Joanne MacDonald describes an innovative approach to drugs education for young children

‘A Healthy School promotes the health and wellbeing of its pupils and staff through a well planned, taught curriculum in a physical and emotional environment that promotes learning and healthy lifestyle choices.’ National Healthy School Status – A Guide for Schools (DfES 2005)

Atkinson Road Nursery School in Newcastle upon Tyne caters for 104 children aged three to four years in an area of high unemployment and social deprivation. The work of the nursery is child centred, with a curriculum designed to foster a sense of independence and autonomy in all children whatever their age, ability or experience. As a staff we decided four years ago to work towards the Healthy Schools Award using the opportunities this provided to support the children to make safe and healthy choices about themselves and others. From the outset it was clear that achieving the award was not going to be easy, one of the major challenges being how to teach a drugs awareness curriculum to nursery-age children. We did not want to expose them to issues they were not aware of, but also felt that we needed to give them enough information to help them make safe and informed choices.

Using DANSI (Drugs Action Newcastle Schools Initiative)
A project called DANSI, devised by a teacher in Newcastle and developed into a pack of teaching materials for drugs education provided us with the ideal medium to develop our work with the children. DANSI is a reversible hand puppet which is yellow on one side, with a happy face, and blue on the other side, with a sad face. He can be manipulated by children and can be used to show how they, or others, might be feeling in different situations.

The resource also includes a story in which DANSI makes choices about his health and safety, a CD-Rom of images of DANSI and a selection of ‘happy’ and ‘sad’ music to accompany the images.

The long-term vision for the academic year focused initially on helping the children to learn to share ideas and thoughts in group situations. This started very simply, for example, discussing who they were and who was in their family. Our plan was to develop this during the year by looking at medicines and drugs, but felt that first of all the children needed the skills to talk and communicate ideas, and then to slowly be introduced to DANSI. It was important that children had opportunities to develop relationships with staff and with their peers so that they felt safe and comfortable when talking and sharing their experiences.

The children loved DANSI and his ability to change colour when happy or sad. They were able to use DANSI as a medium for sharing their ideas and even the less confident children were able to participate by changing his colour. For example, the children talked about what they had done during the morning, and how they felt about it, using the puppet to show a happy or a sad face. In other instances they chose something for DANSI to eat, using the yellow side to depict healthy foods and the blue side for unhealthy choices.

DANSI quickly became a successful tool in our inclusive curriculum and was used by children of all abilities, including those with English as an additional language (EAL) and children with special educational needs (SEN). In different situations the children were able to suggest the right or wrong course of action by linking this to how DANSI might feel. From this they were able to explore their own feelings and emotions and look at a range of issues including drugs, strangers, bullying and behaviour.

Extending the scope of the project
Over time the complete programme broadened into developing policies for the nursery on drugs education and emotional health and wellbeing and revising the existing personal, social and health education and health and safety policies. Training on how to work with DANSI was provided for the staff, along with up-to-date drugs information and, in some cases, ICT training. Planning throughout the year and across the curriculum was developed to include work with DANSI the puppet in activities linked to the personal, social and emotional development and Knowledge and Understanding of the World areas of the Foundation Stage curriculum.

Links were developed with outside agencies including health visitors, fire fighters and community policemen. Teaching and learning in these areas was developed through circle time activities including DANSI the puppet. These provided the opportunity to talk and listen and offer examples and situations where the children were encouraged to make choices. Our experience is that working in this way gave children a voice and an opportunity to discuss their feelings and ideas and share their thoughts and experiences. We endeavoured to help the children to make choices relating to their health, safety and wellbeing verbally and through pictures, drawings, photographs and props.

This work was a major element in our achieving an Investing in Children Award ( This recognises organisations which promote an inclusive environment where children are encouraged to express their opinions, make choices and influence how things are done. Working in this way also contributes directly to the outcomes of ‘being healthy’ and ‘staying safe’ within the Every Child Matters framework.

Developing DANSI
From our work with the existing DANSI resource pack we felt there was a need for more resources to support drugs education for young children. Our experience was that children often needed a simple starting point that could be used during small group times to help them to initiate discussions. We were able to find a few books aimed at nursery-age children (Llewellyn and Gordon, 1999, Dutton and Smith, 1989) but also decided that the messages would be more relevant if we made our own book, related to the environment and experiences that our children were used to. To achieve this we used images of DANSI that came with the resource pack and took digital photographs of the local area and of medicines and drugs.

Initially some of the staff had misgivings about this approach and were concerned that we were putting ideas into the children’s heads. After much discussion it was agreed that we had a responsibility to teach the children about being safe and healthy, helping them to understand that all medicines are drugs and that they had a responsibility for what they put into and onto their bodies. We also needed to inform them of the effects of smoking and the potential dangers of household cleaning products.

The children helped to take the photographs for these books and decided which images to use – a happy or a sad DANSI, and added the text. The success of these small books was amazing and we were able to share our ideas with other practitioners at an LEA training day based on DANSI. This was then developed further by creating PowerPoint presentations based on the books where the children had to suggest how DANSI might be feeling and why. When they clicked/touched the interactive whiteboard the appropriate coloured DANSI appeared. As our work with DANSI developed we collaborated with the LEA’s drugs education team to produce a video of DANSI being used by the children. This enabled us to share good practice with other schools and nurseries in the local area.

Involving parents
As DANSI had become so successful and useful with the children we were keen to share our work with the parents to enable them to watch our DANSI video and share our experiences. The local drugs coordinator was also invited to provide information regarding common drugs with parents. This session highlighted to us that drugs had become a major issue for parents in our area and many had concerns about how to discuss this with their children. Parents commented that they found our approach very friendly and informative and fully supported us in our work. By keeping parents informed and including them in this way we aim to ensure that a clear and consistent message is shared with the children.

As part of the project we developed a ‘handling drugs incidents’ policy for the nursery with support from the local authority and the local community police officer. This has made staff and parents confident and comfortable that any incidents would be dealt with safely and efficiently and with confidentiality and sensitivity.

Our healthy school
Initially we developed this project with DANSI to help us to achieve a Healthy School Award and as part of our drugs education curriculum. However, our work with DANSI showed us that the project could be used to address many other aspects of the wider nursery curriculum including PHSE, emotional health and healthy eating, and involved the whole school community – staff, children, parents and governors.

From our experience we can confidently say that this project succeeded in its aim to give our children a voice and opportunities to speak freely about their feelings, ideas and emotions. Working with DANSI has given them strategies to make choices and decisions regarding themselves and their personal safety. The main factors in the success of this work were that our resources were child-friendly and related directly to the children and to our setting. Most importantly there was a whole-school commitment to this project and everyone’s, including the children’s, ideas were taken into account.

The school’s most recent Ofsted inspection noted how confidently our children talked and expressed their ideas:
‘The children’s moral awareness is excellent. In addition to having a clear understanding of what is right and wrong within the Nursery setting, the children have wider experiences of other issues such as pollution and drugs. Socially, many of the children are exceptionally adept…’ Ofsted Inspection Report (May 2004).

Atkinson Road Nursery School successfully developed a drugs education curriculum and achieved Healthy School status for four years. In their experience the key factors in achieving this are:

  • start small and from wherever you currently are in your setting. Even just developing circle time activities paved the way for a major part of the development work
  • involve the whole school community, including staff, children, parents and governors.  It won’t work as a one-man mission, and sharing ideas leads to quicker and bigger successes
  • young children of three and four years of age are able to express their thoughts, ideas and feelings when given opportunities and a voice with which to do this
  • there are no taboo subjects in the nursery when handled sensitively and delivered appropriately. Many people shy away from talking about drugs with nursery-age children because, ‘They don’t need to know that yet’. But when is there a better time?
  • keep it fun and friendly. We want to teach not preach!

DANSI is an initiative developed by Newcastle City Council. Packs can be ordered from
Nice or Nasty (Me and My Body Series) by Claire Llewellyn and Mike Gordon (Hodder Wayland 1999, ISBN 0750223324)
Not in Here, Dad! By Cheryl Dutton and Wendy Smith (Barrons Juveniles 1989, ISBN 0812061055)

Joanne Macdonald is healthy schools coordinator at Atkinson Road Nursery School in Newcastle upon Tyne.