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      JOURNAL — Open ended play

      | A Woman's Work: A Q&A with Helen Fores of Spark Sensory |

      | A Woman's Work: A Q&A with Helen Fores of Spark Sensory |

      I met Helen through Baby Sparks baby sensory class - as she was the one leading it!

      The passion Helen has for neurological development through the senses and sensory play for babies really comes through in her classes and, due to her affable character, they easily became my favourite class to take Max along to. This was both for how much Max loved the activities and song, but also because of the catch ups and convos I could have with Helen and other parents.

      COVID has thrown a number of challenges Helen's way and her resilience and adaptability in the face of adversity has been an inspiration. Being a small business owner herself, she's been very supportive of LOMIE from the beginning and has been fantastic, particularly in, connecting us with local families and their babies for our product photography.

      Thanks so much Helen for taking the time to chat to us about your highs and lows. I hope that those reading will be equally inspired though learning about your story.

      Those who happen to be in the Nottinghamshire area can book Helen's classes here.


      Hi Helen! Please tell me a little about yourself and your background.

      Hello! I’m Helen, founder/owner of Spark Sensory and Baby Sparks sensory classes. Prior to launching my business I was a primary school teacher for 16 years across Nottingham. I’ve got two little boys; Charlie and Tommy, and a fur baby called Maxi. I think my obsession with creating the best baby and toddler sensory classes stems from a passion I have as an educationalist to support children from birth in their sensory and neurological development. I feel passionately that learning through play forms the building blocks for lifelong learning and it just feels an absolute privilege to spend time in that first precious year with new parents and their babies through their attendance at my classes.

      Helen Fores


      What is Sparks Sensory and Baby Sparks and what was the motivation behind setting them both up?

      Spark Sensory is the consultancy aspect of my business. My experience, knowledge and skills as a special needs teacher has enabled me to develop a consultancy role where I go into education settings, usually mainstream primaries, and offer training and ‘hands on’ work with staff and pupils on sensory integration practices for supporting pupils with additional needs. I also run conferences and provide remote support when required.

      Baby Sparks is quite literally, my baby! I deliver (with a small freelance team behind me) baby and toddler sensory classes across Nottingham. Every class is a full sensory workout for your baby and all that we do is based on up to date research and practice. The classes are fun, interactive, creative and developmentally appropriate at all levels for your little one. Prior to lockdown, we were delivering 15 classes across 4 days in West Bridgford, Keyworth, Beeston and Sherwood.

      Baby Sparks Nottingham


      Does ethics and sustainability come into play at all with what you do? 

      From an ethics perspective; yes absolutely. When I founded my business I wrote a set of values that I used as a guide for any business decisions I made. These focused on aspects such as ‘what did I want my customer to experience as a consistent service from me?’ ‘What values do I want to promote with education staff when I deliver training to them?’ and ‘how can I ensure that the customers experience is of such a standard that I am able to maintain high levels of customer retention.’ I created a values statement which included things such as ‘always presume competence’ and ‘above and beyond’ with regard to the service I provide. It’s helped me from an ethics perspective to focus on high customer service as a driver for profitability rather than simply focusing on profitability as a value.

      Sustainability is a more difficult one. In terms of the equipment I use, the majority is repeat use with very few items being single use only. I am mindful of disposing of any items with batteries (sensory balls) in a responsible manner and I often buy new equipment from charity shops (preferring wooden toys over plastic for obvious reasons). AS I branch out and continue to develop the retail aspect of the business, use of recycled packaging and organic, Fairtrade baby grows and t-shirts will be a priority.  


      Tell me about a particular highlight you’ve had within your career? What are you most proud of?

      I still suffer daily with imposter syndrome, COVID-19 has at times pushed me to the point of wanting to walk away entirely. However, I am so very proud of my resilience throughout the last 4 months and have promised myself I will look back on this time in the not too distant future and be able to say that I acted responsibly and with the best interests of all my customers at the heart of my decision making. In terms of other highlights, it sounds cheesy but I actually love it when a customer leaves me at the end of their maternity leave and we have a chat about their journey through motherhood and how the classes have impacted positively on that. Those conversations are the best. Then when working in schools, the feedback I get from staff about the positive impact and how their work with pupils has changed for the better, that is priceless because its real lives that are being impacted. There’s amazing job satisfaction in knowing that.



      Given the types of classes you offer, COVID-19 and social distancing guidelines have impacted quite dramatically on your business. You've been very creative in developing a new way of working going forward? Please tell us about this.

      Yes, dramatic impact is definitely a good way to describe it. Throughout the height of lockdown (March – June), my turnover dropped by 90%. The school-based work had to be placed on the back burner, mainly because schools closed! However, I used this time to increase my consultancy impact in other ways. I took on a freelance contract writing course material (on autism, sensory needs and the primary classroom) for a large online education CPD provider. This has proven to open further doors as I have now also agreed to become an assessor for the same company and am now assessing people as they train to become teaching assistants. It seems like a good role to adopt whilst the world adjusts to the new normal... however long that might take.

      In terms of the baby and toddler classes; we moved to online content and again, in line with my values I wanted to ensure this was accessible to all for as long as it was financially possible to do so. I created a ‘pay what you can’ approach and the turnover allowed me to work for 10 weeks generating a very small income to keep Baby Sparks afloat. Then after a short 3 week furlough period, to allow me time away from the business to reflect and learn lessons, I decided to move to a Zoom model in June and July, to enable a more interactive experience for myself and my customers. As the social distancing measures continued to relax, a face-to-face outdoor model for classes was developed. Throughout July and August, myself and one of my lovely freelancers, Kat, delivered a range of socially distanced outdoor classes. These were so incredibly well received, we had an absolute blast! Now as we move into Autumn and the weather becomes more inclement, we are planning on a move back to indoor classes. We are hoping this will happen around the 14th September. Our provision has drastically changed; fewer resources, no movement, safe social distances at all times. But, our values and vision remains the same and given that I feel I have maintained integrity throughout COVID, I am certain that our lovely customers will follow us back indoors and engage with the newly adapted, COVID secure Baby Sparks provision that we are super close to launching.


       What’s one piece of advice that you’d give for other women or mothers who are considering starting their own business?

        Don’t underestimate your own abilities. It’s hard work but no one works harder than a mum on 4 hours sleep and 3 cups of coffee! And research, research, research! You’ve got to know your market, your customer and yourself really. Focus on the end game; think big, start small - but do start!


        Photo credits to @lucyewarnerphotography

        | 5 Instagram Accounts to Follow for Inspiring Play Activities for Babies and Toddlers |

        Short on play ideas for your baby or toddler? Check out these 5 great Instagram accounts with simple yet inspiring activities, you'll both love.

        Play is so integral to babies and children’s development and intellectual growth. It stimulates all of their senses - movement, touch, sight, sound and taste(!), captures and builds their imagination and enhances their social and emotional intelligence. If you’re seeking new ways to both entertain and engage with your growing baby or toddler through play, then you need look no further, here are 5 great Instagram accounts to follow to inspire both you and your child. I’ve had the chance to connect with each person responsible for the different pages and below I, not only 
        share some of our favourite activities from their accounts but, also give insight into these wonderful individuals.

        *Please remember that all activities should always be done under adult supervision.


        1. @thebebestylist 

        When she’s not dressing the likes of Daniel Radcliffe, Natalie Dormer or Lara Stone, to name but a few, London-based celebrity stylist Aimee Croysdil is creating crafts with her young daughter.  The aim of her children focused Instagram, @thebebestylist, is to help others find ways of playing sustainably with style. Often using household and foraged materials, or reusing materials from a previous activity for another, Aimee shares an abundance of sensory play, suitable for babies and toddlers (6 months + depending on the activity), and children’s craft ideas (18 months +). You’ll also find a mix of kids fashion and homeware inspiration on her page, which also has a focus on sustainable brands.

        I can’t remember how I first came across @thebebestylist, but I’m very happy I did, as the account continues to inspire. A favourite activity of ours is the ‘Ice Paint’ (image below). To prepare this activity, put blobs of paint (why not use the edible paint recipe in 5. below) in each section of an ice cube tray and add water whilst stirring the paint in. Add sticks (we like using foraged ones) as little handles and place in the freezer overnight. This is a real hit, for those 12 months +, particularly in the warmer weather.



        2. @adventuresof_adajoyce

        Ada, now 14 months old, was involved in the last photoshoot we held for LOMIE earlier this year, and since then I now often refer to her Instagram account @adventuresof_adajoyce - run by her wonderful mum Hannah - for inspiration for open-ended play ideas. Hannah has a background in early childhood and special needs education. Her passion for play has been built through her experience working in children’s hospices and orphanages, seeing how play played such a significant role in both children's development and wellbeing. ‘Play can be really powerful and I have seen how it can also help children to heal and work through emotional trauma,’ she says. 

        Hannah is an advocate, in particular, for open-ended play. With open-ended play, there are no instructions, rules, or expectations for the children. Children have the ability to make their own decisions and fully engage their creativity and imagination with the materials around them. Hannah loves watching Ada learn and practice new skills during play with activities she sets up for her. ‘Seeing her make new connections and figure out the world around her fascinates me,’ Hannah says. ‘Instagram is full of creative people sharing their ideas and as I have so many inspiring activity ideas myself, I thought I would give it a go and share some of Ada's adventures in play myself.’

        From loose parts, to water play there are many simple but wonderful activities to do with @adventuresof_adajoyce. We tried ‘Foam Play’ today (image of Ada below) with great success. I had some kitchen utensils for Max to explore with, and also hid some of his toy animals in the foam. Max was entertained for a good 40 minutes. It's super easy to prepare, takes less than 5 minutes, and makes for a simple clean up if you do it in the bath, as we did. To make the foam, add 2-3 tbsp of tear-free / taste-safe baby body wash, and a couple of drops of food colouring, to 1 cup of water, and whizz up in a food processor or with an egg beater. Suitable from 6 months +. 


        3. @little_wild_wonders

        ‘Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed’ - Maria Montessori. 

        Hayley, an early years primary school teacher and mum of two, runs the account @little_wild_wonders which promotes Montessori-inspired learning through play. The Montessori approach inspires confidence, nurtures children's desire for learning, discovery, and social interaction.  It’s skill based with the ultimate goal being the child becoming independent in their own right, at their own pace, following their own interests.

        Hayley creates play environments at home for her children to engage with. ‘I’m making sure I put into practice what I did with Wilfred (2y) for Florrie (4m) as well, especially with what toys she interacts with. I highly recommend you observe your child and follow their interests, you’ll get so much more interaction and engagement in their play,’ she says. 'It also needn’t be expensive. Many parents make DIY Montessori materials which work just as well as those bought. The magic is in following their lead…’. 

        Amongst many others, we were inspired by a post by @little_wild_wonders to make ‘Flower Soup’ (image below), where you explore petals and leaves from flowers from the garden, as well as filling and pouring water from pots and pans. Another great activity for the warmer months. Recommended for 12 months +, and if your child has a tendency to pop things in their mouth, please be sure to use edible flowers.


        4. @madeitwithmama

        London mum of two young boys (2y & 4m), and head of a secondary school Biology department, Kimberley, is the creative behind the account @madeitwithmama. The account was set up a couple of months ago, whilst on maternity leave and under lockdown, to inspire other mums to get creative with their little ones.  We love how Kimberly uses a lot of household, recycled or foraged materials for her crafts and DIY toys. ‘The process of crafting is as important, if not more so, than the finished product so it’s important that children are able to get involved and have some freedom with the creative process. Why buy toys when you can enjoy making them and then enjoy playing with them? Double the fun!’, she says. 

        But @madeitwithmama is not only limited to children’s craft and play, you’ll also find recipes and creative food ideas, and for those art and design inclined amongst us, you’ll love the artistic pieces posted for inspiration. Kimberley also dabbles in a bit of art and illustration herself, with some of her artwork found online at Evermade.

        We love this great sensory activity using ‘DIY Water Beads’ (image below). It's made from tapioca, and so is 100% edible! To prepare, simply bring some water to the boil, add a cup of dried tapioca and let it simmer until it has formed jelly-like balls. Drain and rinse with cold water. Add a few drops of food colouring, mix, leave a few minutes and they are ready to use. You can add some toys and / or utensils and your baby or toddler will have a ball. 


        5. @louisa.penfold

        Dr Louisa Penfold has a PhD in children’s art education and works in early childhood at Harvard University. Her account @louisa.penfold has long been a fav of ours! Lou runs the blog Art Play Children Learning which is all about making art fun and meaningful for kids. The blog not only shares different art activities for kids but also gives evidence-based tips on how parents can cultivate children’s creativity at home. We found this post on using questions to support young children’s creative thinking particularly helpful. 

        Regarding play, we love the ‘Edible Paint Recipe for Babies & Toddlers’ below, that we’ve previously shared on our grid and is suitable for 6 months +. I would also recommend checking out the hashtag Lou created, #quarantineplayideas, which has a trove of amazing play activities for kids. To make the edible paint, put ½ c flour and 1 Tbs salt in a saucepan. Pour ¾ c cold water in the saucepan and whisk until smooth. Add ¾ c hot water and whisk. Heat on the stove, stirring continuously, until it starts to boil. As soon as it does, take it off the heat. Add in food colouring (5-6 drops), stir, and wait to cool before using.


        We hope you love these accounts as much as we do. What are your favourite baby or toddler play activities? And where do you tend to get your inspiration from? Do you have some favourite accounts that you can recommend? 

        Please add to the comments below! Xx