When Josie Doran established Little Trotters Farm and Nursery School in 2004, she wanted to create a school that provides a nature-based education fulfilling the needs of all children, inside the classroom and in the wider world.
Nestled among flora and fauna in a quiet patch off Walkers Road in George Town, Little Trotters is the only school in the Cayman Islands to receive the highest rating of ‘Excellent’ by the Office of Education Standards (with inspection reports out on about 50 of the country’s 53 schools).
Little Trotters has more than 80 students ranging in age from 18 months to 5 years.
Lesley Maddock is school manager of Little Trotters, which integrates approaches from Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner, incorporated within the British national curriculum.
In the first half of this interview, Doran and Maddock talk about the defining characteristics of Little Trotters, and how the school responded to the COVID-19 lockdown that began in March.
(The second half of the interview will be published soon.)
Josie Doran: Born in South Africa, Doran moved to the UK at age 12. She trained at Montessori College in London as a Montessori Nursery Teacher (2-6 years), and later trained as an Advanced Montessori Teacher (6-9 years) and Nursery Nurse (NNEB). More recently, she attended several Steiner seminars in the UK and observed regularly in Steiner schools. After several years working for Montessori schools in the UK, she read a magazine article that spoke of the Montessori School of Cayman. She arrived in Cayman in 1995 and worked at the Montessori School until 2000 (as assistant, then teacher, and finally principal). She left Cayman to travel, and completed a Permiculture (Organic Farming) course in Australia before returning to Cayman in 2004 to establish Little Trotters.
Lesley Maddock: Originally from Scotland, Maddock trained as a Nursery Nurse (NNEB). She arrived in Cayman in 2000 and started working for Little Trotters in 2005. She was rolled over in 2008 and spent the year away teaching at a preschool in Cyprus. She returned to Cayman and Little Trotters in 2009.
— Can you please talk about the guiding principles of Little Trotters?
DORAN: The inspiration for the school was very much to be emphatically child-centred, at every juncture. To create an environment that adults envy and marvel at, and wish they could return to. To inspire the wonder of childhood. To be safe. And above all to a place of nurturing, loving and kindness.
It really matters to me. I think it’s mattered consistently for all these years.
The staff are everything. The treatment of the staff is paramount. Their happiness, their health, their wellbeing, in and outside of school, is all that matters to me in my position.
Lesley does everything else. Lesley’s the reason the school is ‘Excellent’. I just love the teachers to pieces.
I can’t emphasise that enough. I’ll say it again and again, and have said it probably a thousand times by now throughout all the parent tours, as I wax lyrical from class to class, and we talk to Carolyn [Jervis, the Head Teacher], and we talk about the butterfly garden, and all the host plants in the butterfly garden that attract local butterflies. And we have water play, and we bake every week.
The children are encouraged to speak in front of class, to develop confidence and competence and build eloquence, and learn their order within society. Socialisation is incredibly important here. There are opportunities galore here to express and to socially interact.
I talk about how our programme incorporates preparedness for literacy and maths, and envelops themes that teach children about the wider world to come. It’s so exciting.
Again and again I’ll say to the teachers: All you need is 4 posts and a corrugated roof, and with the right teachers you can create magic.
They are the most important component. They are consistently on the right page when they step foot through the gates.
We are child-centred, kind and loving — all of the time. Our very existence is positive regard and reverence for the little people we are blessed to be around.
It really matters.
— What sets Little Trotters apart from other schools in Cayman? What are its defining characteristics?
DORAN: I hear there is an overwhelming sense of welcome, that everybody matters. I don’t know how you can convey this into writing, but for example, it is in all the teachers’ job descriptions that they extend their right hand, and they make eye contact, and they warmly welcome everybody.
It’s part and parcel with vigilance of course, but also, within the perimeter of this fence, there is only kindness and warm welcome at the initial meeting, and then strong communications thereafter.
MADDOCK: There’s a sense of family.
DORAN: There’s a huge sense of family.
MADDOCK: There are families, with children who came to the school, and who are now Head Boy or Girl at other schools, and they are still part of our family. They can still stop by, and find teachers that were here when they were 3 years old. And we still hug them (not particularly me, but Carolyn certainly does). We still love them as much as we did when they were young students here.
DORAN: It’s easy, especially over time, for the priority of any school, from early years to university, to shift to support the needs of the parents or the staff. I believe emphatically that we remain child-centred in all of our decisions.
The children are happy. Their day is stimulating. They truly are loved.
I often say to parents who arrive, “Welcome, and another priority, oddly enough, is that you meet the animals.” There may be a pony. There are the goats. We have enormous koi in the fish pond. There are 2 ducks, the mommy and daddy duck.
We had 1 cat, but apparently she now has 7 kittens, so we now have 8 cats (teenagers). We have rabbits and guinea pigs. It’s so integral to our curriculum.
Yes, it’s a wonderful starting point. Then we enjoy the vegetable patch: our basil, our okra, our aubergines, our tomatoes. We have 2 pineapples on the way. We have a little coconut tree. We have fruit trees around the garden.
Essentially by setting that tone, we are encouraging caring, nurturing and and environment that evokes a sense of responsibility and empathy to the needs of others.
I feel that it is a delightful starting point, as it begins the journey of painting the palette of what we’re about. Here’s an environment where the children play a role and are integral to its upkeep. They’re responsible for the care of the animals and, in turn, enjoy the delight that it evokes.
I think where I’m trying to get to is laying a foundation of who we are, and what we’re about. We have a charming garden that allows for exploration and elevation, up-around-under-and-through the space. We have trees everywhere, creating shade for the children to play safely.
There’s a pirate ship. There’s a gazebo. The butterfly garden is yet another space where children can come to as young scientists, or explorers, armed with a magnifying glass or an identification card, to look for local caterpillars, and they’ll be sure to find cockroaches, ants, you name it. We live with all of God’s creatures here.
Laying that foundation of who we are, water play is again an integral part of our curriculum. Each class, for one morning a week, will enjoy and interact with our free flow foam. There is a small fountain in the garden where they might make mud pies or enjoy pouring from one container to another, getting soaked by one of the teachers spraying them with a hose.
There’s freedom here. That would be one of my opening lines, once we’ve gotten past all the animals and the vegetable patch and the water cans, upon arrival — is that we want to encourage freedom within a structured environment, which is quite a Montessori philosophy.
— Can you talk about the Montessori and Steiner philosophies, and how you integrate those two approaches at Little Trotters?
DORAN: Central to the Montessori philosophy is a child-centred environment, meticulously and carefully assembled to meet the needs of every child based on observation.
The 2 most important strengths that [Maria Montessori] attributed to a fine teacher, and to be a fine teacher, are the skill of observation, and humility.
So we wish to create beautiful, stimulating environments that draw in, attract, evoke and satisfy the full range of needs of all the children that we have in our school. That’s a very lofty task for a good teacher.
She also very much held highly opportunities for skills of independence within the classroom, which we hold on high. It’s their environment. They are active participators in keeping their environment clean and tidy, which evokes respect in these young humans. That extends to the outside garden as well, to the care of the animals, the care of the vegetable patch, the tidying up of our garden at the end of each school day.
She based her literacy programme on the phonics approach, and although we don’t follow it closely, we follow the ‘Jolly Phonics’ programme here.
It to a degree mirrors the way she would have taught.
A fourth ideal that speak to us is encouraging the practical life skills. Within a Montessory classroom, you will have the practical life section. I would like to think that Little Trotters embodies, in all areas of the school day, inside and out, encouraging opportunities for practical skills: scrubbing the tables, mopping the floors, and I would say cleaning the teachers’ cars …
MADDOCK: … We don’t do that anymore. We can’t get the cars into the garden as in the olden days … Cleaning the pig …
DORAN: Speaking about the Steiner approach, by contrast Montessori had a mildly more academic bearing from a younger age, in quite an organised fashion. Steiner prefers not to approach the written word until the age of 7, but prefers instead in this young age group to encourage skills of confidence, building of the memory, use of the imagination, roleplay and freedom of movement.
There are qualities about Montessori that I really liked. There are some that we have chosen not to adopt. We create a more social environment than a Montessori classroom would encourage.
Essentially within a Montessori classroom, you might have 20 students and therefore 20 lesson plans. We are certainly erring here toward a sense of society, learning and playing in group settings, small or large.
For our little ones, because we’re using an approach that’s incorporated within the British national curriculum, we use Jolly Phonics. Our 3- going on 4-year-olds are enjoying the beginnings of that programme whilst they’re here. It’s fun. It’s interactive. The lessons are short. Learning is a byproduct of the fun that they have during those lessons.
They’re also exposed to a plethora of early literacy skills during those Jolly Phonics lessons: creating alliterations, identifying rhyming words, counting or hearing out or tapping out syllables in a word or in a sentence, for example.
— The COVID-19 pandemic shut down all schools in mid-March. Preschools were the first to open, in July. Can you talk about how you responded to COVID at Little Trotters?
DORAN: The closure was announced on a Friday. By Tuesday, I would say, we had communicated with parents and created a gentle online programme.
MADDOCK: It was a group of ideas. We created a programme available to parents. We finessed it as we moved through the period. It included videos from the teachers, so it was …
DORAN: … supporting what they might have taught. For example, we have a Spanish teacher, so she created a video. [Maddock] created a YouTube channel.
MADDOCK: We had a YouTube channel, and the teachers and I sent out 3 videos, plus supporting subjects, each day. We plan our learning; we know what we’re doing a year in advance. We worked through our plans, so the phonics, and the maths, and everything carried on.
DORAN: Including Spanish and music. The lessons they would have received here, they were receiving in the form of a video — short, fun and child-centred.
MADDOCK: Also, we went out a written activity plan that teachers contributed to. So for each class they had ideas to support various themes, and various different areas of development, and that came with printable resources for the parents. Some of them struggled with access to printers, but those that had printers were able to print them off.
We sent them out on a Sunday, and it gave the parents a chance to print everything out. Some parents were able to print on a Monday because that was the day they were allowed out.
There were baking recipes. There were colouring sheets. There were activities, ideas for treasure hunts, all ideas for what you could do with your children to keep them entertained. It’s a difficult age group to cater to remotely.
We had parents who had a child who’s 2 years old, and both of them have corporate jobs, and they were expected to work in their jobs from home, having their 2 year old there.
DORAN: Primarily what we found challenging was meeting the needs of the parents because we’re not peer education partners; we’re their caregivers. That’s untransferrable. So we could keep up a delightful rapport; we could send ideas to parents who are probably pulling their hair out, carrying out full-time jobs at home; and we could maintain or manage some of what would have been taught in the more-organised themes that go on from class to class, across those months that we were closed.
MADDOCK: Before the complete shutdown, there was about a week, 10 days, and during that period we shared resources. We prepared staff, and parents could come in, and we had seeds that they could plant in pots. We gave out resources, and that would have continued had it been allowed to. But because the shutdown came, where we weren’t allowed to interact with people and the schools had to be closed, we couldn’t continue with that, which was unfortunate.
DORAN: We had 2 staff each morning for 2 hours until that point. Fortunately, that was 2 weeks whereby we were allowed to share resources to support the activity sheet that we were putting together.
MADDOCK: There were arts materials they could come get, and maths sheets. We provided as much as we could in that time, and that would have been something we would have continued, if we could.
The shutdown kept us safe, so we have to appreciate where we’re at now. But it was a test.
It was the 13th of March when we closed our doors, and the shutdown happened 22 March. I think we opened on 7 July …
DORAN: … Under quite different circumstances. It was terrible.
We were acutely worried about how the children would respond to us wearing masks. We had overalls on. The children would stand in a foot sanitising bath on their way in. The parents had all diligently signed a health waiver online prior to arrival.
That’s a huge difference for the children as well. We have such an open door policy, so parents can stay for as long as they wish. They can settle down in the book corner and read a story, and now all of that had altered, and parents could not step foot within our gates.
MADDOCK: This was what we had to do before we opened our doors. We had to submit our reopening plan to government, so there were rules and regulations put in place, that parents weren’t allowed in, that we had to do the health screenings. These things were not our choice.
DORAN: They talk about a resilience in young children, don’t they? Their sort of fickle nature. When they returned, we really were aware that we would have to be especially expressive with our eyes and our voices and our body language, transferring our love for them because they cannot of course see our entire face, and it can to a degree possibly muffle our spoken word.
But the children bombed through, raced in, with a joie de vivre, just delighted to be back.
MADDOCK: We didn’t miss a tick, we really didn’t.
DORAN: We thought there would be worry and woe, and we received online counselling from the point of mental health and wellbeing, and how we are, and how we can support the children. They just came bounding through the door like nothing had happened.
MADDOCK: Like they had had an extra long summer.
Although, we were very relieved come September, when we could take the masks off.
The masks were for the teachers. The children did not have to wear masks. I think there were no masks for children under 6.