The nursery that swapped toys for cardboard boxes
And the children’s imaginations are running wild, discovers BETH HALE
AT IlMInSTeR Avenue nursery School, the five playrooms are a bustling hive of activity as the afternoon session gets under way.
In ‘Moon’ room, Molly, a smiling fouryearold, and Olly, her blond-haired playmate, are deliberating what mode of transport the boxes they are sitting in might be.
Olly says it is a train. He, of course, is the driver, and he seems to have quite a collection of rather rowdy passengers in the assembled ‘carriages’.
Molly agrees. Then she decides that, actually, she’d quite like it to be a car. A pink car. Moments later, the train has morphed, this time into a castle, and Molly is delighting in pulling the walls down around her friend Amelia.
And then it’s all change once again, as tiny hands grab for boxes — transported by nothing more than a little imagination to a world of ghosts, robots and anything else that a curious pre-schooler can conjure up.
Parents typically spend £319 a year on toys on children up to the age of nine, with the UK toy market racking up sales of £3.3 billion last year.
Here at Ilminster Avenue, a huge 230-pupil setting in the Knowle area of Bristol, cardboard boxes are currently available in abundance — along with egg cartons, lollipop sticks and a host of other discarded items from around the home that might otherwise be lurking in the recycling bin.
What’s not here — at least for the time being — is toys.
no dolls, no train sets, no lego, no endless mountains of plastic, not even a jigsaw puzzle. The toys are currently in a storeroom, since the school last month started a back-to-basics mission to become a nursery with no toys.
As the Daily Mail revealed last week, the project began as a month-long trial to see how children, and adults, react when traditional toys are removed.
That month is now over, but the toys remain packed away and staff haven’t decided which, if any, to reintroduce.
So just what is a nursery with no toys like? What do the children do? And what effect does it have on a generation who are more familiar with iPads than skipping ropes?
The brain behind the toy purge was the school’s head Matt Caldwell, who’s spent 25 years in early years teaching. ‘It is all about getting back to basics and proving you don’t need lots of shiny, expensive, electronic, plastic things to have fun and be a child,’ he says.
was inspired by similar schemes that have run in Germany since the early nineties. nurseries remove toys — in some cases, even paper, pencils and paint — for between one and three months, and teachers then ‘ observe, rather than direct’, children’s play.
Afterwards, they talk about what toys to bring back.
It all sounds very stark. But the studies in Germany have shown that children who participate in toy-free time showed increased social interaction, creativity and better communication skills.
Ilminster has taken a softer path: paper, paint and craft activities are still on the agenda, books are an absolute must, and some of the play items look suspiciously like, well, toys.
‘The first thing we did was to talk about what is a toy,’ says Matt. Duplo has gone. Balls are in. Play kitchens are out. But real kitchen equipment is definitely in — a hand whisk with a handle to turn has proved a particular hit and a group of three-yearolds demonstrate just how much noisy fun can be had with a metal pot and a spoon.
The next obstacle was the children’s parents. ‘ They had mixed reactions,’ admits Matt. ‘One was worried all the children would be grumpy, sad and having fights. I explained what we were doing and now she is one of our strongest advocates.’
So, just before February halfterm, all the children chipped in on a giant spring clean, cheerfully packing away all their usual toys with barely a murmur.
Parents were asked to help by collecting their discarded junk and clean recycling and bringing it to the nursery. And, when the children returned, everything was a little bit different. There are no bikes, no scooters and, in fact staff have asked that these
don’t come back. A surprising fringe benefit, says Matt, is that the accident book has been much quieter.
Inside, in ‘ Star’ room, Danny, four, has found a box housing an abundance of wooden lollipop sticks. He’s lining them up to make shapes and balancing corks on top, guided by whatever is unfolding inside his imagination.
In ‘Sun’ room, four-year- old Oliver is standing at the prow of a large cardboard ship, bedecked with offcuts of material. ‘I’m a pirate,’ he says.
Does he miss the old toys? ‘I like these toys,’ he says. ‘ My favourite things are the boat and the book area.’ At 3pm, his grandmother, Sue Burke, 56, arrives to collect him. She’s a fan of the project. ‘It’s been brilliant,’ she says. ‘At home everything is trains, so it’s good to see him explore other things.’ Another fan is Rich Barry, a 35-year-old bus driver, who is collecting Florence, four. ‘I keep saying that kids have too much these days. We keep being told plastic is killing everything, yet manufacturers keep churning it out. ‘The way the project has fired [the children’s] imaginations has been amazing. ‘When Florence gets home from school now, she’s not interested in toys or TV — she wants to do arts and crafts or put on her ballet slippers and dance about.’
have also been largely positive about the changes, although Kate Boyes, who has worked with small children for the best part of 30 years, says the quantity of tiny objects makes tidying up more of a challenge. ‘ I do like it,’ she says. ‘ In respect of the natural resources, it’s great. We have a little boy who is registered blind and, for him, all the new textures have been really enjoyable.
‘I also like that a lot of these things would otherwise have end up in landfill or recycling boxes.’ Matt says communication has been one of the biggest benefits. ‘Staff have told us the children are using more language in their play.’
He also notes that the boys in particular are communicating better and the children in general are playing in wider groups.
For a nursery where 20 per cent have special educational needs, it’s been a rewarding experience. Matt admits there have been
some requests for old toys — dinosaurs, for example. But the two-year-olds, who make up two of the five playrooms, are perfectly content and there have been no requests there to have the toys back, not even Peppa Pig.
‘For them, if you take away a toy, they will just have something else,’ smiles Matt. ‘But the three and four-year-olds have started to ask: “When are we going to get our dolls back?” And that’s the question: do we have everything back or rotate the toys?’
Whatever they decide, becoming the nursery with no toys has served to remind parents there really are infinite possibilities in the humble cardboard box.
Making their own fun: Playtime at Ilminster Avenue Nursery School Picture: DAMIEN McFADDEN