Theory and practice

Picture-perfect enabling environments

How pop-culture and plastic toys can have a place in an enabling environment
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March 23, 2022
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In a rush? Here's the quick run-down:

  • Focus on why you want to make a change to your environment. Kirstine encourages practitioners to look beyond what they think looks ‘aesthetically pleasing’ and focus on their cohort of children’s individual needs.
  • Toys representing popular characters can be beneficial to children's communication and language development, as they are familiar and can inspire adventurous role-play… even if they’re plastic.
  • Popular culture has a place in nursery settings. But you should manage and support it with thoughtful resourcing and practitioners who understand why you’re using these resources.

Instagram is awash with picture-perfect play scenarios showcasing warm natural hues, twinkly lights and fake ivy. This might get plenty of ‘likes’ from fellow practitioners but is it really engaging the children’s interests?

Nicole Weinstein speaks to early years consultant and trainer, Kirstine Beeley, to find out how to get the balance right – and why adding popular culture to the mix, along with a few plastic figurines, is not necessarily a bad thing.

Plastic toys
Image courtesy of Newtownards Nursery School

Is the current trend to create Pinterest-perfect enabling environments missing the point when it comes to engaging children’s interests?

KB: There’s no doubt that social media is awash with pretty pictures of neutral settings festooned with twinkly lights and fake ivy. I have no issue with this, providing it forms part of a wider plan to engage children rather than to just replicate “Pinterest-perfect” settings.

However, it’s important to keep in mind the children’s interests and how we can engage and excite them – and not just what looks aesthetically pleasing to adults.
It’s all about knowing your ‘why’. If you know your children well, adding a few well-chosen plastic pieces of popular culture can truly deepen their play and stimulate language development.

For example, I recently set up a small world play scene that included crates, plants, natural loose parts along with plastic paw patrol figures. I knew that the cohort were familiar with these characters and when placed with an array of other engaging and open-ended resources, the interaction and learning was immense.

Plastic toys
Image courtesy of Newtownards Nursery School

Is there a pressure on practitioners to create Instagram-able play set-ups?

KB: I think there’s definitely a desire to post pictures of aesthetically pleasing play scenarios that practitioners have spent hours trying to make picture-perfect.

There’s also pressure to make settings natural and neutral. Often, it’s a case of practitioners replicating the enabling environments they’ve viewed on Outstanding settings’ social media posts. But, unfortunately a two-dimensional picture only gives part of the story.

There is thinking behind having neutral surroundings and there is thinking behind having authentic resources, but this can get confused with what the adult thinks look nice. Replicating these set-ups does not guarantee Ofsted Outstanding ratings. Practitioners need guidance to understand why the resources are being used in this way – and it’s not to just look pretty!

Is it looked down upon to use plastic TV characters and add popular culture to the mix in EYFS provision??

KB: There’s definitely a misplaced belief that all things should be natural and neutral – and this can sometimes be to the detriment of learning potential.

One of the prime areas of learning is language and communication. Children learn best with what they know, and many of them have been at home for half of their lives, often watching more TV than usual during Covid times.

Some children are more familiar with loose parts than others. Some do not know how to play with wooden cotton reels and pieces of fabric and may need to be eased into this type of play. As educators, we have a responsibility to reflect their home life in our settings and this includes adding items such as soft furnishings and real household items in the home corner. As part of their world is popular culture, this is also likely to include plastic figures or some representation of popular culture.

In a cohort where the focus is on developing communication and language confidence, with lots of children speaking English as an additional language, it’s even more important post-Covid.

I’ve observed children talking of adventures their characters have been on, of tea parties they’ve made for them and how they’ve fought evil baddies. There is a space for popular culture in nursery settings; it just needs to be managed and supported with thoughtful resourcing and practitioners who understand why they are adding these resources. Play figures can be added with loose parts to support open-ended play and exploration, which allow for sustained-shared thinking that links in with the children’s interests.

Plastic toys
Image courtesy of Newtownards Nursery School

What’s your view on plastic?

KB: Some settings have ditched all plastic and replaced it with natural-looking enabling environments. I’m not an advocate of using plastic and I don’t ever endorse buying new plastic. From an environmental perspective, my motto is rescue-and-reuse from charity shops, car boot sales or scrap stores. 

But it’s about knowing your children and if they’re into Paw Patrol, PJ Masks or Coco Melon, having an environment that looks Pinterest-perfect but is alien to them is not going to achieve what you want it to achieve.

About Kirstine Beeley

Kirstine Beely runs a private Facebook page,
Planning For Potential In Early Years With Kirstine Beeley | Facebook

Her website, Home (, provides contact details and examples of her work.
She is also author to 14 early years titles, Books by Kirstine Beeley | Book Depository

The big ideas

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Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.

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UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

The full recommendations from a working group of over 70 nursery chains in the UK.

Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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