by Sarah Rankin
My five weeks with two very special nurseries has absolutely flown in. I thoroughly enjoyed working with Westercraigs Nursery in Dennistoun and Barlanark Family Learning Centre in Garrowhill. Both nurseries proved to me how valuable nursery staff are and how much care, skill and dedication it takes to provide quality Early Years education.
Westercraigs Nursery is exemplary in its use of outdoor space. With an open door policy the children are free to travel from inside to outside safely, and staff are always on hand to support outdoor learning experiences. I really enjoyed playing in the garden with a sand pit, wild flowers and herbs, and even a hut called Hagrid’s House which was full of sensory experiences. The children know they own their space, they are very comfortable in their garden and aren’t deterred by any weather. In fact, they sang songs wishing the rain to get heavier. It was amazing to see new children being welcomed into the nursery and staff easing them into such a supportive yet free and independent learning environment.
The staff at Barlanark Family Learning Centre are bursting with creative ideas and encouragement for their children. The nursery is in the process of re-designing their outdoor space to create an exciting environment with new learning opportunities. They have started with a new mud kitchen built by a parent and I have no doubt the rest of the playground will be equally engaging and messy.
In both Westercraigs and Barlanark, every nursery leader has an abundance of ideas to try out and really enjoyed having time to rethink their playground. The children and staff have a very special rapport and this relationship will ensure the children get to experience the outdoors to its full potential.
Leading your own workshop
In week four of the residency the nursery staff had the opportunity to lead their own outdoor workshop based on what they had been learning with me. Apprehensive at first, they voiced concerns over trying to do professional ‘drama’ and ‘storytelling’ and thinking of ‘good ideas’. During our support sessions all I needed to do was assure them that they do this already. How often do they tell a story at story time, pretend to be animals and think of ideas on the spot with the children? Nursery staff do this on a daily basis. That’s right, Glasgow’s nurseries are full of performers and creators.
The only difference between leading a workshop and their daily interactions is taking the time to plan and stretch creativity. Maybe also a little more confidence. Taking time to think about what you want to explore and how you are going to connect with it ensures deeper learning. It also allows you to be aware of and track outcomes you may need to meet for example Curriculum for Excellence experiences and outcomes.
Though I encourage planning time I have found the key to delivering workshops for Early Years is to not worry about sticking to your plan. The aim isn’t to stick to the plan, the plan is to achieve the aims. If your aim is for children to explore soil and they lose interest in planting and want to make mud pies then go with it. All groups of children will have varying abilities and complex needs so don’t worry if you have to change the plan to include everyone.
Once the nursery staff stopped seeing the workshops as scary rehearsed ‘drama’ and built up some confidence, they threw themselves into it. The end result was a plethora of immersive, sensory and engaging workshops that were fun and educational for the children and me. Each nursery leader went above and beyond to create an exciting experience for the children. Westercraigs had Gaelic bear hunts, time travel, Dennistoun storms, building houses, and musical gardens. Barlanark had enormous turnips, honey hunts, creepy crawlies, animal adventures, womble litter picking, and their own story book complete with pictures of the nursery children.
The children thoroughly enjoyed seeing their nursery leaders invested in their stories, characters and games. The children’s participation and confidence was clear to see in these sessions as they were so excited and comfortable with their nursery leader.
Increase in engagement through outdoor storytelling
As you can probably tell I absolutely loved my time in these nurseries and it seems they enjoyed themselves too. The response from staff about the Out to Play sessions has been great so far. Staff observed an increase in communication and engagement. They also said they noticed an expansion of vocabulary in children who have English as an additional language and/or lack confidence. Staff would often say ‘I’ve never heard them speak that much’ and ‘wow that’s a great sentence.’ There was also a transformation in children who were initially reluctant to participate, becoming more confident, speaking more in a group and using new words.
Having taken the time to reflect on this I believe the increase in communication and participation can be accredited partly to outdoor storytelling. Telling stories with repetition and gestures is a wonderful way to teach English and expand vocabulary. Furthermore, during the Out to Play sessions we create a safe, flexible and nurturing environment where there is no right or wrong. This, mixed with the magic and excitement of stories, can support children to forget their inhibitions and express themselves.
The classroom or indoors at a table can be intimidating and if children sense they are being tested anxiety can stop them interacting. Allowing literal and figurative space outdoors for children supports them to express themselves in their own way. I feel very privileged to have been part of the children’s journey learning new words and building confidence.
I’d like to thank Westercraigs and Barlanark for a laughter filled and creative five weeks. I hope the nurseries enjoyed themselves and learnt as much as I did. I left feeling inspired by the wonderful nursery staff, motivated to continue sharing skills and with a little tear in my eye. I begin Buchlyvie and Crookston Nurseries hopeful to continue the positive impact of Eco Drama’s Out to Play project.