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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. 


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