A number of new entrant teachers I’ve spoken to lately have been exploring how they can best support inquiry learning with children new to school. Some have found the more traditional inquiry methods don’t seem to work so well with this younger group of children. So, they are interested in finding alternatives to supporting children’s thinking and creativity, while encouraging them to delve more deeply into ideas, concepts, and topics. At the same time, they are interested in supporting children’s transitions to school by making more connections to their prior-to-school experiences from early childhood education and home.
The New Zealand Curriculum (NZC) gives some guidance here. It states:
The transition from early childhood education to school is supported when the school:
- Fosters a child’s relationships with teachers and other children and affirms their identity;
- Builds on the learning experiences that the child brings with them;
- Considers the child’s whole experience of school;
- Is welcoming of family and whānau.
This new stage in children’s learning builds upon and makes connections with early childhood learning and experiences. (MOE, 2007, p 41)
Building on and making connections
Let’s break down these ideas from The NZC a little, particularly the ideas about learning building on, from, and connecting with, prior learning and experiences. What are the experiences and learning children bring with them?
For many children, part of this prior-to-school experience and learning has occurred through their participation in early childhood education. But, what does this mean?
If we assume a child has participated regularly over an extended period of time in a quality early childhood education setting, we might expect they have experienced an environment where play is the valued mode of learning. It’s highly likely that their interests, goals, and strengths, developing learning dispositions and working theories will be central influences for programme design on a day-to-day basis.
They will have experienced a modern learning environment — most early childhood settings have never known any other way. Everyday they will have had significant periods of uninterrupted time with other children and with teachers. This time will have allowed opportunities to develop short and long-term, personal and group projects and inquiries that will have emerged in response to both spontaneous and planned experiences.
Inquiries and projects in ECE
Examples of inquiries and projects I’ve seen in early childhood education settings include:
- Investigating whether or not volcanoes erupt on purpose
- What lives under the ground
- How water travels and where it goes
- What’s inside a rock
- How to catch the wind.
These investigations aren’t topics selected by the teachers in advance, but rather, responses to the everyday wonderings of children that emerge through rich play tasks. Teachers have the critical role of both fostering and encouraging these inquiries — by way of their minute-by-minute interactions with the children, as they listen carefully to children’s emerging ideas, questions, ‘soft-spots’, and fascinations — as well as planning possible opportunities and possibilities to stretch the ideas and grow the learning.
Not every child’s experience
While I know many early childhood teachers would concur with this view of how teaching and learning happens in their place, this is only a snap-shot of what a child might experience in a quality early childhood education setting. However, it’s important to acknowledge that this won’t be the experience of all young children starting school. Nevertheless, building on children’s known modes of learning, and on what children find interesting, will go some of the way to supporting continuity for children and engagement.
So, with all that in mind, I have a couple of suggestions as to what entrant teachers might like to try out in their classrooms:
Suggestion 1 – Embrace play as a legitimate and powerful mode of learning
Sometimes play is described as informal learning, but be assured play is learning, and there’s a plethora of evidence to say this is so. Of course this isn’t a new idea but many countries around the world value this form of learning for young children (over other more formal forms of learning) for much later in a child’s life than we in New Zealand do.
A recent article featured in the New Zealand Herald, “All work and no play”, illustrated the interest by some schools and parents in this country to introduce formal learning to three and four year olds. This position contrasts sharply with that of the Too much, too sooncampaign in the UK that includes calls from leading academics to wait until children are seven years old to start formal learning. Interestingly, this campaign draws on the research of Dr Sebastian Suggate whose Otago University study found children who learnt to read at five years old were no more successful at reading than children who started reading at age seven.
Play is real learning too
Play isn’t some sort of soft approach before the ‘real’ learning begins. That idea is a hangover from education’s industrial era. Play has been consistently described across time as central to cognitive, language, cultural, and social development. Lev Vygotsky said that ‘In play a child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behaviour; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself. As in the focus of a magnifying glass, play contains all developmental tendencies in a condensed form and is itself a major source of development.’ (Vygotsky, 1978, p 102). He believed it was incorrect to conceive play as being without purpose. He considered that play as supporting the development of a child’s cultural knowledge that helped frame future learning of the child(Drewery & Claiborne, 2013).
I’m really confident that play is also the preferred mode of learning for young children. They get it. Play is what young children do. It’s what they know, and they are good at it.
More space, more time
There is some significant work happening in schools where teachers are creating greater space and time for play in their classrooms. However, my challenge to new entrant teachers in particular is to take it further. What I mean by this is, teachers should dedicate more regular times to it and use these opportunities for rich and complex learning.
Often, times for free-choice play (outside of morning tea and lunch time) are activity-based and provided in a small window of time, and are limited to the likes of one morning a week. This play is much more contained and constrained than what young children coming to school are used to. I acknowledge it’s not easy to find more space and time, especially with so many expectations on both children and teachers. But, I’ve seen plenty of teachers push back on these pressures, and they report having happier, more engaged children. They’ve also had less behaviour issues to deal with. Interestingly, these teachers are more energised and happier too.
While ideally there would be more regular and longer periods of time for children to become involved in complex, creative play, I believe it’s almost more important to be aware of who is designing what goes on during this time. More often than not this play is set up around adult-determined activities. While many of these activities are familiar to children, they don’t necessarily encourage the more complex inquiries that children are used to. Which is where my next suggestion comes in.
Suggestions 2 – Let children’s ideas and interests do more of the driving.
While many children enjoy learning through tabletop activities, or choosing from a range of a choices on offer, there are richer possibilities for how this time and play might be used. When adults listen to children’s working theories, interests, and passions, and use these to design complex and connected-learning opportunities, they effectively put children in the driver’s seat: the authentic ideas of children become the important questions to be explored.
By allowing children space and time to play they will show you what they know, what they are capable of, and what they want to learn about. Through play they explore and express their ideas, interests, and passions — but you need to listen to these carefully to know what to pick up on. Here you will find a bottomless pit of material for designing richer, more authentic, interest-centred inquiries and projects where children are engaged in complex thinking, expression, and exploration. Trust me. You’ll be overwhelmed with choice of what to delve into with children, and believe me when I say that the ideas they are interested in exploring are more interesting and compelling than any topic or activity we could dream up.
To get to this space, some teachers will need to become more attuned to children’s interests and passions. It will mean allowing children to hold a bit more of the power.
Examples from ECE
If you’d like to get a sense of some projects and inquiries of children in early childhood education settings, go to these links:
- Starting with photos (PDF)
- The mosaic project (PDF)
- So, what is camping? (PDF)
- Exploring local history (PDF)
- From costume designer to movie director (PDF)
- A business venture (PDF)
Drewery, W. & Claiborne, L. (2013). Human Development: Family, place, culture. Sydney: McCaw-Hill Education (Australia).
Ministry of Education (2007). The New Zealand Curriculum: The English-medium teaching and learning in years 1-13. Wellington, New Zealand: Learning Media.
Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind and Society. USA: Harvard University Press.