Following children’s interests and igniting their imaginations is the only way to really fuel learning in the early years. Phoebe Doyle looks at ways to ensure children are engaged by tuning into what they love.
As all experienced practitioners know, a ‘one size fits all’ approach just cannot work. Children are different and it’s as much about nurture as nature for sure. When a child enters the setting in the morning, they’re bringing with them their family background and their life history. Some children might have got up that day, had some porridge and toast, been immaculately dressed and skipped off to nursery hand in hand with a parent. For others the story may not be so pleasing; perhaps there was no food in the house, maybe nobody woke up early enough to make it on time…
All this is to say that when children reach us at the beginning of the session they aren’t a small gaggle of little ‘blank slates’ ready to be taught, ready to learn. You may have heard the term ‘fight or flight’. It basically refers to the fact that when we are in a state of heightened anxiety we simply want to flee or become aggressive; we’re in ‘reptilian’ mode and this is when learning is simply not possible.
As practitioners it’s up to us to get them tuned in, engaged, and leaving their anxiety behind. The best way to do this? It’s by choosing methods of teaching, topics, activities and projects that’ll get them buzzing with excitement. And this is bound to happen if you can really tune in to what will make them tick.
It’s vital to use the fact that parents are the child’s experts to your advantage! They know their little one so well; their likes, dislikes, favourite story, favourite TV character… everything! Here are some strategies to help make the most of their knowledge:
Ø Send home a questionnaire – but not just when they start as a year (or two) is a long, long time in a young child’s life and they can change their minds about things in a flash! Consider sending home some questions each term.
Ø Keep communication open – always insist that they can come and chat to you at any point – usually after the session is easier time-wise. Remind them by putting it on a newsletter regularly, so they don’t feel they are disturbing you. This way they can tell you of anything they are particularly enjoying or struggling with during the sessions.
Ø Let them join in the fun – having parents helping in the session is about so much more than an extra pair of hands. Remember that many parents will not have any experience of a modern early years setting before. By inviting them in they’ll learn about the importance placed on play and enjoyment and they’ll be able to talk about what they do in the setting at home with their little one.
Open-ended / child-led planning and learning
How many of us like to think we employ child-led sessions, but in reality we know where we want it to go right from the beginning? What exactly are we afraid of? Handing over direction to the children can be truly enlightening both for you and them. Children need to be given ownership of their work in order for it to be truly meaningful to them. Here’s how you can start to hand over control.
Ø Introduce heuristic play sessions: Provide a treasure basket of natural or found objects for them to play with, then stand back and become simply the observer. They’ll find uses you couldn’t have possibly dreamt of!
Ø Make getting to resources more child-friendly: Resources need to be clearly labelled with photographs and at their level – if this idea fills you with fear, you need to explicitly teach them how to use items properly. It’s worth dedicating entire sessions to teaching care and responsibility with resources.
Ø Get outside more: This is simply the best environment for open-ended play. They’ve got freedom, nature – the whole world to explore.
Ø Make sure everyone’s on board: Ensure that all adults know the importance of this, and that nobody’s still in, “not like that, like that” mode!
The thing about boys…
It’s hard to talk about gender differences without sounding sexist and prone to generalisation. Yet ignoring it altogether isn’t fair either; it’s crucial we acknowledge certain differences (that are sometimes found, not always) in order to provide a holistic curriculum that’s truly enticing for all. So, you’ve been warned, here comes a little generalising!
Girls (some girls) often will become engaged, will begin to listen, will get down to a task simply because they’ve been asked to. They want to please the practitioner, they want to ‘be good’ and they like doing ‘big girls work’. Motivation is high and so learning comes easily.
Boys (some boys) aren’t so fussed about being all ‘grown-up’, they want to go and play on the field and this stuff the teacher is asking them to do isn’t playing on the field, it’s just boring and very, very tricky! In fact, it’s hurting their head! They might not care that much if they’re ‘good’, they would like to be, but not to the cost of having to do this really well; they’ve got energy, it’s hard to sit still sometimes when your legs want to jump!
So, if you’ll let me continue with my verging-on-sexist point for one moment longer, the trick is to understand the needs of boys. To recognise that there’s no ‘being good’ and certainly no ‘being bad’, there’s just being them. If you’ve got boys (or girls) who just want to be on the field, what are you waiting for? Learning doesn’t happen when children are being drilled; they need to be experiencing, they need to be happy and free of pressure.
Books and Story-telling
As practitioners we can tend to be guilty of a little mis-placed snobbery when it comes to choosing stories to read to the children. Yet our job here is simple; to get them loving literature and inspired by the written word. Much as we might like this to be via a route of only top quality picture books from our beloved Michael Rosen or Julia Donaldson, the fact is that we need to cover all genres and really follow their interests – getting hold of non-fiction books on snakes, football or spaceships – whatever they can’t stop talking about!
Furthermore, story-telling without books can be enormously powerful. Here you are demonstrating that you don’t need to be able to read to be able to tell a story – which is great news for most pre-schoolers! What’s more, without the limitations of the physical book to stick to you can follow their interests completely – even changing as you tell it and see them get excited over one aspect or another. Letting them have a go too will give an enormous insight into what makes them tick.
Tuning into what children like isn’t an added extra, it’s everything. Without knowing how to engage a child their learning experience isn’t going to be exciting and motivating and therefore just will not be effective. And, as if you needed another reason, it’s just so much fun! We can learn so much from children - they can inspire our teaching and help us learn surprising amounts too.
Ø We need to help children get in the right frame of mind for learning
Ø Parents are our best asset when it comes to finding out about the children
Ø Children can be trusted with resources if taught correctly
Ø There are potential gender differences to consider
Ø Use the outdoors more
Be inspired by Reggio Emilia
This most child-led of approaches derives its name from its place of origin, Reggio Emilia, a city located in Northern Italy. Shortly after the Second World War, Loris Malaguzzi, a young teacher and the founder of this education approach, joined forces with the parents of this region to provide child care for young children. Originally inspired by the need of women to return to the work force, over the last 50 years, this education system has developed into a unique program that has caught the attention of early childhood educators worldwide.
The Reggio teacher allows the children to:
- Ask their own questions, and generate their own hypotheses and to test them.
- To explore and generate many possibilities both affirming and contradictory. She welcomes contradictions as a venue for exploring, discussing and debating.
- Provides opportunity to use symbolic languages to represent thoughts and hypothesis.
- Provides opportunity for the children to communicate their ideas to others.
- Offers children, through the process of revisiting the opportunity to reorganize concepts, ideas, thoughts and theories to construct new meaning.
- Is a keen observer, documenter, and partner in the learning process.
(Taken from www.reggiokids.com)
Fun Early Years Topics
Ø Roar, roar, dinosaurs
Ø Our town
Ø Toys and teddies
Ø Down on the farm
Ø Creepy crawlies
Ø My house, your house
Ø How does your garden grow?