Rethinking Early Years Education with N Family Club

3rd January 2020

Words by Sarah Mackenzie // Photography by Anna Whitaker

N Family Club launched at the end of 2017 – the same time as ToyDrop in fact – with one beautiful setting in Stoke Newington where we held our launch party. Since then, they’ve opened London Fields and West Hampstead, with Brixton, Twickenham and a second site in Stoke Newington coming in 2020.

I sometimes describe it as a cross between a cool members club and a Scandi design haven for the under 5s. But there’s a hell of a lot of substance behind that style. Today, we’re catching up with Sarah Mackenzie, the nurseries’ Education Director, to chat about how they’re changing the Early Years scene for the better.

Hey Sarah! We’re massive fans of N Family Club here at ToyDrop and love the modern approach you take to the whole package. As Education Director, what is it about the nursery you think makes it such a special place to learn?

I think it’s the focus that we’ve placed on rethinking early education, it’s translated into a real commitment from the team at every level to go beyond and make N the very best place it can be and keep questioning at every step how can we make it better and better. It’s taking the usual elements of a nursery and putting our N twist on them, taking the usual curriculum and adding the N curriculum extras whether that be mindfulness for babies or scientific experiments for preschoolers. Turning a standard nursery entrance area into an inviting breakfast bar and cafe space for parents, turning a simple nursery lunch into a delicious artichoke and haricot bean paella, adding a child-sized entrance or a slide to accompany the stairs. They’re all little details that when you add them together with the passion of the team for education that make N such a special place to learn.

You must be influenced by so many different educational philosophies. Are there any that stand out in particular that you follow a lot at N Family Club?

Yes, so many and we’re also very interested in emerging research and looking at how we can interpret findings to support our work with children. The key philosophies that have influenced us are the Reggio Emilia and Montessori approach, Forest School provision and the theories of psychologist Jerome Bruner.

Reggio has inspired us to really focus on children’s self-expression both in our curriculum but also in the way we design ‘atelier’ inspired spaces, art studios, in our nurseries. Reggio has also been instrumental in our decision to develop a bespoke curriculum blending children’s interests and questions with our own curriculum. This works well with the aspects we have taken from Montessori of giving children freedom, choices, and a space that encourages them to take responsibility and respect their environment. We’re really keen for children to learn to self-regulate and make the best choices they can because they understand the impact of their choices rather than because they feel they have to or are doing it for a reward.

Bruner has particularly influenced the way in which we teach the children through a technique called ‘scaffolding’ and through the way we deliver the curriculum. We deliver the curriculum as a spiral so children repeatedly revisit the same concepts but in different experiential and playful ways. We also use the outdoors as a perfect backdrop for much of our curriculum delivery and understanding how the best Forest Schools work has inspired us to make sure all our children are able to explore risk, challenge and nature.

It must feel like such a big responsibility in planning the curriculum there. If you were to prioritise one thing, what would it be? 

It’s so hard to choose one thing as everything we do and the way children develop is so holistic, everything is connected but if I had to prioritise one thing it would be emotional intelligence and wellbeing. Helping our children to learn how to self-regulate and how to become resilient is the most important skill they can have not just in their childhood but as they move on from us to school and into the wider world. 

What would you suggest parents should look for when choosing a nursery setting for their kids?

I think there are three main areas to look at, their core offering, their quality and the fit with you as a family. The core aspects for me are the fundamentals; does the location work for you, do the opening hours fit with your life, and is the nursery somewhere where your child would be safe, healthy and happy. It’s always worth checking on the basics, what proportion of the team are First Aid trained, do they do thorough suitability checks before recruiting new team members and how do they keep the nursery secure. Even with the core offering, I think you have to be really realistic about what works and doesn’t work for you as a family. For me when I was choosing a nursery I always knew somewhere with fully inclusive fees would work better for me as I wouldn’t want to have to remember nappies, milk etc every day. That was important to me, it might not be as important to another parent.

Then I would really focus on the quality of the nursery, how they approach, care for and teach the children. This is the driving force that will determine how well a child thrives at nursery. I’d always want a nursery that offers a blend of really understanding and meeting children’s unique needs alongside applying their own knowledge of how children best thrive, learn and develop. The quality of the nursery itself, the physical resources and access to quality outdoor experiences are also key considerations. I think you also get a real feel for how they approach the families they work with. Personally I’d always choose a setting that approached me in a friendly, warm but professional way. For a child to see their parents and their Key Person at nursery sharing a warm relationship and shared focus on what is best for the child sends a really powerful message.

Lastly, I think you have to listen to your gut. You know as a parent what is important to you, what parts of parenting are emotive to you and you want to find that fit between what you value and what the nursery values. Whether that is about how strict you are with routines, what kind of food you want your children to eat and although it feels a long way off when you have a tiny baby how the nursery would deal with usual childhood challenging behaviours. I’d always listen to recommendations from other parents and read the Ofsted report if they have had a recent inspection but I think you have to find that balance between what other people think and what’s important to you. You won’t feel happy dropping your child off at a nursery that your friends love if you don’t love it too. 

Your spaces are all incredible to look at. Do you think the kind of facilities on offer play an important role in the kids’ day-to-day learning or eagerness to engage?

I think children can learn, develop and be happy without the kind of facilities that we offer but having these kinds of facilities is an amazing added bonus. They’re innovatively designed to support the process of inspiring learning which is core to every day and at the same time they’re fun, playful and calming which are all so important to the children’s sense of wellbeing. It was the Reggio Emilia approach that coined the term the ‘third teacher’ as a way to think of the environment as a third teacher of children and believing that we always make that third teacher as incredible as we can.

For anyone who doesn’t have children at nursery, what would you say the most important things are for them to learn at home before starting school? 

I think some aspects are very similar, emotional literacy is still equally important and many of the aspects that we would teach at nursery can also be taught at home through daily experiences. One simple trip to the shops can provide so many opportunities for a child to learn about the world they live in, to develop maths skills as they count out the correct change, to develop literacy skills as they help to prepare and check a list, to learn to confidently communicate with others in the shop and to then create something out of what was bought. At N we do a lot of trips within the local community to give children exactly these kinds of experiences.

I think the key things to focus on if a child hasn’t been at nursery are developing social skills, spending time with other children, understanding how to play with them, understanding the boundaries of other children and exploring and developing emotional skills such as empathy, and understanding. Having the experience of separating from their parents before they start school is also very helpful, whether that be spending time with other family members or at a class. Developing independence and self-help skills is also really important, I know sometimes when I’m at home with my son Avery if we’re rushing I’ll quickly do something for him that he actually can do either alone or with support so taking the time to develop those self-help skills is really important. When they are one of a larger group of children they will be expected to be able to do these kinds of things either independently or with limited support. It’s also important for all children whether they attend nursery or not to explore a variety of learning experiences whether that be stories, songs, physical challenge, opportunities to make marks and draw, to role play etc. The variety of experiences really helps to build children’s curiosity and their confidence in their ability to learn.

Can you recommend any good learning resources for parents in the early years?

I would always say the simpler the better, parents often joke that their child enjoyed the box more than the present and there’s a reason for that. A lot of toys that are marketed as learning resources can be quite one dimensional. A talking cuddly toy is only ever going to be that but the box it came in can be a ship, a rocket, a dolls house so it’s no surprise really that our children often beeline for the box. Choosing resources that can be used in a variety of ways opens up many more learning experiences. Simple wooden blocks can be used to explore space, shape, measure, to learn construction and engineering skills, to create a train station that then opens up a world of imaginary play and that’s just the start. For me, the real staples are drawing and art resources, resources to role play kitchens and dolls, building blocks, little figures, animals and models like trains, bikes and wheeled toys and always plenty of stories. For babies, sensory resources are the best and these don’t have to be shop bought you can create sensory experiences with everyday materials like fabric, wooden spoons, pots and pans to bang but there are also a lot of lovely wooden, and tactile sensory resources available for babies.

What can we expect to see next from N Family Club & Nursery? 

We’re launching our next family club and nursery in West Hampstead in December and then Brixton in February. We’ll then be opening our second Stoke Newington nursery in May and then we’re off to Twickenham for our next launch. We’re busy developing further curriculum resources for our teams and parents and we’re always adding new events and experiences to our family club programme. We’ve got circus school coming up for the children and a mindful parenting workshop coming up to support our parents seeking to be more mindful as they raise their children in London.

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