After a period of self-chosen exile, I’ve recently re-discovered the joy of Facebook, returning to the fold of old school friends, recommendations for restaurants, and photographs of meals eaten, nights out and spa days away from the machinations of family. It’s been reassuring to see that little has changed during my absence from Facebook and has been a reminder that life goes on quite merrily with or without me.
One new element of Facebook I have discovered however is the existence of groups and in particular those dedicated to Early Years.
On these groups there’s a great deal of discussion covering a huge variety of subjects. One thread that comes up repeatedly is practitioners asking for ideas for activities and planning based around topics. “What can I do for this...?”, “Does anyone know a way to make...?” or “I need to do x topic...”
People have lots of ideas and helpful suggestions to offer in the groups, reflecting the ethos of community and support that typifies teachers in particular. This sense of togetherness is great and for those perhaps working in Early Years isolation it must be of solace to know that there are people out there willing to advise and lend a hand.
But what if all this advice and support was in fact not that helpful? Occasionally on such threads you come across a grenade of a comment that says something like “We don’t do topics, we’re child-led’. The thread goes quiet for a bit as though everyone collectively gasps and then with little ceremony the topic-based questions begin again. It’s the grenades that interest me. The suggestion is that perhaps topic-led curriculum delivery might have an alternative, that there might just be a way to lead children’s learning experiences in a different way.
To do so can take a certain amount of bravery. It also perhaps takes a shift in thinking about children. Previous blogs have explored the magic of children and for me this needs to come first above the ‘How’ or ‘what’ of curriculum delivery. Child-centred approaches reimagine children as being entirely capable of developing without the close ‘control’ of adult led topic planning.
A starting point is possibly asking oneself the question ‘why?’.
Why do I follow topic-based learning? What benefit does it bring to children? How does it enable them to be the kind of learner that I think children are capable of being? Does it recognise the inherent magic of children and their internal song?
If you are doing topics because you’ve always done them, because the rest of school does them or because your teaching degree taught you to follow them, then is this a clear ‘why’?
I would argue that it isn’t. I’d say it was more about following routine and history, that it was about ‘what’ above ‘why’ - a clear ‘why’ is relative to passion and pedagogy; a ‘what’ is relative to a trodden path and ‘activity’. If you plan ‘activity’ then two things happen: you spend inordinate amounts of time looking for what to do and you also plan ‘what to do’ above ‘what skill’. This leads you down the road of Pinterest Provision...
My experience is that giving more time to considering skills and next steps for growth rather than what to do for a topic is what moves children forward. Unpicking their blocks to learning, their own motivations and ability to interpret continuous provision is what enables them.
It can be hard to let go of topics. They are like a safe harbour because they give us as adults a sense of control, of something that we can explain to other adults, that can be planned.
But what if all of this was actually getting in the way of children?
What if instead you decided to give a half term to begin with over to your children?
What if you didn’t plan anything other than the key skills of phonics and maths (if that’s what you do) and then throw open your setting in a more open ended, interpretative way? What if you stood back and enabled children to immerse themselves in their own undictated, self-chosen play experiences? Topics come from the adult world - perhaps close this door and open up a new one?
By shelving topics several things happen: you have considerably more time to explore children’s actual next steps, you’ll spend less time looking for things to ‘do’, you’ll witness an increase in independence, skills development will take on a new lease of life and above all and perhaps most importantly you’ll have a higher emotional engagement from your children to their learning - something that is critical if we are to have a generation of children who will have to face a UK National Curriculum that is being bled of its creativity and ability to develop well-being.
Change can be scary. Change can be clunky initially. Children can react negatively to begin with if they are not being led by an adult. There will be difficulties - it’s inevitable. But if you keep coming back to the ‘why?’ then your sense of purpose, the realisation that children are highly engaged and next steps are coming more naturally then your mind will be eased. By using this approach with the children in my setting, I consistently achieve adult world expectations for them with 80%+ achieving GLD. More importantly at the same time, I help children to experience richness, joy and connection that emanates from them which means a beer on Friday evening is drunk less through stress and more through satisfaction!
To get the very best out of non-topic based planning you’ll want to consider the 3Ms and how to apply them - it’s the proven approach that leads to true child- centred play-based learning. Once you know how, it can create the perfect conditions for effective learning... It’s all in the book!!!
Image used with kind permission from www.laylart.co.uk
Layla Khani is a printmaker and painter based in Malvern - I think her work is fab :)
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....