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Putting the theory into practice

The internet has transformed the way that we are able to share our practice as Early Years Educators.

When I first qualified to teach I was given a subscription to the monthly magazine ‘Infant Educator’ and it was through that publication, once a month, that I was able to catch up with a very limited view of what was going on in the world of Infant Education.

Now, I can literally spend hours of my life getting lost in blogs, websites, Facebook pages, Twitter and Instagram accounts all over the world, all celebrating and sharing theory and practice around Early Childhood Education.

Whilst this unlimited access brings with it a huge amount of positives, it also can be detrimental. We do live in an ‘Insta’ generation where a very staged and sanitised version of our practice and environments is held up as being what we all should aspire to.

If it is not backed in organic hessian, mounted on fallen oak furniture and enhanced with loose parts foraged from the forest floor, then can it really be quality Early Years? Well, yes it can!

natural resources.jpg

Quality Early Years practice comes from an understanding of child development and also a belief that children should play the principle role in leading their learning. What we do and how we do it is built on centuries of theory, research and successful practice. Sometimes I think social media encourages us to view our profession through an ‘image’ based lens, rather than a practice based one.

One of my most over used phrases (and I have a lot!), is ‘What is your expectation of play?’ You can never guarantee how a child will play or react with any resource that you provide for them, but I always think that it is useful to consider what a child ‘might’ do with the provision that you have made available for them.

If you are talking about cold countries with the children and you might give them some Tuff Spot Small World provision in which you have put some Insta Snow (or salt and glitter if you haven’t got the budget for Insta Snow), some acrylic cubes that look like ice, some plastic penguins, seals and polar bears, maybe an upside-down yoghurt pot as an igloo and some Inuit figures, It would definitely be Instagram/Pinterest worthy. But it is worth considering what you expect the children to do with those resources in their play. Do you expect them to re-enact a day in the life of an Inuit? Are they going to talk about the primary habitat and diet of a polar bear? Possibly, but not likely!  So, does that provision support children in developing the skills of Small World play or does it actually limit their opportunities to play because the focus is too narrow, and their knowledge base is too small? Are we giving children an opportunity to reflect their own learning preferences, identity and culture?

A good starting point is to think about why you have a Small World area, or opportunities for Small World play at all. Why is it important for Early Years children to have opportunities to engage in this sort of play and what skills and experiences are we keen for them to develop? Once we have begun to consider these questions in relation to all of our areas of provision, then we can begin to reflect on the sort of resources we provide and how much they facilitate or potentially stagnate opportunities for learning.

The more open ended the resource provision is, then the more opportunities for interpretation there are. This can allow for maximum engagement from children and create endless opportunities for adults to observe, scaffold, enhance and teach within the learning space.

Sometimes the least ‘Pinterest worthy ‘set up can give the maximum opportunity for learning.

Although how children play has changed in lots of ways over past generations, the development of their play and thinking hasn’t. Technological advances and children’s increasing access to smart devices have meant that a lot of the ways that children learn has a heavy reliance on technology. But this cannot be at the expense of experiential play and interaction that gives meaning to the world that children inhabit and helps them to make sense of it.

Ready for mixing.jpgMixing 1.jpgThe current UK education system does not seem to recognise all of theory and research that points to play based development as being the most important and successful methods of learning for children. Increasingly Early Years practitioners are forced down a route of ‘formal’ learning that is developmentally inappropriate and that will cause long term damage to children’s wellbeing and development.

It is important that as practitioners we actively push against this pressure (easier said than done, I know), whilst promoting effective play based learning and development.

What we need to do is to take our inspiration from the great thinkers and philosophers of our time like Froebel, Steiner, Montessori and Malaguzzi and apply their work to our education system today. Mixing and pouring.jpg When Maria Montessori was developing her theories and practice she did not do so in the educational climate and culture of 2018. She could not have foreseen how society would change and develop in the decades after her death, yet many of her theories are popular and have longevity because they actively support the stages of child development and are transferable between continents, cultures and education systems.

You might see the tag ‘Montessori Inspired’ attached to lots of images of Early Years environments and activities, this for some has come to mean the use of natural resources or filling your space with blonde wood furniture. Whilst Montessori has no doubt ‘inspired’ that approach through her belief in children learning through their exploration of the natural environment, it doesn’t represent the depth of her core thinking, the thinking that will really make a difference to our practice and their learning.

Because of the pressure that many Early Childhood Educators are under from parents, senior leaders, Local Authorities and the Government, it is easy to end up with a system of education that has a core of formal instruction and developmentally inappropriate expectations with a veneer of Early Years theory that is #montessoriinspired. 

It is increasingly difficult for us to have the time or the freedom to do what a lot of us feel we ‘should’ be doing as we are drowning in paperwork and bureaucracy. Whilst it is important that we ensure as Early Years educators we have a voice that is heard especially when the Government are making fundamental decision like the appropriateness of testing four year olds or launching their vision for a ‘Bold Beginning’! It is also imperative that we use the information that is at our disposal to help us to understand and inform our practice, to see what thinking we can share with educators from the 1600’s like John Locke. Even way back then Locke was a pioneer for child led learning, recommending that adults didn’t stop children’s play or engage them in learning tasks they may find ‘irksome’!

Although Locke was writing for a different time his observations and beliefs were linked to fundamental truths about child development that in turn influenced the thinking of other pioneers such as Frobel, Montessori and ultimately us! It is being able to interpret and apply those threads of thinking that will help us to find a route through the current climate.

We need to become familiar with the thinking that has gone before and combine it with current research about child development and, importantly, our own experience of working with children. 

The best way to get to know children is to observe them in their play. Time and again you will see common stages of development combined with unique preferences and interests for learning. If we can use our knowledge of child development and capitalise on children’s individual passions for learning, we have a winning combination.

If we are too structured and narrow in our view, we can end up with a developmentally inappropriate approach to teaching and learning that will result in children being demotivated rather than inspired. 

Motivation to learn can come from open ended opportunities for investigation and discovery. It can also come from planned events and adult intervention. Ideally children need opportunities from a wide selection of both and not just from opportunities created by an adult. 

There is nothing more motivating for some children than the thought that they have discovered something no one else knew, something that they are discovering for the first time, forging ahead with their own learning.
It is not only the environment or the resources that will promote effective learning, but the theory and understanding that underpins them. 

We absolutely should create beautiful and inspiring spaces for our children to play and learn in. Spaces that motivate them, encourage them to be creative and critical thinkers and allow them to explore the world around them through play. Our ultimate aim is to interest and inspire them and to give them the opportunity to rehearse skills for life.  

As Early Years practitioners, we are in a unique and privileged position to support children in their social and emotional growth as well as their learning. This is undoubtedly a complex journey for both children and practitioner.

In our everchanging social and educational landscape, we need to look back for inspiration to past theories and philosophies and apply what we learn to our current context. If we add to that the amazing opportunities that technology brings for us to learn and share, we will be able to forge ahead with amazing practice that will promote the very best outcomes for all of our children.


These articles about educational pioneers are on The Foundation Stage Forum for you to read:

Maria Montessori

Loris Malaguzzi

John Dewey

Rudolf Steiner

Friedrich Froebel

Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi

Jean-Jacques Rousseau



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 Rebecca

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