offer to children along with the gentle nurturing that staff provide, ensuring that the balance of care and learning is right for each child.
There are so many avenues for both staff and children to be creative at Little Angels: problem solving, shared sustained thinking, painting, drawing, writing, junk modeling, music, imaginative play, role play, performing, investigation, exploration, experimentation, dancing, singing - all elements of creativity that we offer. And making sure that our children’s achievements, no matter how small are accepted and celebrated will nurture them to continue with their creative journeys.