The Early Years are so important for the development of every child’s potential!
The first five years of a child’s life are the most formative. This is the most active learning time for all children as they lay the foundations of language, thinking and feeling. The brain just soaks up information through the senses, rapidly absorbing habits and behaviours, laying down strong pathways for future development. Early Years’ practitioners are fully aware of the importance of their role in child development, and they try to work in tandem with parents and carers. Unfortunately they are also fully aware that many parents have not developed the essential parenting skills they need; and for many young children, their nursery and preschool experiences provide their basic security in their formative years.
These are precious years which can never come back – so let’s make the most of them! Let’s be sure we give all children the best start in life!
I would like to share my thoughts with both parents/carers and Early Years practitioners through this article.
How can we develop all children’s thinking?
Every child is born with huge natural brain capacity for thinking and solving problems, but this wonderful capacity needs to be trained from the word GO! All the dendrites that convey messages through the brain are already there but they need to be activated through rich learning experiences. These rich experiences first reach the brain through the senses, and as language develops these experiences are verbalised and consolidated. I find it amazing when a newly born baby clutches a finger laid gently into her tiny hand – the first handshake! A baby’s first smile in response to a parent or carer is open and trusting and is reflected in his eyes, often with an innate sense of fun! A baby’s first word is the response to the deep human need to communicate!
Thinking and feeling go together
Thinking and feeling are two sides of a coin. Throughout our lives we think best when we feel good about ourselves and this gives us confidence to try new things. Even as adults we often say, ‘I’m so anxious I can’t think straight!’.
The need for self-confidence forms the bedrock for young children’s learning. And a safe, stress-free home life with rich experiences and shared playing and talking should be the first place where the brain’s network of fibres are activated towards positive outcomes. Of course children need a fair discipline – it is never too early to learn that there are ground rules of acceptable behaviour, and that although everyone has reasonable rights – they have responsibilities as well.
Our parents/carers are our first teachers and their influence is powerful! Early Years settings working in tandem with the home, provide a richly stimulating place where young children learn self-confidence and experience a rich range of talk and play activities.
Time for talking and asking questions
Throughout our lives, we all straighten out our thinking through talking.The greatest gift we can give our children is not expensive toys, but our time for developing their language – sharing ideas, explaining, asking and answering questions. The brain is actively nourished with feelings and language when we talk to children about what they can see, taste, touch, hear, and smell. Walks along the river bank, through the woods, or along the seashore provide wonderful opportunities for using the senses to explore feelings, sights and sounds. Even the supermarket is alive with opportunities for discussing, choosing, planning; and even loading and unloading the trolley can be an exciting activity!
Although the television can be used as a source of stimulation, it is the talking about what is seen and heard that is important. Unless this talking happens, watching television becomes a very passive way of behaving – the television doesn’t ask or answer questions nor does it ask for active responses. In many ways, the television can be soporific! How often do we go to sleep in the middle of a programme?
It’s not a question of how much MONEY we spend! It’s a question of how much TIME we spend engaging actively with our children! Even a busy schedule can be organised to allow some talking and playing time.
Language – the basic building bricks for thinking
The basic tools for thinking develop with language.
Comparing and Contrasting
- The brain makes sense of the world by comparing and contrasting. The language needed for this are sentences like these: This box is bigger than that one, This lorry is heavier than that one, I’m taller than my sister, I can run faster than my baby brother. Basic thinking words like these are the tools that lay the foundations for logical, scientific and mathematical thought. When we analyse what words children need to use in adding and subtracting, for example, they need to understand the concepts of numbers being ‘greater than’ or ‘less than’. When children are doing simple science experiments that need them to measure, they need to understand concepts such as ‘longer than’ or ‘shorter than’, ‘thinner than’ or ‘thicker than’.
- Children also need the words for fine discrimination such as: This is a dog because --- That is a cat because --- This is the same because --- That is different because. Phrases like these lie at the very beginning of sorting and classifying ideas and giving reasons.
Reading story books and talking about the pictures using the language tools mentioned above, not only lays the foundation for reading but, importantly, develops the language and thinking tools that are essential for making sense of the world.
- Children need to be able to locate the position and state of things using sentences like "She is hiding behind the tree", "John is lying in front of the settee", "I am sitting in the middle", "I am swinging upside down", or "My jumper is inside out". Words like these allow children to put the things in their world in order and to develop the thinking tools for reasoning in space such as isneeded for understanding diagrams, maps, plans and drawings.Imagine trying to make sense of a plan without being able to use words like above, below, underneath, on top of !
- Young children also need to learn prepositions of time like first, next, then, last, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.These words are necessary for sequential thinking, putting ideas in order, and planning a sequence of events. How can we tell a story without using sequence words such as, "First the giant looked to see if there was anyone in the room, then he pulled his bag of gold out of his pocket and tipped it out onto the table. Next he slowly and carefully counted all the coins and, at last, he smiled the widest smile because he now had all the money he needed!"
- When we link ideas together, we use words such as but, sometimes, never, and always.These thinking tools lie at the base of being able to reason and discuss. For example, in discussing playground behaviour, we would hope that a child could express "We always go out to play, but we never open the gate because the road is dangerous."
The essential questioning words are What? When? Where? How? And the most important one --- Why? These questions feed a brain that is searching for understanding. They are the keys to a brain that is curious, that wants to find out, that wants to learn. A good question to ask children at the end of the day is "What good questions have you asked today?"
The vast range of thinking words enable children to sort out their world by building a network of language for forming ideas, explaining, describing, and communicating their thoughts. This language should develop as children are playing, talking about story pictures, going to the supermarket, going for a walk, tidying the kitchen, building a fantasy model from junk, cutting, pasting, making, drawing.
All children are born with the wonderful potential to learn, to be creative, to speak, to question: and the brain thrives on practical activities, talking about what is happening, being involved through all the senses.
Learning how to problem-solve
Modelling problem-solving behaviour is 'caught’!
Closely linked with the development of language, is the process of modelling problem-solving, with the adult first thinking these processes out loud, so that children ‘hear the adult thinking’. Children are wonderful mimics and they will copy everything their parents/carers and teachers do and say!
Children are young apprentices in life, and since adults seem so powerful, it is inevitable that children will copy speech, behaviour, responses and routines. How else can they learn? If we want to know what kind of parents/carers, teachers we are, then we have only to look at how the children behave at home and in our classes!
So it is important to model problem-solving behaviour and the language that goes with it. We must always remember that the brain has the potential to accomplish very complex problem-solving and that all children can improve their thinking. Intelligence is problem-solving and this capacity is not fixed in any individual.
TASC: Thinking Actively in a Social Context
I have spent all my professional life searching for and trialling a Framework for thinking and problem-solving that came to be called TASC.
Why TASC? Each letter has a wealth of meaning.
Thinking - We are all capable of thinking, and improving our thinking! Thinking makes us human, capable and caring.
Actively – We all need to be active and do our own thinking: no-one can do our thinking to us! We need to be involved and interested and to do our thinking for ourselves - but with appropriate guidance of course!
Social – We learn best when we can talk and work with others. We do a lot of learning when we share activities, testing out our ideas, listening to alternative ways of doing the task, often copying 'better’ ideas.
Context – The context needs to be relevant to our background and stage of development. We all learn when we understand not only what we are learning but also why we are learning and where it will lead us.
The figures above and below show the stages of the TASC Problem-solving Framework, and we need to practise the stages of the TASC Wheel with children from the earliest age! No-one learns to ride a bicycle after only one try; we need to practise until balancing and steering are automatic.
In the same way, we need to practise problem-solving, until the brain has learned the behaviour of an excellent problem-solver. We can use any topic or experience to work in the TASC way: simple things like planning a picnic, building a model of a house, building a den, making a toy, inventing a game, making a cake or a sandwich, can all be developed using the TASC Framework. Too often we do far too much for children. We need to balance out how much help they really need to get going, and how much they can do for themselves.
The greatest gifts any adult can give to a child are the self-confidence to try something new, the determination to keep at a task, the skills of language and problem-solving, and the understanding that they have a significant role to play in society.