Enabling Environments: Principles - First of all

Dr Julian Grenier
Monday, June 29, 2015

Get the underlying essentials of high-quality provision right and they will be the foundation for developing a curriculum, says Dr Julian Grenier

The question of a curriculum for children up to the age of three has been controversial for a long time. Back in the 1960s, the seminal Plowden Report concluded that 'the day nursery is the proper place for those children who have to be away from their homes before the age of three. An institution with a more directly educational aim is right for children of three and over'. But the same argument flared up from the opposite direction last year, when Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, sharply criticised 'those who dislike the words "education" and "teaching" when it comes to very small children'.

To get away from this conflict, it has often been argued that it makes more sense to think of care and teaching as inseparable in the early years: children will always be learning while they are being cared for, and vice versa. For example, in the original Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage, it was stated that the curriculum should be thought of as 'everything children do, see, hear or feel in their setting, both planned and unplanned'.

But I think that taking this point of view neglects the fact that there is a real controversy about the respective importance of having basic care and routines in place, and having an effective curriculum. As the New Zealand researcher Carmen Dalli has noted, to see the baby and toddler as a learner requires a fundamental shift in thinking on the part of early years practitioners. If we think of every interaction as being teaching, or every experience being the curriculum, then it can be difficult to reflect on that, or to focus on the absolutely fundamental care routines and approaches which must be securely in place for every child.

Based on my experience of visiting many different early years settings, as well as my experience as a nursery school head teacher, it is very easy to make the mistake of focusing on complex approaches to planning or responding to pressures to demonstrate that children are learning basic information. Sometimes we need to concentrate on getting the basics right first: the hourly and daily experiences of babies and toddlers should make the first call on our attention.


Getting the foundations right begins with the recognition that every child is unique, and that we need to plan provision around this. For babies and toddlers, this means having a strong key person approach. Everything begins with getting to know the child's care routines, likes and dislikes, and becoming attuned to them.

This requires time and commitment: time spent watching how the child interacts with their parents, finding out what reassures and comforts them and what their signs of tiredness, distress or unhappiness are. As practitioners, we need to position ourselves as learning from parents' unique knowledge of each child. Nursery cannot be like home, so there must be adaptations. However, the key person can mediate the child's experience, helping to keep routines as consistent as possible, and recognising when the child may struggle.

Attunement to the child also means showing a genuine interest rather than responding in institutional ways. Recently, I saw an experienced member of staff mentoring a young student who was becoming frustrated with a toddler who would not tidy up. The student kept repeating, 'It's tidy up time', but then her mentor said, 'He's just learning about this, so he can only do a few things.' She took an interest in the block he was holding and then encouraged him to put it on the shelf. Although he only tidied a couple more blocks, she noticed his helpfulness and quietly tidied up more of the blocks around him.

When he became upset because it was time to move onto lunch, she was sympathetic and said, 'I know you don't really want to come and sit down now. Let's just play here for a little while longer.' Once he was more settled, she brought him over.

When children are noticed in this way, they become more aware of how they are feeling. This awareness helps them to feel less at the mercy of powerful emotions, and more able to manage and regulate themselves.

It is also important to recognise how much care routines can affect children. As an adult, it is unpleasant to have medical treatment and experience a stream of different people carrying out procedures. It is a much better experience when a nurse we already know comes back to us, and prepares us for what is coming next. If this is true for adults, who have lots of life experience and can make sense of what is happening, imagine how stressful it must feel to children experiencing different people dressing and undressing them and carrying out other intimate care routines.

Different children react to that stress in different ways. Some become resistant, crying and complaining; others are passive or friendly to every new person they encounter. Neither is really a healthy or happy state to be in. On the other hand, ensuring as far as possible that nappy changing and other care routines are carried out by the key person gives a child a sense of security and consistency.

Even apparently small interferences, such as approaching children from behind and picking them up, putting aprons on, or bending down and wiping a nose without a word of warning, can make a child feel 'done to'. Surely, we would rather children felt cared for, in warm relationships, rather than experiencing things being done to them without so much as a by-your-leave.


Developing a positive relationship with parents is not just important when a key person is getting to know the child and helping them to settle in. Parents can give important feedback on wellbeing and tell us when they spot the signs that all is not well. But they are easily put off this for fear of 'causing a fuss' or being seen as too precious or demanding.

It is important for a key person to encourage parents to share information, and also to spend time explaining what happens in nursery and why. Because the parent-child relationship is emotionally charged, children may often present at their most difficult when the parent is around, either at dropping off or picking up time. This may mean that you need to reassure parents at those times, and maybe you will need to find other times and ways to exchange information rather than trying to talk over an angry or upset child.

Giving parents a realistic account of how you, as a key person, balance the different needs of the children in your care and talking about difficulties is more helpful than giving an idealised account. Not everything can be fine all the time.

Parents will, of course, have their own beliefs and ways of doing things, and these may differ to the nursery's approach. It is important not to undermine the prime role of the parent in the child's life or to assume that if only parents did things differently, everything would work out better. For example, staff theories about children being 'spoilt' rarely offer a helpful way into understanding either the child or the family.

Much more can be achieved by working in a professional way with the child and offering the occasional, well-timed word of advice to the parent about different ways of responding to difficult events.


Finally, it is essential that early years provision is actively set up and managed to help keep children safe and well. This means maintaining a safe and secure environment at all times, and making sure that the key focus of staff is on interacting with the children.

Strong systems are needed to check that all the equipment is safe and appropriate for the ages of the children, and properly cleaned and maintained. Management approaches that encourage staff to raise any worries they have about the environment and deployment or conduct of colleagues are also essential. A strong supervision system, together with sound safeguarding training and procedures, will help to ensure that concerns about children are picked up and acted on quickly.

The curriculum can be said to consist of all of the planned and unplanned experiences that will help the children to develop emotionally, socially and cognitively. When managers, staff and parents think together about getting the setting's basic procedures and organisation right, they are providing the necessary underpinning for the development of that curriculum.

Dr Julian Grenier is head teacher of Sheringham Nursery School and Children's Centre, London - a National Teaching School - and is a National Leader of Education

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