Monday, 30 September 2013

Days 5 and 6 Dunblane and Crieff

After a few intense days it was the weekend, an ideal time to unwind and reflect on what we have experienced. Some delegates used this time to return to Edinburgh or explore Glasgow and Stirling, the beautiful weather was an added bonus. Many of us explored Dunblane with its riverside walks and historic Cathedral. The golden postbox celebrating Andy Murray's win was also a popular tourist stop.

Sunday afternoon and it was time to move on again...this time to Crieff where we met up with Claire for a reflective session. Claire welcomed us to Crieff and was interested in what we had done over the weekend. She shared some of the history of Crieff (meeting point for cattle drovers) and the role of the traditional landowners or Lairds. She also mentioned that the Scottish Government has stipulated that children have the right to have access to nature kindergartens.

We shared some of our thoughts and reflections on the centres we have visited:
"Fluidity of movement is mind blowing and I have not experienced this before - free rangeness of the spaces really impressed me" (Melanie)

Friday, 27 September 2013

Day 4 Cowgate Pre-5 centre, Edinburgh, Scotland

Whoever it was that wished for wet weather to get the 'real' Scottish experience got their wish! Setting off in the bus with our little picnic bag of goodies prepared by Sabine I heard comments wondering if what we were due to see today could possibly be as inspiring as the previous settings! Time will tell.....

 On arrival the group was split in two with one group going to the forest school site with Jane and the other to the centre as we are a rather large group. At the centre we were warmly greeted by Lynn McNair, Head Teacher, who has been awarded an OBE from the Queen for the work she does with young children, and Leanne Higgins who has been a member of Cowgate for 20 years. Lynn shared information about their centre with us. Cowgate is owned by Edinburgh City Council and is open from 8am until 5.45pm for children aged from birth to 5 years for 52 days per year.

 This purpose built setting was opened in 2002 and is a non profit organisation with skilled, mature, qualified staff. This centre presents with the ethos of a Froebels centre, natural colours, furnishings, avoiding bright colours, plastic - the children bring the colour. They follow a Froebelian Curriculum. Froebel believed that from the beginning the child must be surrounded by kindness, understanding and beauty - staff at Cowgate share this belief! Children are consulted on most aspects of their care and the staff recognise a holistic view of each child's development. They consider themselves protectors of childhood and will guide and facilitate rather than instruct. Lynn also feels that adults need to relinquish power over children and that children are not a homogenous group. 


Children are seen as individual, not a homogenous group, they are not judged by chronological age and although there is a 0-3 year and 3 - 5 year old rooms, the doors are open and children have access to the whole space including the reception area. Siblings right to be together is respected. There is also a faith and trust in children, children of all ages make their own decision on what to wear outside and if they are cold they will know and come back for appropriate clothing.

Planning happens with the children and they take advantage of their central inner city situation with access to the castle, meadows, museums, libraries etc. 

The forest school site is a small 1/2 acre site about 10 minute walk away, owned by the Scottish Wildlife Trust, a small natural oasis in the middle of Edinburgh city. Sir Patrick Geddes had the foresight to preserve some natural spaces within the city. The children spend half a day at a time here running, building, exploring and creating. In this small space there were nettles, brambles and other "prickly" plants but the children soon learnt which ones to avoid.  

We were touched by the small but exciting space for children and many members of the group felt that this was really a Secret Garden. Dark corners, tunnels formed by the vegetation, uneven track, trees to hold a rope swing, small and colourful wild flowers, rose bushes and wild raspberries were some of the opportunities. There are disadvantages to the site and staff need to clear the area of litter and remove possible dangerous objects such as needles before the children are able to enjoy the space but the benefits far outweigh any risks.

The children also have access to "Stickland", a 26 acre site which they access 2 or 3 times a week making fires, cooking, using tools and exploring. They were very excited that they were due to receive a heated Yurt!


What did we see? A small inner city space that has been converted into an amazing nature kindergarten! I know that beneath the sand and bark they have rubber softfall, the ramp for pushchairs is also used as part of the cycle paths. Children have free access to the indoors and outdoors, a smooth transition between the two. Some children were baking while another one was making chocolate crispies using a tiny pot on a tea light candle hot plate.....and no adult supervision.


Claire (Mindstretchers) and Eboni (AISWA) thanked the Cowgate team for their hospitality and presented the team with a selection of books for the children. Gail (Darwin) and myself (Inspired EC) also presented small gifts.

The majority of the group elected to stay and explore Edinburgh so the huge bus returned with  only 6 .... We hope the rest find their way back to Dunblane by train!   

Day 3 Wingate Children's Centre, Durham, England

Bags packed again (I wonder if anybody actually unpacks their bags?) and onto the bus for our short drive to Wingate Children's Centre. (Some ladies did try and persuade the lovely Glen to depart a bit later so that they could go shopping but he firmly refused!)

At Wingate Children’s centre we were warmly received by Paddy Beels, Headteacher of the centre who has an OBE from the Queen for the work she has done for children. Claire and I have known Paddy for many years (and she still drives the same green beetle with pink flowers!!). Paddy and her depute, Beckie, have worked together for many years and are an inspirational team.We gathered at the training base for introductions, information and of course coffee. 

We were privileged to join the centre staff and children for a couple of hours both indoors and outdoors. Intentional teaching opportunities had been set up which children we free to engage in if and when they chose to. 



Exploration of clay - and this was full body exploration engaged a number of children for the 2 hours we were there! Cooking in a well equipped children's kitchen space, from measuring and mixing to cleaning.


 Water play indoors and outdoors was popular - as it is the world over!


The woodland is a small corner of the garden with some trees, shrubs and a fire pit. Children around a real fire with Glynis Riseley were having conversations about fire, keeping themselves and the environment safe, singing songs ....this was a big draw to many of the adults in our team!

The garden space is small in size but huge in potential with many natural elements including a structure modeled on the angel of the north after a special interest project coming from the children. We saw children having the time and space to quietly reflect, to climb and run around with purpose, to help and support each other in problem solving.

The indoor space is well thought through with many opportunities for children to choose from, times for children to work in small groups or larger groups.

We saw role play in various forms - high heel shoes that were coveted by some of the adults, home corner with REAL turnips, potatoes and carrots (some with bites taken out of them). 


The children were fully engaged in what they were doing, adults were unobtrusive and we were impressed that the children had only been coming to the nursery for a week - they were all remarkably settled and happy in their play. The adults spoke to the children with quiet respect and structured or extended learning opportunities. 


Delegates were seen talking in small groups, sitting on their own reflecting and observing, the atmosphere was special considering there were an additional 31 adults in a small centre with 37 children who had only been in the centre for a couple of weeks. 


When we returned to the training base Paddy asked us to share with her our initial thoughts and feelings. There was so much emotion in the room and some of the comments that were shared:

The intentionality of the space
Team appear to be together, really work together
Documentation of experiences
Ordinary is the extra ordinary and the adult recognises and values this
History is still relevant, stories of children no longer in the centre are still visible
Wanted to start crying - Rosie's story - beautiful to have it recorded
Lulled by the space
Tangible expression of valuing children
My heart has been singing all morning
We have the same values for children, we are on the same page even on opposite sides of the world
Although children had only been there a short time, we were seen as the visitors to their space
Children were not threatened by us
Staff establish relationships with the children before anything else
The relationships between staff is special, gestures often used instead of verbals
Staff paddling madly to create the restful atmosphere, it is hard work.
Structure is there but there is support for each other.
Tidy up is referred to as "let's put the things back where they belong"
There is a real balance between order and freedom
There are boundaries but freedom within those boundaries.
We set in place expectations for the way we treat each other, the environment and the resources.
Big group time is used to address things important to the children - citizenship, thinking at a deeper level including death, news items.
There are no sounds or whistles for transitions, the rhythm becomes embedded.

After a delicious lunch Paddy and Beckie told us a bit more about the history of Wingate and shared their values and beliefs with us. There is a great respect for children and childhood, parents and families are respected and valued and a relationship with the whole community and wider environment is considered very important. Fridays are called Family Friday as families work together - children may take part in forest school, be out in the community or be cooking a meal at the school for the children that are out. Paddy also shared that “we are a family”, “emotions need care”, “detail is important” and many other statements that show the mutual respect and caring all the stakeholders have for each other and the centre.

Time flew and before we knew it, it was time to get back to the bus. Claire (Mindstretchers) and Ahdielah (AISWA) thanked Paddy and Beckie for their hospitality and handed over a collection of books for the adults and children, Gail (Darwin) and myself (Inspired EC) also had small gifts and a big thank you for such an inspiring visit. We hope to see both Paddy and Beckie in Australia soon.

I know that there was a lot of reflection and conversation about what we had seen and experienced at Wingate Children's Centre on the bus journey to Scotland where Sabine was waiting to greet us with  a glass of wine!