Jessica Gosling, founder of Step to Pre-school, has years of experience teaching in both the early years and primary schools, in the UK and internationally. In this blog, she talks about how her recent experiences of running a stay-and-play parent and toddler group has brought new opportunities for learning, and how children are never too young to engage in child-led learning through play.
Today I had an epiphany. One of a few in fact, which has come in my current practice. I have opened my own Early Years parent and toddler class, where I specify the maximum students, the resources, the environment and, for my part, the interactions.
I am currently researching how best to facilitate optimal learning for very young children, paving the way for my development and understanding. In fact it’s a little bit ‘I’ but a lot of collaboration with the participants in my sessions.
Prior to working in this setting, I had been a teacher, with a minimum of eighteen but often as many as twenty-eight children to keep on task, ensure they were learning what they should - what I had been told they should. Always in this fast-paced environment, it was what’s next? What’s next…? On overdrive in my head and vocalized by my children. At this feverish pace, I felt I did not observe the children as I should, or really get to ‘know’ them. The first parent’s meeting would take place and yes I could talk about how I had tested the number recognition and so and so could count to twenty… but what did I really know about them?
"...yes I could talk about how I had tested the number recognition and so and so could count to twenty… but what did I really know about them?"
My current setting, I’ve come to realise, has been about learning from others. The class size is small, between 6-8 children with one parent or carer per child. I have encouraged carer feedback which has been fantastically helpful in improving the sessions. I received feedback which I knew already, but I was dissapointed that I had failed to change. However, I needed someone to say something, to make the change.
Let me explain. The session comprised of two circle times, at the beginning and end. This is how a pre-school setting I had attended with my daughter had scheduled their circle times. Traditionally, in teaching, a lesson has a ‘starter’ and a ‘plenary’. However with my group of little ones, the children often did not want to sing and dance in that second circle time and would show me this by leaving the circle. Stuck on what I had observed and practiced for years, I had acknowledged it but had not changed the schedule. I tried to bring the children in the circle or pick them up to dance with me (as other parents also did). Children, being fabulous, would humour us but would often suck their thumbs, lean their heads into their carer’s shoulders.
Anyway, a parent had shared this issue with me. Her child preferred to look at the animals on the walls than join in the dancing. As I was introducing teeth brushing after snack at the end of the session, I thought this a good time to adjust the session. With snack including stories and teeth brushing, this was - in my view - long enough for children to be seated. Thinking the issue through, I decided to include the songs in the first circle time.
"More and more, as I have time to reflect and alter my practice, I am amazed by the ability of young children to show us the way to help them learn."
However, as the children were enjoying games, it was obvious in my first session that to start singing and dancing after playing several games in the circle would just be too long for children to be kept back from activities and free-play. As a responsive practitioner (and one keen to keep any adult-directed teaching to the minimum) I did not want to lose their focus, so I did not use the songs.
I felt a little disappointed about this. I knew some of the children loved the songs and dancing. Toward the end of the session, I looked around the room and noticed one child bending her knees, dancing and smiling. Her carer was singing a song to her. I rushed over with speaker and a song and we began dancing and singing. As I looked around the room, the children in free-play were looking over and came to join in, smiling and laughing. There was my answer, and presented by a child. Dancing and singing doesn’t need to be contained in a circle time. Why not do it when children are motivated, then if they choose to join in they can. She showed me what I needed to ‘see’. More and more, as I have time to reflect and alter my practice, I am amazed by the ability of young children to show us the way to help them learn. We just have to have the time, space, energy and inclination to ‘see’ it.
Jessica Gosling is the founder of Step to Pre-school and has years of experience teaching in both the early years and primary schools, in the UK and internationally.