Can Freedom be Guided?

Research practitioner:

Senior practitioner:

Project summary:

An observational study of the quality of planning and evaluating freedom with guidance.

Children playing with blocks


“Froebel’s notion of the adult making rich provision, guiding children in their play and interactions, opening up possibilities rather than constraining them.” (Tovey, 2020) This project was undertaken by 6 staff members, who work with children aged 3-5 within our nursery. We focused our project on developing a shared understanding of ‘freedom with guidance’ and embedding this principle within their daily practice. My purpose in undertaking this work is to develop staff confidence allowing the children to lead their learning and how planning can effectively support this.


Staff were reticent to interject the children’s learning as they felt they were interrupting their play. Initially through observations, I noticed that staff were missing out on opportunities to take the children’s learning further or to build upon what they already knew. The planning format did not allow for the children to be involved in leading the learning as the practitioners were deciding on ‘what came next’ rather than the learning being a natural progression. Staff were providing limiting activities that were not always linked to the children’s interests, or curriculum outcomes, and offered limited scope to be creative or to take the learning forward. This was also evident in planning, tracking and monitoring of the children’s developmental and curricular progress. Children were not engaging in some activities set out for them, for example, jigsaw puzzles were offered everyday but not one child played with the jigsaws. Staff were not confident in talking about the link between the resources/experiences they were providing to the curriculum and possible lines of development, which was impacting on being able to confidently make professional judgements on children’s progress. I am confident that through a team approach to planning and evaluating, confidence will strengthen, children’s engagement will naturally increase, and staff will be able to relate their practice to Froebelian principles.

To carry out this project, I began by having a meeting with the staff to discuss the project and to ‘opt in’ to participating. Staff were asked to complete a questionnaire, which would allow me to find out the participants understanding of Froebel’s principle of ‘freedom with guidance’. A playroom observation was then carried out to see how the participants responded to the children’s comments, interests and curiosities and how this was being recorded. Focus group meeting included all participants.


A participant observation consent form was required from each staff member to give permission for their input. This set out the purpose of the observation and that findings collected would be used as part of the research study. All staff gave permission to be active participants. Staff required reassurance and support with the questionnaire, which had not been completed by any of the participants.

When discussing this, one participant stated that she had started to complete it but became overwhelmed as she did not know what freedom with guidance meant and did not want to appear “stupid”. Other participants stated that they would have completed it if it had been a ‘tick box’ questionnaire. In light of this and to avoid unnecessary stress, I adapted the staff end of project questionnaire, which was completed by all participants.

“At first we were afraid, we were petrified but after Mrs McD explained that Froebel is always on our side. We threw out our plastic bits, replaced it with wood and loose parts kits….we did survive… children just thrived! Hey! Hey! Listen to what Froebel says, just guide the kids to be safe everydayaaay in their play. We should have done this all before but now we are in the know, now you can tell…we love Froe – oh - ebel!”

Cathkin Nursery Team’s Morning Song, 2023


Further to discussing the questionnaire with staff, along with playroom observations, it was clear that staff were aware of some Froebelian practice but had no knowledge of the named principle of freedom with guidance and how this underpins current Early Years practice. The experiences provided were not always in response to the children’s interests and there was limited opportunity for the children’s creativity and imagination to be further explored. The play was free but the interests, adult child interactions and possible lines of development were not always clear. Staff training on Froebel’s Principle and Practices Today, and professional reading and research using the pamphlets from the Froebel Network and literature from my own training, supported staff to understand that identify key links between their own practice in relation to the principle of freedom with guidance. Staff were beginning to engage in conversations about Froebel and his principle and practices and it was agreed that we needed to review how we plan and record learning to ensure we are opening the learning up and encouraging children’s autonomy and self-discipline so that any opportunity that they meet, is a possibility for them. Planning Guidance was created during team meetings and in the initial stages of implementing, staff required time and support to adapt to the changes. The guidance ensures that we all have a shared understanding of our nursery’s values and aims and how these connect with Froebelian theory. The guidance ensured that all staff have a shared understanding of the principle of Freedom with Guidance and had the tools to be able to fully embrace this approach through how we plan, resources and evaluate. The guidance defines responsive and intentional learning, planning with the child at the centre, staff professional dialogue through a daily huddle Recording and reflecting upon learning using floor books, has led to the children being fully involved in and leading their learning on a daily basis. Sharing reflections of the learning at the end of each session, has resulted in rich conversations about possible lines of development, suggestions of resources, curricular links has strengthened relationships and confidence amongst staff and has had a significant impact on motivation. Providing the time and space for staff to have open dialogue and conversations, has helped them to persevere and remain focused on implementing the changes through the hard days and the good and has resulted in deepening staff relationships. At our final meeting, a participant exclaimed, “I couldn’t see where all this was going, but we are connecting learning across the whole nursery and I can see things really coming together now”.


Staff were reluctant in the beginning to make adaptations to how they plan and record but through encouragement and perseverance, the staff’s motivation and enthusiasm for learning was pulpable. Daily team ‘huddles’ to reflect and share ideas provided the time for staff to link their learning experiences and connect the learning for the children. The planning and recording of intentional and responsive learning using floor books and careful questioning have strengthened relationships between the children and within the staff team and have given our children the language to express themselves, to make decisions and are asking questions that show their creativity, imagination and curiosity. Staff knowledge and understanding of ‘Freedom with Guidance’ has changed the ethos of our nursery as staff are more confident in fully engaging with the children through providing quality experiences, open ended resources, careful questioning and reassurance whilst becoming more in tune with when to facilitate the learning and when to stand back and let the children lead the way.

Research implications

The implications of this research highlight that clear communication, perseverance and enthusiasm to keep on going through difficult times, where understanding and foresight to ‘see’ what the outcome will look like in practice may not be initially clear, pays off in the end. Comments from participating staff have progressively become more informed when planning and reflecting upon the learning and show more confidence in guiding the children through quality questioning and considered resourcing. Participant stated, “I couldn’t see how this was going to work but I have noticed that the learning is connecting across the nursery, it is really coming together!”

Using provocations has allowed the children to lead their learning which is also evident when some children have transferred their learning to new situations or used loose parts more creatively in representative play. Children are visibly more engaged in their play, have ownership of their learning, are problem solving when a challenge comes their way, and their voices can be heard across our setting. This is evident in the responsive and intentional learning and in leading improvements, whether this be individually for a child, group or the nursery as a whole.

Staff are more confident to allow the children to lead and I have noticed the positive impact in staff morale, enthusiasm and passion for their role. I hear rich conversations about Froebel, learning and children’s success along with pride in the children’s achievements, themselves and in each other’s practice. Peer observations have broken down barriers and allowed staff to take on board each other’s views without feeling ‘criticised’. I no longer see staff planning in isolation – I see a team working together to ensure the best outcomes for our children. Participant stated, “I felt awkward about carrying out peer observations as I didn’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. Now that I have been observed as well as observing peers, the conversations that followed have made me think about how I set up experiences and allowed staff to offer suggestions on possible lines of development”.

Staff have developed from not interrupting play to becoming actively engaged in the children’s learning. This has been achieved through staff training on what is freedom with guidance and how adults facilitate this. This research has influenced our improvement planning for next session, as staff are keen continue on their journey, and to further explore Froebel’s other principles and practices.

From my observations, I realise that freedom with guidance must underpin how we, as a nursery, operate. Staff have the freedom to let the children lead whilst having the guidance to support them, as practitioners to fully embrace this principle and achieve curriculum benchmarks. Children have the freedom to choose, be inspired and fully explore their ideas. They are able to make decisions about their learning, environment and in keeping themselves safe when taking risks. The adaptations in how we now plan and reflect together, have actually resulted in more quality learning taking place, a deeper sense of achievement and provided a range of opportunities that inspire creativity and imagination for all.

Practitioner enquiry

Carrying out this project has shown the positive impact that practitioner-research can have on the ethos within a nursery by deepening relationships across all stakeholders. It allows a wider scope to gather information, which may otherwise go unknown, to lead, and guide how we plan and resource to contribute to our children’s lived experiences. This process has strengthened the staff relationships where everyone’s voice is heard, leading to shared pedagogical understanding that is influencing practice as well as informing nursery improvements.

Leadership learning

Implementing change is a process that can be challenging at the start but by going through the process together, and not moving on until everyone has a shared understanding, has provided opportunities for staff to question, debate and reflect together. For me personally, it has been a joy to see, and feel, the positive impact that this enquiry has had on our ethos, planning, recording and talking about learning. Most of all, our children are leading and making decisions about their learning, nursery improvements and staff are guiding their own, and the children’s freedom with more knowledge, understanding and love.

Author and role

To be completed

Comments from other network members

What did you appreciate about this research? What forward-looking questions did it raise for you?

  1. Kerry McCormack
    Kerry McCormack
    08 Jun 2023 at 2:24 pm

    I feel like I can really relate to the post project practice you have discussed and understand how challenging this can be to change. It’s great to see what a positive impact this has had on your nursery and the staff motivation.

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  2. Karen Leslie
    Karen Leslie
    12 Jun 2023 at 8:48 pm

    This was a very interesting project, and will consider this in my practice including using the careful questioning and reassurance. Thank you for sharing.

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  3. Steve Rivers
    Steve Rivers
    13 Jun 2023 at 10:18 am

    Leeanne this was a very interesting read. I very much like the focus on discussing and reflecting on how one Principle applies in practice. This is very much an approach that I will look to apply and I can just imagine the in depth conversations that resulted

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  4. Hazel Devlin
    Hazel Devlin
    13 Jun 2023 at 10:29 am

    I loved reading about your project. You have made me think about my setting and staff and how we could implement some of these into our practice. Thank you for sharing.

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  5. Magdalena Mazurek-Figiel
    Magdalena Mazurek-Figiel
    17 Mar 2024 at 8:57 pm

    A very interesting topic showing how much insecurities staff may have that impact play and learning of children. Let’s not be scared to learn ourselves as practitioners and educators!

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