Early Years – the organisation for young children has established the Toybox Programme for Traveller families with children aged 0-4 years, which has a focus on inclusion and combating educational under-achievement. The Programme arose from the organisation’s value base, as well as from the identified needs of Traveller families and the Northern Ireland policy context.

This early childhood programme, funded by the Department of Education (NI), aims to improve long term educational outcomes for Traveller children and their families, namely that children are healthy, eager and able to learn and make successful transitions. It is delivered by nine staff to eight areas across Northern Ireland. A Toybox service design manual was developed in 2014 to support and assist Toybox staff and a range of agencies in implementing the Toybox Programme and create effective partnerships with families which incorporate the following key components:

1 An outreach home visiting service aimed at empowering Traveller parents to support their young children’s optimal  development.
2 An access programme aimed at supporting the inclusion of Traveller children and parents in SureStart, preschool and primary schools.
3 An advocacy programme, including a partnership approach with a range of key stakeholders, aimed at improving policies and services for Traveller children and families.

Description of Services 

The service design manual lists the components, which make up the intervention programme and describes what needs to be put into place under each component. The sustained development of Toybox is directly informed by its logical framework, which has directed inputs and processes that moderate predicted outputs, outcomes and impacts. The framework provides a step-by-step approach to working with stakeholders, including children and parents, and identifies strategies, which provide real benefit to children and families. It also identifies the relationship between each component, which leads to the achievement of expected outcomes.

Component one (Home visiting)

The HighScope evidence and practice model (The HighScope Perry Pre-school study 1962-1967) and Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1979) shape the outreach home interventions delivered through the programme. HighScope is “an evidencedbased approach to early childhood care and education which has been shaped and developed through research and practice over a forty year period” (The HighScope Perry Pre-school study 1962-1967). The HighScope approach was designed by David Weikart and colleagues in 1962, in response to the persistent failures of high school students from Ypsilanti’s poorest neighbourhoods. Hohmann and Weikart (1995:3) stated that the low scores, of some students, on academic and intelligence tests were due to a lack of educational opportunities, inadequate school preparation, and low attendance in school rather than a lack of intelligence.

The outcomes of the HighScope programme are relevant and can be applied to Traveller children and their families. For example, children develop positive attitudes to self, others and to future learning and when parents are empowered and involved in their children’s education. Toybox staff use the HighScope Adult/Child interaction play strategies to build supportive relationships with children in partnership with parents. They carefully select natural materials and build on children’s individual strengths and abilities, scaffolding their interests to become independent creative thinkers. Staff also use the HighScope Child Observation Record (COR) Tool as a method to plan, track, assess and improve outcomes for children and their families. This method guides staff to pinpoint support best suited to the child’s needs to help them become healthy, eager and able to learn and make successful transitions. This consistent support, provided to parents by Toybox staff, embed knowledge and skills that enable parents to become confident facilitators in their children’s learning and development. 

Using Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory, the Toybox programme draws on the conceptual framework of the child in the context of their family and community. This theoretical framework explains how everything in a child’s social system impacts positively or negatively on their growth and development. Toybox works continuously with children, families and communities to improve collaborative interactions between all those individuals involved in children’s care and development so that positive outcomes for children are achieved. 

Component two (Transition)

The Media Initiative for Children Respecting Difference Programme (MIFC) developed by Early Years, in partnership with US-based Pii (Peace Initiatives Institute; Connolly, Miller and Eakin, 2010) is used in the Toybox Programme to help children explore feelings and emotions around transition. The MIFC pack contains persona dolls, which helps the child establish a connection between themselves and others and is important in supporting Traveller children to make the transition from home to early years settings. 

Component three (Advocacy)

The participatory nature of engagement by staff with families means that they actively listen to parents and children, through observations recorded by staff. The programme monitors and evaluates the child and the parent’s development and continuously assesses parents as strong first educators and children as more resilient and visible in their community. This positive engagement by staff with children, parents and policy makers means that families are regularly and consistently engaged in advocacy strategies. 

Methodology of evaluation

The programme is evaluated through a mixed method approach. There is a strong qualitative emphasis, with a focus on engaging stakeholders in a participatory approach. The findings are strengthened by a comprehensive and detailed
analysis of quantitative information associated with programme outputs. This involves combining primary data collection in the form of interviews, focus groups and case studies alongside existing monitoring and evaluation
data. Together these offer a valuable resource to the programme processes and have been subjected to a detailed and exhaustive analysis in two comprehensive evaluations in 2007 and 2016. 


Information here pertains to the programme evaluation conducted (Collins, 2016) to document trends across the timeline of service delivery on the key components. A number of key quantitative and qualitative component indicators were selected for focused analysis. 

Component one (Home visiting)

Individual learning plans have reflected the variability in support systems required for the variety of children’s abilities and needs. Toybox staff have demonstrated through their ongoing HighScope recording of observations, taken during play sessions, that Traveller children have improved across developmental domains that suggest progression in terms of social, emotional, physical, cognitive and communication development. Anecdotal evidence and review of ten individual HighScope COR booklets suggested that children are reaching developmental milestones, as tracked by HighScope developmental indicators measured within COR. In questionnaires, which used this format, inspection of the summaries suggested a high degree of parental confirmation about observed improvements across all indicators.

Component two (Transition)

Staff across both pre- and primary settings are in consensus that Traveller children supported by Toybox are eager and able to learn, participative in settings, responsive to learning, and confident in engaging in quality play. A DVD entitled “My
Child” completed in 2010 and revisited in 2014 captures the many positive experiences children and families have had in transition to education through initial engagement in the Toybox Programme. These interviews and observations
capture the programme impact through the voices of parents and children, which has been achieved through a consistent approach to service delivery.

Component three (Advocacy)

Toybox has been both an advocacy tool and enabler by empowering parents to be ‘change agents’ in their own right. As a result, the voices, views and experiences of Travellers have informed the development of the following policy strategies: the Traveller child in education ‘Action Framework’ (2012) and Delivering social change through childcare: A ten year strategy for affordable and integrated childcare (2015-2025). Toybox continues to be a liaison bridge between families and external organisations.


The HighScope evidence and practice model programme, which is driven by the philosophy that children learn by doing, is embedded in the Toybox logical framework. The evidence gathered through HighScope, COR, parent reports, and setting feedback, all point clearly to children demonstrating that they are eager and able to learn and these outcomes are linked with the structure, ethics and processes of the programme. 

Within the thirteen-year life span of the project there have been many valuable lessons learnt. Maintaining a focus on the programme’s logical framework and key performance indicators has ensured staff remain focused on service integrity and make evidence-informed decisions. Using standardised tools, such as the Child Observation Record with the Participatory Evaluation approach to gathering evidence, ensures that strong evidence-based outcomes are collated. Good communications between staff, children and parents have ensured that the programme meets the needs of children and families in a respectful way. The programme maintains fidelity to the underpinning ethos of Bronfenbrenner’s theory and the HighScope learning approach. The Toybox programme continues to deliver on family driven and culturally appropriate outcomes with the child at the centre of all decisions and actions. 

For further information on the Programme and to access the evaluation, please visit: http://www.early-years.org/toy...