If the above picture doesn’t sum up your school’s leadership then thank all the dieties in the world, all the lucky stars in the universe above and all the rabbit’s feet you can lay your hands on... For many, it typifies the reality: a data-based machine that needs feeding with numbers to satisfy its hunger for ‘progress’ and ‘attainment’.
How we came to this is a long and drawn-out tale, but we have arrived at a point in education where the data-heads and the school business manager are the arbiters of pedagogy or non-pedagogy as it should be called. We seem to have a system that is slowly pushing GCSE readiness further and further downwards, that is disconnecting itself from children in the pursuit of measurable outcome.
Whenever a spreadsheet appears, a child become invisible...
Yes, progress is important. Yes, attainment is important. But neither should be at the expense of child development. As soon as we make data more important than the child then we open the door to teaching that is done to, rather than with, children.
Learning should be cooperative. It should have an equal balance of ‘power’. It should be engaging and purposeful - not purposeful for the adult but for the child.
Children aren’t stupid. As they get older, they know when they are being asked to do something so the adult can tick it off. They become detached from the classroom practice rather than becoming integral to it. And this happens because as soon as data and progress become the be-all-and-end-all, adults decide that the only way to do this is control.
Sometimes there’s no better feeling than stumbling across something that makes you wish you’d discovered it sooner - it’s an eureka moment in which your brain goes electric and you can just sense that you’ve found a good, good thing.
I occasionally get this feeling when I listen to music on Spotify and a new song bursts out on my phone which makes me sit up and take note. I’ve had this recently with the band Wolf Alice who I came across while report writing (it needed a soundtrack!). Similarly the band Pale Waves came out of the blue and I’ve been hooked ever since, with the release of each new single being met with teen-type excitement and anticipation (it probably helps that the drummer wears a Cure t-shirt...)
I get the same type of sensation when I unearth new ways to tweak or develop my Early Years practice too. Though the idea of the 3Ms has remained consistent, its beauty is because they are so flexible, the 3Ms enable you to experiment and adapt your interactions and teaching of young children.
Sometimes these tweaks emerge from the constant discussion about our practice and children which my team engage in throughout each day. Because we’re not driven by written records, we can have dialogue that is responsive to what we see before us. Our team culture is one of contribution and idea-sharing so it’s natural to find us shaping our setting or approach to respond to need and next steps. We can only do this because we are not topic-led and staff time and energy can be spent on skills rather than activity, displays and Pinterest.
At other times the tweaks come directly from the children. When this happens, it’s definitely time to feel excited and it’s an even better feeling than hearing music no matter what tshirt the drummer might be wearing...
As I get older, the transience of life is increasingly becoming a stark reality. I’ve moved out of the ‘friends having children’ phase and am being invited to less and less weddings. Nowadays it’s the funeral phase and the lasting sense of grief and loss that marks it. A wedding or a birth are great but the hangover from these is gone within a day (or two depending if the wedding has the foresight of a free bar). The ‘hangover’ following a death is absolutely something else and beyond a hair of the dog.
Children on the whole live in a bubble away from this - their world isn’t the world of ‘passing on’, ‘resting in peace’ or ‘a good innings’. That’s not to say that there aren’t many, many children who don’t experience death or aren’t affected by it. It’s just that for the majority of children they are in the ‘pure bright living’ phase of life - the realm of magic, the world of ‘song’.
So it’s extraordinary when they do come across death especially in nature. Their response, their wonder even, is something that opens up a door into their realm and it’s this door that can only be opened when we let go of ‘planning’ and embrace faith in children, faith that enables discovery and in this instance the finding of a very small but very dead vole in the woods...
Increasingly, or so it would seem, we are becoming a nation of Indoor-ers. Our time is spent within the shelter of our homes, locked out from the world around us, living contented with merely seeing it through the lens of an phone screen or tablet.
Children live in a time of nature deficit, they are less connected to the natural world than previous generations, with words, pastimes and ways slowly eroding in the face of the immediacy and buzz of social media and the Now-ness that lies within the touch of a finger tip.
Much of this has been caused by fear. Fear of what might happen if we venture too far, fear of others, fear of a threat, one that is perpetuated by the press and heresay. Children are being shaped to feel safer indoors and to value online connection above the healing of interaction with the natural world.
Not all children are like this of course but it certainly feels like the majority are. And how did they end up this way? Because they watched the adults do it. Because the adult world suggested a new reality, a new way of living that could provide all without needing to leave the house.
The reality is that we have a generation of children who’s first instinct is not to look outside but to plug in. Children at an increasingly young age seem to be head down, transfixed by pixels and sound, oblivious of surroundings. And who hands these over? Who buys these devices to keep children quiet, entertain them, occupy them while the world goes about is business? The adults. They’ve evolved the TV’s role as an occasional nanny to become an ever-present, all-absorbing childminder.
Don’t get me wrong I love technology.
This is a screenshot from a game that I used to play on my brother’s ZX81 - we played it for hours and then when we upgraded to the Commodore 64 we’d play obsessively. So I understand the brilliance of gaming and of connecting to a device. But we had balance - warm afternoons spent playing football, long walks to woods where the trees offered climbing and den building, crab apple fights with the kids from the next street, endless games of cricket in which four or five of us would take turns to bat or bowl, all of us hunting for the ball if it was sent into the long grass of the apple orchard.
It’s time we enabled our children to be Outsiders once again. It’s time to reconnect and re-adventure. If technology is so embedded in society how can we change it? It is the adult world needs to change. We need to embrace something that over time has created the conditions for children’s nature disconnection: risk. And if we can’t change society over night then why not at least try to change our little corner of it in our setting?
Children want to take risk. It’s part of their growth, their inner learning curve. Risk is one of the many ways that they begin to make sense of the world, how they weigh it up and give value to their experiences. Yet as adults we’re often very quick to intervene. We either project our own fear into them with a hasty “Careful!” or we shut down the experience even before it’s begun.
We as adults need to take a risk. We need to find our faith in children, give them space to discover for themselves, to investigate, explore and test. We need to come away from experiences that have been pre-ordained and controlled so that they can throw themselves into their environment. The greatest risk we can take is to begin a journey of un-planning, of un-controlling. Our desire for outcome, our innate programmed idea of what school should be, the adult world demand for ‘school readiness’, school policies that are often devoid of child-centred pedagogy are all things that create fear within us as adults. We project this onto the children in our setting. We try to control because we perceive that control gives us ‘learning’.
But in reality it is giving us un-learning. This fear, the inability to let go and let children BE, results in the erosion of play, a classroom based climate, timetables that restrict, and if children do get to venture outside, a risk assessment process that puts fear right back at the heart of the experience.
It’s time to take a risk. It’s time to put children back at the centre. It time to truly embrace the magic of children. How can you take action to change your little corner of the world? How can you shape the children in your setting to be the Outsiders they can and ought to be? There’s no better time than now - un-plan, un-fear, un-risk...
I’ve always had a bit of a thing for Robert Downey Jnr. I don’t know if it’s his good looks or his bad boy image but there’s just something about him that makes me want to watch his movies. I liked Iron Man and the less well-known Through A Scanner Darkly but my favourite by far has to be his portayal of Sherlock Holmes; a madcap, other-worldly, flawed, yet brilliant genius.
It might be reading too much into the character of Sherlock Holmes but I’m often struck by how he always seems obsessively exploring ‘meaning’, an incessant search for something beyond the obvious or not-so-obvious that leads down a labyrinthian path until the truth rears its head - usually a truth that Sherlock has discovered long before the doting Watson or the bumbling police led by the well-meaning but ultimately blinkered Inspector Lestrade have even begun to put two and two together.
I can’t help but think that this search for meaning, this drive to interpret the evidence before our eyes is very reminiscent of working in Early Years. Unfortunately this isn’t always in a good way...
At home I have two cats, Yoda a white and ginger tom who seems forever on the prowl for little birds and mice that inhabit the back garden, and Orla an anxious thing who doesn’t really like humans particularly but prefers her own company thank you very much. They are pretty much polar opposites but do share one thing in common: a predilection for hiding in or sitting on cardboard boxes. They are naturally drawn to discarded packaging and seek out ways to inveigle themselves within boxes of any shape and size.
And so I’ve noticed do most children. There’s something about both the open-endedness and the cosiness that a box offers. A box can be anything. Literally anything. It’s a blank canvas unlike the former contents of it. A toy can have as many beeps and lights on it, can have cost the world and can give a child a degree of fascination but all these pale in to insignificance when there’s an empty box to climb in, scribble on or convert.
The moment we stand still in our practice is the moment that we stop seeing it as a journey. I'm a firm believer in continually trying to improve what my team and I do within our setting, Certain principles remain steadfast at the heart of what we do: our image of the child as someone who is full of magic and language, the necessity for adult-led learning to be engaging and skill-driven and underpinning all of this the 3Ms which seek to enable children to meet the demands of the adult world whilst retaining play and playfulness across each day. These root ideas give us the platform to put layers over the top so that we can explore new paths with our children. In the future I'm going to investigate how we can implement Trisha Lee's Helicopter Story model to bring stories and children's inner stories to life. I can do this in the knowledge that the approach embraces play and puts children at the centre of their learning, valuing their dialogues and imaginations.
Currently, as I have begun to lay out in previous blogs, I'm exploring the potential of 'projects' - mini inputs that expand the fascinations that I see around me within the children's play and enable me to offer additional signposts for children to run with if they so wish. The content of the project input is always skills-based so that even if certain children don't choose to explore the project they at least come into contact with modelled writing, shared thinking and an experience where children's thoughts are valued and heard.
Whenever we put children at the centre of their own learning, the potential for exciting things to happen grows exponentially...
I always feel really sorry for the worms in my setting’s garden. Unsuspecting, they wriggle around in the soil, happy and content. That is until the doors open and children burst out, energised and eager, often on the hunt for mini-beasts to collect and ‘home’. The sensible insects scuttle off and hide but the poor earthworms, with their limited pace and seeming duller wits, just lie there waiting for little fingers and hands to begin pulling and poking.
Worms are incredibly fascinating for young children and seem to prompt a multitude of questions and reactions. Some children recoil at the thought of holding them, whilst others take great delight in trying to collect as many as they can until they have a boiling mass of them in their palms, writhing in a living ball. To be fair the children don’t necessarily mean to harm them. The adults do give them pep talks about respect. However the fact remains that as the garden closes at the end of a session, one can often see a deceased worm or two lying flat and forlorn on the patio slabs or drowned in a bucket of water.
It was witnessing this fascination that coincided with reading Bing Nursery School’s article about projects and led to the first project in my own setting taking the shape of Super Worm...
Any time I come across an article or newsfeed from Stanford University's Bing Nursery School I tend to get excited and a tad emotional. It's a setting that I truly admire and I feel vibrates with an energy for the magic of children that I value in my own practice. I've never had the good fortunate to pay a visit but from this side of the Pond I still feel linked to the research and outcomes that they consistently explore and make public. An issue of their Bing Times can pass many an hour and the depth and range of its content is both inspiring and challenging.
One of my favourite pastimes is to revisit past online issues of Bing Times to try and unearth gems that I may have missed on previous readings. Recently I found myself being drawn to the October 2017 edition and as I read through I found my curiosity turn into wonder and evolve into a Eureka moment. An article about 'projects' really stood out, almost with a giant leap out of the screen. Here before me was an idea so breathtakingly simple and possibly even glaringly obvious that it made me sit up with a jolt.
Anyone who knows me will have a keen sense that DIY or indeed pretty much anything that requires dexterity, manual skills or even the ability to do things straight, such as park or put up a shelf, is beyond me. I seem to have an innate inability when it comes to practicality. I’m happy to try of course but most commonly my attempts at craftsmanship end up with my wife doing the job ‘properly’ or having to call in a professional. This lack of skill extends to car maintenance, making white sauce and getting the bin bag out of the kitchen bin without its contexts spilling apocalyptically all over the kitchen floor.
I’m not shy of admitting my shortcomings and have been known to play up to them just to get out of having to do things - a kind of copping-out which has a strange warm feeling to it at the same time.
Although I don’t cop out in my professional life I do think there are times when I consider areas of continuous provision that I tend to go down a familiar path rather than explore a new one. One area where I’ve definitely been guilty of doing this is woodwork. With all my shortcomings in the practical side of life, small alarm bells begin to ring whenever I feel drawn to the box in my setting’s cupboard marked ‘Woodworking bits’. I begin to envisage my poor attempts at sawing in a straight line, my feeble twisting of the G-clamp and the bent nails in the wood that I seem to be an expert in every time I use a hammer.
What I’ve discovered is that in any situation that requires the use of tools I usually look for a ‘Dad-type’ figure to literally lend a hand or impart some wisdom. There are three options at home: my wife, a phone call to my brother who then sends me online videos of how to do things or recourse to one of the two DIY books published in 1983 that I somehow seem to possess.
When it comes to school however, none of these three options are available to me so it was with great delight that I stumbled across Pete Moorhouse’s unbelievably brilliant book ‘Learning Through Woodwork’. It’s a book that is not only comprehensive but is also reassuring and warm - wisdom seems to drip from every page.
Pete sets the historical context of woodwork in Early Years from the start, a fascinating overview of how successive pedagogies have incorporated it as a powerful tool. Using really engaging photos he also shows how the following skills are integral to woodworking and it’s hard to come up with a reason not to explore woodworking when you’re faced with them:
These are just a handful - we’d want these skills for our children and the book, page after page, walks you through exactly how to achieve this whether it from risk assessment, the adult role, curriculum links, tool maintenance and on. Every base is covered. Superbly written, with fabulous action photographs and thorough attention to detail it’s a manual that truly opens the door to enriching your setting and your children’s experience.
When we read a book we want to get to the end having changed somehow. ‘Learning Through Woodwork’ is one that has huge potential to change not only us as EY practioners but also EY practice as a whole. If you don’t currently utilise the immense power of woodworking in your setting then the book is an absolute must-read. If, like me, you use it but in a limited way then it’s also an absolute must-read to give you the confidence to explore woodwork further.
Book reviews don’t tend to thank authors but this one does: thank you Pete for being ‘Dad’ - not only has ‘Learning Through Woodwork’ been a great read over the holiday, it’s also given me the confidence to embrace woodworking and it’s scope to bring about extra magic for children.
Right, where’s that saw? Time to get things straight... :)
Can I Go Play Now..? is committed to widening the understanding of the magic of children's play as an educational tool. Child-centred, play-based learning is where it's truly at....