Childcare: Stepping Outside the Box


Working With Children

Not so very long ago, certainly within my working lifetime, anyone with patience, a sweet nature and a heart full of love for children could get a job in a nursery or school, or become part of a family as a nanny or mother’s helper. But because of the abusive actions of a few damaged individuals, this is no longer the case.

In order to work with children nowadays you have to be (a) certified not dangerous, and (b) in possession of some bits of paper and a Hat. The first is achieved by obtaining a bit of police paper stating that you are not a criminal. The second requires you to jump through some official Hoops for a specified training period until it is deemed that you have absorbed the necessary degree of political correctness, Government-approved procedures and health and safety awareness. You will then be awarded a piece of official certificate paper and a Hat with a Label on it saying something like “Early Years Specialist”.

At no time is your capacity for love, kindness, patience or intuition assessed. Nobody asks, “what have you learned from the children?” or asks to test your hugging ability.

The Importance Of Cuddles

In my experience, small children need a gentle, respectful, affectionate and immensely patient carer who is comfortable with their need for cuddles, a balance of attachment and independence, and kind-but-firm boundaries. If you are experienced, can see into the heart of a child, and have love, that goes a lot further than theoretical knowledge of the latest Early Years guidelines. You can be the most efficient nursery manager ever (and I have met a few) yet have no empathy or sensitivity for a small child’s real needs. Who would you rather let look after your toddler? A warm, caring individual who greets him with a cuddle? Or a brilliantly qualified Hat wearer with a degree in child psychology?


As soon as you sit down on the floor in a nursery, a three year old will usually back up to you and snuggle into your lap. The government guidelines say that physical contact is not appropriate for Early Years workers. But all very young children are excessively physical; they relate to the world in a wholeheartedly tactile way, through their senses. Some nurseries and schools actually ban touching of any kind. But a child feels abandoned and adrift without an anchor! It is only by knowing a trusted adult is there to hold on to, that they can feel secure enough to let go and go off to explore. And they need to learn appropriate ways of touching others by your example; how you touch them will influence the kind of touch they use on their playmates. I have found that they need actual demonstrations acted out by example; words alone just will not get through! (I used to do ‘gentle touch’ demonstrations at Nursery when the children had been rough with each other.)


So why can these bureaucrats not look at it from the child’s point of view and make appropriate touch – which is essential to children’s wellbeing – part of the training for those workers who don’t have the natural instinct for it, rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Why are they now telling us we can’t even leave the chilren with a trusted neighbour for a few hours? And why don’t they assess us on our ability to LOVE while they’re at it?

A Child’s Tactile Nature

It is not the done thing to acknowledge that small children are sometimes scarily sensual, in that they are extremely open and trusting in a directly physical way. They will wrap themselves around you like baby monkeys, they throw their clothes off when they get hot, watch TV upside-down spreadeagled naked on the couch; they can’t keep still for a minute, they beg you to stroke and tickle them, and they adore games of horsey ride on your leg or ‘spider climbing up my back’. They experience and learn about the world with their whole bodies. It is only us silly grownups who segment our bodies into ‘private’ and ‘public’ parts, get paranoid we don’t ‘look right’, are scared of too much touching, and insist on people sitting still and holding a pencil nicely. I’ve had to learn to look at nudity in a whole new light since becoming a nanny! (Simply , ‘this is me’.) It’s made me less self-conscious too. It is a huge responsibility providing appropriate personal care to children, but at the same time completely natural and effortless. Sometimes I feel like a cat with its kittens!

Child-Directed Learning

When interacting with the children on their level, I have discovered that each child has a unique and fluid way of learning based on their needs at the time. They don’t learn a certain skill because it is time to learn it according to our agenda. They learn in order to fulfil their desires.

If a child is ready to reach out to others, he learns to communicate, with words and gestures. If he desires to reach a fascinating object, he learns to climb or walk to get to it. If he wishes to find out what the pictures mean in a book, he is motivated to learn reading. He wants to see the complete picture so he teaches himself to put the puzzle together. He will repeat a new skill a hundred times over until he is satisfied that a new set of neurons is thoroughly connected and that new brain pathway is forged, then he will abandon that area of interest and move on to something else. Numbers, colours, shapes, scientific concepts, will all become integrated into his repertoire if we simply enrich his world with the right materials and stand back a little. Trust him to learn what he needs to learn at the right time for him. He might never touch a pencil or pair of scissors until he suddenly wants to create a ‘monster’ by drawing round his hand and cutting out the shape. And then he won’t stop!

Record Keeping

I’ve had to attend courses on different methods of keeping records of a child’s progress through the Six Developmental Areas. And then I go back and watch as class after class of children learn these things all by themselves, jumping over the hurdles without any need for all the box-ticking. All these officials struggling over new guidelines every couple of years for nothing!

Special Needs

Whilst working in schools and nurseries, I came across all kinds of Government-directed official decrees, that we should be ticking boxes to make sure the children in our care were attaining their developmental milestones. Failure to reach a certain set of goals led to a child being labelled, statemented and viewed as less than another child who might be exceeding the set standard.

Everyone at the last nursery I worked in was well aware of which children were less able, with or without any note-taking. We automatically spent extra time with them to encourage their learning, using their current interests to motivate them. We didn’t need to be checked up on. A few children repeated a year until we were satisfied they could cope with primary school.

If a child doesn’t reach the set milestones at a specified time, many carers use this as an excuse to worry that something is wrong with them. They label them with long words and set up special Individual Education Plans for them. Lack of a statement or funding causes much stress to a parent who knows their child will miss out on individual help from a special needs assistant otherwise. But every child is a unique gift. Who are we to judge or label or feel bad if they don’t ‘measure up’ to some external standard of normality? A child who needs extra help brings out the patience and love in everyone around them. And it is enormously rewarding and inspiring when they do make progress.

The Invisible Wheelchair

I have been a special needs assistant. I can see the need for IEPs, setting goals and charting progress. Sometimes physical activity is difficult or painful, yet the child needs to keep mobile. A child may be easily tired, but can’t just be left to sleep. But it’s just a matter of tapping into that child’s innermost desires. After noting that the child under my care (who had cerebral palsy) was creative, sociable and loved a sense of independence and achievement, like any other child, I saw my role not as helper, but as facilitator for whatever she wished to do, both within the school curriculum and socially. What she really wanted was to be a dancer. We integrated her into a school dance troupe, and with her friends she designed a dance routine, them on foot, her on her knees. I completely stopped seeing the limits and the wheelchair, and instead saw the possibilities of all the things she COULD do. We played horse and chariot in the playground, with her friends pulling her chair along at top speed with skipping ropes. She came to my house in the holidays, did baking with me, visited the local stables, and crawled up the stairs on hands and knees to find my cats. In the end, you become blind to everything but that child’s uniqueness and just love them for who they are as a person.

A boy I used to have at after school club had an absolutely amazing brain for mathematical and logical thinking. I saw him as gifted and would often ask for his help working things out. It was only after a year of working with him that I found out he was labelled with Aspergers and ADHD, and on several different medications!

As for the political correctness I had to learn, I already knew that all children have the same needs for love and acceptance, regardless of intellect , ability, race or life situation. Small children simply don’t see skin colour, looks or disability. They just want to be friends. We can learn a great deal from looking at the world through their eyes. Far more, in fact, than from a bunch of government regulations which are rewritten every few years! Children, in my opinion, are the best teachers for those who would care for them.

About Cathy Owen

I have enjoyed working and playing with children for over 20 years, starting with a holiday job as mother's helper to two different families and babysitting for neighbours from the age of 17. My experience since then includes working with children from 3 months to 12 years, in schools, nurseries, toddler groups and homes, as a teacher assistant, play leader, special needs facilitator, after school and holiday club supervisor/planner, childminder, and currently as a private nanny and creative play specialist. My Discovery Boxes developed out of my observation and interaction with young children and a desire to enter and enrich their world. Children are our greatest teachers; their imagination has a magical quality that makes the world a more exciting and wondrous place. I love nothing better than to join them in this adventure that is life and see where we can journey together! To learn more about my way of working, see my posts.

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