‘Listening’ in the early years is used to mean valuing and responding to children’s thoughts, ideas and feelings, offering genuine choice and involving children in decisions that affect their daily lives (NCB, 2010: p1). It is about the idea of embedding children’s voices into the running of the setting through planning and quality changes that may be initiated by them. This shows that children are listened to, that their ideas, thoughts, and opinions are valued, and that they are partners in their learning and development. Listening is not just about what children say, but about the sounds they make, drawings they may create, any visual representation through their play, and of course their body language. Practitioners need to look and listen for this and get beyond the idea that listening involves one person talking and the other person hearing them. Scotland’s Curriculum Framework for Children 3–5 (Scottish CCC, 1999) summarises well what listening to young children should entail:
- extend children's abilities to communicate ideas and feelings, in a variety of ways;
- listen to what children say;
- enable children to make and express choices, plans and decisions.
In this article I want to share one such project I carried out with children in order to listen to them and embed their voices into the setting. It was early on in my career but a valuable project I still undertake with children when I get the opportunity.
Listening to children was a hot topic in the early days of my practice, and there was a lot of emphasis in how settings listened to children and what they then did with the information they gained. Today this is recognised as ‘children’s voices’, and in schools ‘pupil voice’. I was in a small setting at the time, with an occupancy of 30 children aged 0 to 5 years, and a very small staff team. It was the second year of operation and I guess my first thought around listening was to find out what the children thought of the setting environments as a whole. So in a staff meeting we discussed practical ways of collecting children’s opinions, in ways that they would enjoy and be meaningful to them. The key question being 'What does listening to children look like?' We first targeted the young children of the setting, and came up with our camera project. I recall that this project lasted over a month. For our project the following were needed: disposable cameras – enough for a pair each to share, and 3 shoe boxes, with money type slots cut across the top for posting and 3 face symbols stuck on the front J K L. However there was much more as the following will explore.
Step 1 Exploration:
As always setting the scene for the project was essential. So we had a discussion about how well the children listened. They of course thought they were really good at listening but I do recall one child saying “Sometimes I don’t want to because I want to carry on playing”. We then carried out a number of small activities to aid in understanding listening. The first was a simple sound listening exercise. Various sounds were played and children had to identify them. This ranged anything from doorbell sounds to animal sounds. We then moved on to storytelling where children were asked questions to determine how well they listened, or asked to describe what is happening so that other children were listening. Children were also asked to lay on the floor and close their eyes to listen to a short audio. As we did not want children to associate listening to just hearing, we then did an activity where body language was being displayed for children to tune into and listen. We also asked children to draw images and see if their peers can explore and identify what they are. The focus was then turned to how well the children thought that the practitioners listened to them - Do we listen to you? The conversation that still sticks in my head was with a 4 year old boy:
Child: “Sometimes I have to ask lots of times”
Adult: “Like what?”
Child: “When I need something for sticking or when I can’t reach”
Adult: “How does this make you feel?”
Child: “I don’t know….sad
Child: “they don’t look at me when I’m saying it”
It was here we reflected on how listening is associated with feelings, that not being listened to or being listened to had a direct link with how one felt. There was also the importance of children needing to believe that they were being listened to - “they don’t look at me when I’m saying it”. We took this information into a review meeting and fed it into our project before we continued.
Step 2 Discussions & Creation:
We reminded children about all the work we did on listening and some of the feelings they discussed. We then told them that we wanted to listen to them further about their rooms and the outdoor space. It was explained that they use the rooms and we wanted to know what they liked, what they were not sure of, and something that they did not like at all. I had provided children with whiteboards and markers and asked them that when they were happy at nursery draw an image of how they looked. Of course majority of the children drewJ, when asked about not liking something or it made them sad it wasL. Finally we asked them to draw a face showing when they were not sure about something, we ended up with thisK. The three face symbols were then used to create our feeling boxes. The shoe boxes were covered with paper and a slot drawn and cut out on the top for posting. The three feeling faces were drawn out and stuck on each box. So we had a happy box, a not sure box and a sad box.
Step 3 Gathering:
Disposable cameras were purchased, enough for a pair to share. Children were gathered and explained the camera project. Children were explained that we wanted to listen to their views about the setting and sometimes it is difficult for them to tell us so we are going to listen through taking photographs. Children were paired up and given a camera between them. This in itself was about children listening to each other. Children were expected to discuss and negotiate, which required them to listen to each other and come to a final decision. Children were reminded of the feeling boxes and told that they were to keep the cameras with them over the next two days and had to take photographs of what they liked, what they did not like, and photos of things which they were not sure of. We wanted them also to think about why they were taking the photos. Of course practitioners showed the children how to use the camera because it was inevitable that a majority of the photos will show nothing other than their hands or the ground where children may not be sure how to click. Over the next two days children accessed their cameras and took photos. Practitioners followed children from a distance just to ensure that they had minimum difficulty with operating the cameras.
Step 4 Sharing & Decisions:
Children joined the practitioners to develop their cameras at the local pharmacy. These were available to collect the next day. Once these were brought back to the setting, children looked at them with their partners and discussed them. They were prompted to discuss why they took the photos. Whilst this was happening, practitioners were recording what children were saying. Children were then asked to post their photographs in the relevant boxes. Some disputes took place at this stage between the partners!
Step 5 Review:
A staff meeting was arranged where the contents of the boxes were shared and discussed. There were natural giggles, awws, surprises, and a lot of ‘wow I didn’t know that’. Of course there were photographs which showed children’s fingers, hands, and the ground! Looking at the J box we found photos of bikes, the home corner, photographs of the practitioners, the outdoor tree (lots of these), meal times and much more. The L box contained several photographs of the outdoor space patch of grass. On the other side of this was the rabbit hatch which children visited daily. Practitioners discussed how they thought children liked this as they enjoy going over to see the rabbit. They were baffled in why children disliked it. The K box contained minimal photographs, here we discussed that it may well be that the children were unable to understand the ‘not sure’ concept. Something we planned to work on as our next steps. The recording of discussions by practitioners were presented which gave some context to the photographs. The patch of grass had terms such as ‘messy, ‘shoes get dirty’ and ‘it’s wet’. Of course we wanted to further investigate this.
Step 6 Feedback & Feed forward:
As a team we felt it vital to feed back to children about their photographs and gain more information. The feedback in itself was about children being aware that we had ‘listened’ to their photographs. We showed and talked about the various photos and the children giggled, said it was theirs, and gave a few more reasons to their choice of photographs. We then placed the high number of photographs of the grass patch in front of them and asked children about it. It resulted in that whenever the children visited the rabbit their shoes and trousers got dirty. We asked why this was the case, they responded that it was muddy and wet most of the time and that’s why they didn’t visit the rabbit as often. We asked the children how we could stop this from happening, ‘Make it dry’ ‘Put something on it’ ‘Bring the rabbit on the side’.
Step 7 Action & Next Steps:
What a discovery! Something we never thought of at all. We discussed this as a team and then planned what we were to do. Over the course of a day, a practitioner was deployed in the grass area and recorded how often children used it, the result being ‘not many’. Over the next week, concrete slabs were laid down on the grass patch as stepping stones. Thinking about budgets of a setting, we got these at no cost from a builder down the road who had just finished someone’s front drive and did not need them! Children were then observed over a couple of days of their use of this space. It turned out that it was used more than previously, and the rabbit had visitors more frequently! At circle time we discussed the patch and children were reminded of their photos and the ‘listening’. Many children were delighted at being able to go to the rabbit without getting dirty, although as a practitioner I think ‘dirt is good!’ The next project was the tree! Apparently the children enjoyed reading their books here (this was in the J box) so we were in discussions of possible seating in this area and a hammock!
Listening to children can be a relatively easy and yet complex process. In either case, it is an integral part of understanding what they are feeling and what it is they need from their early years experiences. It is about tuning into children as you would the radio. Providing an environment where children feel listened to will allow them to be confident, safe and powerful as they will be able to express themselves in any form. This project was carried out many years ago, therefore today the use of disposable cameras rarely exists. Why not use ipads or the equivalent to let children take photographs that you can ‘listen’ to?
NCB (2010) Listening to Young Children and the EYFS.
Edited by Helen