Staff engagement, interactions with two-year-olds in open playrooms

Research practitioner:

Senior practitioner:

Project summary:

A research study based on a reflective questionnaire regarding staff’s perception of the engagement quality with two year olds in our open playrooms and ideas for potential improvements.


This project is based upon two Froebelian principles described by Tovey (2017):

a) the value of adult – child relationships, and b) the importance of knowledgeable educators. This inquiry is of a significant value because in a busy free-flow, open playrooms where children of all ages mingle and play, the role of an adult is sometimes underestimated affecting relationships with the youngest children.

My purpose to undertake this research was to promote self-reflection about attitudes and practices amongst the staff.  I aimed to give everyone a voice to express their opinions, have them heard and considered, and to seek opportunities for a positive change for the benefit of our children in a challenging environment.


When I joined my setting two years ago, we had separate rooms for twos and 3–5-year-olds with limited opportunities to mix and play together. When the rooms opened over a year ago, it was a big change for both children and staff as everyone had to adapt to the large spaces, different needs of children and one big team. These factors impacted on communication, interactions and relationships and the new reality was a hot topic. The staff felt that some children loved the change whereas others seemed lost and unsettled for longer. I realised that it was a great opportunity for a project, and I could connect it with Froebel’s pedagogy.

Out of the Froebelian principles I have always been drawn towards the role of knowledgeable adults and the importance of relationships. Positive and meaningful relationships are necessary for children to feel valued and to promote confidence and meet their needs. Skilled educators have the power to tune into the child’s world, by observing and engaging they apply their knowledge supporting and extending children’s learning (Tovey, 2017). These principles have become a subject of my research as I believe their value could be better appreciated within my setting.

I chose a questionnaire as my research method as I intended to give the respondents an anonymous platform where they could express their views freely and advocate for change if necessary. Additionally, because of time restraints and a busy environment, a questionnaire seemed to be a most suited . Therefore, I constructed thirteen mixed questions, some open ended, others of a multiple choice to allow an inclusive scope of answers yet not too overwhelming. I was concerned that respondents would not be keen to answer some questions and sometimes that was the case, however, I have also received several forms with additional comments. I tried to use strength-based approach including questions about our own motivations and reasons of pride in daily practice, perception of current changes in the environment and their impact on the twos. I finally asked about potential improvements. I did a test run on one of my colleagues and made some changes upon their suggestions.


Initially, I wanted to research the adult-child interactions in general, but I realised it might be too broad of a subject and perhaps staff could have felt judged on their practice. Therefore, I decided to narrow my research subject and place it in the context of recently opened playrooms as it was always a topic of informal discussions and observations amongst staff.  It occurred to be the right choice as 15 out of 16 team members returned their questionnaires and stated that answering the questions helped them to reflect on their practice and many left additional comments. Some staff expressed gratitude for the opportunity to voice their views.

To ensure confidentiality, every form had an individual, sealed envelope that could be filled at the time of convenience, then returned into a post-box placed in a neutral place. The form was anonymous, and the respondents consented to it by participating as the questionnaire explained. The project focused on gathering staff’s views only, so no images were taken.

According to some staff our nursery could be seen through the eyes of two-year-olds as: ‘’endless opportunities for children to engage, but with the need to improve staff’s engagement’’


Majority of staff chose a career in early years to ‘make a difference in the lives and learning of young children’ as they place the highest value on ‘promoting children’s play and learning’, ‘being around children’, ‘building relationships with families’, and ‘interacting with colleagues.

When asked what they were proud of in their practice, answers focused on:

  • Promoting children’s wellbeing and learning
  • Building strong relationships
  • Passion to deliver experiences
  • Making a difference to families
  • Modelling practice

Most staff rated their own adult-child interactions with two-year-olds as ‘often highly engaging’, one third as ‘always highly engaging’. The assessment of the colleagues’ engagement was diverse, many respondents chose multiple answers. The most common opinion about others’ practice was ‘often highly engaging’, followed by ‘sufficient but could be improved’. Six people added that ‘some staff engage more than others’, but no top rating – ‘always highly engaging’ was given.

Most agreed that the impact of open spaces on two-year-olds, ‘was in some areas beneficial, in others detrimental’. When asked about changes since the play spaces have opened, the most frequent answers were ‘the play spaces are too big and don’t meet developmental and emotional needs of under-threes’, then ‘there are fewer opportunities to engage and interact with twos’, whereas one-third claimed ‘there are more opportunities’ to do so. One person added ‘time to nurture the twos was limited and spaces were uninviting’. Another explained ‘some staff work really hard to provide emotional support for the twos, and some children thrive in the new play spaces’.

Staff believed, if looked through the eyes of the two-year-olds our nursery would be perceived as:

  • Endless opportunities for children to engage, but with the need to improve staff’s engagement
  • Too large, busy spaces, uninviting
  • Not enough child – adult interactions,
  • Vibrant environment, but might be overwhelming and a little scary
  • Children might struggle where to seek security and comfort
  • Too many staff to build relationships with

The above answers were consistent with the reasons why 56% would not send their two-year-old to our setting. On the other hand, 44% would do so, praising warm staff who have children and families at heart, a welcoming environment, large spaces and opportunities to extend learning.

New questions arising

  • How to improve staff’s perception of the setting?
  • How to support all staff in providing highly engaging interactions with children?
  • Could we run similar research in other settings and share findings?


Most staff highly value their contribution to children’s play and learning and are proud to deliver quality interactions to families. Staff are aware of the opportunities of open playrooms, but the challenges are more prevalent causing noticeable concerns for the twos’ needs being met in a busy, and often overwhelming environment.

Respondents advocated for improvement of the interactions with two-year-olds. Some suggestions were staff related, e.g., adults at child’s level interacting, responsive, promoting learning; more training; staff to be motivated, managing challenges. Other were environment related, e.g., ring fenced time for twos in small groups; quiet spaces; reduced patterns of attendance; continue improving environments; return to separate rooms.

Next steps:

  • sharing the findings with staff and introducing Froebel’s principles
  • involving peers in promoting Froebel’s pedagogy in our setting, by inviting discussions, displaying posters, continue to provide first-hand experiences for children
  • involving families, gathering voices on the setting, sharing our pedagogy

Dissemination/Impact Report

View project as a video

Dissemination report

I shared the report with my colleagues and  Head of Centre through a PowerPoint presentation creating an opportunity for a constructive dialogue about the current practices and measures to improve these.

We talked about the impact of the opening of play spaces on the twos and adult’s role in it and identified some challenges. I aimed to underline the role of relationships between a child and a knowledgeable educator, as every staff member has the power to influence their own practice  and be a good role model to others. My Head identified some areas that could be modified and mentioned the value of gathering views from staff intending to revisit it in near future. He underlined the value of this project,  calling it ”eye opening”. 

 I received good feedback that the presentation was well delivered, analytical and informative. I was told that this project could be shared with other settings.

I hope participating in this research will open up an ongoing self reflection and practice adjustment amongst staff.

It has given me more confidence in my research skills and pedagogical competencies. I intend to continue implementing Froebel’s pedagogy in my setting.


Research implications

This project and the findings I believe has and will be incredibly beneficial for our children,
staff and the service provision moving forward.
First and foremost, the fact that staff took the time and interest in the project with 15 out of
16 taking part and all agreeing that the questionnaire has helped them to reflect on their daily practice, is a positive outcome. I believe by taking staff’s views seriously and listening to both; what they believe are the positives as well as our challenges, we can move forward and address these to make sure our interactions with two-year-olds are improved.

Froebelian practice is about focusing on the positives and taking a strength-based
approach. On reflection I believe that although there were more challenges being flagged up, as a team their commitment to the children, the play and learning and wanting to make a difference is what I see as our key strength moving forward. The staff have provided ample suggestions to improve the quality of interactions with two-year-olds, which are stated  clearly in the research project.

There are aspects that were addressed by staff, that are out with our control when it comes
to our patterns of attendance we offer. These are put in place by the early years team so
that we make sure children and families are provided their entitled 1140 hours. We are
limited as well on how many spaces we can provide at one time, by the care inspectorate. It
is parental choice on what patterns families can choose and what we can offer. This at times
can be due to what works around families work patterns. I do believe that at times this does
not always work out best for the children, however we do absolutely make sure we put the
best supports in place for that individual child, regardless of their pattern of attendance.
Finally, as mentioned in the report there is a need to improve shared practice and tweak our
environments, which we will continue to strive to do as a team to make sure all our children
regardless of age are getting the best possible quality learning experiences, interactions,
and engagement from all staff.

Practitioner enquiry

This practitioner research has given all staff the voice and confidence to be open and honest, to be heard and considered, advocating for improvements.
Reflecting on the project, I believe the main points that we need to look at include,
1. Gaps in staffs learning, knowledge and training particularly around 2-year-olds.
2. Working on staffs’ motivations around managing challenges and how best to provide a supportive environment.
3. Tweaking our environments to best support all our children.
These aspects will be discussed in greater detail at our in-service days, staff meetings, as well as adding this to our Standards and Quality Improvement Plan 2024/25. We will incorporate and move forward with Hanen Techniques as well as greater moderation in the play spaces, so issues can be observed and addressed quicker.

Leadership learning

Being a mentor for a member of my team who took part in Froebel’s Practitioner Inquiry project
has made me reflect more as a leader. It has also given me more confidence in the staff that we
can do higher order questioning and staff feel more confident moving forward. Reading about the findings prompted a valuable insight into my team’s views and the needs of our setting. I intend to repeat this questionnaire in six months time to look for any changes in staff’s perceptions and attitudes. This has been an eye opener for me as I found it challenging to listen to some findings. I learn to accept that my staff have such diverse views about our setting and pedagogical practices.  It is also worth considering to share this project with other settings that have also opened up the play spaces.
This project has made me see a clearer path on where we are moving forward as a service.


Author and role

Grant Campbel - Munro, Head of Centre

Comments from other network members

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

  1. Kayleigh Fraser
    Kayleigh Fraser
    22 Mar 2024 at 1:55 pm

    I have recently changed registration and now I have 2YO within my establishment and found this an interesting read. Well Done!

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  2. Cheryl Wheatley
    Cheryl Wheatley
    26 Mar 2024 at 2:52 pm

    I found this interesting to read. What a great opportunity for staff development and reflection.

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