The common perception about those of us working with children is that we are nice but dim and we spend our time just playing. Nothing could be further from the truth. Visit a great nursery and what you see will surprise you.
Children are the litmus touch of society and when things change we see it in them first whether it's the impact of dietary changes or attitude changes to people and their environment. Babies and toddlers of all race, colour and creed play together without fuss or favour. They are open books - until they reach three years and then they start absorbing all the isms we adults lock into by imitating the adults they love and admire. However, this is where the power of the nursery starts to shape. Firstly, we start to see or hear the changes in children and secondly, we can think about how we respond in light of both the curriculum requirements and the values of the setting. For example, LEYF has four values; Inspiring, Nurturing, Brave and Fun. Of course, we wouldn't do anything without engaging parents and getting their take on things but it's very interesting to watch how children can hold their parents to account. Here are some four-year-old rebukes I overheard recently and there are many more:
"Don't drop the litter Mummy its bad for the environment."
"We have to walk to the bus coz it better for your heart."
"Don't shout at me, we have to be kind to each other."
The LEYF pedagogy has seven elements and the fourth is focused on harmonious relationships. We look widely at how we build kindness and tolerance into our daily lives. This is for staff, parents and children especially as we are a community of people from 80 different countries. We are always looking for opportunities, especially in the big city to find ways of addressing intolerance. We have nurseries right in the heart of the city from Soho to Fitzrovia, Edgware Road to Westminster. The children are taken out for walks daily and it's interesting to see how people behave. Just the other day a child asked, "Why is everyone so cross? It makes me sad".
We've introduced lots of kindness activities - whether it's working with elderly people or making friends with the Big Issue seller. We have started to explore intolerance; a significant issue across the world. It was in analysing the benefits of this that led us to do something completely different. We partnered with Drag Queen Story Time (DQST) - a simple ambition to connect children and drag queens through the art of storytelling and fun interactive events.
The project aims to teach children of all ages to spread a message of tolerance and kindness and is taking place across seven LEYF nurseries in London - with a view to a wider rollout across our 37 early years settings in the near future. Activities such as story-time, face painting and high tea have all been confirmed and met with the full support of nursery teachers, children, parents and colleagues.
Greg Stewart Lane, manager at LEYF Soho Nursery who coordinated the events, says: "With recent reports showing that the number of hate crimes in England and Wales has increased by 29 per cent, sadly we live in a world where people face homophobia, racism and general discrimination on a daily basis. Yet these are all learnt behaviours - we aren't born with any form of hatred, you get taught it over time. If events like DQST can help curtail this and teach children about tolerance and kindness then that has to be a good thing."
DQST focuses on conventional fairy tales aimed at young children. Its aim is to challenge negative views at a young age - providing an alternative view of tolerance and kindness; all within an educational environment and in the very busy diverse city that is London.
June O'Sullivan is chief executive of the London Early Years Foundation. This blog first appeared on the LEYF website