So we all know, or we are learning to know, what makes a great setting tour; from our perspective, from inside the game. We conduct our tours based on what we think our families want to hear, want to know, want to see etc. and I’m sure lots of the time, this is correct. However, how interesting would it be to read about parents’ real life experiences of a nursery tour and leaving their child for the first time, from people who are not in the industry? And not specifically from your setting? Parents who have registered, or not registered, at a variety of settings, with a mixture of non-negotiable criteria, for hundreds of specific reasons.
Well, grab a cuppa and a biscuit, because I’ve given it a go!
I asked a selection of my mum friends, who have used some form of Early Years setting for information on their experiences of tours and leaving their children for the first time. I asked specific questions to guide them, but generally, they gave me insights, opinions, first impressions and things that put them off! We can only learn from these conversations and I am keen to share my findings!
First child – ‘I chose her nursery largely due to the spacious, light, bright and airy setting, with good outdoor access. I dismissed one nursery because the baby room was on the first floor so the small children couldn’t freely wander in and out, plus the garden was a small paved area. In another setting, I found their toddler room was small and dominated by a large central table, which made me concerned that they expected 2-3 year olds to spend most of their day sitting. One thing I appreciated during some of the tours was when the baby room staff (not conducting the tour) would take an interest in my child and try to engage her in play… it immediately made the setting feel more welcoming.’
Second child – ‘We ended up opting for a small family run nursery where all the staff had long service; whether rightly or wrongly, I believe that a happy and engaged team will offer better and more consistent care to my children. The home visits were a nice touch for both nurseries we used. If my child was unsettled whilst dropping off, I appreciated when the staff were decisive and directive, taking control of the situation while showing empathy and reassurance to both the child and me.’
Interesting point from this parent about the large table dominating the 2-3years room; maybe they needed the table for eating meals, but didn’t explain well enough how the room operated and how the children learn at this age, to reassure this parent that the children weren’t expected to sit at it for long periods of time. Also, the addition of home visits was appreciated by this parent. This is something I have done in the past but I don’t currently do. It can be tricky, and sometimes impossible, to release 2 staff members from the setting for every new starting child, but maybe something worth doing if it helps to put parents at ease and fill them with confidence when leaving their child.
‘I only looked around one nursery for my son. It was within walking distance from my home and also is attached to the school I hoped he would eventually attend. The nursery was open all year round and from 8-6 so this was also attractive to me as I needed childcare whilst I was at work. I knew a couple of people who had children at the nursery so that made me feel comfortable that he would be safe and happy there. I was shown around by the assistant manager, she was friendly and answered my questions. My son ran off and played for the duration of my tour so I was confident he would be happy to be left. I liked the outdoor space they had available. On his first day I wish they had offered me a bit more reassurance as he was quite unsettled. Also I would have liked a bit more communication as this was minimal throughout his time there. I was also keen for him, and later on my younger son, to make friends with children they would go to school with and also to have a smooth transition into reception. They were both happy there which was my main priority but in hindsight, I would have preferred a setting that communicated more with me; I was rarely told what they had been doing.’
This parent’s experiences just shows how important location is. Very rarely can you change your physical location; you’re either attached to a school or not, however, if you’re not, but your feedback from tours is that this is a significant factor, you can spend time building up good relationships with your local schools. Whether it be visiting to meet the teachers, becoming familiar with their Reception classroom or just learning what methods or styles of teaching they use, this will show that you understand the need for smooth transitions and working collaboratively with other professionals.
‘I've chosen two nurseries in my time and the first one was probably the better out of the two for the tour. The best one had more of a family feel in both the sense of wanting to know us as a family and also demonstrating that they were a close-knit team who knew the kids there well.
It's important to be shown round by the manager and then also to meet the person who would be in charge of your child's age group.
Space is important - it needs to feel like the kids aren't crammed in like battery hens. I asked where my child would take his nap at one nursery and they showed me what was effectively a cupboard!
Introducing themselves and all the staff and their roles as you go around is important. It's also good to wear name badges or make sure you reintroduce once the child has started as it's really difficult as a parent to keep track of all the names.
Communication is key throughout the process. Both on the tour and in the enquiry and booking process. It should feel like it's about the child throughout, not just a transaction.
I was never overly worried about leaving my kids but our first nursery did say to me from day one that you could ring to check they were ok at any time and that stayed with me as a message. It makes you think that they are transparent about their care as a setting and if as a parent you were a bit concerned that morning, that you could just ring and check that everything was ok. Not just during settling in, but any time. I never really had to, but I knew I could, which is just as important.
Final thing for me when choosing nurseries is food. I want to know it’s healthy, freshly cooked and they are getting a hot meal every day. When the setting is feeding your child 3 meals a day that is really important.’
A setting with a family feel. We are fairly sure that showing interest in each family gives this impression, but I was more intrigued by the point of demonstrating that the team itself was like a family, and were close-knit. In larger settings, this can be tricky, so I think it’s important that this is demonstrated within each room, showing the smooth operation of the day to day routines, but also that they are happy and engaged, which was noted as significant by Parent 1 too. As a leader, getting to know your staff team, will help to illustrate this. A hot meal per day – exactly what this parent says, and something that you can control within your setting.
‘In total I visited 3 nurseries. Before going to the visits I already knew that the most important thing to me was, did I think my children would be happy there.
Starting with the ones I discounted, both visits were well conducted, quite formal and structured. Both times it was the nursery manager who conducted the tours which didn’t put me off, however I didn’t get a chance to have any engagement with the staff, which to me was important. The 2 settings were very different; 1 large and corporate and 1 smaller but again part of a wider group. The larger one felt busy and quite chaotic and this is why I didn’t choose this setting - I felt that my children would be lost. The smaller one had fantastic outdoor resources/play areas which would be great for sunny days however inside it felt quite dull and not very fun looking, there also didn’t seem to be much order in the rooms and I couldn’t see my children fitting in particularly well. The setting I chose, I instantly knew was the right place, the assistant manager took us around the nursery and introduced her staff! Being able to briefly observe the staff with the children made a big difference in my mind-set for the rest of the tour. The setting was clean and organised, not a big place but had both indoor and outdoor spaces for the children, a massive bonus was access to the school’s forest school! I felt this setting’s approach to learning was based all around the individual child and although I know there is a curriculum to follow I didn’t feel my children would be pressured to achieve at someone else’s pace. On the first day I was allowed into nursery to help them put the bits on their peg and then take them into the key worker assigned to them. We had 3 settling sessions prior to this. I did ring into nursery to check on them and this did help ease any worries knowing they were settled and I didn’t feel like an inconvenience for calling!’
Ensuring that your setting doesn’t appear chaotic when potential parents are having a tour, is really achieved by the engagement of the children. Through curiosity provoking environments and stimulating adult interactions, your setting can be calm, but busy with children learning, no matter how big. Although probably not the first thing a parent is looking for from a setting, having well organised rooms, with little clutter and an inviting feel can massively contribute to an overall vote. I like windowsills, surfaces and display areas to be clear and tidy, and not dumping grounds. Having access to a Forest School is definitely a USP for this setting, and it sounds like they know and promote it well!
So what were the common threads?
An aspect that came up throughout most accounts, and very rightly, was communication; during the tour, through the booking process, on the first day and throughout their child’s time in a setting. It is so important to all parents to know what is happening with their child! It was interesting how much physical space was mentioned too. A feature that cannot easily be changed if it is just a cupboard! However, your interpretation of how the space can be used, dressed, manipulated can; just make sure it’s appropriate!
Reassurance was quite a biggie. For those parents who are learning what Early Years Settings are all about for the first time, and leaving their children with people who they know very little, this has got to be a priority for settings and staff. Introducing staff members who are going to be teaching the child directly, interactions initiated by those staff and demonstrating attentiveness to the child are all key in offering that reassurance.
Interestingly, and maybe a little frustratingly, there was very little mention of anything educational. Society’s views of Early Years Settings is predominantly based around the care that they provide, not the education. And yet, children between 0-5, in their early years, learn so much so rapidly. What is it people say, ‘Oh, they’re like a little sponge at the moment!’ A discussion for another day, but it was interesting that parents didn’t choose any setting partially based on the educational opportunities it offered.
This was such interesting research! I hope you find it as intriguing as I did! Many factors that we know about, but certainly some that surprised me! Thank you to my lovely Mum friends who took the time to share their experiences.