PARK Academy Childcare Group recently became the first private childcare group in Ireland to achieve the All Ireland Centre of Excellence Award from the National Children's Nurseries Association for each of its purpose-built childcare centres.
Since Mary McGibney and Gerri Cobbe teamed up to found the first ever purpose-built crèche in Ireland in 1995, Park Academy has grown to encompass facilities in Cabinteely, Sandyford, Booterstown and Cherrywood in Co Dublin and in Delgany and Bray in Co Wicklow.
McGibney says achieving this award was all down to a pure team effort by all of Park Academy's 160 staff.
"It took nearly two years for us to make this change. This is not something that happens overnight. It's a completely new way of looking after the child so it's a differentiator. At the end of the day we are all about the child."
McGibney says Park Academy has always aimed to be a leader in childcare in Ireland and at the forefront of childcare innovation.
" The benefits of being a Centre of Excellence is just enormous because it just goes over and above the standard care of a child. The child and the parents are going to benefit. The offshoot of all of this is we have got a very happy team."
Daycare at Park Academy is distinctive in that it is now child-led, maintains McGibney.
"Everything that we do is determined by the needs of the child. That has come about through a lot of training and via huge change, as well as increasing standards.
"It means that the children are much happier; their development is much more enhanced. It's also much more stimulating for the staff who are involved."
To achieve the recent award, Park Academy concentrated on its partnerships with families as well as its physical environment – looking at everything from diet and nutrition to management and administration.
McGibney says it took a lot resources and willingness to change what was the norm at Park Academy to make it more child-led.
" That's what our team have done. They've changed and they see the benefits, and the children experience the benefits, which is the most important thing."
When setting up the initial Park Academy McGibney and Cobbe saw a pure need for designated childcare facilities here in Ireland.
"Purpose-built means we would have either built a creche from the outside up and completely fitted out the inside with milk kitchens, specialised changing areas and indoor rompus rooms for instance," McGibney explains. " We have specialised kitchens where children can cook."
Each Park Academy is also uniquely designed with soft furnishings to embrace a child's love of texture and colour, she continues.
" We have always aspired to be five-star and we have always put ourselves out there in trying to be innovative. Then it's the standards we expect from our staff, which they deliver."
Exploration and creativity
According to McGibney, each of the crèches' rooms are divided up into designated areas to make everything more engaging for children.
" The child has a choice to either role-play in a particular area or they could just chill out in another area. It's not just a room where you come in and there's a pile of toys."
Park Academy has also looked at the way childcare operates in other EU countries such as Italy.
" We adopt the Reggio-Emilia approach [started by Loris Malaguzzi and parents in the northern area of Italy after World War II].
" With this philosophy, the child learns to respect their environment where recycling is a very integral part."
At weekends, for example, children at Park Academy bring home nature bags and collect items such as leaves.
" They bring these bags in again on Monday and we have centralised projects that the children will do," McGibney says. "From the baby room up the children learn that everything isn't plastic or bought. In a lot of our centres we have created stations where things from nature are integrated with recycled objects."
Park Academy has also designed some of its gardens based on research that McGibney and Cobbe carried out in Scotland.
" We have tunnels for children to crawl into. Outside there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing!" stresses McGibney.
Plans for Park Academy during 2011 include continuing to strive to be innovative, she reveals.
" We are positive. We try to make sure that the word 'recession' doesn't come inside the door of the crèches!"
Mother & Babies