Welcome to 2020

The start of a new year is an opportunity for reflection – on what to give thanks for; what to congratulate ourselves for and what to look forward to and to consider how we can improve.

Looking back over the last year, there is much to celebrate. Some of these things are more visible than others, such as the very rewarding recognition of some of our teams by Ofsted in recent inspections and the heartfelt thanks we have received from parents, acknowledging the care and commitment shown by the dedicated people who work for Paint Pots and who have a real passion to make a difference in the life of each child, recognising them as a unique individual with their own interests, needs and potential.

But it is in the day to day moments of children’s achievements, expressions of joy, awe and wonder, that the life of Paint Pots is truly expressed. This is where deep relationships are built and we all live and grow together, experiencing Love, Laughter and Learning each day.

We remind ourselves that these young children are experiencing so many ‘firsts’ – Christmas, Diwali, finding a caterpillar, squeezing play-dough, building a den out of boxes, painting, making soup, learning to share, dancing with friends etc.

This year, may we all learn to see the world as children do, filled with opportunity to enjoy the moment, to experience new things and to see with fresh eyes and to delight in human connection.

Happy Christmas!

Nativity

Attending my fourth nativity of the season at Paint Pots this week, I have reflected on the difference between a performance and an event. In my opinion, the first implies a focus on presentation, the quality of content and delivery and a separation between performers and audience whereas the latter is an inclusive, communal experience that invites participation and does not worry about standards. It’s about taking part – the process, not the product. Both of these have their own benefits depending on what the aim is. When it comes to our youngest children, I find that the joy and fulfilment for all involved comes when everyone shares in the experience of creating moments together and when there is no worry about rigidly following a literal or metaphorical script. Any hiccups are an added dash of colour and charm. I love it that some children wander off or run to sit on their parents’ lap, that some carers come forward and join the nativity scene providing emotional and physical support for their child, that one autistic girl is free to celebrate the music in her own way with excited screams, encouraged to roam freely round the room and finally bursts out into a lusty rendition of ‘We wish you a merry Christmas’, as part of the group. I love the Portuguese Mary with the Turkish Joseph, the Indian, Pakistani and Polish wise men, the break-dancer dressed in combats, the Muslim and Hindu parents, proud of their children. I love that shy and confident boys and girls are equally applauded.

At a time of seeming national and international discord, this celebration of the richness of our diversity, inclusion, tolerance, peace and joy are encapsulated in our collective enjoyment as expressed through our children’s delight in inviting us into their little world to re-enact a traditional story together.

The colour, mess, noisiness, innocence and awe and wonder of our children has much to teach us about what we might have lost in transition to adulthood. How wonderful it is to take the opportunity to reclaim some of the delight of what it means to be human.

 

Wishing you all a very Happy Christmas

Meeting the Candidates

radio

In the run-up to the general election, other than seeking photo opportunities with cute babies, it is difficult to get any clues about how our political parties view the importance of early childhood from the words and actions of candidates. Next week, I have the opportunity to quiz everyone standing for the Southampton Test constituency for a BBC Radio Solent recording to be broadcast in the coming week. I have been scratching my head how to approach this. At Paint Pots we fervently believe that the early years of childhood are vital for children to establish foundations for their lives through the development of supportive relationships that enable them to build their independence, sense of identity and self-regulation. We visualise each child as a pot of paint, from within which a unique and beautiful picture can be created. This speaks to unlocking the innate potential and character of each person – how can we love this little person enough to be the best version of themselves?

Sometimes I think politicians have forgotten what it means to be a child – they were all one once. If they really understood the curiosity, sense of awe and wonder, the need for connection, love and expression within all of us, I believe our policies would be so different and our priorities as a nation would be very different.

I have been impressed with the national well-being budget set for the first time in New Zealand this year. In the introduction to it, Prime Minister Jacinda Arden writes “while economic growth is important, it alone does not guarantee improvements to our living standards. Nor does it measure the quality of economic activity or take into account who benefits and who is left out or left behind. Growth alone does not lead to a great country. We have broadened our definition of success for our country to one that incorporates not just the health of our finances, but also of our natural resources, people and communities.”

Maybe I will ask our local candidates for their view of success and where they see well-being in their list of priorities. I would suggest that a system in which human capital is seen only as a prerequisite for production and growth, has lost sight of well-being. In this dystopian landscape, children are reduced to data – test and exam scores that rank them purely in terms of their usefulness for the workforce. Is this how politicians see them? And ‘childcare’ is viewed only as a baby-sitting service to enable women to return to work.

I am sure that after December 12th, whoever is in government, the status of those of us who work with young children will remain where it is – very lowly and funding for early years education will continue to be one of the lowest priorities.

This week, as most weeks, I have spent time with our teams and the children they care for. Experiencing the love, care, the highest of expectations for every individual, the joy and the passion that is so evident day in, day out, I realise that it is more than just a job. It actually makes me very emotional to see the difference our teams are making and the way in which they care so much, going the extra mile. If only our politicians could come and spend a week with us maybe they would understand a little more. I will try and explain this a little in the 3 minutes I have with each of them on Tuesday. I hope you manage to catch the broadcast. You can always listen on catch up!

Africa MapKenya Map

David and Anna have been involved with New Life Home Trust, a charity operating in Kenya, for many years. New Life Home Trust exists to rescue, care for and place abandoned babies in families.  Priority is given to those who are infected or affected by HIV/AIDS. If possible these children are returned to the birth family. Where this is not possible, adoptive or foster parents are sought. Some children, particularly those who have a disability or special needs, are difficult to place in families. New Life commits to caring for these children in its own homes, for as long as needed. In 2019, New Life Home Trust celebrates 25 years of operation. To date, it has rescued over 2,000 babies and children. 90% have been placed into loving homes.

David has visited the 4 homes many times. This year he offered the opportunity to 3 of the Paint Pots team to join him for the week in volunteering in the Special Needs and Baby Rescue unit in Kisumu, as well as the Baby Rescue Home in Nairobi. Katie from Paint Pots Swaythling, Izzi from our Howard Road nursery and Lisa from the Woodlands preschool were chosen from the list of applicants to go on the trip.

In the last week of May 2019, we set out from Southampton on the long journey via Heathrow, Jermone Kenyatta Airport in Nairobi, Kisumu International Airport and finally a minibus drive to our final destination – New Life Home, Kisumu.

Whilst Kisumu is the third largest city in Kenya, it has a less cosmopolitan feel about it than the capital Nairobi. Driving from the airport and stopping at the local supermarket for some supplies, it is evident that we are a white minority. We drive past people living in very basic housing. On the roads, we pass carts pulled by donkeys, tuk-tuks, make-shift hand carts and myriad 2-wheeled motorised vehicles with 1 or more passengers or improbable loads of goods – 4 car tyres, chickens, fruit, building materials.

Kenya 2019 4Our greeting at New Life was humbling. The manager, Gilbert and his team were truly touched that we had made the effort to visit them. Over the next 3 days we spent time with the babies, the toddlers and in the special needs unit. It was a poignant but rewarding experience for all of us. The children craved our attention. At the forefront of our minds was that stark fact that if these children were not here, it is likely that they might not be alive. It reminded us how precious each life is and gave us a perspective on the things we take for granted in terms of the care our own children in England receive. It is salutary to consider that everything provided for these children comes from donations – the buildings, clothes, food, toys, school fees, medicines, wages, play equipment, nappies, milk, wheel chairs, medical bills, transport, fuel, water, electricity, computers, phones, maintenance etc.

Kenya 2019 3In some ways we were overwhelmed by the need. We had to remind ourselves that we could only do so much on such a short visit. Our aim was to learn, to support and encourage and to use our influence on our return to advocate for these children.

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that, ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’. Whilst this is a laudable aspiration, in practice, it is evident that for many individuals, this is certainly not the case.

Kenya 2019 8

 

It is one thing to read about poverty and inequality but to experience it first-hand and to meet those affected – real children, changes our perspective and resolve. It would be difficult to be unaffected by this experience and remain undetermined to work for a more just, kind and compassionate World. We are global citizens. We all have a responsibility for the children of the World, not just those we have a relationship with through Paint Pots.

Kenya 2019 2David and Anna are also supporters of a small charity ‘To Kenya With Love’ that set up and continues to run the Simon Newberry primary and nursery school for 300 children based in a slum district of Kisumu. David took the opportunity to visit, accompanied by Lisa. The journey to the school was ‘interesting’! We turned off the main road into a maze of corrugated metal huts, bumping over mud tracks. When our driver stopped to ask for direction, our minibus was surrounded by a crowd of locals shouting out ‘Hey, white woman!’ to Lisa.

We arrived in the school compound without incident. We were given a tour of the school before joining the nursery class who were excited to show all their toys to the visitors. They led us by the hand, outside at playtime, to join in an impromptu session of song and dance. We were then invited to share a cup of the porridge the children are given for lunch, before we had to leave.

Despite their situation, the children at the school were very happy. Here was an example of education providing a path out of poverty. Ex pupils have gone on to university or returned as qualified teachers to work in the school.

Kenya 2019 5On our last evening in Kisumu, we took a white-knuckle ride in a tuk-tuk – 5 people in 3 wheeler, along a very bumpy dirt track down to Dunga Point on Lake Victoria where we enjoyed a beer as we sat and watched the sunset.

The following morning we returned to the lake to tour a local radio station – Radio Lake Victoria which broadcasts to over 3 million people mainly on the topic of ecology. We also toured the lakeside facilities to see the Tilapia fish being landed, gutted and prepared for sale at Dunga Beach.

Kenya 2019 6We returned to New Life to say our goodbyes before boarding our plane to Nairobi. On landing, we were driven to our apartment before travelling on to New Life Home in the Kilimani district where we were given a tour and met another adorable group of babies and toddlers who we were to spend the next 3 days with. In contrast to Kisumu, the Kilimani home hosts far more visitors and volunteers so much so that on days there was almost a ratio of one adult per child. The practical help provided by these students, medics, travellers and neighbours, eases the burden of the feeding and care routines for the staff. It is also evident that these children are used to interacting with adults. They are expectant of connection and engagement. We were reminded of the importance of attachment to children’s developmental needs. The children are fed, cared for and nurtured but there is no escaping the fact that it is institutional care in a group context. There are strict rules governing care and hygiene practices. David was told off for not removing his shoes, not putting on a gown before feeding a child and not washing his hands inbetween picking up babies! It was a different experience spending time with these children but nonetheless worthwhile and again, poignant to consider that they had all been abandoned and were waiting for a loving family.

Through his connections from the World Forum on Early Childhood Education, David had arranged to meet a colleague from Aga Khan University, Dr Leonard Falex, at the home. Leonard lives not far from the home but confessed he had never visited. He was impressed and touched by what he saw on a tour of the site. He agreed to return at a later date and also to provide access to an online child development training programme for a member of the team. We hope that this will be the start of a fruitful relationship.

Kenya 2019 1On our last day, we took the morning off to visit the giraffe centre where we fed the giraffes and learnt about the amazing conservation work before moving on to the David Sheldrick Elephant orphanage where we got to hear the life story and to interact with several of the orphaned animals.

All too soon we were in an early morning taxi back to the airport where we jostled for over an hour to check our bags in (in my experience, Nairobi is one of the most chaotic airports for service) before boarding our plane back to Heathrow at the end of an exhausting but very busy, emotional and ultimately enriching adventure.

Perhaps more than one of us has left a small piece of our heart with the precious children in the homes? (I checked the suitcases to make sure they weren’t trying to sneak one back to the UK!)

Break-InI have been reflecting on the latest spate of break-ins we have suffered at our various sites. There were two more incidents last week, bringing the total in recent years to around twenty.

Each break-in follows a similar pattern – locating a heavy object, smashing the glass in an external door, heading to the office area, ransacking cupboards in a vain attempt to find cash (presumably) and/or other portable items of value before exiting, leaving a trail of destruction.

No violation of space or theft of property is a victimless crime. Someone is affected. In our case, as owners of a small business, it costs us time, energy and money dealing with the aftermath each time and causes anxiety, anticipating the next early morning phone call. For our teams, on arrival at work, they face the horrid prospect of encountering more evidence of forced entry, shattered glass, scattered belongings and the unpleasant feeling that someone has intruded with such disregard, into a place of innocence, sanctuary, joy and love for children.

I am not a victim because I choose not to be. I feel pity for those who steal from us. Of course I want these break-ins to stop and those who have done this to be brought to justice but I am more saddened than angry. It saddens me that our society immediately labels this person or persons as ‘scum’. They are not scum, they are someone’s child, possibly a partner and maybe a parent. To descend to a level where their conscience is so inured to the damage, pain and sense of violation they cause, something must have happened in their lives, something that cuts them off from their humanity. In my opinion, it is a form of psychopathy –

‘a personality disorder characterized by persistent antisocial behaviour, impaired empathy and remorse, and bold, disinhibited, and egotistical traits.

You have to be pretty disinhibited to smash a glass door and climb through it with the burglar alarm going off. To repeatedly do so, definitely equates to persistent antisocial behaviour with impaired empathy and remorse – still waiting for an apology!

If someone has a broken leg, we fix it and similarly we provide treatment for depression and other forms of mental illness. What about addiction, poverty, hopelessness and dare I say it, greed?

So my question is, are these people only deserving of our contempt and punishment or is there a case for sympathy, understanding and help? Aren’t they the ones who need fixing? Surely they are the victims of the vagaries of life experiences that have brought them to this point.

The bigger question is how do we prevent others from joining them?

We Won!!!!

NWAwards18We were shocked and delighted to be announced as national winners of Nursery Group of the Year category at the Nursery World Awards 2018 held at the prestigious Brewery in London. We have subsequently received so many messages of congratulations.

The judges commented on Paint Pot’s commitment to children, families, our team and our community. We believe the award is recognition of the dedication and hard work of the men and women who make Paint Pots what it is through their efforts, caring for and teaching the children we have the privilege of sharing our lives with on a daily basis in our nurseries, preschools and out-of-school clubs. They regularly go the extra mile. We know that every single one of them wants to make a difference in the lives of the children. Our personal thanks goes to all of them. We are just a tiny bit proud to be national Nursery Group of the Year. It was an honour to receive the award on behalf of Paint Pots.

I was reflecting on the glory and glamour of this Saturday night event, on the following Monday morning as I dismantled a blocked sink, followed by an equally blocked (but rather more unpleasantly so) toilet at one of our nurseries. But this wasn’t any old blocked toilet – it belongs to the 2018 Nursery Group of the Year. What a privilege to unblock it!!!   :0)

Preannouncement of my Book

Wright&Brownhill_chosen

Anyone that knows me well soon gets to hear about my personal journey as a man working in Early Years. It is an issue that I am passionate about and which has lead me to many places. I have had the opportunity and privilege of working with colleagues from across the World, meeting some inspiring men (and women) who share my determination that we need to do something about the very poor representation of men in the Early Years workforce. I have chaired a task group for the government which produced a report for the Minister. I have spoken at conferences across the World. I have been interviewed on television, radio and the internet and I have collaborated with researchers. Locally I have helped to establish Southampton Area Men in Early Years (SAMEY) and to organise the first ever UK national Men in Early Years conference in Southampton in 2016. In that same year, I was approached by Jessica Kingsley Publishing to consider writing a book about my experiences. I was delighted to receive an offer of collaboration with the well respected expert and academic (something I am definitely not!), Dr Simon Brownhill. Simon and I have been typing away, interviewing, researching and editing, for the past 18 months. We have commissioned photos, discussed typefaces, title wording and cover layout.

We are delighted that our book will finally be released in November 2018. We do hope it will be a useful resource and help to change the culture around men and women working together for the benefit of our youngest children. I will be very happy to sign a copy.

As I write, Paint Pots currently employs 6 men – maybe I need to read my book! :0)

 

Looking Beyond BehaviourRecently as a team, we have been considering our approach to children’s behaviour. As adults, rather than ‘managing’ behaviour to ensure conformance to our expectations, we are asking whether it is helpful to see behaviour as evidence of what is going on in each child’s life –

Is she frustrated at her inability to express herself due to her lack of language?

Is he the only child in his family?

Is something going on at home?

In other words, rather than asking ‘What is wrong with you?’ we are asking ‘What has happened to you?’

Our focus is to support our children to understand and regulate their emotions, to provide calm and security and to model social skills. Our ‘little humans’ do need our help, not our judgement and certainly not punishment.

 

 

A Reminder of what is important

This is a series of tweets by Alastair McAlpine, a Paediatrician –

For an assignment, I asked some of my terminal paediatric palliative care patients what they had enjoyed in life, and what gave it meaning. Kids can be so wise, y’know. Here are some of the responses –

First:

NONE said they wished they’d watched more TV

NONE said they should’ve spent more time on Face Book

NONE said they enjoyed fighting with others

NONE enjoyed hospital

MANY mentioned their pets: ‘I love Rufus, his funny bark makes me laugh.’ ‘I love when Ginny snuggles up to me at night and purrs’ ‘I was happiest riding Jake on the beach.’

MANY mentioned their parents, often expressing worry or concern: ‘Hope mum will be ok. She seems sad.’ ‘Dad mustn’t worry. He’ll see me again soon.’ ‘God will take care of my mum and dad when I’m gone’

Almost ALL of them loved ice-cream.

ALL of them loved books or being told stories, especially by their parents: ‘Harry Potter made me feel brave.’ ‘I love stories in space!’ ‘I want to be a great detective like Sherlock Holmes when I’m better!’

Folks, read to your kids! They love it.

MANY wished they had spent less time worrying about what others thought of them, and valued people who just treated them ‘normally’. ‘My real friends didn’t care when my hair fell out.’ ‘Jane came to visit after the surgery and didn’t even notice the scar!’

Many of them loved swimming, and the beach. ‘I made big sandcastles!’ ‘Being in the sea with the waves was so exciting! My eyes didn’t even hurt!’

Almost ALL of them valued kindness above most other virtues: ‘My granny is so kind to me. She always makes me smile.’ ‘Jonny gave me half his sandwich when I didn’t eat mine. That was nice.’ ‘I like it when that kind nurse is here. She’s gentle. And it hurts less’

Almost ALL of them loved people who made them laugh: ‘That magician is so silly! His pants fell down and I couldn’t stop laughing!’ ‘My daddy pulls funny faces which I just love!’ ‘The boy in the next bed farted! Hahaha!’ Laughter relieves pain.

Kids love their toys, and their superheroes. ‘My Princess Sophia doll is my favourite!’ ‘I love Batman!’ (All the boys love Batman) ‘I like cuddling my teddy’

Finally, they ALL valued time with their family. Nothing was more important. ‘Mum and dad are the best!’ ‘My sister always hugs me tight’ ‘No one loves me like mummy loves me!’

Take home message: Be kind. Read more books. Spend time with your family. Crack jokes. Go to the beach. Hug your dog. Tell that special person you love them. These are the things these kids wished they could’ve done more. The rest is details. Oh,

…and eat ice-cream!

 

A Bike, Community and a 3D Printer!

BikeThis is a bike. It is a sturdy and quite expensive bike. It has space for 2 small children and the potential for a whole load of fun and excitement!

About 9 months ago, one of the front wheels fell off. Mercifully no one was hurt. Somebody put the bike out of service, on one side and the children were denied any further enjoyment from it.

Some time later I discovered it languishing near the bins at the back of a nursery.  By this time it had lost both front wheels and was in a sad state. No one knew where the wheels had gone to.

Using the power of the internet, we eventually tracked down a company who had a catalogue of spare parts. We identified the make and model and what we thought were all the missing pieces. After several months of miscommunication, a parcel arrived with 2 new wheels, an axle, end caps and covers. But when we came to re-assemble it, there was one piece missing, a small black plastic spacer – without which, it would be impossible to use. We re-checked the spares catalogue. It wasn’t listed. We emailed the company, with a photo. They didn’t understand what we were asking for. All was a lost – ‘for the want of a nail…..

We put the bike on one side whilst we considered possible solutions. Finally, we decided to see if it was possible to somehow make our own. Reading an article on 3D printing, the thought came to mind whether we could find somebody locally who could do this for us.

Step forward ‘So Make It’  @MakeSoton “a non-profit MakerSpace in Southampton, UK – a friendly and inclusive place for people who like making things to sharing knowledge, experience and tools.

SpacersThis is the original alongside a new 3D printed part without which our children could not enjoy their bike. Amazing how important something so seemingly insignificant can be!

Credit must go to Tom Frame for brokering the deal – passing on the precious piece of rounded black plastic to “a man who can”.

Several days after Tom’s request went in along with him dropping off the original part, an envelope arrived by return, with not one but four 3D printed copies of the original.

I eagerly set about assembling the axle, spacers, wheels and end caps, quickly restoring the bike back into service.

bike with children

Who would have thought 3D printing could make a difference to children’s outdoor activities and that community networks can play such an important part in supporting children’s play?

 

From all the delighted children at Paint Pots, thank you So Make It – you made it for us!!