The nurs­ery that swapped toys for card­board boxes

And the chil­dren’s imag­i­na­tions are run­ning wild, dis­cov­ers BETH HALE

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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

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