Play – our way! Chinese New Year celebrations the Sleepy Hollow Inspired way

Happy Year of the Rat !  

Good fortune, wealth, and happiness to all! 

新年快乐 (Mandarin) 春节愉快 (Cantonese)

We love celebrating cultural diversity – its embedded in our practice especially as the former Managing Director has a very diverse cultural background himself.   For years he would be very frustrated when in our inspection process we were asked to demonstrate how we incorporate multi cultural play into our curriculum – he was adamant it was more than having ethic dolls, dress up, books and plastic food on display.  For years we have celebrated cultural events as part of EVERYDAY ethos in Sleepy Hollow – luckily now our inspectors totally ‘get’ our approach and many record it in our reports as excellent practice (with one or two new ones into the sector each year still questioning our WHY on this stance until we offer our explanation)

Good early years practice and playwork needs to support equality from the earliest months of childhood BUT plastic food and a ‘culture’ book are meaningless to young babies and toddlers.

Take for example our Chinese New Year celebrations last week – play materials, books and other resources were offered in a constructive way by reflecting on how young children learn about culture and cultural identity.  Our Sleepy Hollow inspired ethos is based on the following understanding

  • Shared culture is communicated through the events of daily life, such as food – tasting food, learning a language or alphabet.
  • Posters, photographs and other visual images can give the message, even to very young children, that all these people who look different in many ways are part of our nursery, our school age childcare settings and our communities. Children see themselves and people who look like their family every day in our settings and that reflects whichever culture or background they are from.
  • Art and craft is another wonderful way to incorporate learning about cultures
  • There are plenty of quality story and information books that reflect the fact that Northern Ireland is a culturally diverse society. We tend to visit the library to borrow these books particularly about festivals and cultures which are topical that week – there doest need to be an expectation that you have books stored away which just come out of a cupboard or storeroom once a year.
  • Children benefit from stories with characters who look like them. Children can feel excluded if ‘people like me’ only appear in books about ‘children from other lands’.  Another reason why its very important to learn about our own cultures and backgrounds which Early Years – the Organisation for children and young people have captured so well through their Media Initiative
  • Sensory play – there are lots of different variants of sensory play activities which can add value to cultural celebrations.  For example we used red sand last week for a mark making activity around the cantonese and mandarin alphabets.
  • In another example last week we used ‘utensils’ (Chopsticks) for fine motor skills activities

Resources for pretend play should be much more than dolls and small play figures, dressing up clothes or the home corner equipment – we use proper food, spices, utensils, crockery, outfits (not dress up). All cultural celebrations should be offered with equal respect, as part of somebody’s normal life. For instance, the words ‘multicultural dressing up clothes’ are used in some catalogues to describe non-European clothing. The phrase could imply that there is ‘normal clothing worn by us’ and ‘exotic outfits worn in other cultures.’  We need to move on from this mindset.

A key message for equality practice is that there is no rush. Children become confused if early years practitioners feel pressure to rattle through a long list of ‘multicultural activities’, including many celebrations, before children enter formal school. A few quality experiences can start children on the road to appreciating diverse cultures and traditions.

In our school age childcare settings of course we let children take the lead and we are co-leaerners with them on their journey of experience of learning about other cultures.  They research and we learn together!  So next time you are embarking on a cultural celebration – remember to think about your why and what message are you sharing with children and young people about inclusivity and good practice.



Play – our way! Eco week Jan 2020

Our eco calendar 

A large part of our ethos and purpose revolves around re-purposing items for play purposes.  In fact in the journal Bronagh and I both co wrote we have a monthly section for eco sustainability.  We record as a company what we

  1. Reduce – how we are reducing waste as a company eg. replacing disposable hand towels with cotton re washable towels and blue disposable cleaning cloths with microfibre cloths.
  2. Re use – this is huge in a Reggio inspired setting where everything is seen as having more than one purpose.
  3. Recycle – which of course is very self explanatory
  4. Repair – what were we able to repair rather than replace.  If we cannot repair something electrical we simply re use it as a play item eg. fridges or cookers just go into our home corners or outdoor mud kitchens.  Children love taking electrical items apart and a tinker station is a regular feature in our play environments.
  5. Respect – nurturing is an important part of our ethos
  6. Reflect – what have we done this month to take action, change attitudes and care for our environments eg. have we been able to have a skype meeting rather than travelling unnecessarily.  I for example now live on a train commuter route so on days when Im entirely office based I’ve committed to using public transport!

Our eco play examples from week commencing 13th January 

We are mindful every week in our planning as we are both a Reggio Inspired and a Curiosity Approach accredited company.

We are always looking at alternative ways to think!  We get ideas from the children, parents or carers and of course from the staff but here are just a few we have used this week:-

  • Re-cycle wellingtons – we have used these as planters outside
  • Provide animal habitats e.g.bee hotel or bug hotel (one of our afterschools settings)
  • Pass on clothes that can be re-used.  We regularly collect for homeless charity appeals and have sent clothes over to both Kenya, India and Tazania with former Sleepy Hollow ‘pupils’ who have been out doing charity work.  The children have loved hearing how their clothes have helped others.  We have also collected donations of nappies and newborn clothes for Flourish NI.  This week the children are discussing new ideas for collections in 2020 – watch this space.

• Used Biodegradable nappy sacks and are encouraging parents to use eco nappies

• Picked fallen leaves or twigs on our forest walks to use as loose parts

  • Re –used bottles such as shampoo bottles, small bottles, squirty soap bottles for water play
  • Plant seeds and create a vegetable garden.
  • Collected rain water to use for watering our indoor plants
  • We gave careful attention to where used paint is emptied, down sink – water pollution, in bin – adding to landfill
  • Bought eco-friendly products and firmly support fairtrade produce .
  • We have repurposed Christmas lights and old frames to make a wonderful art wall displaying the children’s paintings or pictures

  • We have used pallets, a old jenga game to make a fabulous car port, and garage for our cars – way more fun than any plastic garage – GUARANTEED!

  • We made our own ‘glitter’ from natural items rather than the ‘traditional’ glitter which we no longer use due to research showing how harmful this microplastic is to wildlife and the environment.

  • We repurpose lots of items such as the old brief case below and jotters so children can use this mobile office as somewhere to record their ideas.  This also encourages the children to repurpose their own belongings.

  • In one of our settings we had out of date rice which of course wasn’t fit for human consumption but we were able to dye it lots of colours and combine it with some loose parts to make the most wonderful paintings.

So as you can see eco-week is just another week for us in Sleepy Hollow.  Eco planning is so ingrained in our ethos we don’t need a ‘dedicated week’ but its good to remind ourselves how far we have come and to ensure we keep the discussions alive in settings.

We would welcome any suggestions you may have!


16th January 2020

Play – our way! The power of dough!

Playdough play holds no age barrier!

At Sleepy Hollow we love both play dough and clay.

In fact in our pre school rooms we have dough stations where the children have all the ingredients to hand to make dough every single day.  In our wraparound units we make use of crates and wood to have dough stations.  We simply bring out the ingredients as we make the dough up as and when we use it.

We usually change up loose parts to go alongside the dough, but as you can see above there are food colouring dispensers, a beautiful samavar from which we can dispense water, favours and essences, and herbs.  Long gone are the days when we used coloured plasticine which was rock hard and a rainbow of colours at the end of the day.

We love to expand the dough areas by adding projections onto the walls as can be seen below where we have set up a lavender dough station and projected lavender fields onto the walls.  It just adds to the invitation to play and the magic of the area.

Benefits of playdough

We all know the benefits of playdough and clay for young children – whilst poking and manipulating playdough into shapes children are using small muscles in their hands and fingers which are critical in areas of physical development and fine motor skills needed for writing and drawing.  As soon as we add loose parts and other elements to the dough the list of benefits of creative play are endless.  Children mould, flatten, squish, break, pinch and roll both dough and clay to make many wonderful creations.

At our dough stations the communication and dialogue around the creations being made are amazing. The observations we can see and hear are precious.  We learn of the words associated with rolling and flattening the dough.  As co-learners the adults are verbalising all of the time to the children about their creations.

We are also learning about literacy and numeracy as we follow recipes, count loose parts or using cutters to cut into equal sizes and shapes.

We dont use templates or ideas for children to follow.  We allow children the freedom to make and create from their imagination.  The more loose parts we can offer the better the play opportunities. This also helps with attention span – the more we add the longer children will stay focused at the activity.  We often find children will start over and over to make sure they reshape the dough or the clay until their creations are just as they imagined them to be.

We often bring dough with us to forest time sessions as during our walks we collect leaves, twigs, flowers or petals which have fallen on the ground.  This give us a whole new world of adventure to add to our creations.  You can see the levels of concentration on the faces of the children as they are engrossed in this activity.

Sometimes we bring these natural loose parts back into the settings to add to our dough stations – even just seeing how the leaves, flowers, twigs and acorns leave prints in the dough – some of the school children have told us they are making fossils from the dough as captured in the photo below.

Playdough for all ages

Playdough of course knows no age barrier.  Its a staple play provocation or invitation set up in our wraparound school age facilities.  Its very therapeutic play for older children who of course enjoy the sensory experiences and calmness that this activity brings.  It brings with it a sense of curiosity and in fact there is a whole chapter dedicated to it in the A-Z of the Curiosity Approach book (available on amazon).

There is an undeniable correlation between sensory activities and calmness.  By adding lavender, chamomile and eucalyptus it can help with relaxation and promotes self regulation.  In fact dough, clay and Thera putty is often used by play therapists for children who are experiencing sensory overloads

Quite often when you come into our settings you will see the staff playing at the dough stations with the children – its play knows no age boundaries.  We find it particularly useful when a child is transitioning at the start of after schools, after homework or at the end of the day when its time to relax after noisy or physical outdoor play.


Playdough recipe

We have lots of different and varying recipes for dough but the one we use the most is

  • 3 cups of flour
  • 1/4 cup of salt
  • 4 teaspoons of cream of tartar
  • 2 cups of water
  • 2 teaspoons of vegetable oil
  • optional : food colouring, essential oils, herbs, lavender and as many loose parts as you care to add.

We tend to make fresh dough daily depending on how much it has been played with the day before but if you put dough in a strong sandwich bag it can be reused again and again.


Play – our way! Why journal?

In order to succeed in life and in your career you need a winners mindset!

I firmly believe in order to achieve that mindset you need to set goals and an action plan in how to achieve your goals.  The Sleepy Hollow Inspired actionable & accountable, reflective journal breaks that down for you.   Your goals should be SMART – specific, measurable, achieveable, realisitic and time relevant.  The key in this is the ‘T’. You decide how quickly you want to achieve your goals but by breaking these down to shorter monthly, weekly and even daily goals this is a sure way to make passive progress in all aspects of your life.

Many people feel overwhelmed when they set huge goals – honestly my advice is don’t be – dream big!  ‘Go big or go home’ as the saying goes has been one of the hardest things I have had to struggle with – my upbringing has been one of modesty and I honestly found it difficult to be over ambitious. Even becoming self employed and leaving the security of a larger employer over 20 years ago would have been seen as a huge risk in our family.  However my struggle to find quality and affordable childcare was one that many other young parents were facing and my desire to want to change that was stronger than any inner voice telling me I was taking a risk.  Believe me each and every day is a risk whether you are employed, self employed or unemployed.  The key to me continuing to strive to do more even twenty years on from taking that leap is through thorough and honest planning – goal setting, being accountable, reflecting on practice and making changes where and when I need to.

Nowadays I set a goal and work backwards.  I use our journals many times through the day.  Im honest and if I haven’t achieved a goal or task that day en route to a goal then I reflect on the reasons for that and carry or amend that goal to the next day.  If you don’t do this daily then your goals fall by the wayside.

Bronagh and I are accountability partners so we tend to share our journaling with each other every week to keep each other on track.

In 2020 the whole Sleepy Hollow staff team will join us in journalling and we will be using these for the basis of the professional development of our team as well as for staff supervisions and appraisals.  That way we will all be on own journey to our individual goals but with a collective purpose.

Happy journaling everyone !

Diane (January 2020)

Our journals are available to order on Amazon for £12.50 plus p&p




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An evening with the Curiosity Approach in Ireland

An Evening with The Curiosity Approach in Ireland

Sleepy Hollow and our journey with The Curiosity Approach

Diane, Bronagh and Amy have all been very fortunate to attend International Study Conferences in Reggio Emilia.  As such we all share such a passion for this vision which we feel you can almost only have when you have visited the wonderful NIDO’s out in Reggio itself.

Each of us have returned with a vision which is hard to put into words and share with our colleagues.  We have changed the environments, written our own new planning and evaluation documents, held training sessions but still felt we were the key drivers behind our new approaches when we desperately needed our colleagues to be driving these changes.  After all it is our colleagues who work most closely with the children and we need to take our cues and directions from the children themselves in a Reggio Inspired setting … right?

Professional Development days – invaluable training events!

Bronagh and I then began a series of journeys around Professional Development days in the rest of UK to see how they were implementing similar pedagogies in their settings.  We were wowed by them all to be honest – each unique and each beautiful.  We kept going back however to the ideas of the Curiosity Approach which was the first PD day we attended.  We were able to send two of our managers on further training and when we embarked on the accreditation programme this was just what we needed to turn our vision into our staff teams vision.  We used the modules which came out every second month as a work tool.  We mapped where we were – where each group wanted to be – we changed, we evaluated, we reflected … until we all shared an equal understanding.  In fact we have learned through this accreditation that we will always be evolving – as each new child joins us, as each group of new children come into settings and rooms, as each season brings new opportunities, as each training programme we undertake becomes embedded in practice.  The accreditation has given us the toolkit and the know how to do this as a team.

Hosting the evening.

So after several comments left on social media inviting the founders over to NI and offering to host a workshop or ‘evening with’ we were delighted when they reached out to ask for a zoom meeting with us.  We weren’t at all expecting it to take the direction it did – there are a lot of exciting times ahead in our partnership which we are currently forming with Lyndsey and Stephanie (but that’s a post for another time – its all going on behind the scenes as I write).  Needless to say we have very much a shared vision and respect of the work of such inspiring individuals.

So we jumped at the chance and agreed a date to host the founders just three weeks after our initial discussion.  It was our intention to hold it at our Early Childhood Centre – in close proximity to the International Airport for them to fly over and we reckoned we could host between 40-45 easily in one room.  In the final week before the event the ticket sales were more than double what was anticipated so we quickly changed the venue to our wraparound facility at Crumlin IPS which was perfect.  The posters around the school about individuality and change were fitting tributes to the ethos shared by the founders.

The day itself

Bronagh and I were excited on our trip to the airport, and somewhat nervous (well I was – Bronagh is rarely nervous!).   We went for a quick lunch and by the time the hour was over (in blistering heat in the conservatory of the Ballyrobin Lodge) not only were we ‘boiled’ by the winter sunshine we had enjoyed quite a few laughs!

A brief tour of our setting followed where the staff were proud to showcase the work they have been doing and where Dennis the donkey gave a good Irish Welcome!

It was all systems go then getting ready for the evening.  Including our own staff team there were over 100 people mostly from across NI but also a few from border counties.

 An evening with ….

Following a brief introduction and welcome all delegates sat in awe for two hours – the expressions of some of those in the audience were amazing (I wish I had captured some on camera!).  Working in both unseemly and cohesive partnership Lyndsey and Stephanie (the epitome of a double act) walked us through their modern day pedagogy which is based on influences from Reggio, Steiner, Te Whariki and Montessori.  They took us through three key elements

  1. Creating awe and wonder in our settings – being curious, being mindful of how we are speaking with children – I think we could all relate to Stephanie’s hilarious re-enactment of Tidy Up time! So we all came away with the key message about ‘putting things back where they belong’. This is something we have been doing very effectively in our setting since we were over at the PD day – it makes total sense (when you have been told about it!!)
  2. The environment – obviously in Sleepy Hollow we have particularly followed the Reggio Influences of Curiosity Approach. The environment plays a huge part in this approach as it does within Reggio.  Its not all about crates and fairly lights explained the founders – you need to know what you are doing and why you are doing it.  That’s the beautiful part of the accreditation journey is that its individual to your own setting and the influences that inspire you.  So long as your evidence is  mapped you aren’t directed how you need to implement it.  Its flexible and adaptable to all ages and all settings.
  3. Getting your staff team on the bus. This final part of the evening could have been awarded a BAFTA had it been televised.  Again hilarious but the message is so true —- as employers, committees, managers and practitioners – parents are paying us 100% of the fees we ask of them; employees are being paid 100% salary and we have a duty to provide 100% effort when we are in work.  ‘Your vibe attracts your tribe’ and ‘children get your vibe before you speak’ were two of the most powerful quotes of the night.

Lyndsey then was able to share with the participants a one off special work pack specialising on getting your team on the bus with all attendees.  These were only available on the night but if anyone wasn’t able to purchase one – please contact Curiosity Approach giving your name, email etc and once they have verified you attended the evening they will be able to send one over to you.

Surprise – Sleepy Hollow becomes IRELANDS FIRST ACCREDITED SETTING

Having already submitted our portfolio for the accreditation we were waiting to hear if we had been successful.  Lyndsey and Stephanie have a team of assessors so we knew it wouldn’t be them to would be in touch with us when the final parts of the assessment were completed.  In fact Bronagh had only just had a conference call with the assessors as part of the evaluation process just a couple of days earlier and we had been told it would be another while yet.  Anyway .. it was all part of a plan apparently….  as we were announced to be the FIRST Curiosity Approach Accredited setting in Ireland on the night.  We were delighted that our key personnel Karen and Rachel (who had both been over in CA settings and who have formed a close bond with the managers in Lyndsey’s setting – the NEST nurseries Birmingham), as well as Amy and Lisa who were also the key drivers behind the changes were there on the night to accept the award.  We are hoping to get a team over to visit Stephanie’s setting too – look out for their open days and PD days – well worth a trip over!

Curiosity Approach in Ireland going forward

We hope that some of our colleagues in the sector are inspired to sign up to the Curiosity Approach Accreditation yourselves after this inspirational evening.  It’s a journey, a toolkit – you work at your pace and you submit your evidence at the end of YOUR journey (we signed up in September 2017 so we took our time to get ours right – embedded in practice first).

All enquiries should be made directly to the Curiosity Approach.  Bronagh and I are now All Ireland Ambassadors for the Curiosity Approach so we will be hosting our own training evenings, network support groups … and more (Curiosity Approach themselves will be announcing more info over the next couple of months).  We would encourage you not to delay … get signed up and start with the first module – you won’t regret it!  We hope we can form an All Ireland curiosity grouping with all those who sign up – after all we are stronger when we work together with like-minded professionals!

Believe us when we say that these two founders will be amongst the theorists we will be studying about in Early Childhood in years to come – their accreditation is being undertaking across 16 countries.  It’s a modern day pedagogy which will shape our sector and your setting!  Looking forward to having you join us on the bus …

Some photos of the evening and our whistle stop tour around Belfast the day after the evening before ….. ( a little Irish one for you there !!)

Awards & Recognition