Sessions for carers and parents to drop in with children work wonders, as Julian Grenier finds
A warm and very personal welcome awaits children, parents and carers when they come to the drop-in at Dorothy Gardner Nursery Centre. The Centre has been open for nearly 30 years in a bustling and densely populated corner of Westminster in central London. The staff are especially proud of the drop-in, says headteacher Pat Lacey. 'We welcome all people to the Centre, and the drop-in is usually the first point of call,' she says. 'We try to make people feel wanted, appreciated and valued. We've found that they often appreciate us in the same way.'
The Centre provides integrated nursery education and care for children aged from one to five. It also offers a range of services for the local community, such as classes for parents who speak English as an additional language and weekly workshops on young children's learning and development. The drop-in runs every morning and afternoon from Monday to Thursday.
Users include parents, aunts, grandparents, childminders and nannies - and up to 25 young children.
'It's a special drop-in because we have such an educational focus,' says Lynda Pearson, the early years educator who co-ordinates the project. 'We specifically encourage parents and carers to play with their children. When carers come for the first time, they get a personal welcome and I talk them through our leaflet, which emphasises the importance of play, and also equal opportunities. Everyone is welcome here. It's not at all cliquey. Some people come because they have felt lonely or isolated looking after their child, and they can make friends and get help or advice.'
The Centre and its drop-in have improved the lives of numerous young children and their families. 'We had a baby recently who first came to us at 14 months, a late-developer who wasn't walking yet and wasn't playing,' says Lynda, with evident affection. 'We watched her gradually beginning to explore and move about. By the time she was 18 months, she was into everything and rushing everywhere.'
The drop-in enables parents and carers to 'grow' with the children. 'They have made it their drop-in, not just somewhere that they come and visit,' Lynda tells me.
'You see them developing, and see their children developing, getting ready to move on to nursery. And when they start, they adjust to it so well because coming here has helped them become confident.'
The drop-in at Dorothy Gardner Centre is organised around the philosophy that children learn best by exploring and playing freely with a wide range of materials. Because children need to interact with each other and important adults, parents and carers are encouraged to join in with the play. They are also expected to help the children tidy up at the end of the session, after the singing, which is always accompanied by props and puppets.
The drop-in offers a whole range of play experiences including construction, tactile play with clay, dough or cooked spaghetti, a home area, books, mark-making, soft play, painting, puzzles and sorting activities. Sand is available to play with on the floor, enclosed within large wooden blocks, so that toddlers can get right in it and experience it to their heart's delight.
There are also regular days out at places like the local city farm, Kew Gardens, and a multicultural picnic in the park.
Julian Grenier is deputy head of Woodlands Park Nursery, part of the London borough of Haringey's Early Excellence Network
Supporting parents and carers
There is no single 'right' way to bring up children that professionals can teach parents and carers. But drop-in sessions can provide resources and ideas.
Staff can show by example how to relate positively to young children, praise them for their achievements and enjoy their company. They can also show ways of setting boundaries for children without shouting or smacking.
A drop-in will provide a wide range of play opportunities. This can help generate new ideas to use at home which do not involve spending lots of money on toys. For example, parents and carers can be introduced to the idea of 'treasure basket' play. They can observe young babies getting deeply involved in exploratory and sensory play, making choices, and interacting with each other.
Some adults have negative memories of the education system, which they might pass on to children. Drop-ins can be a way for adults to re-engage with the system in a relaxed and positive way.
Lynda Pearson aims to welcome each adult personally to each session at Dorothy Gardner Centre. She makes herself available for adults and children throughout the session, and says goodbye to each person at the end.
Early years workers can help parents by sharing their general knowledge about how children develop and learn, while recognising that parents have the best special knowledge about their own children.
Many parents and carers are interested in the curriculum for young children.
They might want to know why playing in the water or sand is a worthwhile activity for a child, or how to enjoy books with a child. Workshop sessions are popular, where parents and carers can try out these experiences for themselves and talk about them with a member of staff. Parents and carers may feel more positive about finger painting with children when they understand how this will help them to learn to write.
They may enjoy the sand and water with children when they see how this play can develop mathematical and scientific concepts.
Reference: Tina Bruce and Carolyn Meggitt (1999), Child Care and Education, Hodder and Stoughton, 18.99.