NQT Blogger: I feel awful interrupting a child’s play to ask them to come and do a focus activity with me and I hear this voice at the back of my head saying ‘why are you stopping them from learning independently? You could play with them and scaffold their learning’. I don’t always have the time to play and scaffold because I’m doing focus activities or observing. I would like to aim to adapt my practice to follow children’s interests and spend more time playing and interacting.
It is often noted in literature that planning and teaching should be based around children’s interests. Through doing so, practitioners can enhance development and progress in each area of learning. The National Strategies for Early Years suggest that ‘children’s choices and interests are the driving force for building knowledge, skills and understanding’ (DfCSF, 2009, p.6). Therefore practitioners need to be attuned to children’s play, their conversations, and the activities that they participate in. This is so they can search for clues to each child’s interest, thus becoming what I call the interest catcher! So what is an interest? ‘Interests’ are subjects, ideas, things, topics and events which fascinate and stimulate the curiosity of the child. I often hear practitioners concerns around capturing interests; How can I learn what children are interested in? How do we find out what children want to know? How can I cater for each individual interest? Is it possible to meet every child’s interest within the setting? The starting point is in being able to actually capture a ‘spark’ from a child’s interest that can then inform learning and development.
One of the ideas I would like to re-introduce in this article is that of Hilary Jo Seltz, an assistant professor at the University of Alaska. She has worked in early childhood settings for over 20 years as a teacher, administrator and instructor. Her work with children, namely interest-led curriculum, supported her in devising a ‘plan’ in 2006 for building on children’s interests. One of the concepts she introduced is called ‘sparks’. Seltz describes sparks as ‘things, phenomena, conversations – anything that provokes deeper thought’. The sparks are what trigger a child (and adults!) to want to know more, and to investigate further. They can be simple as finding a pebble in ones shoe, grabbing an idea or story line from a book, or finding something in the outdoor area. Young children have these ‘sparks of interest’ all day long. Part of your role as an interest catcher is to observe and capture these sparks, to then take forward, as per the following scenario narrated by Seltz:
During outdoor play four year old Angela discovers a loose metal nut about half an inch in diameter. She shows the nut to her teacher.
Angela: Look what I found. It looks just like the big one on our workbench.
Practitioner: Yes, it sure does, Angela. It’s called a nut.
Angela: I wonder where it came from.
Practitioner: Where do you think it may have come from?
Angela: Well, it is the same as the ones in the workbench inside.
Practitioner: This nut looks very similar to the nuts and bolts inside. I think this nut might be bigger than the nuts and bolts we have inside.
Angela: Maybe it came off or something out here.
Practitioner: What do you think it is from?
Angela: Umm, I don’t know – something out here/
Practitioner: Maybe you should check.
Holding the nut tight in her fist, Angela walks around, stopping to examine the play equipment, the tables, the parked trikes, and anything else she thinks might have a missing nut. She can find only bolts with nuts on the trikes. She spies a large ‘stop’ sign, puts her special treasure in her pocket so other children cannot see it, and sets up a roadblock for the busy trike riders so he can check the nuts and bolts on their trikes.
Edmund stops and asks her what she is doing, and she explains. Edmund says he needs to see the nut. When Angela shows it to him, he gets off his trike and starts helping her inspect the other trikes. They eventually find the one that is missing the nut. Other children, curious, crowd around.
While scenarios like this are common in settings, sometimes practitioners may not look or listen out for these sparks, seize upon them, and build upon them. It is obvious that through Angela’s spark-led interest around the nut, it led her to explore and engage in many areas of learning. This could have been enhanced even further with the provision of clipboards, papers and pencils so that the recording of checked trikes could take placed, thus literacy and mathematical learning and development taking place. Angela’s interest was intrinsic, deep within, meaningful to her, and therefore ultimately powerful in her learning. Jones and Nimmo (1994) advocate this when they say that ‘children fully engage with experiences when it is their own’.
Practitioners work in busy environments to plan and deliver a quality curriculum, this can often take over all that they do. This is when sparks could go a miss, and therefore requires careful reflection in how practitioners can integrate children’s sparks into their everyday delivery. Practitioners have to be skilled in capturing children’s sparks and incorporating it into the existing curriculum planning. When planning for children’s interests – sparks – it is vital that it is about helping children to learn about all areas of learning and development and moving them forward. Our roles are simple, practitioners need to talk to the children, listen to them, both with eyes and ears, and use the ultimate tool of observation. For some practitioners, it can be difficult to sit back and trust that ideas will emerge naturally. But once practitioners become familiar with the process, they begin noticing how easily sparks appear and how they can be taken forward. Seltz’s (2006) suggests:
'Identify emerging ideas – look at children’s interests, hold conversations and provide experiences. Document the possibilities [leading from the spark!]'
Making use of children’s sparks to provide engaging and meaningful experiences is important, but it is not about leaving it solely to children to assist us in our planning of the curriculum. As practitioners it is our role to introduce new ideas and interests. In other words, adults can trigger sparks too. Practitioners can provoke children’s thinking by suggesting ideas through stories, specific items or experiences, for the children to then take forward. Children’s sparks occur spontaneously, so it is impossible to plan for each child’s interest at once. This fact needs to be accepted. Practitioners need to identify and select sparks that are worth extending as many may not offer the same possibilities for learning and development. By thinking carefully about how we respond to each child’s spark, we can ensure that we make the best use of our time and effort and maximise children’s opportunities for meaningful and interesting learning (Touhill, 2012). Don’t forget that although one child may spark an interest, careful planning will involve all children in benefitting from it.
Practitioners view: When I think about children’s interests I think first about where the learning might go and what I can add. Is the interest just a passing one? Is it something that the children are happy to continue doing on their own? Or is it something more recurring and meaningful; an interest that can grow into something more? An interest doesn’t have to be grand or life changing – something very simple can spark the most amazing ideas.
To assist practitioners in identifying interests to develop further, it may be helpful to consider the four following points to help assess the possibilities that can be attached to a spark as and when it comes along:
- A spark maybe acknowledged with a comment or question.
- A spark maybe acknowledged by the provision of resources and materials to extend on what is happening.
- A spark maybe noted down or filed away for possible future use.
- A spark becomes the start of a bigger project or investigation in which children and adults work together to further explore it.
By using this four point approach, it will help filter the sparks and provide for effective planning without the burden of trying to meet each interest religiously. The following educator’s story captures this wonderfully:
Educator’s story: (adapted from Touhill, L. (2012) I remember a group of boys who were fixated on Transformers. Everything they did from block building to outdoor play, involved Transformers. It would have been easy to simply dismiss this as ‘boys being boys’ or try to stamp it out. But when we did neither of these things it became an interest that lasted for many months.
It is impossible to follow every interest that arises, so why was this one special? The boys had been playing their game for weeks, but it seldom progressed beyond knocking over block towers or chasing each other around while pretending to be Transformers. In many ways these games were becoming a problem. They became increasingly physical and an excuse for excluding children. However it was obvious that the games were important and meaningful to those who were involved. What was it about Transformers that interested them? What was it they liked so much?
In the end it was as simple as asking them the question. By talking to the boys I learnt that what they loved were the different powers of each Transformer and the way that they could change into different objects. That became our question: What would you transform into?
We started with drawings; we then progressed to making our own moveable models with cardboard and split pins and then used these to create our own stories. We added the Transformers the children made to block play and created a life-sized model from boxes. The children’s enthusiasm and excitement was infectious.
As an educator it became important for me to stay focused and not get too carried away with all of the ideas that were suddenly swirling around us. While I don’t want to stifle the children’s ideas I have found that the key to successfully guiding an interest-based project is to have a vision of where you might go with it. Without some sort of idea to act as a guide, a project can quickly become so big and sprawling that it is no longer manageable or achievable. At the same time, it is also important to be flexible. It’s not always an easy balance, but it’s something you get better at as you go along. While this interest had started with a small group of boys, it became an experience that all of the children took part in. They loved the idea of making their own robots and even those with no knowledge of Transformers soon received a crash course.
Had I chosen not to do something with this interest it may have proved to be a passing phase; had I rushed in and added posters and toy Transformers® at the start, the whole experience would have been completely different. By becoming actively involved, I was able to challenge the children’s ideas and shape them into more meaningful experiences. By taking advantage of the children’s interests, I was able to encourage their involvement in areas that they had previously avoided.
Final thought: It is the practitioner’s support that makes a difference and allows the children to take an interest from the ordinary to the extraordinary. Follow the sparks!
Department for Children, Schools and Families (2009) The National Strategies Early Years: Learning, Playing and Interacting – Good Practice in the Early Years Foundation Stage. London: DfCSF.
Jones, E., & Nimmo, J. (1994) Emergent Curriculum. Washington, DC: NAEYC
Seltz, H.J. (2006) Innovative Practice. The Plan: Building on Children’s Interests. Beyond the Journal. Young Children on the Web.
Touhill, L. (2012) Interest-Based Learning. NQS PLP e-Newsletter No.37. 2012