We are sad to report the recent death of Pat Gura. Pat was a long-standing champion for young children, working in the maintained and voluntary sector, as an early years educator, teacher, mentor, researcher and author. She is known particularly for her work as Research Assistant on the Froebel Blockplay Research project, directed by Tina Bruce, from 1987 to 1992. She edited the collaboratively written, interpretative account of the project, Exploring Learning: Young Children and Blockplay (1992) Sage which remains a classic text today.
My memories of Pat Gura go back to the 1980s when I was a member of the Froebel Blockplay Research Project. Back then, I was a nursery nurse working in Danebury School – one of the six settings which worked with Pat Gura and Tina Bruce on the project.
I recall many instances of Pat in my classroom, positioned in the blockplay corner alongside the children, or spending time with the nursery team talking about the children's blockplay we had observed. I also remember how much gleefulness she brought to being a researcher – it really was such fun being on the project! As a nursery nurse back then it was enormously significant to me that someone from a University took my ideas seriously, as outside of the early childhood classroom this was not always the case. Thus, one of my most powerful memories is of her democratic spirit. Pat was a passionate advocate of really listening to children (long before this idea became prominent in research and practice). In addition, she always listened to and valued our perspectives as practitioners. There was no sense in which you felt she and Tina 'knew best', which was incredibly refreshing. The sense of 'bottom up' action research embedded within the heart of the blockplay research project is something I will always treasure – indeed I think this was a pivotal part of the project, often less acknowledged.
Of course, I have more personal memories of Pat too, not least of her holding court if you went out to dinner with her. She was capable of challenging people too. I recall her role in my husband Dave's feminist 'epiphany' in the late 1980s when she questioned a waiter for giving him the bill and not putting it in the middle of the table for more equitable distribution of payment. Moreover, in the numerous cards we sent each other post the blockplay research, Pat and I always used what we called the 'blockie' secret sign of two upright quarter unit blocks with one horizontal one on top, joining them together. In memory of Pat, here's our 'blockie' sign below.
Dr Deborah Albon, Senior Lecturer Early Childhood Studies, University of Roehampton, London
Pat the brick
I first met Pat Gura in 1987 in her role as research assistant to the Froebel Blockplay Project. Over the course of her visits to our nursery class Pat became affectionately called “Pat the brick” by the children, a name we all came to adopt including Pat herself in what became her signature, Pat (drawing of blocks as above).
Throughout the research project Pat’s passion for and commitment to Early Childhood Education was motivational to all of us. Her advocacy for the right of all children to have the time and space to explore this material led to blocks becoming a very popular part of provision. Her skills of observation and open-ended questioning enabled children and adults to reflect on their work in an empowering and non-threatening way. In turn this allowed us to explore all aspects of our learning.
As I reflect on Pat’s philosophy of learning and teaching I realise the impact it had on our ways of thinking. Not only did she inspire and enthuse children and adults but she did it with her wonderfully jovial sense of humour.
Latterly I remained in phone contact with her and will forever miss our conversations, full of fun and always thought provoking.
Ann Bridges, retired headteacher, Vanessa Nursery School, London
There was never any question that Pat was going to be the ideal person to be appointed to the post of Research Assistant for the Froebel Blockplay Collaborative Research Project in 1987. It was immediately clear that she was going to make a huge contribution. She worked tirelessly with the staff, children and families in five schools. She delved in a deep and scholarly way into wooden block play and Froebel’s Gifts. The work she was so committed to is still continuing today. She was a keynote speaker at conferences. There is a lively and dynamic Blockplay Archive in the University of Library Froebel Collection with her beautiful drawings, field notes, slides and photographs. I was Director of the Research Project and invited her to be the Editor of the book published by Paul Chapman Publishing and Co in 1992, Exploring Learning: Young Children and Blockplay in recognition of her huge commitment and contribution to the research. The work is still widely used practically and is cited in publications. It is a core text on training courses. Her legacy is strong. She will be remembered and appreciated for her team spirit and joyous sense of humour.
Tina Bruce CBE, Honorary Professor of Early Childhood, University of Roehampton, London
Pat was totally committed to the vital importance and significance of quality Early Childhood Education. She was an enthusiastic, warm hearted, intelligent and inclusive woman. She shared her insights, her considerable knowledge, and her passion for the rights of young children in education to have a voice and to be heard.
She supported myself and many other practitioners to facilitate this in Early Years settings. She so valued working with practitioners out on "the shop floor" as she put it. From this initiative came amazing benefits as children expressed their successes and failures as they engaged in dialogue with EYPs. Planning became tailored and relevant. We all became so much better at listening. Pat made a real difference to the perspectives and practice of EYPs and thus to the children they engaged with. What a legacy!
Pat was a very special person. I was so lucky to have known her. Thanks Pat.
Lorraine Hall, retired Early Years Practitioner, Clyde Nursery School and Children’s Centre, London
I first met Pat in the late 1980s when her appointment as Research Assistant to the Block Play project brought her to meetings in the Early Childhood Centre at Froebel College. Her knowledge of young children and tireless observations and recordings of their activities were always in evidence. Her generosity of spirit together with a forthright manner and quick wit gained her a firm place in centre activities. Centre minutes record a message sent to Pat when she was unwell in 1989: ‘Get well soon. We miss your cheer and energy’.
At a training day (06/05/89) to establish clear ways forward for the team within the structural changes at RIHE and to meet the challenges created by the introduction of the National Curriculum (1989) and the policy for Four Year Olds in Primary Classrooms, Pat’s contribution to acronyms for the word RIGOUR were: rigorous, innovative, generous, outspoken, unique, and reflective. They create a most memorable sense of the way she approached her life and her work.
She delighted in a natural environment. As the flowers in her garden at Bromley faded, she took seeds and brought them in envelopes for those who liked gardening. The fruit trees in flower in the Spring always lured her to Kent.
Shirley Maxwell, former Principal Lecturer, Early Childhood Centre, Froebel College, Roehampton.
I seem to have memories of Pat certainly as far back as the mid1980s, talking to her at conferences and meetings at Goldsmiths and GAEC -the Goldsmiths Association of Early Childhood - and sharing our fascination at how children think and learn. I had tremendous admiration of her depth of knowledge. I loved her sense of humour and her ability to laugh at herself. (Oh, that gravelly laugh!) There was also a wonderfully conspiratorial side to Pat, which made you feel that she would definitely stand up for children no matter what. Her books about research into Froebelian block play and the ’stuff’ that supports children’s rich and deep learning reflects her fine intellect as well as her playful creativity.
We had fun times together in those heady days of ILEA.
Rest in peace dear Pat. Your legacy lives on.
Marjorie Ouvry, retired Early Years Education Consultant and Author
I first met Pat when I was Archivist of the Froebel Archive for Childhood Studies, then housed in Grove House, Froebel College at the University of Roehampton and within the space occupied by the Early Childhood Studies team. We shared a deep interest in the Froebel Gifts and blocks today.
I last saw Pat at the 2nd Annual Froebel Conference held at Roehampton in June 2010, sponsored by IFEI and supported by the (then) National Froebel Foundation. By then, I was working with Tina Bruce and Helen Tovey on the Froebel Certificate course, teaching and organising study days and conferences. Pat was one of our two keynote speakers and the title of the conference, ‘Revisiting Blockplay: Contrasts and Connections’, was appropriate as Pat and our second keynote, Karyn Wellhousen, presented not only different conceptions of blockplay but in very different styles.
Although I was familiar with Pat’s published work, notably on the Froebel Block Play Project, I found Pat’s presentation inspirational, conveying not just her deep knowledge of blocks and their potential for children’s creativity and cognitive development, but reflecting too on her underlying proposition, that "When we study one idea in depth, we study everything" – a message Pat argued was also at the heart of Froebel’s Gifts and Occupations. Pat was not in the best of health at the time but the audience would not have noticed – they enjoyed a presentation that was idiosyncratic and engaging, a deft blending of deep knowledge conveyed with humour and passion.
Dr Jane Read, Emeritus Fellow, University of Roehampton, London
I met Pat as part of her work with the Early Childhood team at University of Roehampton, and, in particular, her role as Research Officer on the Froebel Blockplay project directed by Tina Bruce. She went on to edit ‘Exploring Learning: Young Children and Blockplay’, which I still use and refer to now, 28 years later. In every encounter I had with her, whether it was working and writing alongside her, or watching her work with students and practitioners, her deep understanding of her topic, her ability to bring her scholarship to life, and her respect for young children shone through. She was also terrifically funny, and very down to earth - in a big keynote lecture I will always remember her turning to her audience and talking about one little boy breaking off what he was doing, ‘to go off to the lav’. She was a loyal friend, good at keeping in touch, always remembering Christmas cards and family events. She leaves a rich legacy of work, which remains relevant, valuable and enjoyable to read.
Dr Sue Robson, Honorary Research Fellow, University of Roehampton Trustee, Froebel Trust.
Pat was an inspirational teacher, a wonderful storyteller and a passionate advocate for young children. I knew her as a visiting lecturer at Froebel College, Roehampton and subsequently at joint in-service training sessions for practitioners. She spoke on blocks and I spoke on outdoor play. She was always a hard act to follow!
Pat combined strong Froebelian principles with a willingness to question the taken for granted. ‘Certainties lead to inflexibility and a reluctance to dare to ask, ‘what if’’’she concluded in her book Resources for Early Learning, Children Adults and Stuff’. Uncertainty spurred her to delve deeper, to know and to see more.
She communicated her passion with wit and humorous anecdote, making complex ideas accessible for all. I remember her speaking at a conference on Play and Representation at Froebel College, then Roehampton Institute of Higher Education. Defying all orthodox presentation techniques, she leaned on the lectern, showed a slide of a wavy line which she then used to explore complex ideas on play and its meandering, unpredictable course. The audience were spellbound, the concentrated silence broken only by roars of laughter at an amusing anecdote.
Her writings continue to inform, inspire and challenge generations of early childhood students today.
Helen Tovey former Principal Lecturer, Early Childhood Studies, Roehampton.
Exploring Learning Young Children and Block Play has become a seminal text in my life. I first read it as part of the Froebel certificate course at the University of Roehampton and it inspired my development project. I was lucky enough to attend a conference at Roehampton when Pat spoke about being the research assistant on the block play project. I was inspired by her dedication to the project that extended to drawing the photographs because there was a problem with reproducing them in the text. That day, Pat spoke about finding your passion and following it.
Since then, with colleagues, I have gone on to found the Edinburgh Froebel Network and the inaugural course in Froebel in Childhood Practice at the University of Edinburgh. Pat’s book is one of the core reading texts. We have over 500 students this year. We have session on block play and at least a hundred students per year choose to do their project on block play. They always reference Pat Gura.
Last year, we led a local authority bid that was successful in gaining funding from Education Scotland to develop Science Technology Engineering and Maths (STEM) in the Early Years. This allowed 20 standalone settings to develop practitioner enquiries based on block play. Each setting received a copy of the book.
I would like to pay tribute to the lasting legacy of Pat Gura, her research and her influence on practice.
Jane Whinnett MBE. Nursery Head Teacher, Edinburgh.
Chair, Education subcommittee, Froebel Trust