In my view, working with parents is either REAL or a LIP SERVICE.

This interesting concept was a great influencing factor for me when deciding how parents could engage with their children’s learning, as I devise spark for providers. The simplest thing was to provide a portal where parents could look and add comments.  I felt although this may please parents, as they looked at photos, it didn’t go far enough. I took what I understood from research which clearly indicates that parent involvement underpins children’s greater performance and motivation.


I wanted to encourage parents to really take an active role in their children’s development.  To be able to fully engage with the early years provider too. Then, I thought how will they do that?  Having worked in the sector since I was 16 and am now 58, I am aware that parents, are well-intentioned and want their children to do well.  However, they often lack the understanding of what comes next. Some leave it to the experts, as they feel they don’t have the confidence and knowledge.  On the other hand, so many times I have experienced parents pushing for achievement.  Maybe desperately wanting their child to be potty trained, to be able to read or to write before they are ready. Often because their friend’s child is doing that already and this possibly generates feelings that their child is behind or less intelligent.

My thoughts then moved to ‘they need a guide’.  A guide that is based on the child’s current stage, to build their confidence.  And so the jigsaw began to fit together!  How could that be achieved?

Peg man

To me, the design needed to be something the parents would use and use, not just while it was new and fresh.  So, I thought about what happens in my settings when introducing something new that will need to be used on an ongoing basis. The first thing I thought of was policies and procedures.  I thought about the different outcomes I have between ‘imposing a policy’ on a team or asking the team to make their own policy on a subject.  Imposing doesn’t necessarily get ‘buy-in’ and for me, then too much time is spent ‘policing’ it.  Whereas, the latter is embedded in practice as it’s their policy and as a result is more naturally adhered to.  I am sure (if you are a practitioner or manager) you can appreciate that having ‘ownership’ of something generates better use and more success. So, with parents in mind, getting the ‘buy-in’ was important and also that feeling of ‘ownership’.

With my nursery hat still firmly on my head, I began to think about how staff value things. They like to be recognised for a job well done and where they have had to ‘make do’ with resources that fill a gap or ones that are particularly ‘wow’ and fantastic to share with the children. ‘Long-standing servers’ in posts often relay stories of how the initial nursery came to be and how things have changed over time – very similar to a child growing up!  I remembered too of a conversation in the coffee area of one of my nurseries; overhearing a young man appreciating all the vouchers he had counted (again after the children) as the sports equipment arrived.  So in conclusion to the initial reason for my pondering; generating a value was important.

Then my attention moved to that of being a parent.  What were my own challenges when my children went to nursery and pre-school?  As a working mum, time was always pressing.  I wrote down what the nursery/pre-school needed to know, short and to the point and simple to remember.  As I employed a nanny she did most of the to-ing and fro-ing so I rarely saw a key-person. This meant I relied on a third-party to send information to the setting and gleam progress afterwards.  At pre-school particularly as all the parents/carers arrived at once, the polite and somewhat shy nanny found this overwhelming, so information for me was patchy.  As a practitioner mum, I heard little of what was learnt and more about what they did, and in a haphazard way, via nanny and child.  They were happy but ideally, I would have liked better information from the setting and I was equally aware that I communicated only the necessities, such as, ‘sore thumb due to shutting it in the door’ scenarios.

So an improved communication was added to my list.  The parent of today, who are they?  Demographics show many don’t have an extended family close by and may wish to share information with relatives around the world.  Most appear to be equipped with one or more electronic device; laptop, tablet and/or smartphone; the communication tools of the future with instant access for busy people!

I decided on the most important parts:

  • a guide based on a child’s stage
  • a system that encourages ‘buy-in’
  • generates a feeling of ownership
  • gives value
  • improved communication; activity, progress and information for the setting
  • able to share information with relatives
  • smart technology
  • instant access
  • quick to perform


With these things on my list in mind spark@HOME was born, and soon after so was Imi.

House with fence

Imi works independently and is suitable for any child in England. spark@HOME is linked to a setting using our EYFS software.  From a setting’s viewpoint, Imi can become spark@HOME when the child joins and spark@HOME can become Imi again when the child leaves.  All our software is from birth to the child’s eighth birthday.

Both can be added to all devices operating Apple, Windows or Android systems, allowing even the busiest parent to view and amend information in a supermarket queue.  Just as Facebook is checked easily and often!   Both offer an enjoyable, practical, quick and positive experience on their preferred gadget, to support their child.

Each offers the parent a selection of Next Steps for their child based upon what has already been achieved. Imi also gives ideas on how they may each be facilitated through play activities and outings.  Parents using spark@HOME will work with the setting on the same Next Steps as their child’s Key-person.  Practitioners and teachers use these too with the child’s interests in mind in their planning on their setting’s software (sparkESSENTIAL or sparkPRO).  As all our spark early years software has a detailed learning journey it is quick and easy to make updates and to share comments from everyone.  As the Next Steps are appropriate it is easy to see progress, then all are motivated to use it.  Parents/carers, therefore, have a guide based on children’s appropriate stages.

Each kind is offered to parents to buy (some settings include it in an admin/registration fee) as the software belongs to the parent (not the setting).  Parents have complete custody of their child’s full learning and development journey.  We call this the Learning Journal.  This journey shows parent’s additions regarding the achievements, dates and photos were taken at home in addition to those taken at the childminder, nursery or pre-school too.  These build into a journal of memories, presented in a ‘baby book’ style.  Suitable to download, to print out if desired and to treasure into the future.  Plus to share with relatives living away and the child’s first school.  The software and their child’s learning journey belongs to the parent.  Value comes from appreciating their child’s progress and the build-up of information to produce a document to be treasured.  Furthermore, settings that choose to add it to their spark EYFS software will want to value the parents’ contributions, thus encouraging total ‘buy-in’.

spark@HOME allows parents to communicate to the setting at a time that suits them.  There are different ‘jotters’ with prompts to encourage them to send a range of information that is useful to the setting. It allows parents to jot down things they may forget and information they may never have time to normally share. This is relayed instantly to the setting’s spark and can enhance the practitioner’s knowledge of the individual child. Likewise, achievement and photos are sent instantly to spark@HOME for parents’ to enjoy.  This immediately, also realigns the Next Steps for the child, to build on new learning opportunities.

Observations are communicated from everyone in real time; immediately.  Checking longer observations in the nursery or pre-school does not need to take up precious management time.  spark ensures parents receive these promptly.  Meanwhile, the setting’s software shows how often parents are interacting with their spark@HOME, what the child is achieving at home, any comments or photos they wish to share on the progress being made. Where a child joins the setting having used Imi, they come to them already assessed as the parent’s record from Imi is shared with the provider.

Working together is the key to help parents help their child and this has to be through optimum communication to assist the provider, together ‘getting it right for every child’.


Finally, I am very proud (but not complacent, of course) that the system works and is enjoyed by families and settings up and down the country.  As I write this, we have improved both spark@HOME and Imi again, as we continually do, to ensure it meets the needs of each child, parent and every practitioner working in an early years setting – and is not simply lip-service!

PS – As we have to prove everything, Ofsted can see:

  • If parents have used their software recently
  • Messages from home
  • Achievements made at home
  • Comments parents have made about their child’s progress and photographs if they choose to share them
  • Everything shows also on the setting’s Learning Journey
spark perpetually is navigated through a continuous improvement plan so to support working with parents we now also incorporate sparkLINK into sparkESSENTIAL and sparkPRO.  With options of having sparkDIARY and sparkJOURNAL 
Research commisioned by ourselves, clearly shows that parents using spark@HOME are achieving more than those that don’t.