Islands of intimacy during the rhythms and routines of the day

    Published: 04 August 2021

    What are islands of intimacy?




    The idea behind the creation of the ‘island of intimacy,’ according to Goldschmied, stems from the need to build firmly into the day’s program, a period when the key person for each small group of children, gives their individual attention to them. Essentially this is a listening time when children can explore a collection of items such as shells or purses that will be the focus for conversation. The collection can be any kind that the practitioners have created themselves that may provide interest and amusement for their group of children. This kind of arrangement allows warm attachments to develop in a group setting.

    ‘It is a time and place for intimate personal relationships that are understood as being important for children’s development and happiness.’

    (Source: Elinor Goldschmied and Sonya Jackson (1994, updated 2004). People under Three. London: Routledge pp.40-42 Key Group Time – Organising for Intimacy)

    It is with this thinking that we as key people should seriously consider how we might extend these moments to other aspects of the rhythms of the day. For example, any time we engage in those moments of intimate care.

    In my personal experience as a practitioner when I started my early year’s career, some time ago, in 1992, my first Early Years job was as a nursery officer in a local authority day nursery for 76 children aged 3 months to 5 years. The building was a large Georgian house that had been crudely converted, several years previously, into a children's home. When I worked there, it was a full day nursery with three family rooms upstairs, a preschool room, a senior’s office with an old fireplace still in situ, a dining room, a fully functioning kitchen and utility space with a resident cook and assistant. In addition, an enclosed garden and orchard backed onto the gardens of several other houses. It was within a London borough (where I remained in various Early Years guises for some 18 years). In those days, a local authority day nursery was solely for children referred by social services. A panel made up of my matron/senior nursery officer, a deputy, a family placement social worker, a lead health visitor and a representative from the Education Services would meet every three months to allocate part- time or long-term placements for the children who had been identified as either children in need or who were subject to child protection plans. Children would be allocated to one of a number of family groups that would generally comprise of eight children aged from 3 months to 5 years.

    It was at this setting that I could first recall witnessing the role of a key person, those strong attachments to the children and professional love. This can associate with as the ‘Islands of Intimacy’ shared between key persons and children. I learned so much from my experience with this incredible team of passionate early year’s advocates, with their deep-seated, unspoken nurturing culture. In addition, I learned from the children who in some instances had amazing resilience considering some had survived the most horrific of things in their short little lives. The intimacy and professional love demonstrated by the majority of the staff at this setting was great to be part of and the impact it had on the lives of those children was inspiring and life changing for some. The time, care and concern taken to support these children's personal and social development throughout the day were often the points in which children were able to be self-assured and feel love. Whether it was when they were getting ready for a nap and having a story, having a nappy change, or even if they were bathed in the big bath on the first floor, it was always with a song, a rhyme or a positive interaction with a consistent adult.

    So why is it important to include ‘Islands of Intimacy’ throughout the rhythms and routines of the day?

    Goldschmied speaks of finding spaces in the day for natural relationships between adults and children to flourish. These are key times for the intimacy of shared encounters, spontaneous shared humour, time for listening and comforting, key groups for living and loving together.

    During my time with those incredible children and staff, I learned about making the most of every available opportunity during the rhythms and routines of the day, not just during the key group time. I learned how other times could also provide such positive impactful moments to impart learning. These wonderful islands and moments of intimacy could occur when staff were bottle feeding the babies within their family grouping or when they were rocking and repeating rhymes such as “This little piggy” on the children's toes or when engaging in “Round and round the garden” on hands. This was intended to calm, soothe and teach the children when they had been a bit fractious.

    The staff I observed were always finding time, no matter what, in the rhythms and routines of the day, to support children's personal and social development and learning. They were able to find ways to intuitively bolster the children's self-awareness and self-esteem by affirming them with professional love and moments of intimacy and support, in a sensitive, fun and achievable way.  Any little achievements made were celebrated and praise given for effort. Children were actively encouraged to try something new and staff revelled in the children's successes, no matter how big or small.


    Adult with Early Years


    During my time in the setting, I observed children being nourished both emotionally and physically during those impactful moments. For example:

    • when lots of professional affection was paid to children with shattered self-esteem, you could visibly see them come alive and grow in stature
    • staff spending quality time interacting with children, engaging them in the things they really enjoyed. For example, how the children become so animated when they were hearing their favourite story again, with the practitioner changing their voice to match the characters in the book
    • children encouraged by staff to look at, recognise and admire other children's perseverance and achievements, perhaps in seeing something through or achieving for the first time, something they have been repeatedly trying to do
    • staff intervening at the appropriate times to aid and support perseverance, and not interfering and taking over
    • listening to not just what children say, but what their behaviours were communicating

    These moments of intimacy played such a fundamental role in supporting children to work through some of the challenges and difficulties they faced. I feel all children benefit from these moments when they experience suitable professional love.

    Tamsin Grimmer talks about how love fits with professional practice in her recent publication “Developing a loving Pedagogy in the Early Years.” She challenges the word ‘Love,’ which has often been a taboo in settings in the past. Tasmin talks about how we as practitioners can support children by holding them in mind, valuing them and promoting their best interests. Also by focusing on how relationship attachments and connections underpin:  

    ‘The fundamentals of professional love, the different ways children feel loved and how we can empower children through love’

    Top tips on how as practitioners we can build stronger bonds and attachment during intimate moments cast among the rhythms and routines of the day:

    • by smiling and using positive body language during all interactions, children are equally attuned to what you do as much as what you say
    • using children's name to ensure they are fully aware you are addressing them directly
    • making and maintaining good eye contact
    • talking in a calm soothing voice
    • using intonation in the voice
    • responding quickly and sensitively when children are upset
    • becoming increasingly attuned to a child's cues
    • showing a genuine interest in what the child is doing or interested in
    • spending 1:1 time with the child, providing undivided attention
    • informally chatting to the child during play and general routines
    • playing together and planning activities around the interests of the child
    • explaining care routines to the child e.g. we need to wash our hands now before lunch
    • offer labeled praise for individual children’s accomplishments
    • using physical touch, hugging, cuddling and sitting on a lap
    • always responding when children communicate
    • getting to know the children really well

    Something else to model and to be mindful of in all our interactions is about how we use our words. Do we choose and use them wisely, do we ‘THINK’ (see below how the acronym can be used to guide our choice of words)?

    True - use truths

    Helpful - is what we are saying helpful?

    Inspiring or important - is what we are saying important and or inspirational?

    Necessary - does it need to be said?

    Kind - are the words we use kind?Lightbulb

    Now to consider our daily routines

    With our newer understanding around the importance of attachment and the important role the key persons play in this, it is time to reflect upon those moments throughout the day that we conduct:

    • Could they be delivered with a deeper sense of care, love and respect?
    • Could they be more of a learning opportunity and positive exchange?
    • Could we take further opportunities to really support the children we are caring for by bolstering their self-esteem and sense of self?
    • Are we doing all we can?


    In summary to love and be loved is a basic desire in the human condition. We naturally all seek out social interactions from birth. Children have the right to be loved. Being loved is a condition that is a primary essential for children to have a good life. According to Liao (2006) ‘love provides children with the opportunity to trust in others and trust in themselves’ and this detail fits neatly with Goldschmied’s thoughts around why the role of the key person and secure attachment are so powerful. A child and practitioner engaging in shared ‘islands of intimacy’ throughout the rhythms of any day, are equally engaging in love, respect and care, not just doing what needs to be done! It is professional love after all.

    By Claire Meyer EYC for East Herts and Broxbourne

    If you have found this blog thought provoking, please use the following link for further reading:

    Gov.UK: Help for early years providers: personal, social and emotional development - sense of self

    If you would like help in planning a suitable curriculum for your cohort of children, then the following resource may be helpful to you:

    Curriculum design in the Early Years Foundation Stage: a step-by-step guide

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