What can settings do to make their baby rooms as safe and stimulating as possible for their youngest children, asks Meredith Jones Russell
A secure and stimulating environment is vital to building a successful baby room, but apart from specifying babies under the age of two in a nursery setting should have a separate room, and some contact with older children, the EYFS provides no further guidance.
‘The space, setup and the organisation of the baby room environment are really important, as well as the people within it,’ says Caroline Guard, senior lecturer in education at Kingston University.
When it comes to creating a baby-friendly space, then, a bottom-up approach can be a good way to start, as the floor will be the area most used by a child under two.
At Snapdragons Nursery in Keynsham, a 360-degree audit encourages staff to get down low to evaluate the environment from a baby’s point of view.
‘We get the practitioner to sit on the floor and ask what they can see from that level,’ manager Hannah Saunders explains. ‘Babies are on the floor most of the day, so we need to be thinking about what they can access from there, or how it feels when it’s cold.’
Above all, the room should be safe for the smallest children.
‘The priority is to make sure it is a safe environment,’ says Chloe Thompson, deputy head at Cameron Vale School in Chelsea, which has recently opened its brand-new baby room.
‘All the furniture units need protective covers on the corners. When children are starting to walk, they’ll hold on to things, so everything needs to be stable, and sometimes they may have a little tumble, so you need lots of soft padding on the floor.
‘That goes all the way to the toys that they’re playing with. You need to make sure the toys are suitable and there are no choking hazards.’
Post-pandemic, parents may be more sensitive about hygiene and cleanliness. However, Guard says a sensible approach in line with official guidance should be all that is necessary, and will avoid creating an environment that feels excessively sterile and clinical.
‘It’s important that all settings follow the most up-to-date guidance on keeping things hygienic and clean,’ she says.
‘The main thing is to limit clutter and rubbish, and if you can minimise resources to a point where you’re using them for a real purpose, that will help. At the same time, make sure you have enough to rotate because you do need to clean things regularly. All babies are going to be wanting to handle things, lick things and put them in their mouths, and they will all have a runny nose at some point. So daily wipe-downs and cleans of regular, continuous provision are vital.’
A safe outdoor environment is just as important for babies as older children. Guard says, ‘Babies should have contact with nature and the outdoors every day, in all weather, and be allowed to explore freely themselves. The space outside should be safe for them to do that.’
She acknowledges the choice between real and artificial grass can be contentious. ‘It has to be guided by setting ethos and appropriateness.
‘But from a Froebelian approach, children should have real contact with nature, grass, mud and leaves to support that sensory experience.’
A safe eating space is also important. At Snapdragons, semi-circular tables allow staff to sit in the middle and help babies as they have their meal. ‘They’re great because you can see and access all the babies,’ says Saunders.
Guard adds that creating a warm atmosphere will help babies thrive.
‘An important aspect is making sure that there are spaces for comfort,’ she says. ‘So many baby rooms now are quite an open environment, but it is helpful if you can find ways of finding snuggle pods and spaces where children can go for quiet moments and adults can join them. They can then be together while still visible to the rest of the room, and foster a moment of one-on-one interaction, closeness and intimacy.
‘While you’re not trying to emulate the home, it’s still about creating a sense of homeliness, and providing spaces for practitioners to feel comfortable enough that they can adopt prolonged and sustained interactions with babies.’
A sleeping environment that feels safe, warm, cosy and calm is also vital, especially when babies are likely to be having two sleeps a day.
At Snapdragons, sound clouds made from foam in the mezzanine sleeping area absorb sound from the room below.
‘In an echoey room, when a baby cries, it sets the acoustics off and can be loud and overpowering,’ says Saunders. ‘The sound clouds look really lovely, they come in different shapes and hang off the ceiling, and although you can still obviously hear babies downstairs, it’s not as loud, so it’s a nicer, calmer environment for them to sleep in.’
Providing resources which are suitable for the whole age range in a baby room can be challenging, but Guard recommends open-ended items that are accessible for all.
‘An easy way to cater for all babies is ensuring they have access to open-ended resources, with things like treasure baskets to promote heuristic play crucial,’ she says.
‘Lots of print books, picturebooks, story sacks and story props, puppets, scarves, bells, wooden blocks and mirrored balls can also be used by all ages.’
At Snapdragons, practitioners try to adapt resources to cover all ages in the room. ‘It might be that if you’re doing an activity with the older children, like looking at sensory bags, you can incorporate that with a baby that can’t sit up yet,’ says Saunders.
‘They can still reach out and touch the bag, but they’re on their tummy, so they are strengthening those muscles at the same time as exploring, and not missing out on anything the other children are doing.’
At Cameron Vale, open-ended resources also help the setting promote sustainable values.
Senior nursery practitioner at the setting, Jennifer Connelly, explains, ‘We are trying to move away from a throwaway culture, so we recycle or repurpose things as far as possible, like plastic bottles, which the children can explore. We find open-ended recycled materials often spark imagination and creativity because there’s no boundaries. The babies can use them as they wish.’
Guard agrees sustainable values can begin in a baby room. ‘Nurseries are actually often way ahead of research at the moment in terms of sustainability in the early years,’ she says.
‘If we can embed it from the earliest age, remembering that many babies might not have an outdoor space at home, we can help teach them about treasuring the outdoors, animals, plants and all of the natural resources that are available to us. It can also support the financial viability of settings if they can be as sustainable as possible.’
KEEPING UP WITH CHANGE
Black and white resources and furnishings are also incorporated to help babies settle in the environment. In their first year, babies have limited vision and research suggests they respond well to simple, bold patterns.
‘Black and white really helps the babies to calm down when they’re upset,’ adds Connelly.
‘There seems to be something about it that is soothing for them. We slowly start to add a little bit more colour, starting with red as that is the next colour they see, and in this way we really aim to reflect the growth milestones of the children in our resources.’
This continual and responsive approach to a baby room environment is vital, says Guard. ‘An environment is never static, it always is going to be evolving,’ she explains.