How to choose an excellent nursery
A guide for parents on choosing an excellent nursery
Choosing an excellent nursery can be a challenge, especially if it’s the first time you’ve ever considered the world of early years nursery childcare since your own vague memories of pre-school.
Here we go through some of the different aspects of a nursery and describe what excellent settings might look like in each area. It’s unlikely that you’ll find a nursery that has absolutely everything, so it might be helpful to make a little review sheet and mark each area out of 5 based on what you see. This will help you to form a holistic view of each setting that you visit before you decide which nursery to go for.
The adults working with your child will make the biggest difference to their experience at nursery, even more so than the setting itself in most cases. It’s therefore very important to observe what staff are doing during your visit. Do they appear to be happy and motivated? Are they polite and knowledgeable? Are they working with the children or just standing around talking?
Often the things you don’t see in a nursery are actually written on the faces or actions of the staff who work there. A range of ages and backgrounds can also indicate a higher quality setting. It’s hard to describe in writing but the best nurseries just have a ‘feel’ because of the atmosphere created by their staff. You should be invited to see every part of the nursery and to talk directly to the staff who will be caring for your child. The best nurseries have nothing to hide and will want you to see as much as possible so make sure you take advantage of this.
Staff related questions to ask include:
- What qualifications do the staff members hold?
- How are staff selected and what child protection protocols are followed?
- What is the staff to child ratio in each of the nursery rooms?
- Does the nursery hold any awards or have any recognition for its record as an employer such as Investors in People or similar?
Outdoor play is incredibly important for developing healthy and active minds and bodies. Consider this very carefully when reviewing the outdoor play spaces and equipment offered by each nursery that you visit. As with staff, the differences between the best and weakest nursery settings often show very clearly in their outdoor spaces.
Some excellent examples from nurseries that I’ve visited included multiple outdoor areas offering a range of excellent outdoor play opportunities. For example, one nursery had a safety surface painted with roads that the pre-school children loved to go along with their scooters and tricycles. Other children had child-sized road signs and role-play dressing up clothes. They made their own little traffic community where everybody had a role to play – outstanding fun that also promoted early literacy and numeracy skills. Another fantastic nursery had a large wooden climbing frame and chute in the shape of a pirate ship that helped to develop children’s balance and coordination as well as offer action-packed role-play. The children dressed up as pirates and sang songs as they played.
Forest Schools is an approach that encourages lots of outdoor play in a range of beautiful settings. If your nursery has a Forest Schools approach then it will almost certainly tell you all about it. Some nurseries also take advantage of their surrounding parks and woodlands where the children can explore beyond the nursery garden, so make sure you consider this too.
The key thing to consider in each nursery’s outdoor play provision is this: is the outdoor play space an integral and well-considered part of the nursery experience for all children or just a bit of an under invested after-thought?
Outdoor Play related questions to ask include:
- How often do the children go into the outdoor space?
- How are standards of safety maintained in the outdoors?
- What facilities and activities are offered outdoors?
The indoor play rooms offered by a nursery are where your children will spend most of their time there. The best nurseries will provide a range of stimulating activities for the children to explore in a child-centred way. That is, the children will choose activities of interest to them from a large range of available activities and will be supported by staff who will stretch and inspire their experiences. The youngest children in particular should have a range of sensory play areas that allow them to see, smell, feel, hear and taste different sensations. Some of the best nurseries that I’ve visited have sensory rooms with bubble light tubes, lava lamps, textured wallpapers, wind chimes and a cornucopia of other features that the children just loved.
Opportunities for different areas should be planned with careful thought into creating a variety of experiences rather than the same things all the time. This allows the very best nurseries to continually engage and inspire all children. Consider the layout of the rooms, the way the children interact with the different play areas, the range of play areas and the way the staff facilitate each child. Are the facilities of a high quality and is the furniture positioned to maximize the environment’s potential? In pre-school rooms in particular, are there lots of opportunities to develop emergent literacy and numeracy skills? The best nurseries create literacy and numeracy rich environments at pre-school level within which the children are immersed. For example, one nursery that I visited had transformed their house corner into a post office with a post box outside. The children loved ‘writing’, stamping and then posting their letters. Others collected the letters and delivered them to other children (and staff) throughout the play room. It became a fun role-play activity that the children chose to do themselves, and before long they were writing recognizable names on envelopes.
The key thing to be looking for with the indoor play opportunities is how engaged the children are as this will tell you a great deal about the things you can’t see in just a short tour of the setting. If the children are happy and engaged then the activities are most likely planned carefully, resourced well, supported by dedicated staff, and changed regularly to maintain the children’s levels of interest and motivation. The best nurseries will maintain a novelty factor every day for the children to enjoy.
Indoor Play related questions to ask include:
- How does the nursery support children to lead their own play?
- How often are different play areas transformed into something else?
- How are the interests of each child catered for in the nursery?
- What activities do the children enjoy throughout the day?
The importance of good food at nursery cannot be underestimated. It provides children with the nutrients they need to grow and develop healthy minds and bodies. It also helps to foster a love for variety and nurtures lifelong positive attitudes towards food. Is the nursery menu varied and does it offer the correct ratios of food in the different food groups? Are there four or five eating times in the nursery day as recommended for early years provisions? Are ingredients freshly sourced and prepared on-site? For more details on what the nursery menu should look like you can read our complete article What should my children be eating at nursery?
Some of the best nurseries that I’ve visited go above and beyond with the way they integrate food into the nursery day. One nursery had a vegetable patch that the older children managed and harvested. The vegetables were brought in weekly and the children were supported to chop them up to make soup and other dishes which were sent to the kitchen to be finished off. This made the whole process of food preparation from farm to fork a fun and educational one. Another excellent nursery baked bread with the children. Kneading dough is great for early motor skills development and it’s also really good for baking bread! Getting the children involved as much as is safe and possible gives them ownership and nurtures a culture of healthy eating. The best nurseries will invest in their facilities and staff to make this feasible.
Food related questions to ask include:
- How does the nursery maintain healthy food practices?
- How does the nursery ensure that each child is getting the required nutrients?
- How does the nursery source ingredients and prepare the nursery menu?
- How does the nursery empower children’s participation in the preparation of nursery food?
How the children are cared for in the nursery is integral to the enjoyment and development on offer. The staff, the outdoor and indoor play opportunities and the nursery menu will all contribute to the care provision, but there is more to care than these things.
Consider how the nursery caters for nap times, eating, medicine and nappy changing / toileting. What does the nursery do to monitor these for each child throughout the day, especially for babies and the youngest children? Are there designated sleeping and changing areas? Are the toilets child-friendly? What arrangements are in place to deal with the storage and administration of medicines? In the best nurseries the staff will be on top of all of these things. They will know exactly where all of the equipment is stored and how it should be used. There will be a culture of openness and honesty within which staff know who to ask if they’re unsure what to do in any given situation.
Another aspect of care is how the nursery manages children’s behaviour. Is there a behaviour management policy and do the staff know about it? What does it say? The best nurseries will mitigate negative behaviour in the first instance by providing engaging and inspiring play activities, but even the best environments will have to deal with challenging behaviour some of the time. In these cases there will be a very clear process that supports children to calm down and reflect on their behaviour. There may be consequences for bad behaviour but the emphasis should be on praise and encouragement for good behaviour. Skilled practitioners will use a range of strategies to calm children and encourage them to make good behaviour choices. Sanctions will be clear and applied consistently, and all instances of negative behaviour will be treated as a learning opportunity; after all, learning how to manage emotions and how to behave in a social environment is a big part of growing up and it should therefore be a big part of nursery life too!
Care related questions to ask include:
- How does the nursery manage sleeping and changing arrangements?
- What would staff do if they were unsure about a child’s medication needs?
- How does the nursery promote children’s positive behaviour?
- How does the nursery communicate with parents on their child’s day?
We hope that the above insights will help you to reflect on what you see when you go to visit nurseries for the first time. Remember, this is the place your child will spend a great deal of time in so don’t be afraid to be a nosey parent and really get to know your nursery before committing to anything.