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“Except in childminding settings, there should be a separate baby room for children under the age of two.”

In the mid-2000s, Sacha Powell and Kathy Goouch refocused their birth to three research to closely examine the processes and practices involved in early childhood education and care (ECEC) for children up to two years of age in non-parental, group-care settings; principally, in private sector day nurseries in southeast England.  This research focus became formalised as the original ‘Baby Room’ Project when the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation agreed to fund two phases of research and development work, beginning in 2009.

Nothing could be more welcome than the current high level of interest in how babies are cared for in nurseries. There are numerous “baby room projects” going on across the country, most notably the research project which is being led by Canterbury Christ Church University, and the training project led by Northamptonshire Council. Early Education’s new “Baby Room Special Interest Group” has generated huge interest, too. It feels much better than how things were a few years ago, when I was advised that a not terribly good nursery practitioner working with three and four year olds “would probably be okay for the baby room” (2011)

This research and development work involved collaboration with baby room practitioners from Kent and Medway, and the aim was to better understand practice with babies and to work with practitioners to both research and support their work.  Additionally, the project offered and supported opportunities for the practitioners to develop supportive networks across different Early Years settings in order to discuss practice and the research evidence, policies, theories and the principles that shape this.

Over the course of a year, the research included video-recorded observational data of practitioners working with key children in their baby rooms, which was subsequently used as a professional development resource. Research activities included semi-structured interviews with the practitioners, their colleagues and managers. Practitioners’ written reflections were captured on the NING (a social network site – see below) and group discussions were also recorded at the bespoke professional development sessions.

In the second phase of the project, which began in 2012, the work was extended to include a group of Local Authority advisers who were working to support early childhood provision in their area.  In this aspect of the work, the advisers devised and carried out a series of case studies focused on specific aspects of baby room practice. These were later drawn together for both the purposes of the research project aims and to feed back into the Authority’s ongoing work to improve provision and practice across the region.

Key findings and observations from the project were published in books, articles and summary reports (see below). The research led to the creation of new local procedures, including specialist CPD for baby room staff; invitations to share the project’s processes and findings internationally – in mainland Europe, Asia, Australasia, North and South America; and raised awareness of the complexities of Baby Room work, including informing the Nutbrown Review of Childcare and Early Years Qualifications; and leading to the establishment of special interest groups among the members of national organisations, such as Early Education; and supporting the Fabian Women’s Network’s call for ‘universal childcare’.

An enduring legacy of this original Baby Room work is the ongoing support for critically reflexive dialogue and networking among colleagues whose professional interests or studies focus on education and care for babies and toddlers. This support takes the form of an online social networking site called The Baby Room NING; and the Annual Baby Room Conference, which is now (2017) in its 8th year and brings internationally renowned and respected keynote speakers together with a multi-professional delegate body to discuss and debate ECEC for babies and very young children.
Travel and connections with scholars and practitioners outside England provided opportunities to engage in discussion, observation and comparative / collaborative enquiries with colleagues working in Scotland, Republic of Ireland, Belgium, Germany, China (Shanghai and Hong Kong), New Zealand, Mexico and the USA where a common theme was the relative lack of attention in political, policy and (to a lesser extent) research literature to the particular pedagogical requirements and aspirations for ECE for babies and very young children. 

Following on from the initial Baby Room project, the Research Centre for Children, Families and Communities (RCfCFC) was commissioned by three local authorities (Hampshire, Surrey and West Sussex) to work with them to explore provision for two year old children in their areas.

Collaboratively, a project was designed: Two Year Old Children in Three Counties. The impetus for this project was that a national policy had seen the introduction in 2013 of an entitlement to ‘free early education’ for England’s ‘most disadvantaged’ 2-year old children. Similar methodologies to those adopted in The Baby Room research were employed with Local Authority Advisors and with the additional opportunity offered for participants to submit their research reports as an MA module submission. 

In this project each adviser identified an area of interest to interrogate provision and practice through a case study approach and within the overarching research question, ‘What are the factors that contribute towards the development and nurturance of relationships in the setting?’ The subsequent research stories were drawn together and reviewed by the participants before being submitted to the three local authorities as a research report.

Through the life of these research projects, we had been gathering evidence that the practice of talking with babies is limited in many settings, for a variety of reasons, but particularly because practitioners appeared to focus on functional activities in order to fulfil their workload requirements.  As a result of this significant finding we designed new projects focusing on singing with babies, as a way of encouraging intimate communicative engagements between adults and babies in daycare settings.

The Froebel Trust supported a two-stage research project, beginning with a pilot study entitled, Mother Songs in Daycare for Babies. This research and development project involved baby room professionals from nurseries in Kent. It drew on the philosophical and pedagogical writings of Friedrich Froebel and reviewed contemporary literature which offered a research landscape for singing with babies.

A key aspect of the data collection for this project involved an audit of the song repertoire and practices of the project participants.  From this work we learned that the songs that babies were encountering in baby rooms were most frequently ‘play songs’ or action songs.  Lullabies were extremely infrequent or non-existent in practice. 

The second stage of the work in partnership with The Froebel Trust delved more deeply into the underlying reasons for a paucity of close, one-to-one talk and singing with babies.  Based on Froebel’s principled approach to developing ECEC and resonating with his philosophy, which encouraged emotional connectedness and affective encounters, the project sought to examine the place of emotions in infant pedagogy.

The project participants were invited to explore the concept of communicative musicality in which, “musical narratives allow adult and infant…to share a sense of sympathy and situated meaning in a shared sense of passing time”. This led to on to consideration of the ways that those working in the baby rooms (according to the participants and from relevant research and policy literature) constructed the key functions, responsibilities and ‘ingredients’ of their work and are portrayed by others as professionals (or not).

As in previous projects, dialogue played a central and key role in the research and development methodology with participants’ stories providing the means to work collectively to theorise baby room practices. Indeed, Froebel himself suggested that,

“Mind breathes mind...The telling of stories refreshes the mind as a bath refreshes the body; it gives exercise to the intellect and its powers; it tests the judgment and feelings.”

Babysong, funded by the Ragdoll Foundation, supported further professional development activities with a new group of participants drawn from baby rooms in East Kent.  With this funding support we were able to reach a new group of baby room practitioners and to work with them to support the inclusion and extension of singing with babies, incidentally or opportunistically, as well as in planned sessions. With the support of Vanessa Young, a music specialist, we were able to help participants to explore the benefits of singing with babies and the abilities of babies to respond affectively to song. 

From engagement with practitioners; immersion in literature and research data; discursive opportunities with colleagues through conferences and academic networks; and ongoing data analysis, we have been able to develop and begin to frame a portrait of baby room practices – locally, nationally and internationally. During this focused project work with baby room practitioners we have become increasingly aware of the difficulties they face in creating intimate, 1:1 engagements with individual babies in their care, as they both initiate caring events and as they respond to babies seeking care. 

Instead, practitioners talk of responding to functional, timetabled events, the structures and patterns of the day and pre-ordained ‘scripts’ informing care practices. This became more evident during the Babysong project work, as baby room practitioners describe their perceived need to present themselves as ‘busy’, as ‘performing care’ and as ‘lively’.  As a result, opportunities to be still with babies, for both babies and their carers to enjoy the benefits of stillness, were rare. Additionally, projects have contributed to a previously neglected sector of practitioners’ professional development.

Find out more (pdf)

This intense and lengthy project engagement, focusing very closely on adult/baby engagement, has raised a number of questions in relation to the impact of intimacy, talk and respectful engagement with babies from the earliest age. While in our research projects we have been urging practitioners to talk to the babies in their care, we have been concerned to ensure that the foundations of our research and development practices were secure. 

With the strength of Colwyn Trevarthen’s long-standing research as a backdrop, The Birth of Conversation, funded by the United Kingdom Literacy Association (UKLA) supported a small scale research project with first-time mothers.  The funding allowed for the purchase of cameras and enabled film to be collected of mothers, and/or fathers and grandparents, in their early and subsequent conversations with new infants. 

In addition, the new mothers in the sample were interviewed some weeks into their parenthood to recount the influences on their talk behaviours and the impact that talking and engaging in conversation with babies had on their developing relationship.  We were able to record the kinds of language engagement that occur between a mother (and / or others) and her new baby soon after birth and explore the nature of any communicative encounters that mothers and babies create. 

Those first greetings to a new baby, welcoming them into the world, the rewards drawn from receiving a baby’s unwavering attention, a fixed gaze, a smile, all contributed in research testimonies to the warmth of an early and developing relationship. While mothers appeared compelled to create a connection with their new babies, speaking of touch and close physical contact, knowing what to say and how to say it represented a similar difficulty presented by baby room practitioners. 

Equally, support from expert professions was varied in its frequency and its messages. In The Birth of Conversation project sample, ‘kinship‘ and family support created a landscape of talk and speech encounters with new babies which enabled the growth of mothering confidence and provided a firm underpinning of cultural, social and familial experience.

Continuity of Care for Infants, Toddlers and Two-Year-Olds in Group-Based ECEC Settings (2017)

This small-scale, qualitative study explores an approach to infant and toddler early childhood education and care practice that is known in the USA as Continuity of Care (COC). Within settings where COC is adopted, adults are assigned to a group of key children as their primary caregivers and they remain with the same group of children over time, often for up to three years (see Sosinsky, Ruprecht, Horm et al 2016). In some contexts (which offer full day ECEC in group-based settings that are publicly-funded or privately run), the group stays in one room for the entire duration of the children’s time at the setting and the environment is adapted to suit the evolving needs and interests of the children over time. In others, the entire group – adults and children – moves annually from one room to another on the understanding that the new environment will ‘promote optimal learning and development’ (NAEYC 2009) and will facilitate Developmentally Appropriate Practice. Alternatively, mixed age groupings may be accommodated together. As the oldest children move to new provision (usually a preschool), new members of the group are assimilated. The underlying theoretical basis for this approach is strongly developmental, relational, draws on attachment theory and rests principally on relationship-based pedagogies of care (see McMullen, Yun, Mihai & Kim 2016). ‘Primary caregivers’ are assigned to groups of children and are expected to develop strong relationships with these children and their families. The primary caregiver approach is akin to the Key Person Approach in England but in COC settings in the USA the group generally stays together for a much longer period of time than a Key Person stays with key children in England (except in childminding contexts).

This current research, which adopts a critical ecological perspective (Urban 2011), explores the structures, processes and practices of COC and practitioners’ (US teachers’) beliefs about the concept of professionalism in relation to their particular philosophy and modus operandi and in the context of the comparatively low pay and low status for the work of infant and toddler teachers in the USA and internationally (see e.g. Lash and McMullen 2008; Lyons 2012; Goouch and Powell 2013; Davis and Degotardi 2015).

The research question was: What constitutes professionalism in group-based ECEC settings that have established continuity of care (COC) approaches for children from birth to 36 months? A sub-question, which was derived from the literature, was: Does COC enhance the status of the professionals who work with children under three?

These questions translated into three aims, which were to:

  • Understand the nature of COC as described and practised;
  • Gather COC teachers’ perspectives on the concept of professionalism as it applies to their work;
  • Identify any potential links made by the teachers between the specific philosophies and practices of COC and the teachers’ understandings of the concept of professionalism and their perceptions of professional status.

Unstructured observations of COC in practice were undertaken in classrooms where groups of children ranged in age from 9 to 36 months in any given setting. No mixed-age groupings were observed so the children were among peers who were of similar ages, e.g. all two-year-olds. Group sizes ranged 8 to 12 children per room with two co-teachers and an assistant. The classroom (sic) observations of seven different groups of children in four settings lasted from 1 to 3 hours each. These research activities were supplemented by guided tours of a further four settings. In two of these, the Managers explained their ethos, guiding principles and policies for licensing and funding their work.

Semi-structured interviews were carried out with 20 teachers (of whom three were also Program Directors) from four ECEC settings in two US states: Indiana and Oklahoma. In all four settings, COC was a practice that had been established for many years; two were privately run and two were publicly-funded settings that receive Early Head Start funding. All four settings are licensed by their respective state authorities and accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).

All the COC staff who took part in the interviews were described as teachers; were educated to bachelor’s degree level or higher (many had achieved a master’s degree or were studying for one, while another had a doctorate); and had specialist knowledge, experience and training for working with children from birth to three.

The interviews with teachers were voluntary and ranged in length from 45 to 90 minutes. All but two were audio recorded (these two took place in the classrooms where the noise levels made audio recording difficult and so handwritten notes were made instead). All the data collection activities took place with the participants’ informed consent and the settings had in place arrangements for parental consent, where applicable.

Some settings showed or gave copies of documentation, including developmental profiles of the children based on observations; structured observation and assessment tools; and ethical codes for practice. In one setting, I was invited to photograph a series of written texts that described characteristics and qualities that the teachers admired in one another. These had been created during a group discussion and were displayed on the wall next to the teachers’ photographs.

In addition, I took part as a non-participant observer in two university-based seminars with ECEC students (undergraduate and postgraduate) and one with university ECEC staff. I observed presentations on aspects of care that some of the students gave about their studies and I was presented with a book that the group had created about the concept of care with their Professor.

Analysis is currently underway and the findings from the study will be reported here as well as in journal articles and conference presentations. Please check back in due course for updates on this research.
This project is a collaboration between researchers and professionals working in early childhood services in New Zealand, USA, Hong Kong and England. Using video to prompt dialogue between professionals and parents across the four countries, the project will explore systems, beliefs and practices involved in caring for toddlers (12-24 months). The project runs from December 2017 to May 2019 and is funded by The Froebel Trust.



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Last edited: 10/10/2019 12:39:00