Exploring Loose Parts Play

‘Flowers in a village‘ – Preschoolers with glass stones, conkers, and wooden rings

We have made the most of the summer to review and reflect on our current provision. Our use of the outdoors as we introduced our children back to nursery life has been hugely beneficial: we’ve seen our little ones problem solve, communicate, and be inspired by nature in new and exciting ways.

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.

Tidy Friday: Our New Initiative to Teach Respect, Responsibility, and Community

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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.


The Westgate Nursery New Normal: Outdoor Learning

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!


Creating an Environment that Supports Emotional Wellbeing

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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.

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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.


Cooking with Young Children

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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!

6 Ways to Support Your Child’s Emotional Wellbeing at Home


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.

I Can See a Rainbow


If you look carefully, you will see rainbows in windows of houses all over the country. Children are displaying their masterpieces for all the world to see.

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.

Phonics at Westgate


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.

With research indicating that learning to read at an early age could affect a child’s outcomes later in life, phonics is undeniably an important part of early education; however you will never see a formal Phonics lesson at Westgate. Instead, we practice phonics in the same way that we approach all aspects of learning: holistically, through exciting, experiences that are relevant to the child’s interests.

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.

Exploring Music in the Ladybirds Room


Music is a huge part of life – from moving film soundtracks to joyful songs on the radio, music has the ability to affect our emotions. At Westgate, we play soothing music to calm children during nap and relaxation times, and fast-paced, catchy songs during discos. Recently, however, as part of the emotional wellbeing focus that underpins everything that we do, we have been exploring other ways in which music can support our children.

Research (see article) has found that music can support brain development, and is particularly effective at developing literacy and speaking skills. Indeed, when examined against the seven areas of the EYFS curriculum, music can support nearly every area:

Personal, Social and Emotional – Children gain confidence and self-esteem as they learn to make sounds using instruments.

Communication and Language – Singing sessions help to familiarise children with songs, rhymes and words. Playing musical instruments develops the ability to differentiate between the different sounds of the instruments, which can later help with phonic learning.

Physical Development – Playing musical instruments can support hand-eye co-ordination and dancing to music supports gross motor and rhythmic movement.

Understanding the World – Listening to music from a range of cultures can help children to be interested in ways of life other than their own, which should also support tolerance.

Expressive Arts and Design – Playing instruments, singing and dancing supports self-expression, imagination and creativity.

With this in mind, we will be focusing on music throughout the nursery, but have decided to particularly prioritise music in our under-two’s room, where many of the children are non-verbal. The children already enjoy regular discos, singing sessions and story telling times, but to access the benefits of music we have decided to offer these multiple times a day, and have introduced musical instruments or props to these sessions. We will also be working with our team to empower our practitioners to confidently lead musical activities.

For some ideas of how to use music to support your little ones at home, please read the article here.

Process Art


At Westgate, we firmly believe that every child is an artist. Arts and design activities are integral to our daily practice – not only are they fun and tangible opportunities to explore colour, pattern, and shape; they also allow the children to explore and express their own emotions.

But… with that exploration comes the knowledge that not every piece of art will be beautiful. Preschoolers will painstakingly draw pictures of their dreams, only to tear their artwork to shreds with scissors. Toddlers will paint with rainbow colours, before deciding to mix every colour available to create a brown mess. Babies will giggle as their hands are tickled by a paintbrush, which is then printed everywhere but the paper!

As the saying goes, children will be children, and we believe there is more value in these learning experiences than a production-line style art activity, where each child creates the same artwork as the child before them, all of which are instantly recognisable thanks to the adult’s input. The child cutting in preschool is learning how to use scissors, developing their hand-eye co-ordination, gaining strength in the muscles in their hand. The toddler is exploring how colours can be changed, and will eventually use this knowledge with purpose in future artwork. The baby with painted hands is learning about touch and consequences when he sees the grown up scrubbing paint off the floor!

Take this example of a Preschool junk modelling activity. The table was set with boxes, bottles, tubs, and cardboard, as well as a variety of cutting and fastening tools. The child filled an empty bottle with string, sticks, and pencils from the nearby pencil holders, developing strength in her fingers and wrist as she undid the lid and posted each implement into the bottle. ‘It’s my maraca!’ she announced proudly, shaking the bottle as she started to sing a nursery rhyme. A pencil flew out as she shook it, which prompted her to realise that the maraca needed to be sealed. She selected a glue stick and smeared it around the opening, before placing the lid back on. The child decided to decorate her maraca by drawing a picture, but realised that the pencils were all inside the bottle. She tried to remove the lid, and was surprised at how easily it came off – realising now that the glue had not been strong enough. She attempted to remove the pencils, but found that her fingers could not fit through the hole, so shook out all of the implements before separating them in to categories of matching objects. The child then drew her picture, reassembled the maraca (without pencils), and selected double-sided tape to reseal the lid. She used scissors to cut the tape, and spent several minutes concentrating on wrapping it around the bottle lid, until choosing to ask for help. When the maraca was complete, she asked for a disco and proceeded to shake her instrument as she danced to the music!

This activity took no longer than fifteen minutes, but in that time the child learnt a wealth of skills and techniques – from fine motor skills, to categorising; problem solving (exploring fastenings and asking for help when required) to imaginative play. Process art offers so much more than a memento – it provides a voice to speechless children; a problem to be solved; and an experience to be remembered. For our children, art is not about the end result, it’s about the journey.