Emma Harwood and Freya Deal tell TEY how Dandelion Education supports children to find their voice…
Dandelion Education in Norwich is a philosophy-led forest school nursery co-founded by Emma Harwood and Hayley Room. Freya Deal joined the team four years ago as the Operations Manager, and works closely with Emma and Hayley in the running of both Dandelion settings.
The two settings – a third is due to open soon – offer outdoor care and education (with a yurt available on each site) in scenic woodland. Dandelion places a huge emphasis on empowering children through play, exploration and high-quality interactions.
“The training for all of our staff is bespoke, so children know what to expect,” says Emma. “They know nobody’s going to say ‘Don’t’ or shout at them.
“It’s very much about giving children their own voice. We trust children, we walk alongside them. We don’t talk at children; always with them – offering respectful, reciprocal conversations.”
It’s an idea Emma is passionate about – so much so that she has done a TED Talk all about communication and empowering children.
In it, Emma discusses the importance of empowering children through language and communication, being their thesaurus, and allowing them the time they need, or want, to talk.
“We do a lot of work on emotional literacy,” says Emma as she holds up a pack of emotions cards. “These are our own Dandelion Dialogue cards.
“There are others available, but the ones for sale didn’t cover the range of emotions we wanted. So, we created these, which have additional emotions such as ‘calm’ and ‘proud’, for example.
“We also teach the children that you can have two emotions at the same time – you can feel excited and frightened, or you can feel angry and scared. It’s really important that we model that as well.
“Emotional literacy gives children that language and makes a huge difference to how they respond to each other. They might say to their friend, ‘I’m angry because you’ve just poked me in the eye,’ which is much better than physically reacting”.
The team at Dandelion are sensitive to the individual needs of every child. “Our staff are highly trained and qualified, and have a really deep knowledge,” says Emma.
“They understand child development and trauma. For example, when a child is experiencing high cortisol levels, staff know the child isn’t ignoring them; they understand that they need to offer emotional support to that young person, rather than expect an immediate response.
“If a child is upset or angry about something, we’ll ask how they feel and how we can help them to feel better. The child’s response might be, ‘I need ten minutes with you over there so I can have some space’, or quite often they say, ‘Can I have a hug?’ and then off they go.
“That time for high-quality communication and listening is so important. As you know, there’s been a proposal to change early years ratios, but we won’t be changing ours. As qualified teachers, we could offer ratios of 1:13 for children aged three and over, but we don’t.
“The suggestion is that the way you make money, the way you survive as a setting, is to go to government ratios, but we just won’t. I think that’s why the children do feel so incredibly secure here – if you have one adult to six three- or four-year-olds, clearly, you’re going to have time to listen to them.
“They’re talking about moving two-year-old ratios from 1:4 to 1:5. At Dandelion, we keep a ratio of 1:2 for children aged two. I wouldn’t hand over my two-year-old granddaughter to somebody in a ratio of 1:5,” says Emma.
Freya agrees, “There’s so much research about how important those first 1,000 days are, but early years isn’t treated like it’s education.
“We call all of our staff at Dandelion ‘early years teachers’ because that’s what we are. Early years staff are often made to feel like we’re simply nappy changers.
“But everything we do – including changing nappies – is about educating and scaffolding learning. It’s about taking children on to the next stage and making them secure.
“We use nappy changing as an opportunity to teach children about body autonomy, letting them know that we do need to change their nappy but we’ll ask them to help and they can take their own trousers down.
“We’ll often say, ‘Emma can change your nappy or Freya can change your nappy’. We offer a choice, and we’ll always use the proper words for body parts and that’s really important for children’s safety,” says Freya.
Emma continues, “If somebody has done something that they shouldn’t and a child says, ‘They touched my cookie’, nobody’s going to know what they mean. If they say, ‘Somebody touched my vulva,’ we would know what’s going on – children need that language.
“We introduced a new song to teach children about body ownership: ‘It’s my body and mine alone, from my elbow to my toe…’ and we practise saying, ‘No, thank you’. This might simply be saying it to another child who’s going to give them a hug. At Dandelion, we teach the children to be respectful and ask first. The children know they’ve got that right to say ‘No’ to anybody.”
The staff at Dandelion support children understand that talking about body parts is nothing to feel embarrassed about. “It’s a small window that we have to make the correct body language something that feels natural and normal”, Emma tells us.
“If we haven’t already done that by the time they’re three, it creates a really big battle because children have all the outside influences by then as well.”
As well as supporting children to have the vocabulary they need to express themselves, the staff at Dandelion are keen to ensure that self-expression isn’t limited by gender stereotypes.
“We work hard to teach children that gender is nothing to do with whether you can climb a tree, use an axe or a drill, or wear a dressing-up dress. Any child can do any of those things, but there are plenty of outside influences that reinforce stereotypes,” says Emma.
“If a child says, ‘Only boys can use axes’, for example, our staff are well trained and know how to have that conversation in a respectful and non-judgemental way that unpicks the child’s beliefs. We don’t say ‘You’re wrong’; we ask ‘What if?’. We use questions to encourage children to think a little more deeply and unpick their own thoughts whilst always respecting and valuing their opinions.”
“We also adapt stories to combat gender stereotypes,” explains Freya. “So, in Little Red Riding Hood, we’ll mention that the wood cutter is a woman, and in The Three Little Pigs, the one carrying the bricks might be a woman, so the children begin to understand that those jobs are available to everybody all of the time.”
Dandelion Education has been shortlisted for the Nursery World Awards 2022 in two categories: Eco-Friendly Early Years and Enabling Environments. To find out more about Dandelion, visit dandelioneducationltd.com