TEY speaks to Charlotte Bateman about their emergent curriculum, and why the children decided to build a six-foot bee robot…
Inspired by the Reggio Emilia approach, Little Barn Owls – winners of the Nursery World Awards Nursery Group of the Year 2020 – have developed a child-centred pedagogy: a way of teaching that responds to children’s natural curiosity and allows learners to explore their interests in depth.
The result is an intuitive model of enquiry-based learning across all three settings.
“When the group first opened over 10 years ago, we established an ethos of ‘nurturing confident, caring, curious children’ that would form the basis of our emergent curriculum,” says Charlotte.
“It began with conversations about how we greet and talk to the children, and we developed our emergent curriculum from there – by asking ourselves, ‘How do we translate this into a teaching and learning style?’
Roughly a year after opening Little Barn Owls, owner Hayley Peacock took a study trip to Reggio Emilia, which began the transformation of our curriculum.”
The group have developed a consistent approach across their three nurseries in West Sussex, with free- flow settings and regular forest school sessions in their own forest. “We’ve set up our environments, inside and out, with continuous provision to support all seven areas of learning,” explains Charlotte.
“These include role play areas, construction areas, loose parts spaces, IT equipment (computers, scanners, cameras, digital microscopes), maths provocations, literacy-rich areas, small world spaces, and cosy corners.”
“In the garden and forest, we have climbing equipment, large-scale construction, a fire pit, mud kitchen, large sand pits, waterways, and an edible garden.
We’re also lucky enough to have farm schools at two of our nurseries. We believe that an inspiring environment can act as a ‘third teacher.’”
Another aspect of Little Barn Owls that’s inspired by the Reggio Emilia approach is the inclusion of ‘mini ateliers’. “These are spaces filled with an abundance of art materials such as paints, clay, fabrics, glue, pens, pencils, chalk, charcoal and pastels,” says Charlotte.
The nursery group also employs professional artists to work with the children, offering skills and expertise to help bring their ideas to life.
Educators work in partnership with the children, recognising them as capable learners, and providing them with the space and opportunities to explore their own theories.
“We observe children’s interests and spend time listening to their ideas to find out what really fascinates them,” explains Charlotte. “This is what informs our planning – we plan projects on a day-to-day basis, which evolve over time.”
Child-led learning is more than creating the right environment – Charlotte has found that people can be surprised by the amount of planning involved: “To create an emergent curriculum, there are a lot of decisions to be made.
“It’s about following children’s curiosity, putting their interests at the heart of our planning, and involving them in decisions.”
The team at Little Barn Owls even divide leadership responsibilities to create a clearer focus on their child-centred pedagogy.
“Our pedagogical coordinators work alongside room leaders to coordinate planning, projects and environments,” Charlotte tells us. They spend time with staff and children managing the quality of teaching and learning.”
“We’ve found that including a leader of pedagogy within the room or nursery structure, depending on the size of the setting, allows time to fully focus on achieving high-quality learning. We have regular ‘sprint meetings’ – quick meetings where we reflect and ask, ‘What were the children fascinated with today?’”
Ofsted’s increased emphasis on quality of education and care is separated into three ‘I’s: Intent, Implementation and Impact. “Our emergent curriculum works wonderfully with the three ‘I’s,” says Charlotte.
“Each day, our educators reflect on what we are doing, and why we are doing it. We ask ourselves what children have learned and what they are continuing to question.”
“We discuss what materials we need to set out and why, based on decisions made from our reflection meetings. The next day, we document ‘impact’ through our observations of the children as they explore and learn – and the cycle continues.
It’s an excellent way of deepening knowledge about the connective moments that are happening for the children.”
“There can be some confusion over the difference between theme work and project work,” says Charlotte.
“Theme work looks at different opportunities to focus on a subject – dinosaurs for example – and provides loosely related activities. Project work is exploring that subject in depth.”
“People often ask how long a project goes on for. It depends on several factors – how long the children are fascinated and engaged; whether something else springs up and takes you in a different direction.
A project can last for weeks, months, or even a year with the oldest cohort!”
“When our children returned from lockdown in June 2020, they spent most of their time outside,” says Charlotte.
“At the Farlington nursery, they began enquiring about bees after observing a few in the garden, so our educators gave them the time and attention to research all about bees, providing tablets and laptops to support basic computer skills during research.
“The children then became enthralled with the idea of building their own bee robot! They designed robots and voted for which they all preferred. The parents were invited to vote, too!”
“Once a design was chosen, the children and educators spent the following months creating a six-foot robot with moving parts, lights, and even a voice. Each part of the project took a few weeks or months, such as children learning about woodworking and mechanics to make a moveable wooden frame and wings, and sculpture skills to create the body.”
Another project that Little Barn Owls has focused on in recent months is Jupiter: “We began by looking at photographs of Jupiter, then we created a mind map to show what we know about Jupiter and other planets,” says Charlotte.
“After a project has begun, we hold reflection meetings with the children to find out what captured their imaginations. This time, they were particularly interested in the swirls on Jupiter’s face. We held another reflection meeting with the adults about how to put the children’s ideas into our planning.”
“To expand on the children’s learning about Jupiter’s patterns and colours, we provided a wide range of materials – red pastels, paints, lose parts – for them to create their own patterns.
“We always ask ourselves, ‘What could best support the children to explore their ideas in more depth?’ ‘How can we take what’s happening in the moment and explore their curiosity further?’ We judge when to get involved and when to stand back.”
The children at Little Barn Owls are given plenty of time to explore different techniques and develop their interests and skills, as Charlotte explains:
“We enabled the children to recreate Jupiter’s swirls in a variety of ways, using tie-dyes, marble ink, drip painting, taking photographs of swirls, and looking for examples of natural swirls outdoors.”
“Next, we voted for which techniques best represent Jupiter’s swirls and we’re now starting to work on a large canvas for the nursery, based on that technique.
Our slowed-down approach allows us to really listen to children’s interests and empower them to explore their curiosity in depth, and embed their learning.”
Charlotte Bateman is Group Operations Officer at Little Barn Owls Nursery