We hosted an open day yesterday at Little Forest Folk Fulham and had some interesting questions from parents. For the first time hardly anyone was concerned with what we do when it’s raining, but instead were focused on learning how we teach our children.
What an opportunity to explain why we don’t follow a ‘theme of the week’. Many traditional nurseries sit down and plan a theme for every week. It could be dragons, it could be rockets, it could be animals. They then take that theme and plan lots of learning activities and crafts around the theme. Whilst this can be fun, and can provide the children with gorgeous little arts and craft projects to bring home (and which mum doesn’t love these!) at Little Forest Folk we do things differently. Our focus isn’t on looking like an exciting nursery full of teaching topics, our learning is less obvious but a far deeper and more meaningful form of learning.
A parent asked the pertinent question yesterday,
Our answer is that firstly they gain an understanding of the world from spending so much time communicating imaginatively with their friends and learn from each other. Secondly, we don’t think at this age that children need to learn about specific items like rockets, dragons, pirates etc unless they show a natural interest in the subject.
If specific topics were important for early years children to learn, then the early years curriculum would list these subjects and ensure they are covered in the early years curriculum. Instead the EYFS stipulates that the 3 prime areas, the most important areas for children of this age to learn and develop are:
- Personal, social and emotional skills
- Physical development
- Communication and language.
This is the deeper level of learning that we ensure our children are engaged in. In addition to these areas we also ensure the children are learning literacy, maths, understanding the world and enhancing their creativity in the arts. Our duty at this age is not to make sure that children know the vocabulary of rocket, spaceship and how to make a replica of a rocket, assisted by a friendly teacher. Our duty is to absolutely maximise our children’s empathy, their confidence, their independence, their ability to play (and work) collaboratively, their ability to develop their bodies through varied and constant physical movement, their resilience and other character and life skills. If they decide they’d like to do this through pooh sticks or through making boats, let’s let them decide and let them lead.
If you direct the children’s interests around what you have decided randomly on this date will be what they should be learning, how are you encouraging them to develop their independence, their creativity and their own thought process. There is a great saying that when an adult takes charge of doing things for a child, the only thing that child learns is that the adult can do things better than them.
They are far, far more capable than most people give them credit for. If you direct a child to use certain materials and imitate an adults creativity in making a dragon, that child learns nothing. They end up with a pretty craft, but the learning is minimal. Give the child instead a pile of loose parts, some glue or double sided sticky tape and let their imagination run free. You may not end up with as pretty (or identifiable!) an object at the end of it but you will end up with a child who understands that their views, their creativity matters. The child will learn to be independent and to think for herself.
The learning that can happen when learning is child-led and play-based is astonishing. We recently had a 3 year old boy who spent weeks and weeks being fascinated by throwing pooh sticks over a bridge into a river. Any time we went for an adventure walk he wanted to go to the bridge and would have stood there for hours engaged in this activity. Rather than interrupt him and focus his attention on what we thought he should be playing based around a theme of the week, we supported him.
We joined in throwing pooh sticks when he wanted us to, suggested enhancements to his game (what happens if we drop stones, are they faster than sticks? How about leaves, can they float? What happens if we throw from the other side of the bridge?) and sat observing and ready to answer the ‘Why? How come? When?’ questions that his game provoked him to ask.
Last week this 3 year old child asked his mum:
What an incredible question from a 3 year old! And what an amazing opportunity to demonstrate the really deep level of learning that takes place when you give children the freedom to play and wait in the wings to help them learn. This 3 year old boy has grasped a deep understanding of science that he could not have obtained through books. He understands the basics of gravity. And is still challenging adults with questions as he wants to understand more. Phenomenal.
This approach to learning isn’t easy. It requires incredible educators. They need to know their children inside out, what makes them tick, where they need to develop, how they most enjoy learning. You need a high enough ratio of adults to children that the children have the opportunity for the close interactions with their practitioners in which they can pepper them with questions. They need to really understand their role is not to push a theme, an activity or a way of teaching to the children, but rather to stand back, let the child lead their own play and their own learning and be prepared with a box of tricks to scaffold the children’s learning at every opportunity.
Try pulling down your wall planner for a month and let the children create your planning sheets for you. The results will amaze you! :-)