nursery
Children learn through play, so look for somewhere that places high value on children doing activities they enjoy

It’s a big decision during their early years, so how do you choose the right nursery for your child, asks Georgina Blaskey

The inaugural day your child goes to nursery is the first milestone in their education. For some children it can be an exciting journey, the prospect of which leaves them totally unfazed. For others, it can be a daunting, nerve-wracking first rung on the learning ladder. For a parent, it can be a time of adjustment and reflection, when we can explore our choices and ponder what kind of child we have and where they are best suited.

In order to make this transition run smoothly, it is worth taking the time to prepare and fully investigate all options. No one knows your family’s needs as well as you so while recommendations are invaluable, nothing can replace a personal visit to work out what the right fit is. “Visit a nursery early in the day when the children are being dropped off,” advises Laura Randall, principal of Woodentops Nursery in Balham. “Ideally you will see the children reaching out to their teachers. You want to go where your children will feel loved.”

It’s worth noting that pre-school education isn’t compulsory and there are many options beyond the standard local nursery school, but what’s important is that your children are able to flourish and thrive – socially, cognitively, emotionally and physically – wherever they are. One gently alternative option is the Montessori method, developed by Italian doctor Maria Montessori in the early 20th century, now far more mainstream, with many ‘normal’ nurseries adopting some of her techniques. In a true Montessori classroom, children work largely on their own with special equipment designed to develop their sensory, numeric, language and practical skills. Handwriting and numeracy are not formally learnt, they are experienced through play and at the behest of the child.

Forest nursery schools are becoming increasingly popular as an antidote to our rapidly advancing technological lives, too. Leanna Barrett was so dismayed by the outdoor facilities in her area when looking for a nursery for her daughter, she decided to start one herself. “When visiting nurseries, I’d often be told the children went out for an hour a day and be shown a man-made spongy surface where they’d play,” Leanna recalls. “I was so disappointed, I started Little Forest Folk on Wimbledon Common. It’s an outdoor forest nursery that immerses two to five year olds in nature, helping them become creative, resilient little learners.” The concept has been very popular. “Now we have three nurseries in London, with two more opening this year, and a waiting list of more than 1,000 parents!”

Making the decision about how to tackle pre-school education involves many stages, so a good place to start is location – do you want to be close to home, work or the station you commute from? Some nurseries have strong connections to junior schools so if you have your heart set on a certain school, it may be worth asking which ones they recommend. Always try to speak to other parents (you could aim to arrive when they’re dropping off and have a quick chat) and read up on the latest inspection reports. It’s always wise to visit a few to be able to make comparisons and get a clear idea of the differences between them. It may be the class size, playground facilities or staff, but the better your understanding, the more relaxed you’ll feel when September comes around.

The Good Schools Guide suggests parents take time to consider the environment their child is most suited to – somewhere with a busy, purposeful setting, somewhere calm and ordered, somewhere with rules and boundaries or a place where children are free to explore and experiment.

It also advises, whatever your thoughts on the type and nature of the school, when entrusting the care of your child to others, you should look to find a nursery that will:

• Work with you and listen to your child.
• Work from your child’s current development stage and needs, not from pre-conceived notions of what a two, three or four year old should do.
• Seek to develop your child’s confidence.
• Encourage good behaviour and cooperation.
• Develop an awareness of, and sensitivity to, others and their feelings.
• Be interested in the personal, social and emotional development of your child.

Once you’ve decided where your child is best suited to, it’s important to get them registered so you don’t miss out on that nursery place. In some areas nursery places are over-subscribed and it’s elbows at the ready to bag that in-demand seat at the Playdoh table. Do your homework early and your preparation should make the journey easy and successful. A final thought to remember – if it doesn’t feel right, you can always change your mind. As your children grow, your views on nursery education may also change, so be flexible and alert to their progress and happiness.

What to look for when choosing a nursery
Attend your visit armed with queries about how each place operates and how the children learn. The impartial education website gettherightschool.co.uk has compiled these questions to aid your decision-making:

• What resources and equipment do you have to support children’s learning?
• How are activities planned and organised to meet the Early Years Foundation Stage?
• Do you provide any additional help and support to under-fives with special education needs?
• How many children do you have attending?
• What sort of activities do the children do?
• How is the average day/session organised?
• How do staff manage bad behaviour?
• What qualifications and experience do the staff have?
• How long have you been operating?
• Do you have outdoor and indoor areas for children to play and learn?
• Do children have a rest during the day?
• What time do sessions start and finish?
• Is there a sibling policy?

Want more? How to help you child get the most out of early education

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