Froebelian Leadership – Grace Milligan

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Project summary:

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



 In August 2022 the role in nursery B increased from 30 to 44 children. Fortunately, nursery B has a large outdoor area which is accessed directly from the main playroom (this was a factor in the decision to increase the capacity.) Children have free flow access to the garden throughout the session, however in January 2023 practitioners began to observe that many children were choosing not to spend any time outside in the nursery garden. Whilst respecting children’s decision to be autonomous the children had previously spent a great deal more time in the garden – surely it could not just be down to the weather? Staff decided to reflect on the reasons why this might be, working in consultation with the children and their families, to find ways to engage more children to play outside in the nursery garden. With a few simple changes we managed to do so. The inquiry process led to all practitioners developing their leadership skills and the success they achieved has motivated them to keep using this tool for change. 


 Nursery B has three full time and two part time Early Years Officers. There is no Senior Early Years Officer and both myself (as the Nursery Teacher) and the Equity and Excellence Lead are peripatetic. It can be challenging for staff to take forward development as there are many children with additional support needs and the nursery is in an area of multiple deprivation. 

Distributive leadership has always been encouraged but with limited success. It is fair to say that at the very start of this inquiry most staff were reluctant to take on leadership roles. This inquiry allowed them to reflect on the reasons for their reluctance, with reasons including feeling too inexperienced, lacking confidence, time constraints or an unwillingness to take on any more responsibility.  

Froebel believed that relationships matter, and I feel that cultivating positive relationships with my colleagues over time was a factor in them agreeing to take part. 

 The inquiry allowed them to confront their fears through experiencing leadership in a short term, very focused and well supported approach. 

I am proud to have a Masters in Early Childhood Practice and Froebel and am always keen to share Froebelian principles and practice with colleagues, whether this be through discussion or through sharing information about Froebelian online trainings, websites and pamphlets. It is always pleasing when colleagues want to further discuss Froebelian ideas they have watched or read about and the impact it has on their own practice. This is usually those who are studying but interest is steadily increasing in those who are not studying too. Fife ELC currently has small pockets of Froebelian practice, and I feel that in my own way I am helping to raise awareness and interest in my corner of Fife! 

Staff in nursery B were given the opportunity to take part in a small scale project which incorporated Froebelian principles and practice in order to find a solution whilst developing leadership skills.  

 This inquiry lasted throughout most of term Term 3 (Jan to March.) As I work in this nursery every third week It was agreed that during the 2 weeks I was not there I would communicate with the staff to offer support and guidance as required. During the week I was scheduled to be at the nursery I was able to offer more practical support, such as covering for staff to allow them time off the floor to capture the children’s and parent/carer voice, to source materials/resources and to make changes to the garden environment. Regular check ins with the team encouraged our shared vision and strengthened our knowledge of Froebelian principles. 

During Term 3 when the nursery role greatly increased practitioners began to realise that many children were choosing to stay inside rather than going outside to play, causing the playroom to become noisier and busier, increasing staff stress levels and leading to more accidents. Individual staff spoke to me about their concerns, and I suggested that rather than having many separate conversations about possible solutions, this could be an ideal opportunity for the team to find a solution together.  

We initially considered the barriers to leadership before deciding that we wanted to go ahead as it was a very short term project therefore the staff did not feel overwhelmed. 

Firstly, we used the iceberg model from which enabled the team to think objectively about the inquiry problem. Completing the current reality and future vision structure of the iceberg model quickly pinpointed the main concerns that staff had and allowed them to reflect and focus on finding solutions. Using a Froebelian lens (by reading and referring to the pamphlet Outdoor Play and Exploration) encouraged a fresh approach to evaluating the provision on offer in our nursery garden and the possible barriers to children accessing the nursery garden.  

I introduced the iceberg model as it is easy to use and provided a succinct list of problems and possible solutions, allowing the team to decide which issues to focus on first thus giving them ownership. Because of this, everyone felt empowered to be able to contribute to finding the solutions. As this was a short term inquiry the practitioners focused on short term goals rather than long term goals.  

I arranged to cover for staff to have time off the floor to read the Outdoor Play and Exploration pamphlet as this became the starting point to reflect on the current provision in the nursery garden. Most staff actually read the pamphlet in their own time, as they found it interesting, attractive and easy to read. This was followed by a discussion and reflection on how we could use the pamphlet to aid our inquiry – a very valuable means to explore Froebelian principles and practice in a meaningful way. 

I also covered so staff could consult with parents/carers and of course the children. I encouraged staff to speak to friends in other local nurseries who had recently developed their garden provision. From this a visit was arranged to a local nursery garden. Discussion between the two sets of practitioners was worthwhile and one of the most successful parts of the inquiry, as it demonstrated what others could achieve with limited time and resources and gave the practitioners time to talk with different people about being a leader of development. 

As expected, some members of staff found the leadership part of the inquiry easier than others. Part time staff suggested working in pairs next time due to time constraints, some felt that they found it easier on the weeks when I was with them full time. Staff absence and changes in staffing also impacted the inquiry.  At times it was difficult for me to commit to spending so much time with one setting as I am expected to give equitable amounts of time to all my ELC settings. However, the short term small scale of the inquiry meant that it was manageable. We are planning an opportunity for other nurseries to visit our garden which will give my colleagues the opportunity to share their journey and hopefully inspire others. 

The practitioners learned that getting the environment right was only one part the process to encourage more of our children back outdoors. Other factors included: overcoming barriers such as access to suitable clothing as the cost of living crisis meant that many families could not always afford to provide suitable outdoor clothing for their children; parent/carer concerns about their children playing outside in the cold including perceived links to catching the cold or the risk involved in playing outdoors in cold weather; and an honest self-reflection by the practitioners on their own (sometimes negative) thoughts and feelings about their own enjoyment on being outside and how they engage with nature around children. 

As well as making the environment more interesting (with increased amounts of open ended resources) and sourcing more suitable clothing, the staff wanted to organise a stay and play session where the children and their families could experience the community connection of  experiencing the nursery garden in winter. The children and their families toasted marshmallows and drank hot chocolate. As the only member of staff who has completed fire bowl training, I’m pleased to say that all staff now want to undertake this training thus building their capacity. Parents/carers witnessed how much fun their children had outside even when it is cold! We are now looking into acquiring funding to further develop our garden and we are planning to host an open evening for other practitioners to share in our journey. We have a poster with Froebel’s principles in our office and it is often referred to on a regular basis. 

It seems ridiculous to admit but I have always viewed Froebel through the lens of an early years practitioner who builds relationships with colleagues, children and families so It has been energising to take a fresh look at Froebel through the lens of leadership. Session 1 talked about Froebel consciously modelling a democratic and co-operative leadership model where relationships matter and I have always put relationships at the heart of my practice. 

One strength I feel I have developed over the Leadership course is an improved ability to plan for change. Through this inquiry process I have learned that short term small changes are much easier to manage, feedback is easier to give and receive and a real sense of achievement increases motivation. I intend to replicate and hopefully continually improve this way of encouraging and facilitating leadership in all my settings. 

 I am very keen to introduce the new Froebel self-evaluation tool as a fresh way of contributing to the self-improvement process and plans which are required in Fife ELC settings every year. I feel that it will be an incredibly useful tool to further enhance Froebelian principles in each of my settings. I also intend to share it with other Peripatetic Nursery Teachers who may not already be aware of its existence.  

I was very touched when a colleague told me she felt that I truly trusted her to take forward her part of the inquiry. I shared the article by Sergiovanni (2005:119) which discusses the ‘trust first approach’ and the importance of support. This is an area that I feel I do well but to have it ratified by someone who had previously felt quite nervous about her role in the inquiry was amazing to hear. 

Throughout the leadership course I have been introduced to a variety of leadership styles but the one that resonates most with me is Goleman’s (2003) behavioural theory which focuses on the leader changing their style of leadership in accordance with the current context. As I work in three separate ELC settings I find the ability to change my leadership style accordingly is an invaluable skill! I prefer an affiliative/democratic style of leadership although I understand that at times a different style is required. I now want to explore coaching after recently taking part in an introduction to coaching I’m keen to improve my coaching ability. 

To summarise, this has been a most refreshing and enjoyable learning experience and I would like to thank Froebelian Futures for allowing me this opportunity. 


Goleman, D (2003) The New Leaders 

Sergiovanni, TJ (2005) The Virtues of Leadership The Educational Forum, 69:2 

Tovey Outdoor Play and Exploration Froebel Trust 


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