A Window on Nursery Education
As my text for Cargilfield’s ‘Teaching and Learning’ blog this term, I am moving out of my comfort zone and, rather than exploring my own classroom practice, I hope to comment on what I have learned by observing the work of the excellent Early Years team in the Cargilfield Nursery.
When I arrived at Cargilfield, in the Summer of 2014, this was the first time that I had managed a school with a Nursery and Pre Prep department for children aged 3 to 8. I was lucky to be married to Sarah who had her own extensive experience as a teacher in early years education but also to find a capable experienced team in place here. This has been led thoughout this time by Emma Buchanan as Head of Pre Prep and, in the nursery setting, by Victoria Aitchison and then Jan Harber. Through them and the team of teachers and early years professionals, I have come to understand just how crucial the early years of a child’s education and development are.
In the wake of COVID and a time when parents have been excluded from the classroom, I was delighted by the Nursery’s initiative this term to involve parents in the learning process. The ‘Stay and Play’ concept has run throughout the Autumn term and will continue this Spring. While the concept of staying to play with the children did have its difficulties (with some children who were new to nursery finding it hard to have parents remaining after drop-off), we used these sessions to deliver information about the Nursery Curriculum and to answer questions. I joined parents and realised how little I knew of the details of a child’s early development. I hope that I didn’t, as a result, dominate the questions!
As a result of what I learned, I was keen to share this with colleagues and other parents and so created a series of podcasts which are to be broadcast in January 2023. I am grateful to our team, made up of Jan Harber as the Head of Nursery and Lauren Eddington, Karen Millar, Elaine Murray, Katie Nicol, Kitty Thomson and Vicki Thomson as Early Years Professionals (EYPs) who answered my questions on air as well as to the parents who attended the initial sessions.
This podcast was based on two ‘Stay and Play’ sessions from the start of the school year. Katie Nicol explained the value of care plans, something that I discovered was important for all young children and not just for children with specific educational or social/emotional needs. These are documents that are completed by families to share information with the Nursery but which are owned and added to by each child. Children are encouraged to develop their own voice and to learn the SHANARRI indicators (as part of GIRFEC or ‘Getting It Right For Every Child’ in Scotland) that confirm their right to be safe, healthy, achieving, nurtured, active, respected, responsible and included. As well as a healthy dialogue between home and school, this strikes me as valuable in setting the standards for society through the expectations of the next generation.
Vicki Thomson told me about learning journals which are shared between home and nursery and communicate a child’s experiences in both venues, allowing parents and staff to have a better understanding of what is happening when they aren’t there so as to help the children talk about and share what they have learned. As well as a record of a child’s interests, these are a useful focus for discussions at parent-teacher meetings, reflecting a child’s progress and highlighting patterns and themes coming from their experience.
This was especially interesting for me. Despite thirty years working as an English teacher (and having three children of my own), I quickly realised how little I knew about just how children started reading and writing and developed their skills in speaking and listening: something that is surely central to my profession. Elaine Murray explained the importance of early mark making and how important it is to praise and encourage those early efforts. From that, a desire to copy the marks that make up a child’s name is the bridge to forming lower case letters. Each of these have a pattern that the children follow and require development with pencil grip and posture – an experience that can be extremely tiring for younger children.
Reading comes from developing an interest in print and books which comes from books in the home as well as recognising text as children go out and about. Children benefit from being encouraged to listen and tell stories, acting them out (with puppets perhaps), learning about the beginning, middle and ends of stories and predicting what comes next with pictures playing a crucial role in this. It was re-assuring to hear about the importance of well-known and traditional tales that use rhyme and rhythm to provide structure for a child as well as learning about the Pie Corbett technique in which moving through stories and making simple changes helps to reinforce learning.
This was a fascinating window on how children learn and I was grateful to Katie Nicol for leading me through the process. A sense of number generally starts with an idea of quantity and rather than worrying about numerals, touching objects and counting them so that children understand how numbers relate to things and can establish the 1:1 correspondence. This can, of course, be developed in and out of the classroom and home. It leads to forward and backward number sequences, using concepts such as a rocket blasting off or ten green bottles. It was interesting to hear how important it is to emphasise that the last number is always the answer in these counting sequences and that stressing that final number helps to re-inforce the idea. From this, patterns of dots and variations to these patterns leads to introducing the numerals.
While I recognised how snakes and ladders helped with this process, it is interesting to see how more modern aids like Numicon have been so helpful in establishing confidence with quantity and number. Likewise, I was pleased to hear how a readiness to experiment and show resilience through trial and error is such an important part of basic numeracy.
Karen Millar and Lauren Eddington talked me through how staff measure and understand the development of the children. They broke this development down into four areas: Thinking skills, Motor skills (both fine and gross), Communication and Relationships and introduced me to a coloured grid which further defined different levels and stages of that development. This is a document that the Nursery team would be happy to share and can be found attached to our podcast.
I can imagine that this is an area of potential anxiety for parents, especially with their first child. I was reassured by hearing that children will develop at different rates and for all sorts of reasons – including whether they have previous nursery or wider social experience, whether they have older siblings and dependent on their personality. My father reminded me that I was very slow to start speaking (and seem to have been making up for this ever since!)
These measures are clearly a useful way of understanding where children may need more support and encouragement and form a key part of discussions between the Nursery team and parents….with an emphasis on the idea that children will progress as and when they are ready and that this mustn’t be forced.
The whole of this series focused on how children’s individual progress can be documented, tracked and acted upon as they develop and grow. It showed me how the expertise of the nursery staff supports the children in key aspects of their development and provides a structure for reflection on the learning that has taken place. Through the presentations to parents and podcast discussions, the nursery staff provided a unique series of snapshots of the depth and range of conceptual learning that happens in the crucial early years at Cargilfield and demonstrated how learning can be captured, supported and extended in its various forms.
It has certainly been an interesting process for me and I do hope that those attending, listening to the podcasts or reading this article have taken something from it. We certainly plan to develop the ‘Stay and Play’ programme (perhaps with some more staying and playing this term!) and to return to the nursery podcasts later in the year.
Listen to our first in a series of Nursery Podcasts here or search for 'Cargilfield Talks' using your usual podcast provider.
Welcome to Cargilfield! We hope this short film gives you a glimpse of what life is like for the girls and boys at our school. We would love to welcome you in person to tour Cargilfield and explain more fully exactly what makes a Cargilfield education so special and so different. Please get in touch with Fiona Craig, our Registrar if you would like to find out more; her email address is [email protected] or you can telephone her on 0131 336 2207.