Debi’s childhood dream was to become a teacher ‘I was always destined to be a teacher’. This childhood dream has been fulfilled and Debi has worked at Broomhill Infants School for fifteen years, starting as an NQT and is now the Early Years Lead. Debi is clearly passionate about her role in early years. ‘Nursery is at my heart. I naturally get joy from being with children. I get excited by being with children and I get drawn to being in that moment with them.’
Broomhill Infants School is situated in a suburb or South Bristol ‘We are really lucky, we’ve got a wonderful green environment around us, even though we are quite inner city. We’ve got lots of trees, so all our classes are named after trees’.
The ethos of Broomhill Infant’s School is ‘Nature, Nurture, Knowledge’. As an early years lead, Debi is a huge advocate for play ‘Play is just the most important thing that they do. Play is how the children learn and in particularly in our nursery this year our focus has been about making learning real and purposeful, encouraging children to take risks and challenge themselves and making learning self-lead’. Debi explains how the children are at the heart of all they do and that the process of learning really is absolutely child lead ‘It’s about that responsive planning, I know there are the basic key skills that I want them to learn, but how they learn is up to them’. It’s all about following the children’s interests and making their learning meaningful. Debi is passionate about fostering a love of learning within the children ‘I want them to know that they have the ability, I want them to know that they can do anything. If we can give that to them at three and get that lifelong learning disposition into their life now, just think how far they can go. If we can get them really secure now in their learning disposition, they’re going to fly. It’ll be amazing!’.
When asked what Debi and her team offer the children her response was ‘a lot of love, a lot of nurturing, time and space, I think we try and give them an individuality to be themselves and we don’t want them to come and fit into a box. We want them to come and be themselves and learn in their own direction and with their own interests’ reinforcing the school’s nurturing ethos.
Debi is a huge advocate for the benefits of outdoor learning, and this is reflected in her setting. Debi explains that many of the children in her class live in flats with no outdoor space and this just reinforced her drive to provide a positive and stimulating outdoor learning environment for them. Debi explains how they found that children were struggling with their fine motor skills and that none of the usual interventions were really helping solve this. However, Debi noticed that as children’s gross motor skills improved so did their fine motor skills so as a result of this Debi plans her garden around ‘lots and lots and lots of opportunities or pulling, climbing, challenging physical movements such as dodging, twisting, turning, swinging and bending, working on their core tummy muscles, working on their shoulders, and their wrists and elbows and all those other basic fine motor skills which don’t involve holding a pencil. What we’ve noticed is that this has had a huge impact in the classroom on their writing’.
Debi appreciated that the children loved to be outside but that the way the outdoor space was used could be improved upon. This was a mammoth task, but Debi was up for the challenge and approached it with passion and enthusiasm and has transformed the space on a very small budget ‘I think we spent about £60 because we used Facebook Marketplace and Gumtree and with donations, including Tesco and Coop. We have literally contacted loads of companies, asked around the local area, looking for freebies and stuff. We’ve just been passionate about it because we know it’s right for the children.’
Debi and her team have made a ‘powerful learning environment’ and the many benefits for the children have been huge ‘Outdoor learning is what’s best for the children, as they learn better outside. They are freer outside, they move more spontaneously, they’re more sociable outside, there are more communication friendly spaces outside, they are more relaxed outside, and they are more at peace mental health wise, they just seem more them when outside’. Debi explains that if the outdoor provision is right then ‘everything that a child learns inside can be learnt outside and more, but it does take work and it does take time. It can become a powerful learning environment if you don’t try making it the same as an indoor classroom. You also need to be clever. Use every space. We made use of what we called ‘dead areas’ by adding a tarpaulin tied up between two trees to cover our loose parts area it suddenly became a camp, a sauna, a castle, a holiday home – it was used every day’.
Children are keen to come to nursery in the morning and to get outside. With the recent provision of a covered outdoor area, the outside space can be used all year round regardless of the weather ‘90% of the children are outside all day’. The outdoor space includes a reading area, a tinkering area with nuts and bolts, real objects, clocks and video tapes to take apart and fiddle with. There’s a sand pit, an art area, a construction area, an outdoor role play area, a rope swing and much more There is a real focus on promoting children’s independence and this is reinforced by having a welly hut where the children can be ‘totally independent and go and get their wellies and waterproofs on and get changed if they want to go on the grass’ . Debi really considered the space and how it could be used ‘I wanted it so that they could still run but I wanted them to have to think about their movements. To move with speed they have to dodge, to move in different ways, to strengthen their tummy muscles, I wanted different terrains and textures’.
The garden has been planned around the three prime areas of the EYFS. The team are well trained and understand the importance the Prime and the Characteristics of effective learning underpinning every interaction. ‘I’ve put stimulating areas, I’ve put risk and challenge, textures, I’ve put physical things so they have to use all those muscles in their shoulders, their stomachs, their wrists, which will help for writing. We’ve put in areas that will interest them, like a bark area with dinosaurs, pulleys, loose parts, we’ve put in things that they’d like but that will challenge them, so they are interested in and they are playing better. We engage with them; we have high aspirations and think about what we want for them’.
The outdoor provision changes all of the time; what is available and how it is used is very much formed from the children’s ideas and interests ‘it’s their garden first and foremost. Nothing stays the same, if they have an interest, we build on it’. When asked what her best resource was Debi answered ‘it’s just the children. Everything comes from them, we are responsive, the core of what we do is responsive planning’. Debi acknowledges that none of this would be possible without the support of her team ‘My LSAs as well, so it’s my team and my children. I’d be lost without them!’.
The biggest impact that outdoor learning has had has been promoting an ethos risk taking and challenge along with providing children with the opportunities to review their own learning ‘ making links and drawing their learning. The children now talk with such confidence and pride about what they have learnt and how they have got there. They really reflect on the process of their learning now and it feels like a real community. They often celebrate their friend’s achievements spontaneously or will identify things that have gone well but that their friends could do even better. There is a real language of learning within the setting which is a jot to listen to’.
For those inspired to create a similar provision Deb’s advice is to ‘be brave! Ask people for things, don’t think you have to have loads of money. Don’t think it’s going to be done overnight, it’s going to take time. Also, be brave enough to move away from the curriculum a bit. Always keep the basic skills in mind but when we are working with the children we are always following their interests but we do ty and drip feed those basic skills in there somewhere, but don’t feel they have to take precedence over the children because what you’ll find is you’ll get much more if you follow the children and what will happen is that they will feed through anyway. Sometimes if you’re braver you will get a richer learning and you’ll have more fun!’.
The development of the outdoor provision has obviously been such a huge success, and this has been proven in the data but perhaps most importantly the children are having so much fun while they are learning outside ‘so many lovely things happen. It’s magical’.