How nurseries show community leadership and create happier local neighbourhoods

by Mona Sakr

Nurseries are at the heart of enabling children to positively contribute to the communities they live in. Through their work with children and families, nurseries can help to create happier and healthier neighbourhoods that are more cohesive. In this blogpost, we explore how early years providers might show this kind of community leadership.  

Our research

Supported by the British Academy and the Nuffield Foundation through their Understanding Communities programme, our research team have been exploring how organisations that work with children are a fundamental part of building strong and cohesive communities. Below we share some of our findings about 1) what community cohesion looks like on an everyday basis and what it means to early years providers in particular and 2) some of the practical ways that organisations working with children and families enable community cohesion as part of the work that they do.

Community cohesion – what is it and why is it relevant to nurseries?

In our research, when we talk about “happier local neighbourhoods” we are thinking particularly about the strength of community cohesion in a local area. Community cohesion can be defined as “both a process and a state that describes people’s connection to other individuals, groups and communities” (Beyond Us and Them project, 2021). This definition suggests that connection is at the heart of community cohesion in a local area. Meaningful connection can look like lots of small things that happen day to day – it might be a smile, a wave or a conversation – and it can lead to bigger things, such as friendships, community groups and practical grassroots support in times of difficulty.

For organisations that work with children, community cohesion is often a by-product rather than the central aim as Dom Rice, Operations Manager of the Youth and Play service at Bolton Local Authority explains: “Kids probably naturally do it anywhere, just through the natural crossovers of their day.”

Children’s interactions and friendships with each other, which typically happen through the language of play, can then lead to important moments of connection between parents and carers. Children who make friends with each other in nursery unwittingly change the way that their parents and carers interact with each other. Because of this, children’s actions are a powerful starting point for increasing cohesion across an entire neighbourhood. Nurseries therefore have an essential role to play in fostering community cohesion.

How might nurseries show community leadership and foster community cohesion?

In our research with organisations which work with children and families in three towns in the north of England, we identified a range of ways in which these organisations foster community cohesion. The two we focus on here are prioritising a warm welcome and looking for opportunities to exchange and link with other providers.

Prioritising a warm welcome

The organisations we interviewed suggested that fostering connections between parents and carers was dependent on how welcome parents felt in the spaces their children entered. Our interviewees stressed that parents feeling welcome and comfortable could absolutely not be taken for granted. Providers needed to go out of their way to create a warm atmosphere where parents and carers could then exchange a smile, a nod or a conversation. Katrina Fielding is one of the directors of West Pennine Slings, a group for parents and babies to support sling-wearing and attachment between parents and babies. She emphasises how positive connections start with the provider’s attitude and approach: 

“As soon as someone walks in the door, I want them to be welcomed… to let them know that we see them and that we know they’re here. We want everyone to feel comfortable. We’re good at that – we try to make sure that we have conversations with people, so that they’re not just sat there.”

How warm are the interactions at the door of your nursery or in the foyer? How welcome do parents and carers feel? It can be powerful to observe drop-off and pick-up not just from the perspective of the children and their experience, but to see how parents and carers have the opportunity to connect with each other during these times of the day.

Opportunities to exchange and link with other providers

Of course, not all nurseries are situated in diverse local communities or cater to diverse populations. Our research highlights how organisations working with children – particularly those working in more segregated local neighbourhoods – have a fundamental role to play in introducing diverse children and families to one another through creative partnerships working across towns, cities or regions.

Meg Henry from The Linking Network, an organisation working with primary schools to support children and young people to explore identity and build connections together, suggests some practical first steps that early years providers could take to encourage connections across diversity:

“Connection needs to be based on a mutual decision by setting leaders that linking their children will be mutually beneficial. Then the key adults who will lead the link should meet for teacher training, considering the features of intergroup contact – enjoyable meaningful interaction, collaborative activity and time together well supported by adults. There needs to be careful preparation of the children in advance and equally careful consideration of both groups of children’s needs and interests, so that collaborative activities can flow from this.”

Calls to action

  1. Reflect: do you identify as a community leader, embracing the role your nursery plays in community cohesion?
  2. Observe: how do you model connection to parents so that they are more likely to connect with one another? How do you welcome parents into the space and cultivate warmth during key transition times of the day?
  3. Explore: what opportunities are there to connect with other providers around you, to diversify children’s and carers’ interactions? Could an exchange programme work for you?

Dr Mona Sakr is Associate Professor of Early Childhood at Middlesex University. She is leading the research project “Beyond School Gates: Children’s Contribution to Community Integration”, a partnership across six institutions across the UK, funded by the British Academy and the Nuffield Foundation. You can visit the project website for more information.

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