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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.

A Sense of Wonder


To see the world through a child’s eyes……

I love the look of wonder on a small child’s face when they discover something new. Our world, which we sometimes think of as ruined, boring or hard work, is brand new and exciting to a small child. They passionately want to explore, touch, taste and feel everything around them. What do we convey to them about our world when we rush and hurry through the day, trying to meet the deadlines rather than stopping to smell the flowers? Are we crushing their wonder underfoot (“Don’t touch – dirty!”) …or celebrating each new discovery with them?

Wonders of Nature

Why do we not sometimes think to watch and learn from a child? Do we always know best? If we could see the world as a child sees, surely life would become an amazing adventure!

Looking at birds in the trees and trying to guess what they are saying to each other as they build their nests:

“These leaves look like feathers! Is it a bird flower?”

Just discovering the different shapes of seed pods, and which flowers we can eat, was hugely exciting for this little girl.

“God is SO amazing!”

Possibilities Are Everywhere

Would it be possible for us to spend an hour wandering down a stretch of road examining every crack in an old wall and making up stories about the mice or fairies who might live in there? Or wade through a field of long grass, finding the most beautiful butterfly, the fluffiest grasses and the tiniest flower in the world? Do we ever pick up a feather to see how soft it is? Make a finger-hat from an acorn cup? Or find a broken bird’s egg with an embryo chick inside… without wanting to bin it? Every now and then I make time to do these things with my ‘borrowed’ two year old while the older children are at school, and we have a truly lovely day. It’s even more fun when the others can join us in the holidays.


The Wonder of Death

Children can also be fascinated with death; to them, it’s just another, rather intriguing, part of life that for some reason grown-ups are rather secretive about. The four year old I look after has a real interest in it, and is always asking me about Heaven, God and the devil, how people die and what death means. She loves looking at the picture of the Selfish Giant in her book, dead and peaceful on a carpet of petals. I have decided not to spoil her innocent curiosity with notions of horror and disgust.

We adults have built up all sorts of belief systems around death. It is presumed morbid to want to talk about death. But young children don’t have our taboos and fears, unless we choose to pass them on. Finding a newly dead animal or insect is really exciting to them. (I’m not advocating showing them something rotting!) But it could stimulate curiosity and compassion to discover something like this little baby bird who has fallen out of his nest. A child would be fascinated to see how his feathers are just starting to grow and where his ear holes are.

Children don’t learn that death could be disgusting or fearful, unless we show revulsion or horror. In my experience, the sight of a dead animal doesn’t upset small children. They don’t really understand the deeper emotions of grief and sadness until they are older and lose a loved relative or pet. Unless a small child has already been through some deep personal loss of this kind, they can’t comprehend or relate this emotion to the sight of a dead animal. Sadness for most children is losing a favourite toy or cutting their knee. They might empathise with the ‘owie’ if there is blood on the animal, and ask how he died. But they’d be more likely to want to examine the silky fur or leathery wings. They might never get to see a squirrel or bat up close in real life until they find a dead one.

Cuddle squirrel

They don’t have to touch (although they will probably want to) but if they do, you can always wash their hands afterwards. The experience could be an occasion for wonder and learning. The small boy above still remembers with joy the day he found a ‘real squirrel friend’, three years later!

Finding a real creature to explore close up is often a fascinating experience for a child….

Look how beautiful these feathers are! What name could you give these colours?

This still, beautiful creature who is not breathing…is this what dead means? a child might ask himself.

Why does this funny little animal have such very big ears and such tiny eyes?

One day when my three nanny-children had some friends round to play, they found a beautiful dead bee in the garden. This caused much animated discussion. All five of them rallied round to draw bee pictures for sympathy cards, then trooped around the garden to organise a bee funeral. The bee was wrapped in flower petals and carefully laid under a bush, with a sign saying ‘Dead Bee’ and the bee pictures. They said prayers to help him get to bee heaven, which they visualised as a giant flower. This game stimulated their imaginations and was an important role play for them to explore what people do when someone dies. It was as natural for them as playing doctors and nurses.

Would you prefer your child to be horrified by death or simply see it as something natural and part of life?

The four year old sees it very simply. She loves hearing the story of how my father died, in a forest surrounded by bluebells. “When my daddy gets to Heaven, your daddy can give him a ride on the back of his bike!” 

I believe keeping a child’s sense of wonder alive is one of the greatest gifts we can give them. If we as adults can continue to nurture that wonder, encouraging exploration and discovery, that child could grow up to be a great inventor, thinker, poet, painter, explorer or encourager of others.

Yes, of course they will one day have to understand the worldly realities of money, greed, strife, war, disease, pain, poverty… but what if they had the resilience and strength to sail through it all with some sense of inner joy because their foundations were built on wonder and not discouragement?

Trusting Children with Reality


Do we do too much for our kids that they could learn to do themselves? Does our culture prevent them from shouldering responsibility and making a real contribution? And is that one reason many of today’s teenagers have no respect or sense of accountability for their actions?

Children love to do REAL activities that they see us grownups doing. They want to use real tools, utensils, instruments and appliances. They love to try out different roles and want to wear our clothes, use our possessions and be just like us!

“I’m Daddy on my motorbike!” …..

… And a dentist performing a check-up….

They naturally want to imitate and also to help us. They build up essential life skills and self-confidence in this way. And if we let them try while they are very small, while it is still a fun game to them, they could become able to make a useful contribution to family life by the time they start school. These children really enjoyed helping wash windows and shell beans into a beautiful glass bowl. These things are really interesting activities when you’re two or three!

One of a child’s greatest needs is to feel significant; letting them help us (even if we have to redo it when they are not looking) is an important way to achieve this, and builds their self-esteem naturally.

And children are generally very keen to be independent and master self-care skills (unless we make a habit of ‘babying’ them). When we refuse their help and do everything for children for the sake of time constraints, including picking up after them, we can cause them needless frustration and prevent them learning these skills for themselves and gaining self-confidence. The resulting discouragement could lead the child to become lazy, dependent and expecting us to always tidy up for them and retrieve their lost belongings. It sets up the belief ” I can’t”, or “Mum gives, I take.” They’re not going to be magically able and willing to perform chores or take care of their school kit at a specified mature age unless they get to practice responsibility while they’re still tiny.

Obviously you wouldn’t actually let a baby do the family ironing (the iron above is not plugged in) but you could let a two or three year old sweep the floor, and after practising for a year or two (and zooming round the kitchen on a brush ‘horse’, whirling your carefully swept-up bits all over the floor, or bopping you on the head with a brush ‘sword’) they should eventually be able to carry out effective dust-gathering sweeping. A four year old could help with the vacuuming and feel a real sense of achievement. I used to feel so proud of the three year old who kept coming up to me and carefully doing all my cardigan buttons up to the neck (her new skill) to keep me warm. I learned to just be patient and sit still if she struggled with it, because if I took over, or declined her kind offer, it robbed her of the sense of achievement and self-worth for ‘helping’! And I had a group of nursery children queueing up to make their own apple juice with my juice extractor. Being Special Helper is a coveted job!

Small children also adore baking and helping you cook dinner. Preparing food is extremely educational. Even if you have to do the sharp knife part, they can still learn counting, measuring, hand-eye coordination and different skills such as stirring without spilling, breaking eggs neatly, whisking and rubbing-in. And messy play is very important for brain development, so I always let them mix with their fingers when they’re little! Very strengthening for the hand muscles.

I carry all this in mind when I put together a Discovery Box. This is why my Feely Box contains, not baby toys, but real household objects. And it’s the reason the Music Box has real ethnic instruments and artefacts made of brass, steel, pigskin, wood and bronze, rather than cheap plastic kiddy shakers and tooters. The Button Box has real buttons of all shapes, sizes and materials, and kitchen utensils in the button toolkit. The Magnet Box contains many items that are not officially supposed to be suitable for children at all, and the glass pebbles are usually used (by adults) in flower arrangement and fish tanks!

Despite the fact that glass pebbles are sweetie-like, small and classified as a potential choking hazard, I have given several children aged 14 months and up, a handful of glass pebbles to play with. I watch them closely. The little girl shown below, like many others at the same developmental stage, loved to post glass pebbles into the little brass bottle and tip them out into the brass singing bowl, again and again, over and over, massively exceeding the attention span considered ‘normal’ for a child her age. At one point she did try to feel a glass pebble with her lips, and I calmly moved it away, telling her, “Not in your mouth”. She didn’t try it again, being beyond the oral stage and more into object permanence, but played happily for two days with the glass pebbles without incident. (After all, if you wouldn’t give a child this age a large boiled sweet, how would she make the connection between that and a glass pebble?)

There is aways an element of trust in my dealings with young children, whether it’s letting them ride a scooter along the pavement next to a road (after assessing their steering ability over several months), or allowing them to play with tiny objects and weighing up the educational versus the risk factors. If I was to prevent them doing anything considered remotely to be a potential risk I would have to strap them into a playpen 24 hours a day! Obviously I supervise children closely, but I try not to do for them what they can do for themselves. I wait to be asked for help before wading in there and making them feel helpless and incompetent. Then I do the minimum necessary to get them started before letting them carry on. To interact this way shows respect for the child as a person, in a way I would hope to be treated myself. I aim to speak to them in a way they can understand, but with the respect I would show any adult. One of the great things about this approach is you get a child who has far fewer tantrums, is much nicer company and has a much better sense of self-worth. Everybody wins! 🙂

Positive Language for Positive Results


Have a little Faith
What happens if you tell a child carrying a glass of milk or a plate of food, “Be CAREFUL! DON’T drop it!!” ? – Chances are you’ll be cleaning a mess off the floor within a few seconds. The child hears “drop it” and your tone of voice, that suggests anxiety and complete lack of faith in their ability. They get anxious too and deliver what you expect from them. But if you say calmly, “You can carry the milk. I know you can do it carefully and safely.” or “Two hands, keep the plate level, that’s it – I trust you to get it to the table”, then, guess what? (I have sent the 2 year old off through a crowded hall of toddlers and mums with a plate of cakes and grapes, and he has got it safely to our table.) They don’t know if they can do it or not – all they know is what we believe of them. If we say they can do it, they believe us and do it!
I’ve seen tiny children scale a climbing wall regardless of whether their little legs can stretch far enough to reach the foot holds. Their older friends are doing it and so they believe they can do it too.

Key Words
I have noticed that small children understand us through our voice tone, body language and the tail end of our sentences, rather than listening to everything we say. For instance, if I say to one child, “Stop kicking the table”, every child suddenly starts kicking the table! All they hear is “kick table”. If I get cross, they all want some ‘cross attention’: Oh look, she’s putting on a show! Let’s do it some more! So I have to remember my child psychology, and instead grit my teeth, ignore the table-kickers and lavishly praise the child who’s sitting still with good manners.
It’s taken the 2 year old a long time to understand “first eat your dinner, then you can have pudding”. All he hears is that he can have pudding, he sees the others eating pudding, and the fact they have empty plates and he doesn’t is utterly irrelevant. (We’d be waiting till Christmas if I made them all finish before anyone got pudding).
Saying NO
Being a non-confrontational type, I tend to try and avoid the word “no” unless it is absolutely essential, ie when someone is getting hurt or is in danger. But that doesn’t mean I’m a pushover (although I can be fairly soft-hearted.) It’s just that if you say No all the time, it loses its edge and they stop listening. Direct confrontations are a sure way to elicit tantrums and tears from little kids anyway. Instead, when they ask to do something that’s impossible today, I sidestep and say, “Oh yes, what a good idea – we’ll do it tomorrow.” Or, if they want everything in the toy shop, I get even more excited than them and reply, “Oooh yes, that IS a lovely giraffe isn’t it? I WISH I had one too! Let’s take a picture of him to show to Father Christmas. Ohh and look at this adorable teddy!!” Then I point my camera, phone or imaginary hand-camera at it. Once the excitement is shared and photo taken, the child is able to happily let go of the actual toy. Toyshops are lots of fun this way.

If something has to be done, I try to offer a choice. “I’m afraid your eczema cream really does have to be put on. But you can choose which cream we use today. Shall we have the little pot, or the big bottle? And would you like to put it on your tummy while I do your back?” If she still screams and runs away, I tell her I’m not playing the chasing game today, and it’ll be over much quicker if she stands still. I offer stickers for compliance. Or I offer to give her a lovely ‘posh lady massage’. If she stands reasonably still but wriggles and protests, I keep calm and tell her, “Well done, almost finished, good girl.” Then I reward her for cooperating. “Have I told you the story of how I used to massage cream into posh ladies all day?” Above all, I stay as calm as I possibly can and aim for kind but firm consistency. It’s a pain, but leads to less aggro in the long run!

Firm about Bedtime
The 2 year old knows that when it’s bedtime, I won’t back down, and even if he refuses to get into bed and throws his pillow on the floor, I still give him a cuddle and story, then tell him, “It is night time now. It’s time to sleep. Listen to your lovely sleepy time music. I love you very much and I’ll see you when you wake up in the morning.” He very rarely comes out of his room after that, although I did once find him fast asleep on the floor!

Climbing without falling


Small children, by preference, seem to want to climb before they can walk. I have often wondered, in our quest to prevent accidents, are we also preventing valuable learning and achievement?

I climbed up by myself!

Of course I am not advocating deliberately allowing your curious and headstrong toddler to injure himself. But as the nanny of a child who climbed up and fell off the kitchen table so many times by the time he was 16 months old that I was seriously considering a padded helmet, I realise that not all accidents can be prevented. I also realised that very young children – even babies, as soon as their legs are strong enough – have an inbuilt need to climb and explore, and that given the chance and a bit of practice, could be capable of much more than mere furniture climbing.

I decided early on never to squash this desire for exploration.

This same child, at nearly three, now fearlessly and joyfully scales much greater heights and never falls. Trees are much safer than tables, after all – more hand-holds!

I was the nursery teacher of another three year old who fearfully refused to climb a single step up anything, so worried was she of falling. I began to question excessive parental caution. Her mother always told her “Don’t climb up there….it’s dangerous….you’ll fall!” and as a consequence, she lost all faith in her own abilities.

When our very small child climbs, are we always wise to hold onto them? How will they gain any sense of their own capabilities, and learn to trust their bodies and sense of balance, if we are always supporting and directing them? They are born without fear, trusting themselves and the world. Are they more, or less, likely to fall and hurt themselves if we always hold them and tell them to be careful?

I developed a way of standing near, hovering for safety, saying encouraging words, but without actually touching a climbing child. I learned from the children that they start off believing they can do ANYTHING they desire. It’s only us who limit their potential with our anxieties. But if I think they can do it, they think they can do it. If I believe in them….so do they.

This little girl, aged two, surprised me with her strength and agility as she swung herself across the high bar and down the fireman’s pole…look at the muscles on those baby legs!

little climber

The same child, two years later and superbly fit, is now a rather more adventurous climber …..

Four years old. Hanging 6 feet off the ground and giving me nightmares about head injuries and paraplegia! How can those tiny hands hold on so tight? But nevertheless I have to admire her.

I know another two year old who takes the greatest pleasure in climbing high into the trees at every opportunity, and is as relaxed and at home up there as a little squirrel. I think she is amazing. She thinks this is totally natural, the trees are her friends and it’s the best fun in the world. But could every child be this amazing if we simply let go of our fears and let them explore? Rainforest children shin up trees like monkeys, after all. You can always stand underneath!

Note: climbing barefoot is much easier and safer.

I now tend to trust a child to follow his instincts, and try to encourage his own motivation. A child learns to trust his own judgement if you show trust in him. By surrounding a child with a richly sensory environment in which he is free to follow his own inclination to reach out and discover, he becomes a bold adventurer who desires to conquer the unknown. Moreover, he develops a strong sense of spatial awareness. Skilful mastery over his own body also develops strong self esteem, which comes naturally from achievement – not necessarily from praise.

I never, EVER say “Don’t climb, you’ll fall.” I find this makes a child anxious and more likely to fall! Instead I encourage him by saying, “If you feel safe climbing up there, then I’m sure you’ll be OK. What strong hands you have! You are a very good climber. You are holding on so tightly!” The child then trusts himself, relaxes and climbs safely and confidently.

Nobody needs to teach a child to climb. They have an inbuilt urge to climb. They LOVE a challenge. And I really think challenging their own limits does them a lot of good. They learn perseverance, gain confidence and become strong, agile and fit. It IS possible for a very young child to climb safely and easily and attempt daredevil feats that scare the **** out of us lesser mortals. Just look at children who live in the rainforest! I watch these English children every day doing a fraction of what forest dwelling children can do, and only wish I had their fearlessness and self-belief.