Walking into the Inventors Room at Fennies Epsom Nursery, you won’t only find a group of confident and curious pre-school children. You will also find Onion, a four-foot alien from the Planet Trash! Onion, made from an assortment of free and found recycled materials, has come to stay at Fennies Epsom as part of a project drawn from children’s fascinations about aliens and recycling. This is just one of many child-led projects staff at Fennies are beaming about – and can’t wait to share with their regional managers.
‘There’s a huge sense of pride in what our educators do,’ explains Gill Medhurst, Head of Operations. ‘They’re excited to tell us their stories of how they’ve embedded the Project Approach into their learning environment and how it’s benefiting the children.’
This is the latest strand to the Fennies pedagogical approach, instilled throughout the company – from training to everyday practice. The child-centred Project Approach enables young children to follow their passions and fascinations. Projects start with educators observing and reflecting on what the children are interested in, followed by offering carefully chosen provocations and questioning to see what children would like to investigate.
For example, the pre-school children at Fennies Epsom adored the story ‘Aliens Love Underpants!’ often re-enacting the story in their play. Around the same time the children went for a walk to the local care home and were fascinated as they watched a refuse collection crew pull wheelie bins to the back of a refuse truck and the hydraulic cylinders lift and compact the rubbish.
This stimulated conversations and questions about rubbish and recycling. It was at this point Onion the Alien came to visit, with a note explaining that he needed the children’s help with recycling the rubbish. Welcomed with great excitement, Onion provided the provocation for the children’s curiosity, educators listened to the children’s thoughts and questions and collaborated with them to develop a full-scale project, from which children’s knowledge and skills developed within a meaningful context.
‘We are entrusted to give the children in our care something extra special,’ explains Lauren Andrews, pre-school room leader at Kings Hall in Beckenham. ‘Not only is that powerful but it motivates us. We’re not just following the EYFS route, although it underpins everything we do, we’re given the tools to be creative and think outside the box to give children real life experiences that will create lasting memories – all with the benefit of less paperwork, less planning and more time engaging with the children.
WHAT IS THE APPROACH?
‘We’ve looked at key pieces of research to explore the different approaches that excite us. We’ve taken parts that are meaningful to us and our values and have blended these elements to underpin our pedagogy’ explains Gill.
The Fennies pedagogy has been influenced by well-known approaches including the Leuven Scales of Well-Being and Involvement; Anna Ephgrave’s pioneering 'in the moment planning'; the Curiosity Approach™, Elizabeth Jarman’s Communication Friendly Spaces approach™; and The Project Approach.
‘Our training programme is planned around our pedagogy. The objectives of all continual professional development activities ensure educators have the knowledge and skills to underpin their practice. Our educators are motivated by a shared understanding of our ethos and our commitment to developing practice to ensure the very best outcomes for our children. This shared vision supports a sense of belonging and security, so staff feel safe when they come to work here,’ Gill adds.
Lauren is a pre-school room leader who has been with Fennies since 2014 and has seen the changes that have taken place since the first elements of the pedagogy were introduced in 2016.
She says: ‘Our current project work has looked at transport and we’ve had so much fun with the children, exploring their interests and fascinations. We’ve visited the fire station, used books to research how a car works, and even carried out a poll about which mode of transport the children use to get to nursery each morning.
‘The children used their own marks and representations to communicate their mathematical thinking. Working in this way is great for staff because it makes it more enjoyable.
‘Before, there were a lot of plastic toys and uninspiring adult led activities. Now, the rooms are well-resourced with exciting, open-ended materials and children are engaging much more, which makes it easier for us to extend their learning. Also, it’s more enjoyable to complete observations on them “in-the-moment”.’
OUTSIDE THE BOX
Danni Parker, pre-school room leader at Horley near Gatwick, who is studying for her Early Years foundation degree, started at Fennies three years ago after working at another nursery. ‘As soon as I walked through the door, I knew this place was for me. It’s a family-run business and we all support each other.
‘Training is ongoing, and we’ve had some amazing people train us like Pete Moorhouse, who delivered an inspirational session ‘Introducing Woodwork in Early Years Education’ which has enabled us to safely introduce creative woodwork to young children. We’re constantly being immersed in inspirational information which I feel helps us to be creative. I’ve never felt micro-managed. We’re given the autonomy to do wonderful things with the children.
‘For example, our Curiosity Approach involves creating interesting and thriving areas – and these are constantly growing and developing. I noticed that in the small world area there were animals in baskets which didn’t look very welcoming. I researched this with the children and gave them lots of images with visual prompts. It turned out they wanted a dinosaur area and a dolls house. When the children later lost interest in the dolls house, we repainted it, which the children loved. It gives us opportunities to think outside the box.
‘Using these approaches has also helped me as a practitioner. I’ve realised I can step back and let the children lead their own learning. I’ve noticed my observations are flourishing and there are more “wow” moments and significant achievements, and instead of just linking to the EYFS, I’m able to consider the approaches and consider how I can support each unique child.’
The Fennies pedagogy requires the minimum record keeping to be completed so educators can focus their time on the face to face interactions with the children. Fennies moved to an online learning journey in 2018. This, combined with in-the-moment planning, means the burden to do extensive assessments and planning has been minimised.
‘Before, we used to write observations on paper and have to write a next step,’ explains Lauren. ‘Now it’s structured in a way where we can see the observation assessment and planning process in one step. It’s clear to see that people are a lot more relaxed and no longer panic about planning.’