It didn’t take long for Gemma Paterson and Ashley Cupples to realise that mealtimes for the ‘wee people’ in their charge just weren’t working.
Gemma, who is based in Bowhouse Primary’s nursery, had to take 56 children – aged three or four – along to the school dining room at 11.30 am, where she and her colleagues tried to encourage them to eat.
It was pretty hopeless. Their tables were in one half of the dining hall so behind shutters older children might well be playing basketball or having PE.
Meanwhile, Ashley, in Nethermains Primary’s nursery, had 40 children needing fed and watered in a tight window of time before the older school children arrived to take their turn.
Ashley and Gemma are among eight early years pedagogues – graduates in childcare – helping Falkirk Council deliver the Scottish Government’s massive expansion in early years learning.
Their nurseries were among the first to offer families 1140 hours of nursery time in a year, a massive increase from the previous 600 hours and both Ashley and Gemma were involved in small pilot schemes which worked well.
But when the numbers increased in August last year, they knew things had to change.
“When we went to provide meals for 40 children it was upsetting for the children and the staff – it wasn’t a nice experience for them and really young children weren’t coping with it,” Ashley remembers.
“We wanted our wee people to be in their own environment and in a relaxed and unhurried atmosphere,” said Gemma.
They began to offer meals to children in their own nursery setting and the two young women made such a success of the changes that Falkirk Council quickly adopted and promoted their ideas across the area.
Since then, their ‘Marvellous Mealtimes’ has been such a success the Scottish Government now holds up what Falkirk is doing is an example of best practice.
This is backed up by evidence: sitting down to lunch in a scary, noisy hall only 19 per cent of the wee people could be persuaded to eat.
Now with a freeflow, self-service lunchtime routine in their own nursery, at least 80 per cent of the children happily clear their plates.
But this isn’t just about stopping tears and tantrums or even just making sure children are fed.
Marvellous Mealtimes is also about helping the children become self-sufficient and meals in Falkirk have become a rich learning opportunity.
The children use real cutlery and crockery, help set the table, serve themselves, pour their own juice or milk, clear their plates and wash them afterwards.
It is giving youngsters an opportunity to explore different foods and textures – and they can also express their likes and dislikes. Since the initiative was launched, wastage has decreased to ten per cent from an averaged of 25 per cent – although on some days it was as muchh as 45 per cent.
For those who don’t have such marvellous mealtimes at home, the benefits are immense as the staff – and fellow pupils – model healthy eating, good manners and good routines.
The early years pedagogues also make sure that the children are always involved in food preparation, either making soup or baking every day.
“They love cooking and they always eat more of it if they’ve made it!” said Ashley.
Their nurseries now offer workshops where families can come along, something that’s been so popular they’ve had to put on more – and involve older siblings.
The recipes are ideal for anyone on a budget and they know they are helping many families who’re struggling to make ends meet.
Ashley and Gemma should be feeling pretty pleased with themselves, but they’re too busy planning what’s coming next.
The next stage is to introduce a larder which means children will have more choice over what they eat and children who prefer to graze rather than eat a big meal will be better catered for.
Gemma’s even taking a group of her ‘wee people’ to Asda to help her do a bit of shopping.
It is all part of the learning experience and one which is reaping benefits, as well as being hailed as best practice by the Scottish Government with other education authorities encouraged to follow Falkirk’s lead.
“Marvellous Mealtimes will look a little bit different in each setting,” explained Lisa McCabe, education team manager with children’s service. “But the principle behind it will be the same.
“What’s really important is the way in which this delivers the curriculum holistically. It’s not contrived, it’s just natural. The learning is just so rich!”
She added: “When someone from the Scottish Government came to see what we were doing, at one point there was a wee spillage and, with no problem, the children just got up and went to get paper towels to clean it and then just sat back down. It was just lovely to see – and she was so impressed!”
The way in which the meal and snack times have become part of the curriculum has led to another change that children’s services is proud of - the snacks at nursery are now free, removing another burden from parents. All snacks are healthy and nutritious.
To help things along, Falkirk Council has also introduced a new position of a senior cook who will help the nurseries create a flexible menu of snacks and lunches that will keep the wee people happy.