Oaklands Nursery is a Maintained Nursery School in Staffordshire, close to Stoke on Trent. The nursery usually has about eighty 3 and 4 year olds and up to twenty five 2 year olds on roll, with up to 65 children on site at any time.
Having remained open throughout the school closure from 20th March this year we had already been working with a small group of children (children of critical care workers and vulnerable children) and operating a three-week rota with staff. Staff were well versed in cleaning routines, distancing as much as is possible with small children, lots of time outside and minimising contact with parents.
From 1st June, 18 additional families initially decided to bring their children back to nursery. The guidance suggested "bubbles" of eight children; our numbers lent themselves to groups of 6 children.
We were faced with a different problem to many schools trying to work with small groups -"bubbles". While they had lots of space/classrooms but not enough staff to teach all the groups we had the opposite problem, lack of space but plenty of staff. Each bubble of children stays in the same area with the same members of staff so keeping distinct bubbles. We were able to offer a place to all those families who wanted one but had to limit them to two days each week. We weighed up many options; do we offer a rota of a full week every three weeks, half days ... but two days each week seemed to meet needs of parents trying to get back to work and gives staff a day each Wednesday to deep clean between groups.
Children bring minimal belongings to nursery; their lunch bag, named water bottle and snacks so we cut down on staff handling food for the children. Sun cream is applied by parents before they arrive. Children only bring a coat or sunhat depending on weather. We have asked them not to bring anything unnecessary from home and, sadly, we are not sending home their pictures, paintings and creations but to overcome that we have made art gallery boards for their work which they love and are very proud of.
Social distancing isn’t possible with very young children, nor would it be appropriate but we feel they need to understand about it just as we are teaching regular hand washing with correct techniques. So at story times, lunch time, circle times we talk about and practice sitting further apart from each other. The children have a fantastic understanding of all the Covid precautions and why we have to do these things.
Creating the bubbles
The layout of the building was easily divided into three areas; one separate room and a large room split in two using furniture to separate the two spaces. Each area had its own external door and outdoor area so allowing free flow and lots of time outside as the guidance recommended. Each area has separate toilets and wash hand basins for each group as well as a kitchen for each group.
Parents are able to bring children to the door of their group area when they drop off at school so avoiding them coming into the building. They have staggered arrival and departure times, again to minimise contact with other families.
Each area has an animal name – lions, tigers and elephants which really helps the children to relate to their area. There are pictures on the doors, toilets, sinks, carpet areas…. One little girl told her mum that "if it has a tiger I know I can go there".
The learning at Oaklands is child led, with children encouraged to access the whole space independently, to follow their interests and initiate their own learning; we worried about the changes to the environment restricting their play. We needn’t have been concerned; the children, as they often do, completely accepted and made the most of the new situation. They have been creative, imaginative and innovative within their small area and with whatever was available to play with. Some even seem to prefer the small space, small group, same adults; perhaps it all feels more secure and cosy?
What about the provision?
The toys and resources that we could use safely, that were easy to wash and disinfect felt very limiting. Many of the lovely creative, interesting, tactile resources that support the children’s creativity and imagination had to be put away.
In order to provide a range of activities we audited the resources we had available and together worked out how we could provide all areas of learning whilst keeping activities true to high quality early years practice. The resources and activities in each area are rotated around the areas week on week to ensure children access a variety of different toys.
At first the areas seemed quite stark and bare but as groups of staff work in the areas they are enhancing the provision based on the children’s interests.
New problems continued to arise; what can we put in a role play area? Children pretend to eat the toy food, put cups to their mouths, we can’t share dressing up clothes. We laminated pictures of food, the children love them. Not what we would normally have but they have provided lots of language and imaginative play.
We have been creative in how we provide small world, developing environments that are easy to clean, but all based on following the interests and ideas of the children.
We wanted to make sure children had lots of opportunities to explore, experiment and problem solve. Again we have found many resources that are easily cleaned but provide a wide range of learning opportunities.
Children have been able to challenge themselves and with the undivided adult support and wonderful ratios adults have been able to support and extend their learning.
Despite the problems, that creating small groups and separate areas has brought, it is an opportunity for truly child-led learning in small groups with the consistency of the same adults working with the group. There has been time to observe the play, develop and build on the children’s ideas and play, time to have those learning conversations, problem solve and have uninterrupted time to follow children’s interests.
Daily circle times are important, many of the children welcome to opportunity to talk about what is happening and share their thoughts and worries.
In practical terms many of the toys and resources have to be shared within the small group but where possible we have provided individual resources; each child has their own pot of pencils, pens, scissors etc, they have their own named apron and outdoor suit. We found they liked to have a drawer with paper, cards, glue, ribbons, "treasures"…
Communication is key both between members of staff and with families. We take for granted that normally we can chat to parents in the setting every day, share information and discuss things. Suddenly that couldn’t happen so it has been vital to be absolutely clear in our communication with parents about the new arrangements; staggered arrival times, what to bring or not to bring to nursery and so on. We have to reassure parents about how we are keeping their children safe, what the nursery looks like, which staff will be with their children in the nursery etc. Families have really appreciated us letting them know which practitioners will be with their child each week, being able to see photos of the room before they started and having a little booklet to help their children understand how things will be in nursery.
For staff being separated from each other with their groups in their bubbles, walkie talkies are a lifeline to the other parts of the nursery. The staff stay with the group throughout the day including having lunch together, so the walkie talkies are used for the practical things like needing a comfort break to just checking in with each other.
Our usual daily chats and discussions have become Microsoft Teams meetings, emails and phone calls – staff have discovered many new skills!
Handovers between staff, which before were done in daily briefings, are by email at the end of each day/week so children’s interests can be followed, developed and extended from week to week.
Staff wellbeing is a big concern; they are coping with a challenging situation at work, managing home lives which are different and challenging and working in small teams isolated from their colleagues. We are making sure we communicate regularly not just to let the team know what is happening, Government guidance etc but to check in with everyone, make sure they are all right and offering moral support. The staff What’s App group is invaluable; it maintains regular contact between the whole team, allows us to keep in touch and share all the wonderful and funny clips and messages that are keeping everyone amused.
We thought at the outset that the children would be upset by the changes and the restrictions but they have been amazing throughout. They have adapted, accepted and enjoyed being in the nursery. And I think we have and will learn lots from this experience.
Sara Bailey is Headteacher of Oaklands Nursery School and an Early Education Associate