Froebelian Leadership – Caroline Walsh

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Project summary:

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


I currently work one day a week in my role as Outdoors Early years officer at the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh (RBGE), and four days a week for Cattanach a grant funding Early years charity. I will be returning to my role at RBGE at the beginning of May where I can continue in my role to deliver early years and facilitate an outdoor children’s nursery at the RBGE.    

Initially I facilitated a baby group ‘Seedlings,’ using Treasure baskets which then developed into Sprouts (heuristic play) and continues to grow in popularity. The next stage I plan to develop will be stay and play sessions with possibly Intergenerational play sessions also. 

In consultation with the head of Education at RBGE, I have started proceedings with some emails trying to gauge interest.  The parents are invested, and some have been attending with their children since the beginning pilot project. 

 The process started by having conversations with and asking the families for feedback, opinions and suggestions. It is difficult to get the child’s voice incorporated into feedback but the babies, some of whom have attended since the first pilot are all happy, calm and engaged each session and the parents/ carers feedback has been encouraging.  We are unique in setting and style. Relationships have started to develop between the families, babies, and extended family members (grandparents and a nanny) There is a sense of community forming and the parents are sharing with me their lives. A lot of the parents are not from Edinburgh originally and have no nearby family support. Word is spreading and we have a waiting list to attend. 

“We ignore people’s need to participate at our own peril. If they’re involved, they will create a future that already has them in it…. People support what they create… Life accepts only partners, not bosses.” Margaret Wheatley, Bringing Life to Organisational Change (1998)  

Following on from the success of ‘Seedling’s treasure baskets, and the extension into Heuristic play sessions collaboratively existing, at the parents request we worked together with the families to develop what is next. I asked for feedback, suggestions, and ideas.  

One parent shared she wasn’t going to come as she knew her friend and support would not be there, but she decided to come along and I shared I was glad she did, she confided about her personal circumstances and how often she felt overwhelmed, I listened to her, I did not judge.  

 ‘In Froebel’s view parents need encouragement and support. They need to feel empowered’ (Early Childhood Practice today, T Bruce pp18.)  

Together we have created a supportive community for the attendees of Seedlings and Sprouts, and I underestimated the power this group has as more parents share their feedback, “this is the highlight of the week for me.” For an isolated parent struggling with their mental health, I feel honoured to be able to offer this group once a week and the speed at which it is developing.  The experiences we have in childhood will have an impact on how our brain’s circuits get used: high-quality experiences will reinforce important cognitive, social and emotional skills that are necessary for learning, forming close relationships, and achieving positive healthy outcomes, and they will create a solid foundation for additional development (Dr J Cameron, University Pittsburgh) 

One exhausted mum shared verbally this was, “something she looked forward to all week,” as it was the only time her baby was happy not to be held, another mum wrote that (pictured) ‘we love sprouts, maybe something for 2-year-olds+.’ We shared the same thoughts a few families had asked about what is next, and I suggested stay and play sessions outdoors in the pilot space known as Our Wee Garden.  

I spoke to the families to see if this would be of interest to them and emailed the head of Education at RBGE to gauge interest, incorporating community involvement, equity and inclusion, chosen and led by children and families, centred around Froebelian principles this encapsulates all we aim to achieve. 

Using my independent style of leadership, I demonstrate being child led and community focussed. After the global pandemic there are a lot of isolated new parents and elderly people – research shows the benefits of bringing people together. 

I propose a ‘Sunflowers’ group. Sunflowers symbolise loyalty, adoration thanks to the myth of Clytie and Apollo, and because of their association with the sun, sunflowers are well known for being happy flower and the perfect bloom to brighten someone’s mood. (Bloom and wild). Many Seedlings and Sprouts are keen to continue attending and have shown interest in stay and play sessions, one even offered to facilitate Sprouts if I was unavailable as she “just loves it”.  

I have been a facilitative leader by observing and listening to the group and learning to develop with them, when the babies became mobile and developing beyond Treasure baskets, as a group we (the parents and I) decided to expand and co-exist with the Sprouts group Heuristic play. This has developed beyond expectation and the need for another session is being investigated. They are a loyal group and enjoy this unique play setting and sessions, they are from a wide demographic area and travel to join the group each week in all weathers. I have met with MSC students, colleagues and student practioners to share the work I am doing, I also continue to gain the families’ perspectives; I have offered tours at the pilot site to gain their feedback. It was well received – six parents came along and the children immediately started playing, thus demonstrating the Child’s voice, the current plan is to offer stay and play sessions in the outdoor space to both families and settings. My history at RBGE helps having worked successfully facilitating a pilot project working collaboratively with professionals from the Froebel Trust, Edinburgh University and Inspiring Scotland. Proving I am very capable. “An unhurried environment allows me time to concentrate on whatever catches my attention without being rushed” (Education Scotland 2020:31). Realising the Ambition, Being Me (RtA) (Education Scotland,2020) – advocates “starting with the child” (Education Scotland, 2020:65). 

I plan to meet with the wider education team to review the learning and its implications for the wider system drawing on everyone’s input. The fundamental and living thought of humanity, ‘come let us live with our children,’ becomes, when manifested in action, an institution for fostering family life and for the cultivation of the life of the nation, and mankind, through fostering impulse to activity, investigation, and culture in man, in the child as a member of the family, of the nation, and of humanity… (Froebel 1895:6) 

My colleagues at RBGE have learned that I am able to implement Froebelian theory in a botanic garden. I am creating systemic changes and breaking away from the previous traditional structured sessions. I am in contact with Auckland Botanic gardens, New Zealand. The plan is to offer play sessions to other settings offering high quality play provision in a sustainable style, with natural resources this may lead to opening an Outdoor children’s nursery in RBGE, and the next step will be to work on the site and put in drainage then offer stay and play sessions and apply to the care inspectorate.  There are boundaries in this unique setting but freedom with guidance will be the underlying principle. Feedback received from the anonymous questionnaires. (Fig 1.) 

 “Leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way” (Denehy, 2008:107) 

Froebel operated with integrity and was trustworthy, he used strengths to dominate and made weaknesses irrelevant, he understood people, he was inspiring and inspired confidence by being predictable, dependable and consistent, he was self-reflective. I keep a reflective journal and use this to evaluate. Like Froebel I demonstrate a willingness to develop others, having visitors come along meeting with peers and sharing my practice and attending courses and conferences. I have reached out to colleagues all over the world and applied for a fellowship, I believe I have brought positive change to RBGE. The environment is changing. I have presented at a senior meeting, and the senior team listened to the feedback from the families keen to attend, there is a ripple effect from the actions of the initial pilot project facilitated over an eight month period, and I have remained for twenty-two months demonstrating my commitment, making positive changes that affect opinions, values, policy, practice, environment, language, roles and responsibilities, decision making and management. I continue to grow in my role and my main strength is communication. I work well with people, I listen, and I care. An area I plan on growing in is my self-confidence and self-belief, I will have to undertake more qualifications to manage an outdoor nursery at RBGE this is a challenge for me but one I am willing and able to attempt. I work alone and independently, and I am trusted enough to run with my ideas. I am resourceful and can seek advice from my peers. The management believe in me and have shared they continue to learn from me.  Having taken the time to really think about what it is I want to achieve I am pleased to be returning to my role at RBGE, as DR Lynn McNair signed in my book ‘change the world.’ 


Fig 1. 

“Exceeded expectations”  

“The group gave the confidence to let baba explore non ‘sanitised’ baby safe items, great to see their confidence and curiosity grow too”  

“a relaxed parent and baby group which allows babies to explore natural materials and everyday items.”  

 “A brilliant group – Caroline created a welcoming relaxed atmosphere for the parents and babies, felt really natural and baby led, and you could see their wee personalities really shining through.”  

“Thank you so much. I adored our time in the group! Such lovely people, beautiful surroundings, and interesting play philosophy.” 

 The experiences we have in childhood will have an impact on how out brain’s circuits get used: high –quality experiences will reinforce important cognitive, social and emotional skills that are necessary for learning, forming close relationships, and achieving positive healthy outcomes, and they will create a solid foundation for additional development (Dr J Cameron, University Pittsburgh) 


Bruce, T. 2012, Early Childhood Practice today, Sage, London. 

Cameron, J, 2020, “The Core story of Brain Development”, University Pittsburgh. accessed April 2023. 

Hughes, A. 2010, Developing Play for the under 3s, second edition, Routledge, London and New York. 

Realising the Ambition Being Me, Education Scotland 2020 

Rodd, J.2013, Leadership in early childhood, 4th edition, Allen & Unwin, Sydney. 


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