Strathisla Children's Centre

This case study explores the challenges faced by Strathisla Children's Centre staff, parents and children after construction of their purpose-built nursery was put on hold during the pandemic. Robin Paterson, Project Manager ELC Expansion, and Flexible Childcare Services Scotland (FCSS) Service Manager, Eleanor Smith, tell the story of Strathisla Children's Centre's first year.

The Challenge

During the pandemic, Flexible Childcare Services utilised to great effect one of the local village halls. Construction of the purpose-built centre was put on hold and the decision was made to open in a temporary setting until the build could be completed. Flexible Childcare Services worked with Moray Council to open a temporary setting to meet the increase demand and opened in Longmore Hall on 12 August 2020, just as the first lockdown was coming to an end and with only 11 children on the roll. When they opened in the temporary setting, Strathisla Children's centre were registered for 20 children aged two-five and only three 2 year olds at a time. For some of these children, this was their first nursery placement and others came from other settings in Keith.

Longmore Hall had no immediate outdoor area and no office. Practitioners had to turn a vast empty hall into a creative play space that was cosy, comfortable and welcoming, whilst ensuring transitions from home, were still of high quality.

Actions and Approach

As a team, staff overcame all the hurdles and turned negatives into positives.

The emotional wellbeing of children was at the forefront of the transition from home to nursery. There was a short introductory period of only one week - transitions would usually happen over a period of a few weeks or a month, depending on a child's individual needs. Building trust with families could have been difficult, as parents need reassurance and time to entrust the staff with the care of their children. Eleanor Smith and her team overcame this with emails, video calls, information on the knowledge and skills of the manager and the team. Staff asked parents what they would like from the setting, spoke to them about home life and their child's individual needs. A series of introductory videos were produced by the team so that children would get know the staff and recognise faces before joining; additional videos and photographs of the nursery environment were sent to children through book creator.

Play at Longmore Hall
Young girl plays with leaves at Strathisla Children's CentreYoung girls play at Strathisla Children's CentreChildren play in car made of boxes and palletsChildren at Longmore HallChild being helped on ladder

Eleanor and her team are incredibly passionate about outdoor play and experiences. Having a team who are excited about outdoor play is crucial in any setting, but even more so when there are challenges in providing outdoor experiences. Staff utilised the local environment to develop social skills. Children got involved with Remembrance Sunday through wreath making and understanding how families were affected by war.

The children also learned about Keith's historical points by visiting places such as the old train station, the hospital and a number of other buildings, looking at the dates and history of the buildings. The local rotary club donated flower boxes and bulbs, this meant the children were still involved with planting and growing. Being out in the community everyday meant that people came to wave to the children as they passed and now refer to them as " The little yellow ducklings" with their hi-viz vests. This came at a time when some people were not seeing their families and looked forward to the children's waves and smile, helping Strathisla children's centre become embedded in the Keith Community. The children developed a deeper awareness of safety on the road and understanding risks and boundaries when playing in the open park. They climbed ropes, used rope ladders, built dens and ate al fresco within the local wood and parks. Children counted steps, estimated times to walk to attractions, interacted with nature in all weathers and became independent in getting themselves ready and packing the large trolley for the day. They helped transport tyres, tubes, blocks and other items to the park - every day was a whole team exercise.

Eleanor Smith said "We will certainly still spend a considerable time in the community after we move to our new purpose built setting, even with a lovely outdoor area, as we believe now that there is so much more gained from giving broader outdoor experiences. In our temporary setting we took outdoors, indoors, as the children had no windows to look outside. They wanted trees, so when the children saw trees being cut down, we asked, and we were told to take them away. We all worked together to bring them back and create a more natural environment, the children put lights on them, making it much cosier in the hall."

Outdoor play and experiences
Outdoor play at Strathisla Children's CentreChildren play in an outdoors denNursery children playing with bricksClimbing outdoors at Strathisla Children's CentreChildren play in puddlesPlaying outdoors at Strathisla Children's CentreNursery trip to the railway bridge

As a charity company in its first year, there was no big budget. However staff created wonderful play spaces for the children with pallets, chairs, carpet tubes, wood, drainpipes, to name a few. The children built cars, buses, trains, planes and even a pirate ship. When covid prohibited people from travelling, staff and children used their imagination and went across the world! The setting comprised of vintage furniture, large and small loose parts, block play and beautiful and unique resources that allow the children to investigate, discover and learn about looking after resources. This will continue when staff and children move into their new setting as the children are so engaged in their play experiences. Parents feel their children are thriving and visiting  professionals say it is a beautiful environment.

Robin Paterson, Service Manager "Eleanor has never been a manager who spent a lot of time in her office, and always spent time on the floor. At first, she felt that having no quiet office space may have been a problem when in fact, being in the space all the time allowed her to instantly support staff, offer immediate advice and notice any areas on the spot that needed direction. Eleanor has the most wonderful relationship with the staff and children" Eleanor added "I believe that being in the hall had a positive impact on teamwork, relationships, and staff development."  Although the new office is at the back of the nursery, Eleanor will endeavour to spend approximately 70% of her day on the nursery floor. This active presence will allow her to support and develop her team through live-time application of her knowledge experience, subsequently allowing her to spend valuable time with the children.

The children have been part of the Strathisla Children's Centre jounrney since cutting of the turf. They have visited the site regularly to monitor changes and have been excited to see it develop and even talk to the builders. They have recreated their observations into their play in the temporary setting, making their own nursery from blocks and loose parts. Discussions on the new setting have been at the forefront over the latter months and they are excited to see their setting as it nears completion.

Play materials at the new Strathisla Children's Centre
Natural play materials at Strathisla Children's CentrePlay spaces at Strathisla Children's CentreChild plays with boxes at Strathisla Children's CentrePlay at Strathisla Children's Centre

Impact and results

The Strathisla Children's centre will allow children to have free flow play to outdoors, engage more in outdoor activities and open opportunities to grow their own fruit and vegetables, and take part in eco-schools. Having their own immediate outdoor space will give them openings to plan along with the team and parents a high-quality outdoor provision, and we have some wonderful new resources for outdoor play including a poly-tunnel, outdoor seating area, and beautiful wooden resources for sand and waterplay.

Indoors the beautiful bright open space will delight the children, where they can see outdoors through the vast windows. Across the setting, the children will be able to choose more spaces to play while also having spaces for quieter times such as the sensory room. We also plan to have a large reading area. The richness of the setting will continue to be learning to play, as the space allows for larger areas of role play, loose parts and creative play.

The space will be used for two-five year olds, but with added rooms we will be able to work in smaller groups for more one-one time and give more opportunities to support individualised programmes. The sensory room will offer opportunities to support emotional well-being, alongside ASN. The space can be used when small groups of children have a joint interest and will be able to work on projects together or when the children are taking part on age and stage activities.  This is a beautiful space that all the children will benefit from. The age-groups have been working together over the last year and have been successful in many ways, but having a space to complete more focused learning with various ages and stages will be of a great benefit.

The children and staff will continue to have relaxed lunches and snacks together, where children take pride in setting the table and making mealtimes a wonderful social event with their peers and the staff team. Furthermore, the beautiful new open plan kitchen and eating area will allow us to develop this further. The kitchen sits in the heart of the settings, the area around the kitchen is decorated with round wooden tables and chairs at children's height.  The children will now be able to be more independent when using the toilet facilities and hand washing and having an area specified for the outdoor clothes will allow them to further develop self-help skills.

Strathisla Children's Centre
Interior of Strathisla Children's CentreKitchen at Strathisla Children's Centre

Eleanor Smith, Service Manager "We have loved our time at Longmore Hall. We finished our term with thirty-three on the roll and the most amazing memories from our first year and of course, and are grateful for the use of it during a difficult time. However, the new purpose- built nursery will allow us to grow and continue on our improvement journey.

"Flexible Childcare Services Scotland offers accessibility, affordability, and flexibility for families across Scotland. Our Keith service allows parents who work varied hours and days to know their individual needs are catered. We have had nurses, carers and other service users who had in the past found it difficult to find suitable settings that worked for their families.

"Our modern society has a much broader range of needs now, with many parents working varied shifts while also having both parents working full time. Flexible Childcare Services are dedicated to supporting not only the children but the family. Supporting families and working in close partnerships with parents allows us to make life just a little bit easier. Evidence shows that children thrive and become more confident and eager in their learning and development when we have quality parent partnerships."

You need a team with one vision, a close team who work together with children and families at the centre of their work. You need to show your emotional side, be caring and always take time to listen and support parents as much as the children

– Eleanor Smith, FCSS Service Manager

Lessons learned

Children do not need expensive resources to play, learn and thrive. They need resources that allow them to build, create, design, problem solve and imagine.

Eleanor Smith said: "This has always been my vision but now I see that it works, this is my line of development with the new continuous provision. Large and small loose parts allow for all the above. This is more my vision now than it has ever been. It would be easy to think outdoor play is just leaving the door open in a nursery and children having the freedom of free flow play, but children need to learn and explore their environment, mix with the community, and learn about their local history and visitors' points. Children need to be proud of their town and be able to talk about where they live. Bronfenbrenner eco-theory supports this, and it is true "it takes a village to raise a child" even through this unprecedented time children need to be embedded in their community. You need a team with one vision, a close team who work together with children and families at the centre of their work. You need to show your emotional side, be caring and always take time to listen and support parents as much as the children. A dedicated team and a strong manager who never thinks about the negatives and takes the time to problem solve and work together to overcome issues.  A manager who is there to continually support, and be compassionate about the team's personal life, who is there to listen and offer advice, this has been especially important during COVID-19."

Next steps

There are a number of plans in place to enhance parent partnership and support families in Keith and the surrounding areas by utilising the specially designed family room. They say " it takes a village to raise a child"... Strathisla Children's Centre are fully embedded in the community and are looking forward to providing the community with a wonderful high-quality setting.