Learning for life: curiosity and enthusiasm!

All the world is a laboratory to the inquiring mind.

Martin H. Fischer

I was reminded of this quote on a trip to Canada in February. The enthusiasm of children out in the deep snow reflected my own (snow-deprived living in East Anglia) excitement to get outside and play! I especially wanted to try out frozen bubble blowing (with temperatures forecasted to be -11 or lower).

Later in the trip, we visited the Royal Ontario Museum where children were exploring a woodland scene (see photo) – noticing tiny details and making links with their previous real-life experiences in the woods.

As practitioners we can cultivate our own curiosity and inquiring nature, to role model those effective characteristics of learning and communicate (without sometimes jaded adult eyes) that the world is indeed fascinating! When I returned to work, I was able to show children a time-lapse of a bubble freezing beautifully in real-time. The awe and wonder (and subsequent conversations about how we could do it again) reaffirmed the notion that working in early years is a little bit magic.

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Continuity: supporting learning between home and setting

It is so important to recognise parents as children’s first and most enduring teachers – we may be experts on child development but they are the experts on their own child! Together we have a far more profound impact than working in separate silos.

A recent example was a blog post I published for my nursery talking about a sunflower activity the children had been enjoying. It referenced the prior learning (investigating decay in the autumn term), encouraged families to watch a time lapse of a sunflower growing together and reminded them of a facility we offer to print photographs from home for children to share. As the children had planted two sets of seeds (one for home, one for nursery) it created a tangible link. Our children absolutely love sharing their home experiences with their friends and staff – they eagerly tell me how big their sunflower is (“it’s almost as tall as daddy..!”) and tell me how they’re helping it to grow (“water, but not too much – just right!”). Parents also join in these conversations – sharing their expertise (we have a few green-fingered carers who know far more about effective growing than we do!) and telling us funny tales about little people remembering at bedtime that they haven’t watered their sunflower so going out in their pyjamas and wellies with a watering can.

Learning and understanding: perspectives and experiences

This kind of continuity between home and setting has also been supported by our “What Does Your Day Look Like?” book. We created a sheet with prompts to enable our pre-school children and parents to share what their world looks like – from the special routines they have when they wake up to what mummy and daddy’s lunch times look like when they are at work (a tricky concept for little people that is sometimes tied up with anxiety – what does “going to work” mean? What does “work” look like – is it a place or an activity – or both!?).

The prompts are open-ended so parents and children can decide what is the most important for each section. Staff completed example ones to get the ball rolling – some chose to draw their day, some used photos, some used text. We made the examples diverse to showcase no one way is best or preferred. Completed pages go in to a special A3 book of experiences – children are able to return to review this book (similar to their “All About Me” photo albums) with their peers or Key Person.

This is also lovely if they’re having a tough day and are feeling a bit wobbly; being able to say “that’s mummy’s lunchbox, she’ll be having her lunch now too – just like you. After lunch, mummy will collect you because you’re going to the park – see, just like the photo?” is a lovely bit of reassurance and containment to help remind children of the day’s routine (now, next) and that mummy is doing similar things elsewhere, but will return.

By valuing children’s lived experiences – in all their wonderful diversity – we hope to celebrate and champion their perspectives and ways of being. This also links to the funds of knowledge research that I feel is vital for early years practitioners to empathise and make meaning for children within the educational setting.

Ask Kate: reclaiming the word ‘classroom’

I’ve recently been asked why I refer to our woods as the “woodland classroom” and why I insist on calling our infant unit a classroom too. The question had overtones of “let children be children” but actually, my reasoning for using the phrase “classroom” to describe the environments my pupils spend their time in is both full of reverence for the importance of early childhood experiences and an attempt to communicate that.

This is not about schoolification, this is about reclaiming the word ‘classroom’ to communicate in a way that is readily understood by laymen that children are learning in my setting. Babies, toddlers and older children are learning (through play!) all the time, in all environments (even when you don’t want them to!) – and the word classroom in its purest form is a place where you learn, gain experiences and engage in experiences. Yes, my pupils also benefit from warm, responsive staff in classroom who carefully scaffold their learning – but we also have the ethos that no child can grow and learn until they feel safe and secure first.

In the same way that Forest School uses the semantics of the word ‘school’ to communicate the important ‘work’ (Maria Montessori definition) children undertake within that space – so I use words to raise the profile of the incredible development, growth and tenacity my children exhibit every day in my classrooms. Until early childhood is universally understood to be vital and foundational to all other learning (tied up with early years profession’s perception, worth and value – I suspect!), I use the words that communicate this.

Let me know your thoughts on this – do you have particular words in your setting that you use for their wider meaning rather than their perceived restrictions?