With two locations in Dubai, Willow Nursery uses a framework based on the Early Years and Foundation Stage Curriculum and providing an integrated early years programme
The Story so Far
Willow Nursery was founded in 2010 by Jan Webber, an Early Years Specialist with over 30 years of experience in the field. The nursery is now led by Principal Karen Turner.
The nursery takes babies from 45 days old, which are cared for by trained Early Years specialists.
Willow Nursery has also been selected as the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) International Nursery of the Year for 2017. This organization is well known in the UK for its advocacy and support of nurseries.
Willow Nursery WSA Visit Review – Umm Suqiem, 29 May 2017, 8.20am
This well known and highly regarded nursery has now been open for six years. We revisit to find out if the initial buzz is still evident, and to see how the nursery has changed with the times.
Willow is situated on a quiet residential street in Umm Suqiem, convenient for the Al Manara exit of the Sheikh Zayed Road. Parking is on street in free bays. The road outside has speed bumps to slow traffic and the nursery is served by a zebra crossing. Being in a residential area, we witnessed children arriving both on foot (or pushchair!) and by car.
We are welcomed into the nursery by Jan Webber, the Founder of Willow and Nursery Director. Jan is a qualified primary teacher with more than 30 years’ experience in the Middle East region. Having previously been Deputy Head of Sharjah English Speaking School, Jan has always had a keen interest in early years education and has studied the Steiner and Montessori methods of nursery teaching.
Her real passion however, is in Reggio Emilio approach, an ‘enquiry based’ learning method which underscores every aspect of daily life in Willow Nursery. Jan told us about how the Reggio approach is incorporated in the classrooms, relaying one story of how several children had had a lively discussion about their favourite chair at home, which led to photos from home, a parent/child collaboration to produce some wildly creative chairs for an art display and a trip to the local branch of Shakespeares Café to see their kooky chair collection! Child centric and child led learning indeed!
Willow is evidently an “eco” nursery which has been adapted in many ways to be more environmentally friendly and to create a healthy environment for children. Light bulbs are low energy, toilets are low flush and children recycle and compost their waste. The air conditioning system is aided by a high tech air sanitisation system which kills viruses and removes airborne allergens. Hygiene is very important here and Jan mentions good hygiene routines and training throughout our tour.
Jan is clearly very proud of this, her first nursery. Willow Umm Suqiem has recently been rated outstanding by the UK National Day Nurseries Association, a rating which took more than two years to achieve and which meant the documentation of every aspect of the day to day operation and management, as well as a week-long inspection from visiting UK inspectors. In addition, they are finalists for the International Nursery of the Year 2017 award, the winner of which will be announced on 30 June 2017.
Jan feels that the biggest strength of the nursery is in how they value each person involved in Willow – be they a child, a parent or a member of staff. She describes the nursery as having a very egalitarian working environment, with a management team who are happy to muck with more menial tasks. Children hail from 38 different countries and Jan wants the organisation to embrace all cultures and to encourage personal development wherever possible. Modelling of good interpersonal relationships and manners is always emphasised.
Staff turnover is very low at Willow, with some members of staff having worked with Jan in previous organisations and followed her to the new venture. Staff hold a variety of qualifications, some are Cache Level 3 nursery practitioners, whereas some hold a B.ED. and are qualified primary teachers. All are encouraged to regularly update their skills with an ongoing programme of continuous professional development. There is lots of in house training – including day to day topics such as health and safety, first aid, hygiene and sickness. There is always a Dubai Health Authority registered nurse on site.
We were able to meet Alex, a bright and smiling young teacher from Poland. Alex described Willow as being a special place, in fact she felt it is her “home”. She reported that staff have amazing relationships with the children and that parents tended to “fall in the love with the place”. High praise indeed! Alex mentioned communicating with parents via an app, something that she felt parents really appreciated – especially those at work.
When a member of staff is sick or unable to attend, Jan is usually able to cover their absence with supply staff. If this is not possible, absences are covered by assistants, but staff to child ratios are always maintained.
Our discussion moved to the provision for children with Special Educational Needs. Jan told us how much she disliked this term, preferring the more positive “Special Rights”. This concept of Special Rights informs the way in which children with additional needs are supported within Willow. Teachers are trained to form a supportive partnership with parents and work in tandem with professionals from other disciplines.
Jan then took us on a tour of the nursery. This is a large once residential villa that has been thoughtfully converted to provide 11 classrooms (two being in standalone wooden garden rooms in the grounds). We started with the baby room, which has huge high ceilings and an abundance of natural light. As we entered some children were napping in cots and some playing with natural materials on a light box, which seemed to be highly fascinated. Staff were calm and relaxed and interacting warmly with the children.
Throughout the nursery we witnessed happy children playing and creating with a wide variety of materials. Natural materials are heavily emphasised. Jan explained that activities were set up to provoke thought and interest – where the activity leads to is always up to the children. Colourful and beautiful children’s art work was carefully displayed in every room.
Children at Willow are encouraged to be independent in every way, and we saw children setting up the rooms for snack times and tidying away after themselves wherever we went. Bathrooms are not adapted with smaller toilets or sinks, as the Willow philosophy is that children must learn to use facilities as you would find in the adult world.
Outdoors, the garden area is filled with varied equipment and well shaded. The large space is divided into smaller areas, allowing different age groups to play independent of one another. To the back of the building, one area is set aside for water play, and is filled with small pools and splash tables. During the cooler months, many of the extra-curricular activities are run in the garden, including yoga, football and tennis.
As we toured the garden, Jan proudly took us into a beautiful glass structure – the nursery “Atelier”. In Reggio inspired nurseries, the Atelier is an essential room, one devoted to art, exploration and child led research. Each class regularly spends time in the Atelier, which is packed full of interesting an inspiring resources. The nursery employs a full time "Aterlierista" who manages this important resource.
Our last stop on our tour was to meet Samantha, a parent of a four year old boy in the FS1 class. Samantha was very happy with her choice of nursery, noting only parking as a slight downside. She felt that the staff had supported her child very well in overcoming some minor challenges as he settled into nursery life, and that he was now happy and thriving at Willow.
This is a beautiful nursery. During those years the management team have clearly worked not just to maintain standards but to make continual improvements. There is a genuinely happy and warm atmosphere between staff, parents and children. We were most impressed.
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