What’s environment got to do with it?

Supporting the inclusion of distressed children by creating a Froebelian environment

Project author:

Project summary:

 An observational study of whether providing a Froebelian environment can support the inclusion of primary ages learners.  


Inclusion and ‘Getting it Right for every child’ is central to national policy and my own practise. In Scottish mainstream Primary Schools the minimum adult to children ratio in Primary One is 1:25 increasing to 1:30 Primary Two and Three. At Castleview we have a well developed play-based approach to our Primary One classes but the delivery of this is challenging within this ratio. We are also expanding this pedagogy into Primary Two and Primary Three. 

In my school in recent years there has been an overwhelming number of children with additional support needs, both Adverse Childhood Experiences and neurodiverse. As a school in an area multiple deprivation many in our school family are also impacted by poverty.  ‘Getting it right for every child’ is ever challenging. My purpose in carrying out this work is to see if we can better support the inclusion of this growing need.  



At the start of this project we had a well-developed and well-used Nurture space called the Rainbow Room to support the inclusion of our most vulnerable pupils across the school. Historically this had tended to be upper school children. The fundamental nurture principles (Nurture UK) were well established. With the growing need in the school there was now a large number of early years pupils who were accessing the Rainbow Room for additional support – the demand was becoming overwhelming.

Even within the rainbow room some of the children were still becoming distressed. Distressed children may throw objects, damage the playroom, run away or take out their own frustration on adults or other children.  

I needed to find a way to better support this need in the rainbow room. This led me back to my own knowledge of Froebelian principles and the importance of the learning environment itself. Did we have the Rainbow Environment right? We had the ratio for enhanced ‘Freedom with Guidance’. The setting was incredibly nurturing. However the environment was possibly lacking. Could embedding Froebelian principles into the Rainbow room help regulate, engage and better support the children?  


I knew it was very important not to make judgements about children or families but instead to carefully observe and recognise that behaviour is communication. I chose to focus on a group of children who were supported regularly in the Rainbow Room. Firstly I needed to create a baseline recording – how the children were already engaging and presenting in the Rainbow Room. I decided to use the Leuven Scale of wellbeing. I supported the practitioners working in the Rainbow Room to make changes to the environment by changing the resources to be based on the Froebelian principle: ‘The central importance of play’ (The Froebel Trust). We discussed the value of open ended resources such a block play and loose parts and how these would allow children to follow their own agenda and hopefully become more absorbed in their play. Secondly, after we had made changes to the Rainbow Room I needed to take a measure to evaluate the impact of the changes. It was also important to speak to the practitioners to get their opinions and evaluations pre and post changes. The children’s “voices” would be represented through my observations of them at play and how settled and engaged they were.

‘Children who are rocked in the Froebelian cradle grow and learn in the very best possible circumstances’. (Chris McCormick: 2012)

Tina Bruce - Early Childhood Practice Froebel Today (2012:153)


Practitioners were happy to make changes. Staff questionnaires revealed that at the start of the project 4 out of 6 practitioners were aware of Froebelian principles. After Team evaluation and discussion practitioners agreed with me to focus our changes on the Rainbow Room environment itself. Helen Tovey described what we were already trying to create, an environment ‘based on respect, trust, warm responsive relationships and rich first-hand and play experience’ (Tovey:2017). The team agreed they needed to pay more attention to these play experiences. 

Together we planned to increase the use of open-ended resources including block play and loose parts. In addition we also chose to introduce a woodwork bench and provide more opportunities for learning outdoors.  

There was a little anxiety from two practitioners who were concerned that the introduction of Block Play could result in distressed children possibly hurting others with blocks and that woodwork could end in a similar accident. After further discussion the team recognised that in the Rainbow Room with an increased ratio of approximately 1:3 the children would experience enhanced ‘Freedom with guidance’. The team agreed it was only fair that the children who were possibly ‘play deprived’ (Bob Hughes: 2011) needed high quality play experiences the most – after all they were in the Rainbow room due to barriers to learning.  To date there has been no issue with anyone being hurt through Block Play or Woodwork.  

Similarly the team agreed to remove a number of plastic toys in the Rainbow Room. The school often receives donations of toys from well meaning people however these rarely offer high quality play experiences. One child even noted after changes were made ‘you have taken all the plastic toys away, but that’s okay’.   

Through our observations we saw that there had been a very obvious change in the engagement of children and the time they can sustain their play. This was particularly true for those children with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. The adapted environment better allows practitioners to support children to follow their own agenda. When taking the lead children can sustain attention and depth in their learning.  

It is hard to differentiate between the Froebelian principles that could be having an impact in the positive change in the Rainbow Room. By focussing on creating a Froebelian environment we have naturally touched on all the principles as described by the Frobel Trust.  Naturally as our Primary One children settled into school life they developed relationships with staff and possibly felt more safe and secure. The staff to pupil ratio also supports children to follow their own agenda. The changes to practise in the Rainbow Room also involved more use of the outdoors and children had opportunities to engage in nature.



As clichéd as it sounds this project can only be the beginning. It sets the way for providing a Froebelian environment underpinned by Froebelian principles across the school which will hopefully support the inclusion of all learners. No small task! 

In the current climate of Covid, War in Europe and rising economic pressures on families I can only predict an increase in the need to support inclusion for all. After all, as set out in the United Nations Charter on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), every child has the right to an education and it is our job to ensure they are able to access that education. Understanding and staying true to our Froebelian principles will only support this aim. 

Research implications


This research has had an impact on the Castleview Community. Taking part in this project with Clare Langley has allowed us to create a better understanding of where the school and nursery class need to focus continuity. In particular for learners with additional support needs.  There is an increased awareness of Froebelian principles for practitioners beyond the nursery and Primary One class as the Rainbow Room environment is now on a journey of change.


Clare’s work has meant we have focussed on situations when things don’t go well for children and families and how we can avoid this and better support children with additional support needs. Particularly when the school classes do not have the adult child ratio the nursery class has. We have enhanced the provision in the Rainbow Room, nurture class.


The project has raised questions about resource including the most valuable resources – staff. We know staff need to have the knowledge and skill to have an impact. If Froebelian principles are to play a role beyond the nursery there will be a need for staff development. However perhaps this project approach is a way to start considering and bringing about change?


There now seems a need to look at Inclusion policy to ensure that it not only provides continuity in strategy and support plans like Visual strategies, Risk Assessments and GIRFEC plans but ensure it provides continuity in environment. At Castleview that would be a Froebelian environment.


It is exciting to know the national Froebelian network is growing and this will allow our staff teams to link for collaborative professional learning not just in the local community but city wide and beyond.

Practitioner enquiry

I place huge value on practitioner research. Collaborating and sharing to bring about positive change cannot be underestimated as we all learn from each other in an ever changing world.  The use of the project approach to bring about change is something that I think we need to do more of. It gives practitioners confidence to make evidence based change and reflect on the changes. I think it would be valuable to undertake such work within our setting, community and perhaps further down the line City and Nationally. It is an approach that can sit well within improvement planning.

Leadership learning

Both myself and Clare have thoroughly enjoyed the required reading and the time for reflective discussion with each other. We both also valued the national context of discussion during sessions.


I think the most important aspect of learning would be that the project has confirmed our suspicions that Froebelian Principles can have a positive impact beyond the nursery class setting. The nursery team often hear of children who have not coped with transition through the school. We reflect, what has changed? Often this comes down to the environment and the staff/pupil ratio.


As leader of a nursery class in a Primary School I can see that I can play a role in supporting Froebelian principles beyond the nursery class.

Author and role

Katie Smith, Senior Early Years Officer

Comments from other network members

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

  1. Magdalena Debicka-Krawczyk
    Magdalena Debicka-Krawczyk
    24 May 2022 at 5:54 am

    This project touches on very important issues concerning the growing number of children with additional needs. I find it very interesting. It shows that Froebel’s teaching is universal, it doesn’t only relate to nursery age children, but also to older children.

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  2. Gina Rendall
    Gina Rendall
    25 May 2022 at 8:51 pm

    Wow, I found this really thought provoking and really want to share with people who I know are struggling with supporting some of our children. Froebel’s relevance in this day and age shines through this project.

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  3. Stacey MacKinnon
    Stacey MacKinnon
    25 May 2022 at 8:54 pm

    This is a very interesting project which engaged me from the beginning! I am passionate about play beyond the early years and your research emphasises that children of all ages benefit from freedom with guidance. Thank you for sharing and good luck with the future of your Froebelian environment!

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  4. Anya Wright
    Anya Wright
    14 Jun 2023 at 3:25 pm

    Upping the staff to child ratio was a great idea in this project because it supported in the children in their play and gave practitioners the opportunity to role model. It’s nice to see the change in engagement for the children well done.

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