How fortunate was it therefore for the 550 delegates who descended on the sumptuous surroundings of the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh that the Edinburgh Froebel Network chose to celebrate their tenth year of conference-holding in such a style?
On a crisp September Saturday morning, interested 'educators' from diverse national and international backgrounds were greeted with welcoming smiles, a Froebelian goodie bag and the aromatic smell of coffee, as they anticipated a day of growth and camaraderie.
Before I report on the content and success of the day, it is fitting to reflect for a moment on the stature of this ambitious enterprise. Conferences, in common with birthday parties, do not 'just happen' and an occasion such as this took much planning, imagination, organisation and sheer hard graft - proffered by the 'team' of nursery headteachers responsible for the setting up, ten years ago, of the aforementioned Edinburgh Froebel Network. Their dedication and endeavour over the decade has enthused, trained and inspired so many that a Froebelian ethos and approach is very visibly present in current settings and schools, and the interest and demand for further knowledge and understanding of principles reflects this.
From the outset of the morning, with an almost military precision - married with eager and considerate attendees - the day unfolded and progressed like clockwork.
Scores of people interacted and exchanged greetings as they wandered around imbibing the rich and informative wisdom of the academic posters, which served to explain practice and theory, ways forward and controversies.
The first speaker - greatly anticipated by those who have heard her talk previously, and by those who have enjoyed and learned from her many books - was Professor Tina Bruce who, in her inimitable manner explored play, touching on its numerous interpretations but cleverly guiding our thoughts to Froebelian play. By concentrating on the fundamental benefits of deep engagement, she led us to understand how first hand meaningful experiences build up a reservoir of 'character', knowledge, enterprise and creative thinking from which a person will draw in adult life.
Linked seamlessly to this, participants were next treated to a lecture delivered by Dr Sue Robson of The University of Roehampton, England, entitled 'Play, Creativity and Creative Thinking'. Sue outlined her research which evidenced how when a child chooses and directs their own play, their involvement, articulation (of their learning) and sophistication of thought are all greater. She described how self-activity leads to self-regulation and allows a child to feel in control, to be flexible and forward moving in their ideas, to socialise, negotiate and interact with others and become creative problem-solvers. She challenged us to link our practice to these findings.
Once more, nourished by pastries and networking, the large audience settled to listen - this time to Dr Marjatta Kalliala from the University of Helsinki, Finland. Kept on the edge of our seats by awe at this delivery in a language not her first, and by the content, we visited (through the findings of her research) the hows and whys of changing culture and the decline of superior, engaging play. She reported on variation in cultural norms, and outlined how what is 'acceptable' has changed. She talked about the plethora of 'play policies' worldwide which would suggest play is seen as important, but questioned the depth of quality of some policies. She provided some interesting statistics about the positivity of rough and tumble and outdoor play, and reminded us 'that a child does not distinguish between care and education'.
A delicious vegetarian lunch break afforded more time to meet and talk with 'kent' faces and people anew, or browse the quality products of Community Playthings, Froebel's Gifts and the well-stocked book shop.
First slot after lunch always requires talented orators to keep an audience on track as the temptation to relax a little and let concentration drift can be high - replete as one is with food, knowledge and adrenaline.
We were not let down!
Tina gave a brief outline of the content and importance of the recently published "Routledge International Handbook of Froebel and Early Childhood Practice" and following that Dr Suzanne Flannery Quinn from Froebel College, the University of Roehampton explored 'Locating Play Today', advocating that if we wish to locate play we must first understand its complexity. She revisited play versus activity and addressed Froebel practice today with an interpretation of Froebel's 'Come let us live with our children...' quote, unpicking our role as pedagogues in the capacity of companions, guides, guardians, placemakers and humans. She illustrated a journey of Frobelian thought and developing practice through a fascinating historic timeline.
Thanks all round, and a standing ovation to the organisers - marking not just a successful, thought-provoking conference but attributing this strengthening movement - concluded the day. As an interesting aside, for some hours post conference around the centre of town, people were to be seen sporting smart jute bags emblazoned with our Froebel lily - a fitting advert!
Now Froebelians do not rest on their laurels; building on last year's conference workshop-sharing of practical experiences, complemented by this year's academic insight to the relevance of Froebel's principles today, plans are afoot for future delivery... and in addition Edinburgh looks forward to hosting the 2020 Froebel International Conference.
As they say from little acorns strong oak trees grow.
Alison J Hawkins
Wester Coates Nursery School