I’m originally from West Sussex, and I left school with few qualifications and moved to London aged 19 to become a nanny. The eldest child, Fran, then 3 years old, went to a Montessori Nursery in Belsize Park – the owner has since retired, and the nursery closed.
Intrigued to know what Montessori was all about, I asked if I could spend a morning there. The calmness and focused learning inspired me to research further, and I found a Montessori training course at The London Montessori Centre. It was an evening and weekend course which meant I could continue to nanny during the day, and my employer agreed I could take on a nanny share to pay for the tuition fees.
The younger child, Ellie, then aged 2 became my experiment child – I made all the Montessori materials in cardboard and practiced my presentations with Ellie – and so many of the Montessori values resonated with me. The girls were very creative and we spent much of our day creating houses from cardboard boxes and dressing up to role play – their dressing up trunk was incredible, lace dresses, bowler hats and bloomers, not a Disney outfit in sight.
We baked a lot too, my mother had always let me be independent in the kitchen, experimenting and using tools to cook with, so it came naturally that my charges were also given this independence.
Before I’d even graduated in Montessori, Caroline, my boss, suggested we try to obtain planning permission from Camden Council to turn my nanny flat into a nursery school. So in September 1989, aged just 21, I opened Woodentots to 6 local children, 3 of whom were children I nannied for. There was a garden and we spent much of the day outside – as a country child myself nature was embedded in the Woodentots ethos right from the start, encapsulated perfectly by the quote, “There is no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing.”
In 1997 Woodentots moved to Rochester Road and I opened another nursery in 2002 at the same time as becoming a mama myself. When my daughter Beatrix Pebbles was a born, it felt instinctive for me to create a natural home with organic food and clothing. I became interested in Waldorf around this time and would read books deep into the night whilst feeding Pebbles. This inspired me to implement more Waldorf traditions and seasonal rhythms into Woodentots, all plastic was removed and I implemented child-led creativity, loose parts – materials that can be moved, carried and combined, offering child led exploration and creativity – and even more outdoor play.
I had a second daughter in 2004 and we moved to Devon as a family in 2007. This was a difficult period for me as I’d commute back to London weekly to oversee Woodentots which meant being away from my girls. My sacrifice felt worth it to give them freedom to play in nature. We rented a sweet cottage in the middle of a nature reserve, the girls went to a progressive school and it all felt like the idyllic childhood I wanted them to have.
It was here that I discovered Forest School; I trained in 2012 and was excited to bring this to London for my Woodentots children. My reputation steadily grew, offering a rich mix of Montessori, Steiner and Forest School and since then I have opened a further 3 nurseries. We were one of the first nurseries in London to offer this and the demand was great.
31 years on Woodentots remains true to its roots, whilst as a teacher I have of course always evolved, and continue to do so. I was just a young 21 year old, and when I look back I wonder why the parents trusted such a young girl. I was then a mama, and for a while my own daughters would come to Woodentots with me – whilst without a doubt this was my most challenging time, I feel that becoming a mama helped me really relate to the families. I now fully understood what they may have been through to get to the door at 9.00am!
And I adopted a different approach to teaching which was more aligned with my parenting style, I trained with Barbara Isaacs in Montessori parenting and was keen to support parents with their struggles, I re-read Montessori books and analysed her early studies on children.
Montessori really was a true pioneer, and learning the skill of observation is the root to our practice, and a skill I often remind my teachers when they are struggling.
It has been an amazing journey – mostly because of all the incredible children I have had the pleasure of working with over the years, and of course my wonderful team.
Paula is a Montessori teacher and Forest School Leader who has run the much loved Woodentots Montessori nurseries in North London for over 30 years. Recently recognised as Montessorian of the Year, Paula’s schools offer a unique and rich mix of Montessori, Steiner and Forest School, with child-led creativity at their core.
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