My childminding setting has changed a lot in the past few years. As a practitioner I'm always looking for ways of improving the quality of care that I provide and build on my own unique selling points as a business.
When becoming a childminder in 2011, my setting was full of bright, largely plastic toys, lots of flashing lights and musical devices which I thought would stimulate the children and provide hours of fun. There were posters up on my walls and I felt all-consumed in my 'nursery' which was actually my home. Over time, living in a nursery led to resentment...did I really need to give up my home to accommodate childminding?
Stuck in a rut
Jump to 2016 and off the back of my recent inspection I'm reflecting on what I want to achieve over the next three or four years. Don't get me wrong, the inspection went well and Ofsted were pleased with what they saw but was I pleased to be living in the plastic fantastic setting that seemed to have taken over my whole life? Was I enjoying this job more than my previous career? Should I give it up? Childminders had been leaving the sector at an alarming rate - was I missing something? Why were they leaving? What was keeping me here? Should I still be a childminder?
Yes, of course I should. I became a childminder so that I could be my own boss, work the hours that I chose for myself, be available to pick up my own children from school and provide their childcare when they were babies. In turn, I loved working with the families and children that had already become part of my extended family but I just didn't want to live in a nursery anymore.
Everywhere I looked there were images of childcare settings that looked like mine. Bright colours on the walls, labels on every box. Was this the norm? Childminders I knew were complaining because their houses were being taken over by the job, or they themselves were drowning. I realised then that I was one of those childminders, drowning, without a focus.
In late 2017 I chanced upon a post that showed a childcare setting with neutral tones, white washed walls, natural materials and fairy lights. I still remember clearly the planks of wood painted black with white lines to be used as roads and the fake grass used on cable reels set up as fairy gardens. The focus seemed to be on curiosity and there were trays of loose parts set out ready for children to tinker with. It was a light bulb moment and this is when I discovered The Curiosity Approach.
I realised that this was what I needed, to strip back my home and toys and start to think more about providing a neutral space. Childminders are often quoted as saying they provide a 'home-from-home setting', a place where children feel loved, nurtured and secure, but I've never been in a friends home and found a poster of how to wash hands in their loo or an ABC poster on the dining room wall. So why was I doing this? I didn't want to be a watered down version of school, I wanted my setting to provide inspiration in a calm environment. Hygge. It was time to think outside the box when it comes to early years childcare settings.
I looked with fresh eyes
This was the start. I'd already begun to replace toys as they got broken for wooden, open-ended alternatives, but reading more about the curiosity approach, I wanted to create a place filled with curiosity, awe and wonder but also didn't want to overwhelm myself, so set to work reading up on Montessori, Reggio and Waldorf principles which in turn gave me further insight into child development and how I myself should become more mindful.
- I ditched the posters and labels. Most of my resources had started to become more neutral and open ended and authentic 'real life' items had become part of our standard toy rotations. The children were playing differently, questioning more and treating the resources with more respect.
- I have lots of toy storage and I made these boxes a neutral pallet so they didn't overwhelm. I couldn't get rid of the storage completely but created open shelving in which I set up play displays, encouraging the children to get hands on and investigate toys.
- I created 'pop-up' spaces. Some areas had to spread into my front room. I didn't want resources to be out all of the time as after all this is my home and not a nursery so I created 'pop-up' spaces which can easily be packed away after working hours. For example my play dough station is a coffee table so just part of the furniture after work and I have a pop up teepee which can be moved about and create cosy reading snug or play den, using cushions and blankets to soften.
- I put resources at eye level. I sat down on the floor and looked at what my setting was like from a child perspective. I wanted every area to appeal. My books were sorted into rainbow order as they looked more inviting.
The environment is now a 'Third Teacher' taking the children to many different places and allowing them to be absorbed in their play. We take resources into the wild and encompass a pedagogy of learning. In a past life I studied pedagogy in my degree and understand the principles of the interactions between the teacher, students, and environment on the learning outcome. Therefore I now make the environment an integral and ever changing part of my early years practices and have also embraced this with my own family.
I had suddenly rediscovered my purpose and enjoying playing with the children again, using "in the moment" planning to think about the children in my care. I trusted my knowledge of the children and that I could provide activities to suit each area of learning and early years outcome. I know the EYFS curriculum and what my statutory duties are, but like many childminders, had become so consumed by the paperwork that the fun factor had been forgotten.
Without all of the overpowering stimuli this new approach was fitting perfectly into my new look setting, with the children in my care and what would benefit being my centre focus. I kept toys we used, just played with them slightly differently and brought curiosity, awe and wonder to each of my early years children.
Now I challenge the children's thinking more. If they ask me how or why questions I answer, 'What do you think?' The curiosity approach encourages us to create the 'thinkers & doers' of the future. Part of that is making sure that, as a practitioner, you are empowered to create meaningful and mindful spaces and to put the child at the centre of every activity.
I found a new passion and started to post onto my Instagram feed @mamasden, quickly finding other like minded settings, or those that wanted to become more curious. I had ignited a passion and excitement within myself and wrote a blog based upon the A-Z principles set out in The Curiosity Approach book.
My environment is now a curious space filled with lots of open ended resources which are purpose-created toys, real life items designed to encourage role play and learning about the world and beautiful pieces that children just want to touch. These allow children to be the pilots in their own play. I have been lucky to be able to gain an insight into The Curiosity Approach after attending one of their seminars and feel confident to say I am a Curiosity Approach inspired setting.
It is now a calmer, more welcoming, curious space which I truly believe not only benefits the children but myself and my family. Having a work life balance can be extremely hard when you have your setting at home and so never really leave work. However I am in a good place. I love my job, I love the children I care for and I love the beautiful, magical and wondrous play spaces I have created, which invite the children to play and learn.
About the author
Jennifer Wooldridge is an OFSTED registered childminder, blogger and Instagram influencer (@mamasden) who is dedicated to showcasing mindful play whilst using open-ended and natural materials. She is passionate about providing both childcare providers and families with play ideas.
Her blog can be found at www.mamas-den.com