Enabling Environments: Baby Rooms - Without walls

Karen Howell, Jan Georgeson and Karen Wickett
Monday, January 9, 2012

The pros and cons of caring for babies separately or letting them mix with older children at nursery are examined from observations by Karen Howell, Jan Georgeson and Karen Wickett.

Nowadays most early years settings accommodate babies in a separate room, away from older children, but this hasn't always been the norm. Is it time to think about mixing up the ages again?

Back in 1994, Elinor Goldschmied and Sonia Jackson told us (without much enthusiasm) that most day nurseries in Britain operated 'family grouping', with children of different ages together in the same room. They suggested that this practice had been influenced by the move away from care in large impersonal institutions (such as children's homes) to 'family group homes', where the mixture of ages mimicked the age range of siblings in an average family home.

Goldschmied and Jackson cast doubt over the success of family group arrangements in childcare settings. They cited the work of Ferri (1981), who showed that in the combined nursery centres, family grouping failed to produce more contact between the child and their family group worker.

At the time of writing, however, Goldschmied and Jackson were already detecting a shift towards separating children into age groups, a trend they attributed at least in part to the greater emphasis being placed on the role of nursery workers to promote children's cognitive development. They wrote, 'Providing for the cognitive development of even the youngest children is a central aspect of the nursery worker's task. There are already signs that this is happening. Probably the majority of centres where under-twos are cared for already have a separate room for them' (Goldschmied, E and Jackson, S, 1994, p20)

They also remarked on how much easier it is for nursery workers to manage a group of children with similar developmental needs, although they envisaged that rather than being kept apart from the other children all the time, younger children and their carers might withdraw to their own space at certain times of the day.


The many developments in regulation, inspection and funding over the last 15 years have reinforced this trend for early years practitioners to think separately about the needs of children of different ages, especially during the time when there was separate inspection of educational programmes for three- and four-year-olds receiving the Nursery Education Grant.

This separation was also made explicit in the National Care Standards, in an Annexe setting out additional criteria to be met when providing full daycare for babies. These included ensuring that 'there is a separate base room for children under two. However, they should be able to have contact with older children and can be transferred to an older group after they reach the age of 18 months if that is appropriate for their individual development' (2002:26).

This criterion was included in the Statutory Framework of the EYFS and has been preserved in the draft Statutory Framework, which went out for consultation last July. There has, however, been a subtle change of terminology from 'base room', which fits with Goldschmied and Jackson's idea of a space for withdrawing, to 'baby room', which sounds more like a separate space occupied by babies as a matter of course: 'Except in childminding settings, there must be a separate baby room for children under the age of two' (EYFS, 2007, p35; DfE, 2011, p26).


So, in less than 20 years, the separate baby room has become the norm. But perhaps it is worth asking why. Baby rooms can be lonely places for practitioners, 'who are often overlooked in relation to support and professional development opportunities. Baby room practitioners, in common with all of those caring for young children, work extremely hard and for long hours. In some very small nurseries, there may be one adult caring alone for three babies for most of the working day - an enormous mental and physical challenge' (Goouch and Powell, 2010).

While it is easy to see that there are some practical benefits, especially in these litigious times, from insulating babies from potential hazards in a separate secure zone, it is also worth considering what the babies might be missing.

We have been carrying out a small-scale investigation of under-twos provision in three children's centres in Taunton, Somerset. Over the past five years, these settings have been integrating various aspects of provision for children of different ages in their settings. One of the settings, Circles Nursery, has dispensed with a separate baby room completely by knocking down the wall between the baby room and the rest of the nursery.



Developing practice with babies

Karen Howell, one of the practitioners at Circles, told us about her experience of working with babies in general and how she has coped with integrating babies with the rest of the nursery. Her story tracks developments in provision for babies over 30 years and provides clear motivation for integrating provision. See if you agree with her.

Ms Howell's unhappy introduction to nursery nursing was through a two-month work placement when she was 17 years old. Left in charge of three babies and without any real supervision, the experience put her off working with children, and she branched off to psychiatric nursing.

She explains, 'There were no Criminal Records Bureau or other checks then and I was just left with these two or three babies, told to sit them on the potty, make them have a wee and then put nappies on them, which were the folding nappies then, of course. No one showed me what to do, so I sat with this poor child for an hour and a half not knowing what to do, not knowing how to put a nappy on. Eventually someone came and showed me, but there was nothing more frustrating than being left to it.'

But when her own first son turned two and a half, Ms Howell started volunteering at his pre-school and she continued as a volunteer when her other children were born.

After completing the Diploma in Pre-school Practice, she became an assistant, then deputy and, three years later, pre-school supervisor. Five years later, with the introduction of the Neighbourhood Nurseries Initiative, the pre-school transferred to Circles. In September 2002 it started to care for babies.

Despite having years of experience, it was Ms Howell's first time looking after other people's babies in a professional capacity. 'I worked with a really nice lady who had lots of experience in baby rooms,' she recalls. 'She set up the room and really showed me how things are done. The baby room was quite separate then, although we did come out and mix with the rest of the nursery on occasions. I learned all about sleep charts and everything as I went along.'

Numbers varied from one or two babies to perhaps six or seven, resulting in staff having to look after up to six babies aged either under or just over one year old, all at once. Despite the pressures, Ms Howell says, 'I loved it in the baby room, so I continued working in there. I was really, really happy.

'I did the Birth to Three Matters training - I think I was one of the first to do it when it came out. Before, I had never really just sat and watched how babies played and how they interacted with each other. I absolutely loved using Birth to Three Matters. I did struggle a bit when we went over to the EYFS.'


With the arrival of a new manager at Circles, some five years ago, the dividing wall was taken down, after she noticed the babies looking wistfully over the barrier into the main nursery.

Ms Howell recalls, 'If we did not have time to respond to them, they would stand there crying. One of us would then carry the child back into the baby room and try to distract them. But were the babies really trying to tell us that they wanted to go into the main room? It seemed that the environment and our practices were not allowing these babies' voices to be heard.'

Without the wall, babies and young children could use the whole space as they wanted, while the area previously occupied by the baby room could be used as quiet space for any child who wanted to retreat from the hurlyburly of the rest of the nursery.

Nevertheless, Ms Howell opposed the move. A compromise meant that the nursery retained a big gate and a solid barrier of shelving units between the areas. 'I didn't want the wall to come down. I couldn't see how it was going to work at all; I was quite settled with the ways things were,' says Ms Howell.

'But the babies learned really quickly how to push the button on the gate and within a couple of days they were going out into the main room. They used to watch the older ones play, so they knew there was a bit more going on out there. I think that once they could get out, that was it; they didn't look back and didn't choose to come back in the baby room unless they got tired.

'I was still based in that room and I'd go back into my comfort zone too. But gradually over six months, with the babies all just going in and out, I supposed I changed too. Eventually, we took the big gate down and we were left with just the little gate.

'It's brilliant now. I haven't really looked back, but it did take me quite a long time to get used to it.'


Lots of discussions with the Children's Centre teacher and the current childcare manager helped sway Ms Howell's opinion. 'But it was actually going out with the babies myself and seeing what they did, seeing how the older children were interacting with them - that's what convinced me that it was the right thing to do.

'In particular, there were two little ones, a boy and a girl, really close friends, who helped me see the value of getting rid of the wall. I had had them full time from tiny babies and they were the first ones we took over into the main room and let go free. They would go off together into the main room and I would sit down and watch them, how they interacted with each other as they were doing their paintings and looking over the table at each other, as well as how they went out and interacted with the older ones.

'The babies became really independent a lot more quickly than I thought they would. The babies realised they could go outside into the garden too. Once they were out in the main room, they could actually go outside straightaway, and quite a few of them did. The ones aged 11 or 12 months turned around and went backwards down the stairs and in a few weeks they were shooting up and down.'

Ms Howell also found that her concerns about babies falling down, being trodden on or swallowing small toy pieces were unfounded. 'We didn't really have any incidents where they got hurt,' she says. 'And I'm responsible for health and safety, so I know.'

Another of her concerns was how the babies were going to sleep amid all the noise from the main area. Unable to partition off the sleeping area, the nursery bought some baskets and encouraged the children to settle themselves down to sleep.

'This arrangement has some advantages but it isn't perfect,' says Karen. 'I'm still really in two minds about it.

'I think it would probably be best to have a separate area for the babies who really do need to sleep, but still have an area for mats and baskets for those who just take themselves off to sleep and then just get themselves up when they wake up. When we do a baby care plan with the parents, we see what their sleep patterns are and we do our best to keep to whatever they do. Parents have been quite happy to let us work around it.'

One aspect of provision that doesn't work so well under the new layout, which the nursery is trying to improve, is the creative and sensory activities for babies.

'When we had a separate baby room, we did lots and lots of activities just with babies,' explains Ms Howell. 'In the messy area at the end of the old baby room, we'd put messy stuff on the floor and let them crawl all through the paint and other things. We've slightly lost that now. We have to put a barrier to hold back the older ones for a while, to do a few activities just with the younger ones. We can still do it, but it's not as easy.'

Free-flow access may enable the babies to choose what they want to do, but one drawback is that the contents of the nursery's treasure baskets keep disappearing and turning up outside.

On balance, Ms Howell supports the change. 'The babies are so much more independent and involved and the older children are so much more caring. It's fascinating watching the older children showing the little ones what to do. Putting themselves in the babies' shoes helps their own learning too. And there's no more crying at the gate.'


By embracing Birth to Three Matters, the EYFS and the concept of the Competent Child, Circles Nursery has developed its own principles, looked at all aspects of its provisions and made changes extending far beyond simply removing the wall.

Among the changes is the introduction of mixed-age key groups, which enable staff to be flexible and listen and respond to the children. Practitioners are no longer responsible for a room; instead, practitioners are responsible for their key children.

If one of their key children needs the security of a smaller space, the practitioner works in the quiet area until the child feels secure enough to return to other parts of the nursery. So, in the interest of providing the best possible environment for the children to learn and develop, these practitioners have moved beyond the idea of the baby room to give their youngest children the freedom of the setting.

Their experiences add to the mounting evidence that mixed age classrooms offer good opportunities to support children's social and cognitive development (see Di Santo, 2000, for a summary of research evidence).

Perhaps it's time, then, that statutory guidance at least recognises that there are other ways of accommodating babies, other than in separate 'safe baby zones'.

Karen Howell is a senior early years educator at Circles Nursery, Taunton. Jan Georgeson is a research fellow in the Faculty of Health, Education and Society, Plymouth University. Karen Wickett is a lecturer at Plymouth University and children's centre teacher at Circles Nursery.


  • Department for Education (2011) Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage: Setting the standards for learning, development and care for children from birth to five. Draft for consultation, 6 July 2011
  • Department For Education and Skills (2007) Early Years Foundation Stage. London: DfES
  • Ferri, E, Birchall, D, Gingell, V and Gipps, C (1981) Combined Nursery Centres: A new approach to education and day care. National Children's Bureau
  • Di Santo, A (2000) Multi-age groupings in early childhood education: The affordances and opportunities of a multi-age child care model. Ottawa: National Library of Canada
  • Goldschmied, E and Jackson, S (1994; 2004) People Under Three: Young children in day care (1st & 2nd eds) London: Routledge
  • Goouch, K and Powell, S (2010) 'Positive Relationships: Baby room - Who cares?' in Nursery World, 1 September 2010
  • Nutbrown, C and Page, J (2008) Working with Babies and Young Children: From birth to three. London: Sage.

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