In September 2019, we unveiled our latest planning resource: our Learning Tree. We used this to identify key interests for each cohort, which were then used to plan ambitious Next Steps for each child, based on their interests. We also invited parents to share their ‘learning leaves’ with us, so they could have a voice in their child’s Early Years journey.
After exploring the Learning Tree for a year we found that we were using it in new ways. Our experience operating as an outdoor nursery over the Summer revealed that our little ones all continued to make progress over the entire curriculum, despite having access to fewer resources than usual. Thanks to thought-provoking conversations with adults and peers; imaginative creative play; and open-ended exploration, our children developed socially and cognitively.
Following much reflection, we recognised that while our learning tree gave voice to our little ones’ interests, it was predominantly a tool for the team, rather than for the children. At Westgate we have a holistic approach to development: we realise that a child’s life consist of more than their nursery experience. Some children may be awaiting the birth of siblings, or moving house. Some may be struggling to sleep through the night, or experiencing a change in routine at home. To have a holistic approach to planning for our little ones’ development, we needed a tool that enabled us to recognise these moments in each child’s life, and find a way to support them through it.
And so the Intention Tree was born! In keeping with our love of nature we have chosen to continue representing the children’s learning as a tree, with a leaf symbolising our intention for each child. Our key carers have considered how to enrich their key children’s nursery experience, and have set a positive intention to reflect this.
Some of the intentions include:
‘Will have the confidence to make a special friend.’ ‘Will be brave when I see the vaccum cleaner!’ ‘Will listen to other people’s ideas when playing.’ ‘Will be able to speak more clearly because she has so much to say!’ ‘Will embrace being a big brother, and all the changes that go along with it!’
Our Intention Tree can encompass any aspect of a child’s life, which – when paired with our education-focused Next Step leaves – will enable each team member to help our little one’s grow holistically.
This term we have been considering our children’s experience of Westgate, and how our invisible curriculum (not-academic provision) can best support our little one’s needs.
With that in mind, we have developed a daily rhythm. A rhythm offers more flexibility than a routine, which enables our children to set their own pace for the day, rather than be lead by time constraints.
Our rhythm is intentionally simple. Using meal times as anchor points, we have designed a flexible rhythm that ensures our little ones get the most out of their time at nursery. The loose structure of the day is a comfort to our children as they can predict what will happen next. Our rhythm allows us to balance exuberant, fun experiences with time to slow down and reflect, and mimics the children’s biological needs for activity and rest.
Breakfast – Separating from family can be tough when you are little, so breakfast is designed to bring a sense of peace. The children serve their cereal or toast independently, and engage in calm conversations with their friends or adults. Our biggest children also discuss projects or activities that they may like to try that day, which will then be incorporated at play time. As part of our ‘Respect. Responsibility. Community.’ initiative, our children remain together until the whole table has finished eating, and then help to look after the environment by cleaning the furniture.
Play – The largest portions of our day are dedicated to play. After a sedate breakfast, our little ones are raring to go, so we begin our day outside in the garden or forest. The children have time to interact with nature (and each other) while their adults set up learning provocations based on their interests. Play time is precious as this is where we see children collaborate, communicate, imagine, and strategise, all to enable them to develop an understanding of the world. Our adults guide and support our little ones to challenge themselves and meet their end goals – from inventing new games, to creating a ‘bird catching trap’ or a ‘spooky scarecrow’!
We offer snack mid-morning, and the children can choose whether they would like to eat or to continue playing.
Group Time – After a period of such productive play, it is only natural that the children should have time to rest before proceeding with their day. The nature of group time varies from day-to-day, depending on our little one’s needs and desires, but generally focuses on supporting communication and language development through storytelling, rhymes, or songs. This is a particularly important time for our babies, as music and singing activities support self-expression for non-verbal children.
Lunch – All of our children look forward to this time to socialise with their friends and refuel their bodies with home-cooked, nutritious meals. We encourage the children to take their time and enjoy the experience so our little ones can eat and chat in a stress-free atmosphere.
Relaxation and Nap Time – After lunch we focus on having quiet time to enable our children to rest and digest. Relaxation time has evolved over the years; each room has a modified approach to best support their children. Our babies offer ‘Meditation and Music’; a sensory experience of relaxing music, light displays and bubbles. Our toddlers practice breathing exercises as they listen to nature sounds and enjoy scents from our aromatherapy diffuser. Our biggest children participate in a ‘Gratitude Gathering’ where they reflect on the joys of their morning, before practicing breathing techniques.
Play time – After our rest, it’s time to play again! The children return outside and choose to continue their earlier play, or engage in something new. This is a time for focused (and fun!) play supported by adults. As well as child directed play, practitioners invite children to join in with creative experiences, movement and music, and sensory learning opportunities. Again, to avoid interrupting the children’s flow, snack is offered and our little ones can choose whether or not to take part.
Group time – Following an afternoon of play, the children come together for another short group time. This gives the little ones an opportunity to calm themselves before our evening meal, and usually involves peaceful activities such as storytelling, songs, or audio books.
Supper – With a day of play under their belt, our children are ready for another meal! This is another un-hurried affair, where the children are encouraged to be as independent as possible. We discuss our time at nursery and consider what we have achieved.
Play Time – After Supper our children can be quite tired, so we offer relaxed activities to take them peacefully from nursery to bedtime routines at home. Watercolour painting, clay, and yoga are popular choices as they enable the children to unwind before hometime.
As you can see, our rhythm is a balance of play and rest, designed to help our children to have the most enjoyment and satisfaction during their time at nursery!
Now that we are back with a new term, we’re excited to continue with this momentum. We want our children’s creativity to thrive, and to support this, we have introduced loose parts play.
Loose parts are collections of resources that have no pre-allocated use. As part of our continuing commitment to reducing our use of plastic – and building on our children’s growing love of nature – we have chosen to build our loose part collection from predominantly organic resources; including shells, stones, conkers, pinecones, and even crystals.
The true joy of loose parts play is the open-ended experiences they offer the children. A stone can be a stone, or an eye, or a button. A stone can be stacked into a castle’s tower, or tessellated into a pattern, or used to represent a hairbrush; a spoon; a dragon’s egg. A stone has no right or wrong way of being used, which opens up limitless opportunities for our children to use their imaginations, without fear of failure.
In the Baby Rooms, our littlest ones enjoy sensory play as they explore the various textures of the loose parts: the bumpiness of the shell, the smoothness of the crystal, the prickles of a conker husk.
For our Toddlers, loose parts provide valuable opportunities to communicate and explore symbolic representations, explaining to friends that the glass pebbles are magic, or that their conker and leaf creation is food for the mud kitchen.
Our biggest children have been using the loose parts to work collaboratively and strategise, as their imaginative plans are created, tested, and reviewed.
Loose parts play has been a fantastic addition to our provision. Due to their flexible nature, our children can experiment and create, make decisions, and develop the confidence to try new things, without worrying about mistakes.
Since re-opening after lockdown, Westgate Nursery has seen several successful changes to routine – temporary shorter opening hours; spending all day outside; and picnic-style lunches to name but a few – but ‘tidy Friday’ is one that we are most proud of.
Tidy Friday is simple: on Fridays, each bubble is given a job that will enhance the children’s experience. One group may clean the patio; another may sand down the wood on one of our roleplay units! Perhaps one group will weed an area of the forest. The tasks seem simple and mundane, but that belies a deeper experience.
To an adult, cleaning a patio is a chore. To a child, it is an adventure. Some children used brooms to sweep the patio, whilst others pulled out weeds (congratulating each other on their prowess!). Others still used a wheelbarrow to remove the weeds and add them to the compost pile. The children were invited to reflect on their work, at which point it was decided that the patio ‘wasn’t tidy enough’ because we hadn’t washed it. After a quick strategy discussion (where we decided that hand soap might be too slippy to spread on the stones), the children helped to pour washing up liquid, direct the hose, and use brooms to scrub the patio. This led to conversations about how we would remove the bubbles, and questions about where the puddles might go. The children checked in on their patio later in the day to discover the ground was now dry and warm, meaning that ‘the sun [did] dry it all up!’ At home time, when we checked in with each child’s favourite part of the day, the entire group stated that the patio had been the most significant part.
In this example, a simple chore became so much more – a chance to strategise, plan, trial, collaborate, communicate, review, hypothesise, and discuss how the world works. The children’s sense of pride in a task well done, to the benefit of the nursery community, was clear to see. The children controlled the task, enabling them to taste responsibility which is essential for the development of self-confidence and self-esteem, as well as respect for both themselves and the environment.
Respect, responsibility, community. Three core values of Tidy Friday.
After a turbulent few months, we are so pleased to be able to say that we are back up and running! Of course, we have had to undertake a few changes to nursery life to ensure that our children, families, and team are as safe as possible. Welcome to our new normal.
The most exciting change is that we are temporarily operating Westgate as an outdoors nursery! While we love our beautiful indoor environment, Government advice indicates that the spread of germs is hugely reduced outside, so we have said goodbye to (most of) the indoor spaces and set up camp in our wonderful garden! Each bubble has a designated base to provide shelter, but most of the day is spent playing and exploring the environment.
We are loving the opportunity to embrace outdoor learning. Teaching children to love nature has been a huge focus at Westgate over the years, but our new outdoor approach has been wonderful to behold. The children have constructed an obstacle course in the forest; discovered, held, and named a Moth; and have created too many gorgeous, natural, works of art to count!
Limiting indoor resources has encouraged the children to make use of the things they find in nature as props for play – from sycamore seed fairy wings to stick Ghostbuster guns, we’ve been amazed at the children’s imaginations. Not only have the children developed physically, as they chase and dance around the garden and forest, we’ve noticed that being outside has heightened communication and enhanced the children’s vocabularies. At lunch time one group named all of the green things they could spot, including ivy, holly leaves, and eucalyptus!
It really does prove that nature is the best teacher!
Supporting emotional wellbeing is at the heart of our practice at Westgate. Often our children are confident and comfortable to ‘use their words’ to articulate their emotions, however we are aware that some of our children find it difficult (or impossible if they are non-verbal!) to share their emotions with peers or adults. In order to support these children, we have tweaked our environments to ensure that children can access resources that will bring them emotional wellbeing independently.
Throughout the nursery we have age-appropriate emotional wellbeing check-in points. These vary in each room: for our youngest children, musical instruments are stored at child height to ensure our babies are able to express themselves; whereas our toddlers enjoy access to mirrors in which they can see facial expressions; and our preschoolers are able to self-identify whether they are experiencing positive or negative emotions using their emotion sticks. By enabling all of the children to access these tools independently we are able to monitor each child’s emotional state, and support the children through focused activities such as therapy putty, if necessary.
At Westgate we have always been believers in the healing power of nature, and we have recently extended this to bring nature inside! There are many plants in the children’s environments, each of which have been selected due to the beneficial effects they bring to emotional wellbeing. For example, the spider plants in the Butterflies Room help to remove traces of harmful chemicals from the environment, reducing the risk of coughing and headaches, and enabling the children to focus on play and learning. Moreover, the dragon plant and ivy in the Book Room work together to create a microclimate of oxygenated air, which should support the children’s brain functioning and concentration skills during story time, as well as creating a calm environment for relaxation time.
In addition to this, plants offer other educational opportunities such as enabling children to care for living things (teaching compassion and kindness) and helping children to develop an understanding of growth and (hopefully not) decay!
To further enhance the tranquility of our environment, each room has a diffuser, through which essential oils are diffused at various points of the day. These oils have been carefully researched to ensure they are not harmful to the children. Lavender oil is used to create a sense of calm during relaxation and nap times, where as lemon oil can support children’s focus at story times, and eucalyptus oil can support the respiratory system in the winter months!
Finally, thoughtful displays of the children’s artwork add colour to the neutral background to each room, as well as providing a sense of homeliness that enables our children to settle in so well. Perhaps more importantly displaying artwork (and Wow Moments) helps to cultivate feelings of pride and ownership in our children, thus supporting their self-esteem.
Food plays a huge role in supporting physical and emotional wellbeing, but can often be a contentious issue for children. Commonly, children have little control over their day-to-day lives, so refusing to eat something is often one of the only ways in which they are able to exert their will!
At Westgate, our menu offers a variety of flavours, textures and cuisines, and we are pleased to say that the children love their meals. Of course, one reason for this is down to our fantastic chef, but we also try to give our children ownership of their food by encouraging them to participate in regular cooking activities. The children gain a sense of pride and accomplishment when they share food that they have cooked with their peers, and we find that this can motivate reluctant eaters to try – and enjoy – something new.
As well as encouraging children to develop a varied palate for foods, the educational benefits of cooking for young children are numerous:
Personal, Social and Emotional – the children practice taking turns and sharing roles as they cook in a group; developing patience and tolerance. There is also a wonderful sense of pride when a child serves the food they have made themselves, which could contribute to a self-esteem and confidence boost.
Communication and Language – listening and concentration skills are developed as the children listen to instructions.
Physical Development – Stirring, kneading, and using rolling pins builds strength in arm muscles which is necessary for later fine motor control. Similarly, using (child-appropriate) knives to cut foods supports the fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination which is used for writing. Children also practice their independence skills, developing their ability to use tools including cutlery to feed themselves. Not to mention the physical health benefits of preparing and eating nutritional foods!
Literacy – the children begin to realise that text holds meaning as they ‘read’ the recipes and become increasingly familiar with different forms of text and print. The children can also be encouraged to write their own recipes!
Mathematics – The children are introduced to measurement and time as they weigh and measure capacity and count to ‘time’ turns mixing. Understanding of time is further developed when the meal is cooking, as they children learn that things do not always happen instantly. Understanding that numerals and quantities can correspond will also be developed, as they children have a physical representation to explore.
Understanding the World – Cookery is great for teaching early science concepts, as it affords opportunities for the children to recognise the effects of processes (for example, butter melting clearly demonstrates to the child that solids can become liquid when hot). Collecting and planting seeds from fruit and vegetables which can then be grown and used in cookery would also offer many fantastic opportunities to learn about growth and care for living things, but is very tricky!
Expressive Arts and Design – Children can express themselves through personalising and decorating their cooking!
Which leads us to introduce… The Westgate Cook Book! We’ve ‘translated’ some of our more popular meals into a cookbook that is accessible to everyone – most importantly our children! Each ingredients list includes writing and visual aids to enable the children to count how many spoons or cups of each ingredient they will need to make the dish, meaning that they feel in control of the cooking process. We will be using these with our children at nursery, but if you would like to join in you can download a copy HERE: Westgate Nursery Cookbook.
Please let us know how you get on, and happy cooking!
Emotional wellbeing is crucial to supporting physical and mental health. But with everything going on at the moment, it’s easy to overlook…
Coronavirus is scary and stressful. We’re worried about our loved ones, our careers, our homelife. Huge shifts in the way we live our lives are happening with very little explanation or warning. If adults are finding this time tricky to navigate, imagine what our little ones are going through. As adults we understand what is happening, but for many of our children the way in which they have always lived their life is changing, and they may have no understanding of why.
So here are a few tips that you could try to support your family’s emotional wellbeing in these troubled times.
Routines – children thrive on routines. Being able to predict what will happen next is hugely reassuring to children, who often have little control over their lives. At nursery our routines are largely set around meals, which act as anchor points for the children to anticipate whether they will be moving to a calm part of the day (e.g. nap/relaxation or story time), or a louder, more playful time. Creating a routine that can be repeated daily at home may be reassuring for some children.
Rest – We have been fortunate to receive so many emails from our families showing us what their children have been getting up to, and we love seeing such happy, proud faces. But while there is time for learning in a day, there is also time for rest. Our children will go, go, go all day if they can, but by building in rest time they are able to conserve energy, and recharge emotionally, which helps them to regulate their emotions and play beautifully throughout the day. And if it means you are able to have a well-deserved biscuit break, then even better! We create a calm environment by diffusing lavender oil and playing soothing music.
Outdoor time – if you have a garden, we would thoroughly recommend making the most of sunshiney days and getting outside. This will provide a space for your child to burn off any excess energy, as well as giving them time to be soothed by nature and access Vitamin D. Additionally, a garden offers an environment with different challenges and possibilities than those found indoors, which will support both physical and cognitive development.
Emotional check ins – at nursery we regularly have circle time to discuss our emotions. This enables the children to recognise and articulate things that have made them happy, cross, or sad, so that we adults can support them through their emotions. At home, you could check in with your child’s emotions at meal times. Of course, for non-verbal children, singing, dancing and musical instruments allow them to have a voice and express themselves emotionally!
Eat good mood foods – a tough one with the state of the supermarkets at the moment, but food does have an impact on our mood. Try to eat foods that are high in omega 3 fatty acids, such as oily fish or eggs. Leafy green veg or brown rice are high in magnesium, which aids relaxation and helps produce seratonin, to stabilise moods.
Take care of yourself – Perhaps most importantly, one of the best ways to care for your child’s emotional wellbeing is look after yourself. You cannot pour from an empty cup. If you feel overwhelmed, take a few moments to apply handcream and breathe.
We hope these tips help your family navigate through these turbulent times. Take care, and stay safe.
Rainbows are supposed to represent hope, joy, and silver linings. They are a reminder that even in the darkest storm there is something positive to be found.
So if you are running out of home-learning ideas for your children (it’s tough, we know!) crack open the paints; the pens, pencils, crayons, chalks; the food dye; the tissue paper (but certainly not toilet roll!); and join in with the movement.
Add a bit of brightness to a stranger’s day by sharing your child’s beautiful rainbow picture in a window.
And together, we can all hope for a brighter tomorrow.
Systematic Synthetic Phonics form a major part of Primary education. Phonics lessons occur daily in most schools, where the emphasis is placed on the children recognising and naming the sounds (phonemes) that form most words. With rigorous training and support, children will eventually learn to decode and read words independently.
Over the years, we have made the conscious decision to eschew formal phonics schemes. There are several reasons for this choice; most notably that our philosophy of early education is that it should put the child at the centre of their learning; not a pre-conceived scheme. Additionally, as we are lucky to work with many local schools, there is no guarantee that the phonics scheme offered at Westgate would match those used in all of the schools. Instead, we have created our own system of activities and experiences that are offered daily, and can be adapted based on the interests and needs of each individual child.
Our approach to phonics looks like:
Regular story-telling sessions, wherein adults (and sometimes confident children) create or retell their own traditional tale, often supported by props. This develops the children’s listening and attention skills; as well as ensuring they are familiar with story structure and traditional tales.
Multiple storytime sessions daily, where adults read stories from out library to various sized groups of children. This enables us to introduce and consolidate new vocabulary, as well as providing an experience that is highly motivating to our children (we have a cohort of readers already!). An additional benefit is that the children become used to sitting in larger groups for gradually increasing periods of time, ready for school. For children who choose not to join in with storytime, we also offer audiobook sessions – this multi-media approach ensures that all children are motivated to access stories.
High quality literature (picture books) is available in the environment at all times, so children are always able to access stories.
Daily mark-making activities, which are often sensory-based (for example, making marks in flour, mud, sand, or even beans!). These are novel and therefore highly motivating, as well as giving children the opportunity to practice holding writing tools. These activities would usually be accompanied with letter cards/stones/stencils for the children to copy, if they so choose, thus increasing the children’s familiarity with a range of letters.
Writing opportunities are encouraged where appropriate, but these are always made meaningful to the children – for example, writing adoption certificates in the pet shop, writing day sheets for babies, or writing architectural plans in the construction area!
We share meaningful and relevant examples of letters in the environment or in activities. For example, we may challenge the children to cut letters from a magazine, and then arrange them to spell their own name. This supports the fine motor development necessary to learn to write through using one-handed tools, while also making the children familiar with an increasing range of print from which they are able to identify letters. Moreover, this activity also teaches children that letters have meaning!
Place name labels are used when the children join Preschool, to ensure the children are able to identify their name as well as their photos. We also encourage the children to practice writing their names in meaningful contexts, such as writing their name on the back of their artwork.
As many of our children enjoy spending time outdoors, we often go for listening walks. This is where the children are asked to listen to, discriminate, and identify sounds, which is essential for developing the ability to segment words into phonemes.
Songs and rhymes are shared throughout the day; these allow the children to ‘tune into’ rhyme and rhythm.
By the time our children transition to school, we aim that every child can confidently meet the criteria of Letters and Sounds Phase One as well as having the ability to read their own name; and listen to a story for 10 minutes. However through our child-centred approach, we ensure that children learn in a way that is meaningful and motivational to them. In this way, we support our children to develop a lifelong love of reading.