Is Cowgate Under 5s best nursery in Scotland?

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IT looks like a recipe for disaster. A group of pre-school children left to their own devices inches away from a saw and hammer casually left on an unguarded worktop.

On first glance you would expect it to be the sort of health and safety nightmare in a nursery which would attract the harshest of criticism from Care Inspectorate inspectors.

Lynn McNair plays piano for her charges. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Lynn McNair plays piano for her charges. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Instead, far from being shut down, the Cowgate Under 5s Centre has just been awarded an unheard-of haul of nine “excellent” ratings from that body, providing fuel to claims the trailblazing nursery is best in Scotland and perhaps even Britain.

But what about that hammer?

“We have a principled approach and it’s all based on trust,” says head of centre Lynn McNair.

“If you’re talking about something like the woodwork bench, where tools can easily be picked up, the children will look for adult support there.

“We run safety sessions with them – they’re not going to pick up a hammer and start hitting each other on the head.

“But the children are here to take charge of their own learning and our job is to support them in that.”

Elsewhere in the nursery, among maplewood mini-rocking chairs and pastel-coloured cushions, and beneath softly glowing baby mobiles and light features, infants crawl happily and freely. Outside – hidden behind the rain-darkened buildings of the Royal Mile and Cowgate – older children run, clamber and throw sand at each other, draw water from a specially made pump or try out one of the giant xylophones set up next to their playhouse.

And that’s all before they travel, as they do on at least three days a week, to Stickland – a bespoke wooded play area in Bonaly which offers a whole new range of outdoor activities.

For the 51 lucky youngsters who come to the centre, these intimate experiences are the fabric of day-to-day life, as natural as sliding down a play-chute.

City parents, meanwhile, are so desperate to get on its books that babies often have to be put on waiting lists before they are even born.

Staff are quick to point out that none of this has come about through financial largesse or one-off lottery bonanzas; the roots of success, they stress, are simple and available to everyone.

Ms McNair, who has been at Cowgate “since the beginning” 12 years ago, says an all-encompassing “community” spirit has been essential to the nursery’s development, underpinning a uniquely inventive and autonomous approach to early years childcare.

The ethos has allowed her to offer learning resources unparalleled in range and richness, with staff and families producing their own toys, furniture and other play items at next to no cost.

Key to her vision is the work of 19th century German thinker Friedrich Froebel – father of the kindergarten and a central figure in the modernisation of children’s education.

“Froebel was all about ecology and how we help each other in a whole and unified way,” says Ms McNair.

“He was about people helping each other – breaking down classes.

“It’s very much about an inclusive way of being with people, and in contemporary times, it links in with a social justice way of being.”

Its origins may be obscure but the fruits of the approach are clear to parents.

Kelly McKnight, 35, from Newington, was so keen to get daughter Ava, now two, into the nursery that she asked about adding her to its waiting list when she was 20 weeks pregnant.

“As soon as I knew the pregnancy was viable, I made inquiries,” she says.

“I visited lots of other nurseries and Ava just seems to want to explore here – she seems more comfortable and happy.

“It’s because she’s given freedom. The kids are totally trusted.”

In the outdoor play area, as youngsters trip, fall over and happily pick themselves up, childcare practitioner Michelle Parker, 28, points to a hanging CD decoration that has been used to brighten up a shelter.

“They’re just old discs but they look great when the sun catches them and they start to glint,” she says, before explaining how they embody the Froebelian philosophy which she has explored through
personal study.

“It’s about play through natural materials, gifts from the environment, or recycled gifts from home.

“Pine cones, corks, wooden spoons, chains – it’s play where a child discovers through using their senses.”

And the nursery’s innovations extend even to the make-up of its staff.

Although something of a rarity elsewhere in the Capital and Scotland, male childcare workers are an everyday sight at the Cowgate, where youngsters have regular access to former scaffolder Scott Craig, 37, and his colleague, Scott Taylor, 25.

“It was when I was a mini-bus driver for a children and families centre through in Musselburgh – it just woke something up in me and I decided I wanted to go into childcare,” says the older Scott.

“There aren’t many men in this type of work; I haven’t met another one. But I think that having a choice to build a relationship, whether it be with a man or a woman, is a good thing for young children.”

The challenge for any organisation enjoying such incredible levels of success is maintaining momentum and a clear vision of where to go next.

However, for Ms McNair, who is busy working out how she can boost children’s access to Stickland, there is no chance of her team treading water.

“There will never be room for us to remain static,” she says. “We’re constantly looking at our process, constantly learning, constantly questioning what we do – we’ll never stop moving forward.”

johnpaul.holden@edinburghnews.com