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...
In this instance, our most recent tweak revolved around writing. As a team we’d been exploring the way the cohort as a whole had been applying their writing skills. We had a large group of children who knew their sounds, could form letters, knew the composites of a sentence yet were only truly writing when adults were at hand. It didn’t feel spontaneous nor particularly independent. There was something not quite right and as adults we felt that perhaps we hadn’t modelled writing within the provision as we perhaps might have done and was it now all to late, the horse had bolted and we’d have to spend the remainder of the term cajoling and doing the opposite of what we believe in, dragging groups of children around a table to ‘perform’...
Obviously the latter wasn’t an option because if we did that a little part of our souls would die. As adults we couldn’t quite put our finger on a way forward. And then of course the ‘language of children’ spoke and the way revealed itself like a shining path that was always there, glowing through the dark to the destination of ‘writing with purpose and above all joy’.
It made itself known through storytelling. As a setting we introduce traditional stories through books and story maps as a way of enriching children’s vocabulary and experience of story. It’s not ‘topic’ - children don’t go off from the carpet to play with plastic goats or laminated trolls in the provision. It’s more flash in the pan than that. It’s delivered without expectation because we have faith in children that they will engage at their level and that we are thinking about skills development not ‘activity’, next steps not writing to topic.
As we began our carpet session we presented a problem. The troll was in the woods and wanted to come into school and eat the teachers. What could we do to save them? Now, not all children felt that the teachers should be saved but there were some nicer children that thought the idea of teachers being turned into marmalade was unpalatable so they felt that the only way to stop him would be to build a trap or some kind of obstruction around the classroom. One or two thought that perhaps we might be able to use the school’s electricity to create a forcefield, whilst others considered enlisting in an army and began negotiating with another group about how to fashion swords and shields with sufficient strength to repel or defeat the troll.
By this point, as you can probably imagine, the carpet was a-buzz. Crucially it’s important to note that there were some children who were not. They weren’t that bothered about the troll. They either felt that I deserved to get eaten or their minds were considering their own ‘project’ that was important to them. This is important to note for what comes next.
One of the children who had sat quietly then said “Maybe we could send the troll a message to ask him not to come? We could tell him that teachers don’t taste nice.” There was a brief silence and then the child next to her said “Or we could send a message to the Headteacher to warn her”. Again a moment of silence before I wondered out loud “I wonder what other messages we might write?”
The discussion that ensued revealed that indeed there was a good many number of messages that could be sent and there before my eyes the concept of message writing was born. No matter what you did, made, said or played there was a message in there somewhere and an audience who would be waiting to read it too. It could be a witch, a goblin, a parent, a teacher, other children, the man on the moon, a pet, the worms in the garden, the troll, the fairies, the Queen, the minpins, the cleaner - you name it, you can write a message to it.
And what then happened...?
Messages began to appear. Not just one or two. In the space of three days there were probably around 150. All independently written, all based on the toolkits for writing that we have shared with them, all showing evidence of their next steps, all usable for spontaneous teaching moments.
Critically, all children wanted to write them. Our ‘lowest’ (I can’t bear that word but I can’t think of another one) writers began coming in to school asking to write messages, the ‘highest’ (I hate that word too) eager to show the troll that they could write warning signs or mini stories.
And the ones who weren’t bothered by the troll? What did they do? Well they wrote messages about their interests. Jet packs they’d made in the creative area, dinner menus, notes about colour mixing, recipes for the playdoh cafe, order forms for den making materials. They had their own purpose which has exactly the same equal value. The idea of message writing is about skill not theme.
Six days in to message writing I’ve been blown away by the level of engagement. The children helped us solve our discussions about how to create opportunities for independent writing whilst at the same time giving them the unbelievably high sense of joy that writing is purposeful and that they CAN do it.
Yesterday morning I stood in my setting and watched 86 children all deeply engaged in their play. Next to me was a basket of paper, almost brimming over with messages. I knew then that we’d got it. It all comes back to the magic of children, the need to have faith and the steamroller-type power of play.
This week why not ask yourself how your children engage with writing. How do they apply their skills in a meaningful way? Do they write for a purpose or write because an adult tells them to? Are your children trying to tell you something and are you ready to listen?
The magic of children can be incredibly liberating if we just let it in :)
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....