I’ve been asked on numerous occasions why I love teaching in the Early Years; what makes it special? I’m not sure people expect, or want, a lengthy response or a detailed anecdote about rearranging chairs to look like the inside of an aeroplane and going on an imaginary adventure to the rainforest… but it’s very hard to capture in just a sentence.
In Nursery and Reception at Coleridge, children spend the majority of their time playing and pursuing their own interests. They have access to any resources they wish to use, they can play inside or outside, and their games can take any direction they like. This is real play: it’s child-initiated and restricted only by rules about safety and respecting others, and it’s how young children learn. When children demonstrate a high level of involvement in what they are doing, their brain is at its most active, and this is when progress occurs.
As a result of this child-led learning environment, the role of a teacher or teaching assistant is varied and unpredictable. We spend our day observing children playing and joining in with their games, assessing what they can do, and planning interactions with them which will move their learning on. This is done on a moment-by-moment basis because children are immediate. If they want to know how something works, they want to know now; if they want to tie a knot in the string around their tiger mask to stop it from falling off and ruining their game, they want to do it now: and so we capitalise on their moment of curiosity and enthusiasm to teach them what is relevant to them at that time.
These moments occur many times every day for every child. One of the greatest privileges of being a teacher is seeing the progress children are continually making in all areas of learning, and seeing our own role in this: encouraging them, demonstrating how to do something, explaining something or modelling language, asking questions and introducing new ideas. Often these successes don’t produce concrete or tangible results, but the process of learning has still undeniably taken place and is clear to see.
In recent times (perhaps un-coincidentally since the Bold Beginnings report was published by Ofsted last year), I keep hearing of schools where the decision has been made to formalise the Reception year and force children into adult-led, structured learning before they are developmentally ready for this. To us, here, this seems not only incredibly sad for the four year olds affected, but also extremely short-sighted.
While it is not difficult as teachers to pour information into children’s brains earlier and earlier so that we can tick off ‘what they know’, so much research tells us that there are many skills which can only be learned through play. Indeed, the World Economic Forum has released the very short video below to encourage play in order to produce future adults who are ready for the workplace.
Of course part of our job is to teach early Maths and Literacy skills to our children, but we choose to do this in ways which are meaningful for each child. That might mean that they learn addition whilst shopping in the role-play corner, or they learn how to write a sentence when they want to make a sign to ensure that no-one damages the tentacles on their jellyfish costume; by us joining in their play, we are able to help them to develop it and to teach them through it.
Many studies have been conducted into the correlation between an increase in mental health problems in children and the decline in play. If you are interested, Dr Peter Gray talks about this in more detail in his Ted talk, below.
When people walk into the Nursery or a Reception class at Coleridge, their prevailing comments are how happy, engaged and purposeful the children are, and we have many visitors – members of the Senior Leadership Team, parents and prospective parents, colleagues from other year groups, Haringey Early Years advisors amongst them.
A lot of emphasis in the Early Years is on encouraging children to form attitudes and develop characteristics of learning which will last throughout their lives. If we can support three, four and five year olds to seek challenge, take risks, make links between areas of learning and to reflect and try again if things go wrong, they will carry these attitudes with them in the future to become creative, resilient and adventurous learners.
As an Early Years teacher, you never know what to expect next. One minute can be spent pretending to be a police officer to help a group develop a role-play, the next leading a Science investigation into which materials float with a child who wants to make a boat. Exhausting? Yes! Worthwhile and rewarding? Definitely.
So the perception that all that children, and teachers, do in the Early Years is ‘just play’ is mostly true. And that is why our children are happy, confident and making excellent progress.