Interview: Juliet Clark

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Early years leader at Robert Mellors Primary and Nursery School in Nottinghamshire.

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Juliet Clark has conducted research into how changing an environment can improve children's communication.

What was the impetus for the project?

We're part of a teaching school alliance and my role also involves working as a specialist leader in early years. I'm also an Every Child A Talker lead practitioner. We were asked to think about which research would be useful. The funding was from Nottingham Trent University.

We recently merged the nursery and Reception class to create a foundation stage unit and were working on our outdoor area and wanted to make sure the environment supported speech and language. We were also inspired by some of Elizabeth Jarman's approaches for communication-friendly spaces such as targeted use of colour in the classroom.

What were the research findings?

We asked the 28 five-year-olds and 33 three-year-olds in the foundation stage unit about their favourite spaces. We used the Mosaic approach, including interviews to listen to children and map-making using photographs and observations of children's language.

Before we developed the outside area, we interviewed children and they said there were no places where they could be quiet or where they could talk and that they used 'indoors' for that. So we created a small space outside, a cave-like area with some cushions. There was much more interaction going on than when there were just chairs and books. Children associated secluded spaces with spaces for talking and reading; in particular, they attributed 'being cosy' as a key feature.

We assessed children's speaking against Development Matters charts and found that 64 per cent of children were making good progress in their speech and language development and 19 per cent were making accelerated progress. Practitioners also attended training run by speech and language therapists at Nottinghamshire County Council.

Tell us about the beach.

We took the research findings further and applied for £10,000 funding from the lottery to develop the new seaside-themed area.

Lots of children had interpreted the question about their favourite place more generally, and many of them had said 'the beach', so we created an open sandpit with natural stepping stones. We also added a mud kitchen, a water play area, growing beds and climbing equipment.

The use of outside learning has impacted on attainment too; girls and boys attain more equally now. It is fascinating to see them so engaged in learning outside, developing their communication skills.

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