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Looking forward, going back...

I have worked in Early Years education for nearly 30 years now and this has never been my favourite time of year. Whilst I love the smell of Autumn in the air and the idea of new beginnings and fresh starts, I like it better when there is a routine. When everyone is settled in and we all know where we are at! 


In staffrooms across the land, the weekly cost of the tea and coffee fund has now been agreed (any milk other than cows…bring your own), everyone has promised not to leave their dirty cups lying around and a new dishwasher rota with passive aggressive undertones has been laminated and sellotaped to the wall (much to the caretakers ongoing angst and disgust), with everyone secure in the knowledge that they will ignore it!



But, this year there has been more than the usual feeling of anxiety about going back to work. This is not about ‘getting back to normal’ it is very much about finding that new normal in a landscape that seems to be forever changing. What is recommended today might change tomorrow. We are going to have to be more flexible and adaptable than we have ever been, not only around the learning provision that we are creating for our children, but also in respect of our own thinking and relationships with each other.


With lots of aspects of the ‘familiar’ in terms of what we do and how we do it, we are starting from a point of ‘unfamiliar’ and that can cause anxiety and uncertainly. But it is also an opportunity to use this discomfort, as a moment to reflect and re-examine our practice, change it up and make it better not just for the period of the pandemic, but long term. It is rare in the sort of work that we do with children that we have the time (or the energy) to stop and re-evaluate and challenge ourselves about why we do what we do, but if we are looking for any positives to come out of the Corona pandemic, the opportunity to re-evaluate our practice is one of them.


The Early Years is built on a foundation of play based learning. Play is the most important and effective tool that we have to enable the children that we work with to become the best that they can be. We talk a lot about the ‘uniqueness’ of children and creating ‘individual’ learning journeys that reflect specific interests of the children in our care, but often this individuality can be squeezed out of our day to day practice by the demands of ‘everything else’. Practitioners that I work with are often put under pressure to ‘teach’ in a way that is not developmentally appropriate for the children they are working with, using more formal methods of delivering knowledge that put children off rather than engage them.


On the whole, children are curious and active investigators of the world that they inhabit. It doesn’t take much to actively engage them at a deep level if the environment and resourcing is appropriate. High levels of engagement will result in high levels of wellbeing, progress and attainment. Low levels of engagement result in low level wellbeing and low levels of progress and learning. They also encourage children to develop negative attitudes to learning, which once in place are very difficult to change.


As adults our job is not just to deliver facts that we think children need to know, we are the co-constructors of children’s learning. Learning together should be a partnership, a carefully balanced process that is based on the most appropriate way for children of this age and stage of development to learn…play.


We want children to have some ‘agency’ in their own learning. This means that they have the opportunity to be independent learners. Using the environment and resources as a vehicle for gathering knowledge and experience as well as incorporating some positive risk taking. For this to happen we need to take cues from our observations of children’s habits, preferences and behaviours in play rather than just our topic planning. Children also need time to play that isn’t restricted by an overly rigid timetable.


An environment that is based on skill development and experience, rather than one that is based on topic or theme will provide the best opportunities for engagement. Lots of children really enjoy engaging with a topic, theme or story when an adult is involved in leading the learning. But they often struggle with keeping that high level of engagement when they are playing in the environment with no adult to support them. For this reason, keep any topic or theme (if you have one) to adult led sessions and occasional provision enhancements.



I try and make the areas of provision linked to skill development. If children are working in the malleable materials area then I want them to experience lots of skills related to materials of different malleability like, rolling, squashing, imprinting, coiling, modelling, joining, cutting… If they can experience them through their own interests rather than an ‘activity’ that everyone has to do, then they are more likely to engage, learn and retain the information. So rather than everyone making a coil pot for a Diwali candle – whether you want to or not – I would fill my malleable materials area with resources that enabled children to experiment with rolling and coiling. What they make is immaterial, it is their processing of the experience that is important.


I would still talk to the children about Diwali, read stories, show artefacts and share experiences. But having to make a coil pot for a tealight doesn’t demonstrate a knowledge and understanding of any aspect of Diwali, so why require children to do it? If they decide they want to make a coil pot, then absolutely let them make one. If they would rather make a MASSIVE snake and they are using all of the same rolling and coiling techniques, then why not?


When I think about how my practice has changed over the last 30 years, this move from ‘activities’ and ‘topic’ planning to skills and experiences was by far the biggest and most uncomfortable shift in my thinking. But it is the one that has made the most significant impact on me as a practitioner and the potential for children’s learning.


Now that we are thinking about creating a Covid safe environment, an approach that is more skills and experience based rather than activity based lends itself to this sort of planning. Many settings have reduced the number of areas of provision that they have made available for their children and also had to think again about some of their resources.


If you are creating an environment that constantly reflects the needs of your children then you will be observing, reflecting and then making sure you establish areas of provision that will support and extend children in their future learning. A good question to ask yourself (and your team) is ‘why have you chosen those areas of provision?’ Are they based on assessment, observation and children’s interests or do you have them because you have always had them or because they are linked to your topic or theme?


Once you have established which areas of provision have the potential to really engage your children in their learning, then you can start to think about the resources that you put into each area.


To help practitioners think about resourcing, I often get them to refer back to the Characteristics of Effective Learning. These characteristics should underpin the resources that you have in place and will help to ensure that they are not too narrow or topic focussed.


So, in any area that you set up, do the resources allow your children to play and explore? In simple terms, do the children want to play with them? Are they interested? Also, is there potential for them to explore their learning. Are the resources open ended enough for different children to interpret in different ways? If they are too narrow, then it is unlikely that the majority of children will want to engage with them.


Do your areas of provision promote active learning? We ideally want spaces where children will want to engage and keep trying, even when things get tricky! Once again, if the resources in the areas that you create are linked to interests and exploration then children are able to interpret them in ways that link to their own unique preferences.


And finally, do your areas of provision create opportunities for children to be creative and critical thinkers? These are areas that support children in being solution finders, strategy developers and encourage resilience. If an area of provision has only one possible outcome or requirement like ‘make a jungle mask’ or ‘paint a self-portrait’ then we are limiting the possibilities of exploration, problem solving and strategising (not to mention engagement). If instead children are encouraged to ‘cut, stick and join’ or ‘paint using a variety of media and tools’ we open up endless possibilities for learning.


We are unique people, working with unique children in some very unique circumstances that are going to test our ingenuity, creativity and resilience. There will undoubtedly be lots of challenges ahead but we must also look out for the opportunities to use this disruption to our normal practice to re-evaluate what we do and improve it.




Alistair Bryce-Clegg
Alistair is an award-winning Early Years author, blogger, product designer and advocate of PLAY. His work has been published in a number of books and magazines and he has worked as an Early Years advisor for film and television projects. Alongside support and training for a range of settings and schools, he also works Internationally and with Local Authorities across the UK. Most of his time is spent supporting practitioners in their settings or delivering key notes and training both nationally and internationally. Alistair has an MA in Education and is currently studying for his Doctorate in Early Years. He also finds time to be a husband to Fee and father of 3 boys (now young men!).

Edited by Jules

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