Skip to main content

Article published 31st July 2012

You've picked the ideal location, and chosen the type of setting, you think will be perfect for your child but how do you know if they're really up to the mark - or even what 'the mark' should be?

A good nursery will actively involve your child in work and play. The really great ones make learning such fun children will be fired up, enthused and engaged. Time spent researching,  before you sign on the dotted line, is time well-spent.

To help you make the right choice, we examine early years education  - activities, curriculum and development - and highlight things to check out when you visit.  

On a visit

Soak in the atmosphere...

  • Is it warm, friendly and inclusive?
  • Is the setting bright, light and airy?
  • Does it smell nice?
  • Are the children happy, engaged, communicative?
  • Are staff calm, relaxed and friendly?
  • Is there a sense of fun and playfulness?
  • Does it feel right? Never underestimate your gut reaction.
  • Are the toys, games books and facilities well cared for? Are there plenty of them?

The practical bits...

  • Are parents welcome to drop in at any time or is it strictly by appointment? If the latter, ask probing questions as to why this is their policy.
  • If your child is having lunch at nursery what arrangements are in place? How do you find out what your child has been offered and importantly what they have eaten? You want your child to have a nutritious meal. Even if you are providing this yourself you need to know what your child has actually eaten.
  • How do they deal with allergies and fads?
  • How do they deal with biting? (Your child or someone else's?) Do their answers match your own thoughts?

Things to look out for and questions to ask

  • What happens on a typical day?
  • Do the children practice turn-taking? 
  • What emphasis is placed on social skills and listening?
  • How is good behaviour rewarded and poor behaviour discouraged? Ask for examples. 
  • Learning through play - is this recognised and important?
  • What does the curriculum cover and how is this delivered? Does it flex to suit the individual child?

Daily routine and care

  • Can the children have a nap, as and when?
  • What about potty training and accidents?
  • Fresh drinking water should quite literally be on tap and accessible at all times - is it?
  • Ask to see food preparation areas. Are they clean and hygienic? Are there clear reminder notices about hand-washing etc?
  • Is hand sanitizer on hand?


  • How do nursery staff communicate with you? You will want to know about your child's day.
  • What about contact with other parents, is this encouraged?
  • Are there activities that parents can get involved with?
  • Can you drop in to see your child? 
  • Are parents welcome (or even expected) to help out?

The curriculum - activities, excitement and education

Once you've found a setting you like, the hard work begins. Whatever you choose there is simply no excuse for boredom or monotony. Children should be encouraged and enthralled by their day and experience a whole gamut of activities. You want a child exhausted by the excitement of all they do, not drowsy through apathy and tedium.

So what should you expect? 

Early years activities should include:

  • Plenty of messy play- painting, gluing, play-dough/ plasticine, sticking, model making. Good for developing motor skills, creativity and coordination.
  • Water and sand – introducing your child to textures, teaching capacity and volume, turn-taking, problem solving and fun. Activities may extend to tracing out letters, emergent writing. building and more.
  • Dressing up – great for role play, developing imagination, sharing, working with others and making sense of the world.
  • Story time – As well as developing literacy skills, extending vocabulary,  introducing phonics and encouraging a love of reading, stories are great for developing emotions including wonder and awe. Are children encouraged to love books and treat respectfully? Are they actively involved in story time or do they sit there passively? Does the story teller help develop the child's imagination and talk about feelings and emotions?  
  • More generally you want your child in a language rich environment, so look beyond story time to see how language and literacy skills are developed.
  • Outdoor play with space for children to run around, hop, skip, jump. Some nurseries provide tricycles (with and without pedals), swings, slides. and climbing frames. All help to improve gross motor skills, coordination, control and social skills. 
  • Creative arts -  painting, drawing, and emergent writing - all help to develop, creativity, expression and fine motor skills.
  • Table games such as snakes and ladders, matching pairs and snap help develop social skills such as turn taking and introduce problem solving and mathematical skills.
  • Movement, music, rhymes, song and dance –  should feature on a regular basis. Music not only helps children develop important skills it can also be used to calm and soothe a child, reducing stress and anxiety. Rhythm, song and dance help with memory, sounds, word recognition, coordination and fine and gross motor-skills. 
  • Blocks, bricks, boxes and shapes –  these are great, not just for building and construction but developing mathematical skills and problem solving ability, sorting, sequencing, understanding concepts such as more than and taller, higher, bigger.  
  • Computers and technology - some nurseries have a computer or two available for children. Check how these are used. The odd spell can be fun and informative but beware over-reliance at such a tender age. You want your child to develop those all important social skills of turn taking, interaction, conversation and confidence; to a great extent computer skills can wait. Similarly DVDs and TV should be used sparingly, if at all. 
  • Early science and nature - Is this an explicit part of the curriculum? Are experiments carried out? Do children grow plants? Can they name parts of the body? Are there any animals to look after or to play with? Frogs and butterflies are nursery regulars for early biology; baking soda, vinegar and volcanoes are among pre-school chemistry favourites and simple things such as mixing colours and light and sound, introduce toddlers to the world of physics. Equipment such as tape measures, torches, bubbles, Kaleidoscopes and magnifying glasses all help budding scientists have fun exploring their world.

One of our favourite early years encounters was 'poo-making' at Forres Sandle Manor Pre-prep. As we report in their Good Schools Guide review,

A simulated investigation which began with the crushing of digestive biscuits (to mirror crunching of teeth), mixed with water (replacing saliva), washing up liquid and vinegar added (enzyme and stomach acid), then squeezed through grandma's stocking, simulating the intestine and final movement – learning at its gory, imaginative, and experiential best! The children loved every minute  of it - one they'll doubtless remember to tell their grandchildren!

What's important is that children enjoy and are confident about their learning. If your child is anxious or stressed always investigate, especially if anxieties increase or you suspect their are underlying difficulties or issues. Trust your instincts, speak to key workers, your health-team, relatives or others who know you and your child well. 


Related articles

  • Special Needs introduction

    Signs of special needs in school age children; how to get help; which type of school to choose; Education, Health and Care Plans ... Read more ... Need help? Perhaps you suspect your child has some learning difficulty and you would like advice on what you should do. Or perhaps it is becoming clear that your child's current school is not working for him or her, and you need help to find a mainstream school which has better SEN provision, or to find a special school which will best cater for your child's area of need.  Our SEN team helps…

  • The Good Schools Guide online subscription

    Find the best school for your child. One month subscription - £0.49 per day Three month subscription - £0.41 per day Six month subscription - £0.33 per day One year subscription - £0.29 per day Register for instant access to: ☑ Search for more than 30000 schools in our parent friendly interactive directory. ☑ Create and save lists of schools via My Schools. ☑ Use our comparison grid to get an exam results overview of schools you are interested in. ☑ Find comprehensive advice on state and independent schools, tutors and special needs. ☑ Receive our monthly newsletter. For further…

  • Where to find a state grammar school

    Identifying and locating grammar schools. Grammar schools are located in 36 English local authorities. Almost half of these are considered 'selective authorities' (eg Kent and Buckinghamshire), where around one in five local children are selected for grammar school entry based on ability. The others are areas such as Barnet or Kingston, with only a few grammar schools.

  • Schools for children with performing arts talents

    As proud parents, we all know our children are unique. They're smarter than anyone else's, funnier, certainly more attractive, better behaved and above all bursting with the kind of talent that would leave Daniel Radcliffe, Jamie Bell and Charlotte Church standing. And for some extraordinary - though totally understandable - reason, everyone but us seems blind to our offspring's God-given artistic gifts.

  • State boarding schools: free tuition just pay for your stay!

    If you think your child would benefit from a boarding school education, but are put off by the high fees and consequent limited social mix of a typical independent boarding school, you may find that a state boarding school is the answer

Subscribe for instant access to in-depth reviews, data and catchment:

Comprehensive catchment maps for English state schools inc. year of entry.
 School exam results by subject and performance GCSE, Alevel or equivalent.
 Which schools pupils come from and go onto.
 Honest, opinionated and fearless independent reviews of more than 1,100+ schools.
 Overall school performance by GCSE, Alevel or equivalent.
 School data comparison by A/B weighted, relative success and popularity.
 Compare schools by qualities and results.
 Independent tutor company reviews.

Try before you buy - The Charter School Southwark

The Good Schools Guide subscription

 GSG Blog >    In the news >


The Good Schools Guide Newsletter

Educational insight in your inbox. Sign up for our popular newsletters.

Stand by for some myth-busting from our SEN consultants


Just published - The Good Schools Guide 21st edition - 1200 schools fully reviewed and updated. Buy now