‘Themes’ and ‘Topics’ have long dominated practice in the Early Years: ‘Ourselves’, ‘People Who Help Us’, ‘Mini-beasts’, ’Dinosaurs’; the list goes on.
As my understanding and interest in how young children learn and make sense of the world grows, fuelled enormously from my visits to settings inspired by those in Reggio Emilia, I would like to explore an alternative approach.
Sometimes these ‘topics’ or ‘themes’ aren’t selected; they’re just on someone’s planning and have been there so long that they are no longer questioned. In other settings adults have considered the kinds of things young children are interested in ‘Dinosaurs’ or familiar with ‘People Who Help Us’. But do these ‘topics’ really reflect the way children’s thinking and sources of fascination change on a daily basis? Do they support and extend the many connections they are capable of making and the challenges children set for themselves that we can play a vital role in helping them explore fully?
The more I read, the more I observe, the more I listen and the more I reflect, I’m sure that young children don’t think in ‘topics’ and their experience of the world is far more complex, rich and multi-faceted. Children explore ideas. They test them, they push them to the furthest extremes, they adapt, deconstruct and re-build them. This is the process of learning and brings about the many skills we often try to ‘teach’: concentration, resilience, stamina, collaboration, communication, development of fine and gross motor control and so much more.
‘Dinosaurs’, ‘Mini-beasts’ and ‘Ourselves’ offer wonderful opportunities to learn, but I wonder if we can discover them through more natural encounters?
I’ve been planting things in pots this weekend. I’ve planted seeds of many different sizes and, if I do my job well, in only a matter of days they will begin to change and grow into tiny seedlings. When I continue to care for them, they will eventually turn into delicious tomatoes, hot chillies, luscious lettuce leaves, crunchy courgettes, fragrant sweet peas and even more! If this isn’t magic at work I don’t know what is.
So, all this planting got me thinking about how to explore ideas of seeds with young children. How could I help them begin to understand the cycle of life that is a seed growing into a plant that itself produces seeds (in fruits) that can be planted?
Start with the fruit itself and ask ‘What’s inside?’. We refer to many fruits as ‘vegetables’ but plants such as tomatoes, courgettes, peppers etc. are fruits and are they’re all full of seeds! Showing children whole fruits that they can handle, smell, talk about, cut up, taste and create dishes of food with means their learning is grounded in meaningful experiences.
So, let’s imagine cutting up a red pepper. What sounds would we hear as we cut into it and how would this be different to other fruits we explore? When we open it up we are the first people in the entire world to ever see inside! We are scientists and discoverers! What do we see? What is inside?
Cutting up different coloured and different sized peppers would enable children to explore what is different and what is the same.
Taking the seeds out of the pepper and spreading them out would allow children to talk about the quantities they see rather than counting. Doing this allows children to develop their ‘subitizing’ skills where they notice that one group has ‘more’ and the other ‘fewer’. They might be able to extend his by judging whether it is ‘lots more’ or ‘only a bit more’.
So, what other fruits can use to ‘look inside’? Holding, smelling, cutting, tasting, noticing the size of the seeds and whether there are lots of just a few.
peas and beans in pods
Think of fruits that have very large seeds and those that have tiny seeds.
Taking our seeds and planting them. Looking up how to care for them. Capturing their progress using photographs taken by the children and string to compare the height changes each day/week. Beans, we know, are a great plant to grow due to their speed and resilience. Rather than having a seed per child, have more than enough so there’s lots to watch and compare and then share them out in the summer to plant at home in a pot or in the garden. (Writing instructions together for the families at home will be a very important job of course!)
But isn’t this just a topic about ‘Growing’?
So this all sounds like a topic on ‘Growing’ or ‘Living Things’ but I think it’s so much more. We’ve begin to explore the concept of ‘What’s inside?’, ‘How can we make food?’ and ‘How things change’. How can we continue developing these ideas rather than planning around a ‘topic’ that the children may very well have some interest in but doesn’t serve their day-to-day learning needs?
A schema common to most children’s development is that of ‘containment’. Whether it is putting objects into other things (car keys in wellies and toast in the video player was a favourite many years ago if I remember rightly with my charges) or indeed themselves into things (hiding, being ‘under’ tables, cloths, in boxes, making dens, wearing big hats…) we see young children engaging in this behaviour in many ways and using many props!
How could we develop and enhance this fascination with ‘What’s inside?’, what fits inside what, what it feels like to get ‘inside’ something that’s small, big, alone, with others? When I begin to think like this all of my years as an EYFS practitioner tell me that this is something my children will want to explore, to talk about, to share, to be imaginative with, explore emotions (excitement, anticipation, trepidation, cosiness, being in darkness, feeling tiny (in a church or other building with a large interior).
This is such a simple but relevant concept for every part of our lives. When we fill something, be it our coffee cup, a measuring spoon, the car with fuel, we are working mathematically to judge when something still has ‘space’ inside and how much. Sometimes we can see how much space there is and sometimes we can’t. Sometimes we use sound to help us (think about filling a bottle of water and how the sound changes as the water reaches the top). Often we are surprised how much or how little something holds or that two seemingly very different containers hold an equal amount. This exploration is the science of maths. We are learning the concepts, exploring important ideas and developing our ability to notice and talk about what is happening.
Finally a very different idea…
In Reggio Emila I bought an amazing book. A book written by the pre-school children pf Reggio Emila. In it they talked about how they were a part of (or ‘in’ ) the city of Reggio Emila. Reggio Emila was ‘in’ Italy and Italy was a part of the world. This sense of ‘belonging inside’ something bigger is one of the foundations of the approach; the environment and community are seen as the essential third educators (along with the school and the family). The pre-schools of Reggio Emilia are focused upon helping children be citizens of their community now and in the future and know that this is can be a hard role to play at times. It may sound like a very abstract concept to help a young child explore ‘What’s inside?’ involving developing an understanding that you are a individual part of something much bigger. What astounds me at every step during my visits to the pre-schools is, when adults plan to meet children’s needs based upon a deep knowledge of how young children learn, this is exactly how these young human beings view themselves.
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‘One of our EYFS Teachers has just attended this training and came back totally inspired and singing your praises. She said that she learnt more on this course than any course she has ever attended!’
C Magnocavallo Head of Maths, Chesham Preparatory School, Bucks
Thank you for showing us HOW to change. So many courses just tell us what isn't working but not how to go about addressing this. Your approaches make so much sense!
Just to say thank you again for 3 really brilliant talks at SGIS. We're a small school near Basel and we’d be interested in anything you’re doing nearby (Zurich way) so please let us know!