The strength of Cricklade Manor Nursery, I discover, isn’t in the numerous additional opportunities the children can access, but in the ethos of happy, engaged learning and discovery that pervades every class. The Nursery is currently expanding to provide more places.
First off, I should make it clear that Cricklade Manor Nursery is not your average childcare setting. Like the school in which is sits, the Nursery has opportunity at its core. And so along with the everyday play and nurture you would expect, children here enjoy Forest School, specialist music, French and sport sessions (with the school’s Head of Sport, no less, in its huge sports hall). They eat up to three healthy and really delicious – I’ve tried them – meals a day in the school dining hall, as well as snacks, and join the older children for assemblies and music and drama productions. There is wraparound care available from 7.30am-6pm to make life easier for working parents; it is open 50 weeks in the year; and it costs no more than any far-more-average nursery.
However, when I visit the Nursery, what interests me is finding out what the core experience is like for the children, when you strip away all the extras. How do they interact with the staff and each other? How much freedom do they have to pursue their own interests and how engaged are they with their learning? I suspect this will tell me more about the ethos and aims of the Nursery than the, albeit very exciting, specialist learning sessions.
I start in the bright and cheerful conservatory room that houses the very youngest children in the whole school. I have been watching them playing, moving around as they make use of all the toys. There’s freedom of movement and choice, lots to grasp their attention, lots of things to try. From time to time the teacher steps in, talking about what they are doing, helping them, gently encouraging them and identifying new challenges to keep their interest alive.
Now they have been gathered in, and are sitting on the carpet, gazing expectantly at their teacher.
‘What shape have we been learning about?’ she asks.
‘Circles!’ comes the reply from several children.
As the teacher continues to discuss the characteristics of this shape with the boys and girls, I look around and realise that there are in fact circles everywhere, at every table, hanging from the ceiling, on the walls; cut outs, pompoms, beads on an abacus.
‘This is a circle!’ A very small boy is beside me, and handing me a flat, round disk.
‘Yes is it,’ I agree. ‘Well done!’
‘Here’s something else that’s round,’ continues their teacher. She is holding up a knitted current bun. The children understand what this signals. One by one, singing the Current Bun song, they count up the buns – enough for all the class – pay their imaginary penny and then go and queue up ready to wash hands for snack time (today fresh pineapple wedges and apple). The first couple of children in line take the opportunity to peep through the window of the Reception class door. There are all sorts of exciting things going on in there with the big boys and girls, and the little ones look very interested indeed.
When I join the next class up, I am in time to see the older two year olds and three year olds setting off on their travels. They have abandoned an impromptu make-believe picnic in one corner of the room, and in a textbook example of child-led learning, have pushed all the classroom chairs into a long, snaking train. The teacher, following their lead, is busily writing out tickets for them.
‘Where are you going?’ she asks a boy.
‘To the beach!’ he cries.
She dutifully makes out the ticket, and hands it to him, and with great excitement he takes his place on the train. It’s quite a train, this one! As well as the beach, it’s going to visit a large number of friends and grandparents, the shops, a castle, even Disneyland.
Predictably, my arrival is a distraction, and lots of the children to hop off the train to tell me all about where they want to go, waving their tickets in my face with huge enthusiasm. I seem to have made a whole gaggle of new friends and there’s lots of laughter and excitement.
At a quiet word from the teacher, they all peel away to start clearing up. Knights and castles, the picnic stuff, the train, everything is put away with good cheer, and I find myself hoping for their parents’ sake that the children are this helpful at home. I am perched on a tiny chair beside a table where one of the youngest girls in the room is packing away a jigsaw. It is one where you have to match the letter to the object. I pick up a piece.
‘What is D for?’ I ask, pronouncing the letter phonetically.
‘Duck,’ she replies without missing a beat. ‘And this is W for witch,’ she continues, picking up another puzzle piece. ‘But if you turn it upside down, it’s M for Maisie.’ I am genuinely impressed.
Break time is what you would expect, lots of happy children roaring around, shouting and laughing. I love all the grassy space they have in the big, walled garden, the wooden climbing frames, the trikes and balls and flowerpot stilts – and there’s nothing they don’t make use of.
After break, I head into the pre-Reception room. Today they are to be joined by the Reception class for a special session, and you can tell that this is considered a huge treat for the Nursery children. The teacher explains that she’s going to take them all on a learning walk. She has set up a whole range of stations with different things to do, and as they walk around, she describes what everything is, what they can do and how many children can fit at each activity. When the children are released, it is immediately obvious how effective this approach is. There’s no fighting or pushing. They all crack on, finding things to do. There are puzzles and games, a monster-creation table, audio books, somewhere for mark making, crafts and drawing, as well as a busy role-play corner. I notice that the two year groups naturally mix in together. When I point this out to the teacher, she is unsurprised.
‘Yes, they like each other. The older children model for the younger ones.’ She waves a hand towards one of her class. ‘This little girl here hasn’t chosen to do a craft activity for ages, but because the older children are doing it, she wants to have a go too.’
I am surprised by how purposeful and unchaotic it feels, even with the mingled classes. Admittedly there’s lots of space – in fact the whole of the Nursery block feels light and roomy – but I know from experience how much disorder even three small children can generate, never mind the number I’m looking at now.
I ask the teacher what makes Cricklade Manor Nursery different. Interestingly she doesn’t mention any of things I thought she might; the specialist lessons, the sport and so on.
‘The staff,’ she replies. ‘There is not one member of staff for whom this is just a job. They are all completely committed to achieving the very best for these children. They all go above and beyond.’ Having watched them in action, and seen the warm relationships they have with the children, I believe her.
She explains that the small class sizes give these committed teachers an opportunity to really work with each child, identifying their interests and getting them enthusiastic about learning more. It creates a natural progression of learning as they move up towards the top of Nursery.
‘In here, with the pre-Reception children, we are preparing them for school in September, and so we have more structure to our work on maths and literacy. Because we have time for the individual, I am able to tailor the challenge to the child. If I have a little girl who is really keen to read fluently, I have to be able to support that, as well as help someone who is just getting to grips with simple sounds. When they start in Reception, you really see the difference it makes.’
Watching these busy, smiley, purposeful children, focused and engaged, they seem more than ready to take the next step.
Visit Cricklade Manor Nursery to find out more: