How Growing Places is giving Hampshire children the best start in life

Early years education is often overlooked and undermined in the UK.

Monday, 24th May 2021, 10:48 am
Wendy Fenn, a staff member at Growing Places, holds Hope Goodson at one of the intergenerational visits at Woodlands Care Home, Waterlooville.

However it is more than just preparing young children for primary school. It provides foundations for future learning and wellbeing through emotional, social, physical and cognitive development.

And this is most often learnt through play. In many European countries – such as Finland, whose school system has sat at the top of Europe’s rankings for the past 20 years – play is serious business. Behavioural scientists have suggested play helps develop qualities such as attention span, perseverance, concentration and problem solving.

This holistic and well-rounded approach to early years education has been emulated in Hampshire thanks to Jackie Warren and her childcare charity, Growing Places.

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Some of the boys at Growing Places taking part in a building exercise.

When she created it 20 years ago, Jackie set out to create a practice which was for the community and supported families. She says: ‘ I believe good education comes from really strong beginnings and strong self-image. We started instilling these values at our nursery in Havant 26 years ago and six years later we became a registered charity when we took over our Waterlooville branch at Mill Hill.

‘We now have seven branches across Hampshire. I never thought it would grow so much. My primary aim is to make a difference not only to children’s lives but to whole families.’

Now with more than 1,200 children – aged from months old to 11 – on their books, this not-for-profit childcare organisation hosts holiday camps, after-school clubs and day care services.

Jackie, 56, adds: ‘I believe nobody should bring a child up by themselves and at Growing Places, we bring a child up together. These children are the next generation and they have the power to change the world we live in. We have to raise them properly.’

Bethany Carter with her husband Dave, son Jack and daughter Alice.

When lockdown struck last March, Bethany Carter – an infection control nurse for Solent NHS Trust – was desperately trying to find childcare for her four-year-old daughter Alice after their usual nursery closed to key-worker children.

‘My husband is a medic in the Royal Navy who was drawn in to help at QA so we both worked non-stop throughout the pandemic,’ explains Bethany, from Purbrook. Growing Places called me and said they would take Alice on as well as my son Jack for after-school clubs and I just broke down on the phone. It was just fantastic.

‘My husband and I were working very long hours and Growing Places offered our family such stability during this time. I almost felt guilty that we weren’t seeing our children as much because of work but I knew they had such fun.’

The Growing Places ethos is devised from the Italian-based Reggio Emilia approach to early years education, which puts children in the driver’s seat and sees them as curious individuals learning from their environment.

Jackie Warren at her office at Growing Places, Waterlooville. Picture : Habibur Rahman

Jackie, from Cosham, says: ‘Eight years ago, me and a colleague decided to visit Italy to observe the children in these nurseries and learn about teaching techniques.

‘We understood some of the core values we must teach our children include having good self-esteem, understanding, caring, kindness and tolerance. In Italy, they talk about creating strong citizens for the country’s future. We also want to help the future custodians for our city.’

These values are taught through a number of projects at Growing Places. The Boys Project is for boys under five who have experienced behavioural difficulties and it enhances development through physical learning.

For the past decade, Growing Places has also pioneered an Intergenerational Connections project in partnership with Woodlands Care Home, Waterlooville. Jackie explains: ‘Before lockdown, our children were visiting the home regularly and had made great friendships. Not all of them have grandparents and it is important for them to be able to communicate and understand a different age group.

Steph Cufley with her daughter Esme.

‘During lockdown, we video-called the care home. In recent weeks, our children and the care home residents met face-to-face for the first time in a year.

‘It was very emotional and it was clear how much the residents had missed the children.’

The ONE (outdoors, nature, environment) Project was established in September 2015 to give children the opportunity to go out once a week with staff to local natural sites. such as the woods and local beach or their own nursery site. The progress of the children, which were part of the focus group, showed 90 per cent of them reached or exceeded the expected developmental stages in communication, knowledge and understanding of their world.

This project has been such a success that Growing Places has recently opened their Little Acorns Nursery, Wickham, which boasts a yurt, stable and two large paddocks.

Primary school teacher Steph Cufley, from Waterlooville, says her daughter Esme, three, regularly comes home from nursery covered in mud – but she wouldn't have it any other way. ‘I have been a teacher of reception and year one classes since 2012.

‘Play and learning outdoors provides such vital skills for the children, especially in developing core strength,’ adds Steph. ‘They get different rich experiences from being outdoors which gives them more imagination to be more creative as they move into school life. I have found that Esme’s imagination has flourished since being at Growing Places.’

Staff member Rachael Heath with Daisy Bennett.

For more details, go to growingplaces.org.uk.

Staff and children enjoying the outdoors.
Chris Warren, the lead educator for physical education, with some of the boys.
Tyler Goodman-Stokes, left, and Alfie McCall enjoying the outdoors.