Enabling Environments: Collections - Top gear

Keep children's interests on the move with a varied collection of transport resources suited to their age group, says Nicole Weinstein.

A little boy, aged two years and eight months and with a keen interest in cars, arrived at nursery on his first day and ran over to the cars and garages. The box was a jumble of vehicles of varying shapes and sizes, some plastic, some metal. I could sense his disappointment. There was nothing that reflected the current cars on the market, and I couldn't help but think of the learning this boy was missing out on because the resourcing didn't reflect his interests.'

This observation was made at a north London nursery and is typical of early years settings often struggling to get the right resources for the right children at the right time.

Being responsive to a child's interest is important. As Julian Grenier, early years adviser for the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, explains, 'Children's play really develops when practitioners think about using resources that support first-hand experiences, because the children have more to draw on when they are playing.'

So, what of the little boy above and his interest in cars? Through their observations, nursery staff may find that he is interested in the branding of cars, in which case a trip to the staff carpark to find out who drives what might be of interest to him.

Opening the bonnet of the car to look at the engine would provoke his interests further, and imagine his delight if he were shown a collection of carefully looked-after scaled models of contemporary cars with the correct logos and model numbers.


Toy vehicles should be a feature of your continuous (everyday) provision. While there's a place for accurate replicas, Linda Keats, a workforce development consultant for Essex council, suggests that practitioners generally choose open-ended products, so that the child can investigate without being 'swayed in a direction that the adult wants them to go'.

Ms Keats advises, 'Go for wooden or metal cars or trains with real rubber tyres and moveable wheels. Steer clear of glaring labels or logos that dictate the play.'

There's a place, too, for resources that children can make themselves, says Mr Grenier. But when it comes to branded items, he adds, 'A scaled toy of a Mini can only ever be a scaled toy of a Mini, but there is a role for this in a special collection of resources. Some of the items may be highly sought after, so it may be best to not have them available every day.'

Here are some points to consider when building up a core collection:

  • Provide a wide range of small cars, trains, planes, helicopters, buses, trucks and carts grouped according to scale and material. Avoid randomly-assembled collections - for example, a tray of three tiny cars and one big model car or a tray of wooden and plastic cars
  • Be sure some or all of the resources can be used indoors and out
  • Check that the cars and vehicles fit in the toy garages provided
  • Provide models that appeal to particular age groups. Two- and three-year-olds often like to play with and handle vehicles that look like real-life replicas. For children aged three years and over, the plainer the resource, the more the children will use their imagination to bring it to life. Generic vehicles like the Small Flatbed Truck (£43) from www.communityplaythings.co.uk can be made into an ambulance, fire truck, lorry, circus trailer or caravan
  • Offer a variety of hand-held and push-along vehicles and, if feasible - and if children are interested in exploring power - offer them battery-, solar-, or water-powered, wind-up or elastic-powered vehicles. Try the wooden Solar Helicopter (£30) from www.mindstretchers.co.uk
  • Provide materials for children to build their own forms of transport outdoors - tyres; planks of wood; materials to secure things together like rope, packing tape and string; objects to make steering wheels; small chairs; cardboard and wooden boxes
  • If space permits, provide the same materials indoors, but if not, provide small-scale open-ended materials - plain, natural wooden blocks, string, rubber scraps, plastic discs, bits of dowel, sticks, cardboard boxes, water and floatable materials to try out the floating and sinking of boats.



Children may never have set foot on a bus, boat, canal boat or hot air balloon - and they may prefer to travel everywhere by magic carpet - but it doesn't mean that they don't have a knowledge base of different forms of transport. The practitioner's role is to widen children's experiences and introduce them to new and stimulating things at the same time as following their interests.

Although you cannot predict how children's interests will develop, or the learning that will flow from them, you can broaden children's learning by provoking fresh interests or by planning first-hand experiences the children will then reflect in their play.

One way to achieve this is by building up new collections that can be brought out in response to children's changing interests. Again, think about making links between the play equipment and the real world and how you can support children's play with your chosen resources.

Here are some examples.

Emergency vehicles - Children who have been to a fire station will play in a much more interesting way with emergency vehicles than those simply presented with a fire engine - the latter will probably just run it along the floor. If you want to see the more elaborate play where someone calls the fire brigade, pretends a trike is a fire engine and uses bits of hose to put out the fire, take them to see the real thing.

Mechanical breakdown - Build up a collection of mechanic-related resources to have to hand if a child's family car breaks down and they want to relive the experience of calling the AA or RAC and being rescued. This could include a set of spanners, a car jack, a spare tyre, mark-making materials and clip boards, a mobile phone and boiler suits.

Out and about - Change the indoor environment to reflect children's interests that arise from planned activities. After a bus trip, set out chairs and 'tickets' and let the children pretend to go on another journey. After a harbour visit, provide a variety of small boats and organise a floating and sinking activity. Follow a trip to a transport museum with resources for children to create their own model vehicles. Let children take photos or video clips of their favourite cars or other vehicles when they are out, and provide similar models for small-world play.



Provide good-quality fiction and non-fiction books such as the following.

Naughty Bus by Jan and Jerry Oke (Little Knowall Publishing) - a wonderful story of a young boy and his toy London bus. Illustrated superbly with photographs, it could inspire much story-making, especially if used with a toy bus as a prop.

Mr Gumpy's Motor Car by John Burningham (Red Fox) - a picture book classic in which Mr Gumpy sets off for a drive with children and animals on board, then the weather changes for the worst and the car gets stuck in the mud. And who is going to push? The illustrations provide an introduction to the earliest models of motor car.

The Car Book (Dorling Kindersley) - aimed at adults but perfect for young enthusiasts, this book relates the history of the motor car and features more than 2,000 vehicles.




Blyth Valley Children's Centre in Northumberland has recently replaced its core collection of transport vehicles with a set of diecast HotWheels cars.

Manager Julie Scott says, 'Our old collection was a mishmash of cars, mainly plastic, and all of different sizes. The HotWheels collection contains scaled versions of real cars, and children love the fact that they are all different: there are Jeeps and two-seater sports cars; three-wheelers; motor bikes and Smart cars; there's a combination of current and fast racing cars.

'Outside, the children enjoy zooming them down the guttering and ramps that we made out of recycled material.' A pack of 36 HotWheels cars (£69.99), supplied in a storage tray with lid, is available from www.ypo.co.uk.


Alfreton Nursery School in Derbyshire has created transport Chatterboxes through Every Child a Talker, the national programme to promote speaking and listening skills.

Nursery nurse Jane Blant says, 'These boxes are also useful to support children's personalised learning and interests. A boy with severe speech delay was interested in the Walt Disney film "Cars", so we tried to promote his speech and language by developing a box containing two of the 'Cars' characters, a story book from 'Cars' and a reference book with cars. The child then chose three things from the nursery to take home with it - another car, some drawing materials and some paper. The box contains a communication book for parents to feed back to us on what the child has done with the cars.'


This series aims to help practitioners be more responsive to children's interests and reflect on how thoughtful resourcing can truly broaden and progress their learning. It sets out what to include in a core collection for everyday use, and gives examples of how to build up resources that support children's interests and special play opportunities.

An introduction to the Collections series, 'Ready to go' by Julian Grenier, early years adviser at the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, was published in Nursery World on 20 September and is available at: www.nurseryworld.co.uk


Resources need to be easily accessible if children are to make full use of them, as and when they wish. One storage solution is transparent plastic containers with easy-to-open lids, arranged on low-level shelving.

Next month (15 November)

Creating a collection on the theme of babies. If you have favourite 'baby' resources that you'd like to recommend to other settings (dolls, cots, clothes and the like), please e-mail your suggestions to: nw@nicoleweinstein.co.uk.

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