Play experience case study: Nature and nurture are at the heart of exceptional play and learning

Sharon Parnell, Michele Mackridge
Thursday, January 18, 2024

Every child is unique and individual, and their growth and development cannot be neatly compartmentalised into areas of learning. Children learn holistically and everything they learn is interconnected. They are not just learners; they are thinkers, feelers and explorers.

Every child is unique and individual, and their growth and development cannot be neatly compartmentalised into areas of learning. Children learn holistically and everything they learn is interconnected. They are not just learners; they are thinkers, feelers and explorers.

Here at Hinxton Crocus Early Years Centre, we embrace this through the Bright Horizons Nurture Approach, which recognises and celebrates the beautiful complexity of each unique child. We understand that emotional wellbeing and security are crucial to learning. By nurturing the whole child and providing opportunities and experiences in so many varied, natural and open-ended ways, we lay the lifelong foundations for learning. We know that this is the way to ensure children grow up to become resilient, compassionate individuals, ready to thrive in an ever-changing world.

This journey is a collaborative journey where together, parents and practitioners play an integral role in shaping children's development. We nurture the whole child, so that they are prepared for the next stage in their individual journey.

Connecting to nature

Hinxton Crocus Early Years Centre is indeed a very unique setting. The nursery is housed on the Wellcome Genome Campus, which is home to some of the world's foremost scientific institutes and organisations in genomics and computational biology. The campus is surrounded by parkland, and our children have daily opportunities to explore woods, lakes and the beautiful conservation area.

Sharon Parnell, deputy manager, explained:

“Our approach really looks to embrace the natural beauty that we have on our doorstep. We encourage children to explore, play and learn in the outdoors, fostering a deeper connection with nature, developing essential skills and knowledge. We offer a holistic approach to early childhood education, fostering physical, cognitive, social and emotional development in a natural, child-centred setting.

“We incorporate this approach with all children who attend our nursery. Babies derive great benefits from connecting with nature. They become involved in sensory activities, such as touching different textures, listening to natural sounds, looking at leaves and walking or crawling on the grass. This sensory exploration promotes cognitive development, while the shared experience of exploring nature also strengthens the adult and child attachments. Engaging with the natural environment has a calming and soothing effect on babies, reducing stress and promoting emotional well-being. Fresh air also supports a baby's overall physical health and helps build their immune system. The varied textures, temperatures and sounds in the forest and woodland environment helps babies develop their sensory perception and coordination.

“As children develop and grow, toddlers and preschoolers have opportunities for free play. Free play fosters the development of essential skills, such as fine and large physical skills, problem solving, taking appropriate risks to learn about personal safety, as well as creativity. For example, learning to balance on logs or create art from natural materials found on the woodland floor is a great way to learn about the world they live in and to become closer to nature. Toddlers and preschoolers gain confidence in their abilities as they explore and learn in the natural environment. Connecting with nature promotes responsible risk taking and helps children to learn how to keep themselves safe in the future. Children learn to navigate uneven terrain, manage appropriate tools safely and develop a sense of achievement. They also learn to make choices independently and learn to take responsibility for the natural world and make decisions about how and where they learn best.

Toddlers interact with peers in an outdoor, less formal setting, and this helps foster social development, as they learn to share, communicate and cooperate with others. Our outdoor environment helps stimulate imagination and creativity. Children engage in open-ended play with natural materials, building with sticks or making art from leaves, mud and rocks.”

Unlocking children's potential through nurture

The Bright Horizons Nurture Approach encompasses our bespoke Bright Beginnings Curriculum, which has been delivered by Hinxton Crocus Early Years Centre since it was launched by Bright Horizons in 2020. The curriculum is based on extensive pedagogical theory and the latest neuroscientific research. It recognises the individual needs of each child, and focuses on promoting confidence, wellbeing and a genuine love for learning. The Nurture Approach and Bright Beginnings Curriculum is based on the premise that emotional resilience is just as important as other early childhood foundational skills, such as counting and literacy. It also focuses on the significance of the adult as educator, and the importance of secure attachments between children, families and the key person.

At Hinxton Crocus Early Years Centre we provide ‘Invitations’ for child-led play experiences, through carefully considered provocations for children's play. These are enabled by an abundance of everyday ‘loose parts’ objects set out to encourage children to explore and create independently. Loose Parts Play is the name given to any collection of natural or synthetic ‘open-ended’ materials that can be used to extend children's play. Loose parts have no specific function or pre-determined outcome. They can be moved, arranged, designed, taken apart and re-constructed. Loose Parts Play allows children to direct their play experiences based on their own ideas and questions, rather than playing with toys and materials that have one purpose that predetermines the play. For example, a toy garage and a car can only be a garage and a car; a wooden box, turned on the side, with a few blocks can be anything the children want it to be.

There's a very calm, cosy and homely feel to the nursery, enhanced by light-pebbles and fairy lights that are used in every room to add atmosphere and interest. Practitioners encourage children to play freely with the range of carefully chosen items, suitable for their age and phase of development. Children are able to use their imaginations, while being carefully supervised by their key person, enabling them to develop creativity, solve problems and make connections in their learning.

Michele Mackridge, third in charge at Hinxton Crocus Early Years Centre and the preschool Room Leader, said: “Children here are provided with so many different opportunities to create play experiences. The entire environment at the nursery is forever changing and evolving and is based around the interests of the children. Loose parts play gives children the freedom to explore at their own pace and play however they choose, building self-esteem and resilience as they make decisions for themselves. So often at the end of the day I find a large block-play construction covering the floor, or a small collection of items tucked away out of sight. I love finding these hidden treasures.

“If something is of interest, then children here have access to it and can go touch it, smell it, and have that whole sensory experience. That philosophy moves right the way through the nursery. We'll make sure the loose parts items are suitable for the age of the children and that the items aren't just one purpose use plastic toys, that all feel and smell the same. It's really interesting how children play with different objects. One child might use conkers or pinecones and pretend that they are cooking, but another might want to paint them. The items ignite their imagination.”

Michele has recently trained with the Thrive Approach® to use Thrive-Online™, which is a web-based resource that equips practitioners to develop tailored action-plans for each child, supporting their holistic development.

“The training was so enlightening, detailing how brain development can affect mental health and wellbeing. I now lead training here at Hinxton Crocus Early Years Centre to support all our practitioners. Providing a warm and caring environment for children and adults helps to provide a foundation for life-long learning and an environment where everyone can flourish: children and adults.

“I have introduced more books for the children in my preschool room that deal with emotions, which supports the planning of play experiences. I am also using a puppet called ‘Mr Fox,’ who helps children to solve any problems they may have. I've worked in early years for over 20 years and was quite sceptical about using a puppet but I'm now very much an advocate and feel every room should have a puppet to act as a ‘mentor’ for the children. Our puppet is so loved by the children and helps our children learn how to solve small disputes. Mindful breathing exercises are also another technique, which I use regularly both for myself and children, mixed in with yoga and Boogie Mites sessions (music and dance), to support wellbeing and early phonological development.”

I firmly believe that the key to unlocking a child's potential lies in understanding their emotional world. At Hinxton Crocus Early Years Centre, the emotional wellbeing of our children is at the heart of all the opportunities for play and learning that we create. As children grow emotionally, they become more receptive to learning, and as they learn, they become better equipped to grow emotionally. It's a cycle of development that is interconnected, much like the holistic learning we offer. By also recognising and supporting the emotional wellbeing of practitioners, we are in turn ensuring that every child can be supported to become the happiest, best version of themself.”

Sharon Parnell

Deputy Manager Hinxton Crocus Early Years Centre 

Michele Mackeridge

Pre-school room leader, Hinxton Crocus Early Years Centre


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