Enabling Environments: Collections - Bear it!

Teddy bears have a unique role in children's lives and are an invaluable developmental resource. Nicole Weinstein goes on the hunt.

Teddy bears are adorable: it's a fact. Not only are they a source of comfort, but they can also be a child's best friend: someone they can role play with, read to and snuggle up with at night.

Successive generations of children have been attracted to bears. Many adults have kept their beloved friends from early childhood, which shows the strength of the bond that they developed with their well-worn bears. Practitioners who tune into this fascination and build on children's interests can support all areas of learning.

Judith Stevens, an independent early years consultant specialising in maths and early language, advises practitioners to make a collection of teddy bears of all shapes and sizes, made from assorted materials.

She says, 'Bears invite conversation and practitioners can introduce and model the use of comparative and descriptive vocabulary. Which bear is biggest? Who has the most colourful jacket? A collection of ten bears, an empty box and a pillow case for a duvet cover will give children the opportunity to retell Ten In A Bed over and over again.'


Resident celebrity bear, Alf the Elf, turned on the Christmas lights in his spangly top at Chelsea Open Air Nursery School and Children's Centre in South London last week.

Head teacher Julie Coackley says, 'Alf the Elf is very much part of the nursery. He's like a member of the team. The children love him. He's a large soft toy and staff can slip their arms into his hands to give him movement.

'Every day he is hidden in a different part of the nursery. The children really engage with him and love it when they spot him up a tree, on the roof, in the home corner, or at the sandpit. Alf keeps an eye on the children and makes sure that they are respecting things. For example, there was an issue with children throwing things into the pond, so we talked to the children about it and Alf spent a while in the tree watching to make sure the fish were safe.

'He's a very useful tool for supporting social and emotional development and for helping children to understand boundaries and routines. At our daily gatherings, which take place before breaktime, Alf will help the teacher and will say things like, "The children have been very well-behaved today."

'We also have some special collections of bears. We have some old-fashioned teddy bears from the 1920s which we use for Understanding the World, to talk about history, and we also compare them with today's teddy bears.

'We use teddy bears at circle time to encourage the child holding the bear to talk about something, perhaps how they feel. It's nice to have teddies in the quiet areas, where children can read books to them or just cuddle up to them if they're feeling tired or a bit stressed. Sometimes the children line the bears up and pretend they are teaching them in the class. They are a good resource for comfort, but also for re-enacting their own experiences and testing social etiquette.

'It's good to have a wide range of bears in different shapes, sizes and textures. We rarely buy them; they are often donated and we put them in the washing machine regularly.'

We recommend

Where's My Teddy? by Jez Alborough - 'We use a really big bear and a tiny bear to introduce shape and size and mathematical development.

We also like to put together story sacks in different languages that the children can take home, for example we have one about We're Going on a Bear Hunt.


Children who attend Ann Ross's childminding service in Deptford, south London, have a wide range of bear resources to choose from.

Ms Ross says, 'I think that bears support children's play and learning because the children relate to them and it holds their interest. It is a topic that can be extended to all areas of learning. This is clearly apparent from the vast array of resources that are on offer.

'We have soft toy bears of all sizes, including Tolo Hospital Bear, which comes with a stethoscope and bandages, along with activities relating to caring for the sick and injured.

'The children who enjoy small-world play like to use the small cottage with Goldilocks and the three bears in it, which re-tells the story as you open the doors. We also have a wooden cottage with the three bears, Goldilocks, the three chairs, tables, beds and porridge bowls, which is an old resource from the Early Learning Centre. 'Additionally, we have a smaller story sack that I bought on eBay with a knitted teddy bears' picnic with lots of little bears in.

'We use the Compare Bears for mathematics and sorting. I often hide them around the house and the children can find them and count and also order them into different colours.'

We recommend

Listen & Join In CD Collection - 10 CDs, Walker Books Ltd, £39.90. Titles include Can't You Sleep Little Bear? and We're Going on a Bear Hunt (as well as other favourites, such as Owl Babies); now just £9.99 from www.thebookpeople.co.uk

Tolo Hospital Bear, £54.99, from www.earlyyearsresources.co.uk

Compare Bears, a box of 96 bears in three sizes and six colours, £14.99, from www.tts-group.co.uk, can be used to learn about counting, matching, sorting, designing and making, investigation and predictions.

Melissa & Doug Wooden Bear Family Dress-Up Puzzle, £8.50, from www.amazon.co.uk

Melissa and Doug Basic Skills Board, £17.49, from www.amazon.co.uk, is a bear puzzle where children learn to zip, button, lace, and Velcro.

Baobog Bear is a talking bear available in English-, Welshand Gaelic-speaking versions, designed to encourage children to speak different languages at an early age, www.babogbaby.com/index.php/about/.

Goldilocks and the Three Bears: Resource pack, £18, from www.yellow-door.net, includes an audio CD; large and small story cards and a teacher's book. Additional resources include the Wooden Character Set, £10, and the story book, £5.

We're Going On A Bear Hunt Talk and Play Story Pack, £30, and Wooden Character Set, £20, from www.yellow-door.net.


Here are some additional ideas of how to include collections of bears in your continuous provision, indoors and out:

- Create storytelling and role-play areas outside linked to favourite bear stories. Make your own rustic Three Bears house or bear cave. Encourage children to sequence story events and join in with and use story language in play. Try the set of three Wooden Carved Out Seats, £59.99; the Going On A Bear Hunt Natural Outdoor Signs, £34.95; the Bearskin Rug, £19.95, which doubles up as a bear costume; and the vinyl waterproof Storyline Scenes, Bear Hunt, £24.99, from Cosy Direct on 01332 370152.

- For a range of bear puppets, in various types and sizes, as well as Cameron Bear Soft Toy, £9.99, visit: www.puppetsbypost.com. For the small, medium and large, there's the Bear (Mini) Finger Puppet, £7.50; the Bear in a Honey Pot, £19.99; and Bear (Black Cub), £39.99. Also available is Goldilocks and the Three Bears Story Set, £19.99, from www.reflectionsonlearning.co.uk, which contains finger puppets and a book set. Goldilocks and the Three Bears Storytelling Masks are also available for £4.08 from www.thechildmindingshop.co.uk

- Encourage children to retell their favourite bear stories with props to support children's sequencing and narrative skills in a hands-on way. Try the Three Bears Rustic Role Play set, £15.95; the Tree Stump Cave, £5.95; the Wooden Arch Set, £14.49; the Mirror Rivers, £13.49; the Kitty Grass, £3.99; and the Instant Snow, £6.95, all available from Cosy Direct.

- Follow the chronology of this timeless child's toy with the aid of the Teddy Bear Timeline - six A5 cards - £12.99, from www.tts-group.co.uk, showing how teddy bears have changed over time. Or use the set of four pairs of Animal Track Foot Stampers, £39.95, to create pictures or trails for other children to follow.

- The Three Bears Counting Set, £15.10, from www.wesco-eshop.co.uk can be used for sorting or maths activities, or ones involving classification according to size, shape and colour.

- For small-world play, Schleich has a full range of small-world bears including Grizzly, Polar and Black bears and cubs, available from £2.99, from all good toy shops. The Schleich Arctic and Antarctic Animals set, £29.95, is available from: www.tts-group.co.uk. Wooden small-world bears, from £7.80, can be found at: www.mindstretchers.co.uk.


- Foundations of Mathematics: An Active Approach to Number, Shape and Measures in the Early Years by Judith Stevens and Carole Skinner

- The Little Book of Maths Problem-Solving by Judith Dancer and Carole Skinner


Judith Stevens says it's important to share different versions of traditional tales such as Goldilocks and the Three Bears, as well as contemporary classics, for example:

Can't You Sleep Little Bear? By Martin Waddle
Biscuit Bear by Mini Grey
Peace at Last by Jill Murphy
Ten in a Bed by David Ellwand
Big Bear, Little Bear by David Bedford
The Bear Under the Stairs by Helen Cooper
Old Bear by Jane Hissey
Brown Bear, Brown Bear by Eric Carle

© MA Education 2020. Published by MA Education Limited, St Jude's Church, Dulwich Road, Herne Hill, London SE24 0PB, a company registered in England and Wales no. 04002826. MA Education is part of the Mark Allen Group. – All Rights Reserved