Froebelian Leadership – Alison Hawkins

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Project summary:

Action research and reflection on leadership from a Froebelian perspective in an early learning and chldcare community


Who and How 

Staffing at WCNS currently consists of a small team of practitioners with varying interests, talents, and input. Qualifications range from ‘teaching’, through a BA in Childhood Practice to SVQ levels 3 and 2. The common thread, and shared vision, is a belief in the principled approach of Friedrich Froebel, and indeed three members of staff hold the Froebel in Childhood Practice certificate from the University of Edinburgh. The small size of the staff team (6) means that much happens in an holistic manner, and planning is kept to a minimum as children and adults play and learn together. Loose planning is sketched out every half-term at our get-together days and encompasses ‘seasonal events’…but largely follows the lead engendered by children. Such is our ‘working’ ethos, and strong relationships, that staff complement each other, and practice (usually) evolves seamlessly. If there is a ‘leader’ in the set-up it is the owner and teacher-head of the setting… who ultimately is accountable.  

What and Why 

Courtesy of the way we work there are many, many daily situations where a member of staff interacts and extends learning with one child, or a small group of children. This play may be in passing or may be sustained over days, often left and returned to, and built on. Some staff have undertaken a ‘practitioner inquiry’, and this foray into research has stimulated further professional dialogue and questioning, giving a conduit for discourse and interpreting the learning in play. 

This particular ‘project’ evolved as follows: 

 An interest in health and safety and risk arose amongst some of the children.  

 During a walk in our local area children came across a burnt-out car, evoking much conversation and speculation. The interest in fire was further deepened with the installation of new smoke alarms in the nursery premises. Role play about fire officers led to children making their own booklet about how to evacuate the building in case of fire. This play and holistic approach built on the children’s natural curiosity and practitioners were able to extend the learning through the introduction of books and resources. At the same time staff were reinforcing the benefits of health and hygiene – particularly when outdoors and at our campfire area. Children were revisiting hand washing practices and songs, and consolidating their knowledge of ‘keeping myself safe’. A further booklet was created outlining ‘how to wash my hands’ and was displayed in nursery.   

The focus was further expanded to learning about other ways to keep safe, including the benefits of exercise. Beside venturing out within our community children regularly use a communal site, five minutes away, for games, running and ‘PE’ skills. Football on our (now non-existent!) grass was proving very popular also. Dance, obstacle courses and drama all give opportunity for daily movement, but more was evolving… 

At this point discussion took place between a colleague and myself over the requirements for physical exercise for the age group 3-5, and about how best to let children follow their own physical play; additionally we debated how – through the principle of freedom with guidance – staff could instigate and encourage other forms of exercise.  

 As with children I have always found that leadership is most effective in starting where the practitioner is, and using the undoubted strengths each brings to the setting. Observing the children playing together and talking about this ultimately led to my colleague researching ‘risky’ play and starting to explore that with a group of children. I stepped back and she adopted the role of leader. 

 Following our chats my colleague created a mind map for her own use. She scribbled down all her thoughts on ‘movements associated with risky play’ demonstrating her knowledge. It is a wonderful ‘working document’ serving to focus her thoughts, and indeed could function as an aide memoir to what we have on offer for physical play – and why. It embraces a wide array of activities, and offers potential learning ideas covering several curricular areas in an holistic way. Well-being runs predominately through her lists. My colleague had streamlined ‘loose planning’ as a response to the children’s interests. 

She planned to ask the children questions such as “what do you like playing outside?”, “how does that make you feel?”, “is that a good or bad thing” leading to “how can we make sure you are safe?”  

 Of course, the children took her in a slightly different direction!  

Froebel, in Lilley, (1967:55) advocates that  

“The true educator and teacher has to be at every moment and in every demand two-sided. He (she) must give and take, unite and divide, order and follow; he (she) must be active and passive, decisive and permissive, firm and flexible.” 

 And that is what was unfolding – an understanding of when to enter the play, when to make suggestions and when to ‘merely’ observe. 

 The development of the children’s play with balls was leading them towards undertaking their own risk assessments…though they did not at first recognise this. 

Discovering the lightweight football was relatively easy to launch over our boundary wall  they challenged themselves and each other to do so. Eventually it was decided that no adult could go yet again to fetch the ball and that they must therefore keep it in the garden, use a heavier ball, or stop playing with balls until after lunch.  

Undaunted the children altered the game, and the target became trying to get the ball stuck in the branches of a tree. As they practised this, they became very efficient at achieving their aims.  

 The problem was ‘how to get the balls down’! 

 Initially the children looked around helplessly, possibly hoping for adult help. When that did not immediately happen, they started their own problem-solving. A number of attempts were made to jump and knock the ball out; naturally they were nowhere near reaching the branches. The next idea was to stand on a bench and jump, followed by putting a chair on the bench and jumping. As these attempts were executed the children’s conversation became deeper and meaningful as they collaboratively sought solutions. My colleague intervened at one point – gently guiding them to recall a previous experience and use that knowledge. “Do you remember what we did when a hoop got stuck in the tree?” she asked. 

This resulted in the children animatedly sharing their memories with the practitioner. “We got a stick”, “No a long pole”, “We pushed it up, up”. We got the hoop!” Problem-solved…and the next challenge began – how to get the ball out from the rose bushes where thorns grew thick and fast! 

 Later the group sat with my colleague and discussed what had happened. They explored the problems, the ‘dangers’, the risk in some of the solutions, and whether the solution attempts were suitable for some of the younger children. It was decided with the practitioner’s lead and input that the children could compile a further ‘risk assessment’ booklet. Win win all round!  

 Reflections on Leadership Learning 

For my colleague this mini project, arising from the idea of keeping safe, gave her confidence in guiding a theme, which I feel will yet develop further. It gave confirmation to herself of her Froebelian knowledge, affording her the opportunity to put leadership into practice. It gave us the chance to work closely at the beginning, and professionally explore the benefits of risky and active play.  

During the Froebelian Leadership course professional dialogue was for me, (and I think for others too) robust, far-reaching, and helpful. Speaking as leaders from diverse backgrounds and work settings, it was agreed many times that we can feel isolated. Some leaders felt undermined by seniors within their settings, and some overwhelmed by feelings of working on their own with little support or understanding. All those I spoke to also felt the weight of ‘ultimately carrying the can’ causing us conflict in affording ‘too much’ autonomy to certain practitioners. It was commonly voiced that while wholeheartedly embracing the concept of distributive leadership there was a line to be drawn in ‘allowing’ too many grave mistakes to be made, which might impact negatively on children, settings’ reputations, and indeed Care Inspectorate gradings.  The fact that as participants on the course we were in agreement over this was a positive, giving confidence to each other. 

For my part the course offered insight to the role of a leader, and challenge in tackling tricky scenarios. I have learned that while I am always on hand to support, give suggestions and guidance I find it difficult not to intervene if I witness practice not in keeping with our philosophy, or practice where I see looming problems!  

Is there a lesson to be learned? Probably that the greater understanding staff have of Froebelian principles and ‘good practice’, and the more it is discussed and modelled, the greater is the quality of day-to-day living for the children in our care. 

” The instinct for adults to step in and solve problems for children is strong, but listening to children’s ideas and helping them solve their own problems empowers children to see themselves as competent problem solvers.” (Tovey, 2016:119). I think that as a leader that statement would also apply  to encouraging practitioners to ‘have a go’. 

Alison J Hawkins, Wester Coates Nursery School, April 2023 


Care Inspectorate, (20220 My Active World Communications: Scotland 

Lilley, I.M., (1967) Friedrich Froebel, A Selection from his Writings Cambridge University press: Cambridge 

Tovey, H., (2016) Bringing the Froebel Approach to your Early Years Practice (2nd Ed) Routledge: London 

 Further Reading 

Bruce, T., (2021) Friedrich Froebel A Critical Introduction to Key Themes and Debates Bloomsbury: London 

MacNaughton, G., and Hughes, P. M., (2008) Doing Action Research in Early Childhood Studies: A Step by Step Guide McGraw-Hill education: UK 

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