Enabling environments: Let's explore ... Ourselves yesterday

Sheila Ebbutt
Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Go back in time for children to get a sense of themselves and to explore concepts with activities across the early years curriculum suggested by Sheila Ebbutt.

Naturally, children are interested in everything about themselves, and in how other people relate to them. There are so many ways the topic can arise.

You can look at families, at homes and houses, at larger and smaller families, at pets in the family, and at friends. You can start with the body and consider all the senses, and at the physical body and how it works. You can explore feelings and emotions, why we get angry and happy and annoyed. It all depends how you spark children's interests. This particular approach starts from the children's history.

Looking at children's history involves collecting stories about them. These stories will involve what happened to them yesterday, last week, last year, and then stories they know about their own families.

Sometimes it will involve looking at things - old things that children have at home, archive objects, and visiting museums and old buildings. Invite visitors in to talk to the children about their past and about their family's history, and to show photographs and objects to support their stories.

Clearly, all of this must be handled with great sensitivity. Some children may be shy or upset about aspects of their family. Children live in a variety of ways in families, and we should not have any expectations that there is a standard model. We must engender in children a sense of respect, interest and tact, and an acceptance of every situation as normal.

It is important to involve parents and carers in this theme about their history. It will go a long way towards finding out about children's current interests and about what matters to them.

By finding out about significant interests that a child, or several children may have, you can enhance your setting's continuous provision, by adding theme-based resources to this provision. Then children can choose either to engage with the theme or pursue their own interests and learning independently.

Graphics area

In this area, provide:

- a range of book-making materials, so that children can make marks about their experiences and history

- current newspapers and magazines with scissors so children can cut out stories they recognise, and note the date of the stories

- photographs of the children and their families, and access to a photocopier

- small, cheap, plastic photo albums

- digital camera

- plastic or metal boxes with lids that can be turned into 'time capsules'.

Developing empathy with others
Co-operation and collaboration
Talking for a variety of purposes
Writing for a range of purposes
Exploring and experimenting with sounds, words and texts
Observing and finding out about features of the place they live

Adult role

- Set up the idea of putting in a box a collection of things that someone will find one day (or they may open one day themselves). Encourage children to suggest what things to put into the box.

- Support the children in making books about themselves.

- Respond positively and value children's independent attempts at writing.

- Plan shared writing sessions based on children's ideas, to demonstrate writing strategies and to develop understanding of the relationship between spoken and written language.

- Support children in organising their photos into albums to put into the box.

- Children may want to include details about themselves, such as their height, a description of themselves, and a list of their favourite things. Support them in measuring each other.

- Support children in marking the date on the outside of the capsule.

Ask questions such as, 'I wonder what would be interesting to find in this time capsule?', 'What sorts of things would you like to find in a time capsule?' and 'What would that tell you about the person who made the time capsule?'

Setting up an outdoor archaeological dig

In this area, provide:

- sheets and clothes horses for making tents; tents that can be erected in the outdoor area

- broken pots and china (without sharp edges), bones and skulls, fossils, and other archaeological 'finds' to bury in the sand and soil area

- broken pot or plate (smooth edges) with patterns that can be put together again

- old clay pipes, old frayed books and objects, spoons, door knobs, necklaces, badges, and so on

- tools for digging, brushes for brushing away soil

- digital camera

- plastic bags and labels for identifying finds

- magnifying glasses.

Finding out about past and present events
Observing and finding out about features in the natural world
Recreating roles and experiences, engaging in imaginative play
Responding in a variety of ways to what they see, hear and feel
Using language to imagine and recreate roles and experiences
Using developing mathematical ideas and methods to solve practical
Recognising numerals 1 to 9

Adult role

- Work with the children to set up an archaeological dig. Decide together how the camp should be set up and what tools will be needed. Join the dig to an indoor 'museum'.

- Set up a box of soil and bury some old things at different places within it. Stretch over the top a large grid made of string. Children can note where they they have dug up different objects by marking the string with pegs or labels.

- Encourage the children to tell stories about the kinds of things they might dig up.

- Work with a group to brush some objects clean. Number, date and label them, and put them in bags as 'today's finds'.

- Take photographs of different pieces from the dig, and discuss what they are. Match them with pieces in the museum.

- Extend the activity into the 'museum'. Work with children to make brochures and labels for the objects in the museum.

- Pose questions such as, 'I'm sure we've seen this pattern somewhere else. What could this be part of?', 'Now I wonder what sort of door this old doorknob came from? It's quite small' and 'Is this photo the top of something, or the bottom, or the side? Can we find it?'

Setting up a museum

Role play area

In this area, provide:

- old objects that you and the children have brought in, such as old toys, kitchen utensils, clothes, coins, keys, old stones or shells from a family holiday, jewellery, shoes, games

- pens, pencils, large paper, labels, small books

- magnifying glasses

- hats for the guides

- tape recordings of children's stories about some of the artefacts

- guides that have already been made by children.

Adult role

- Share ideas about museums, what they are for, and what sorts of jobs people do there. Children may think of: guide, guard, cleaner, reception desk worker.

- Discuss people who organise exhibitions and galleries, prepare the captions, decide where things will go and so on. Introduce the name 'curator'.

- Talk about guidebooks and the people who write these.

- Work with the children to set up the museum. Include directions through the museum, plans, labels and captions on folded card. The items in the museum could be numbered. Support children in making decisions about how to organise the museum.

- Encourage children to treat the objects carefully and with respect.

- As children interest themselves in particular objects, encourage them to tell the story of the object. Scribe the story for them, or show the children how to record themselves on a mini recorder. Include these stories as part of the museum.

- Model the role of the museum guide. Take the role of visitor to be shown round.

- Help children set up a 'treasure hunt' round the museum.

- Ask questions such as, 'I wonder which of these two objects is older? What clues have we got?', 'What do you think they used this object for? Why is it shaped like this?', 'I'd like to look at this interesting object in the guide. It's number eight. Can you help me find it? Can you tell me all about it?'

Creative workshop

Children can choose an object from the museum and make detailed drawings of it from different angles. They can look more closely at the object with a magnifying glass. They can also take photos of the object. They can use this record to be part of their museum guide.

In this area, provide:

- pens, pencils, paints, large paper
- clipboards
- objects from the museum
- magnifying glasses
- digital camera.
Exploring and experimenting with sounds, words and texts
Looking closely at similarities and differences, patterns and change
Observing and finding out about features in the natural world
Exploring colour, texture, shape, form and space in two or three

Graphics area

Children can use this area to create museum guides, using the drawings they have made and the photos they have taken. They can also make labels for the museum artefacts. They can number the items, and number the pages.

In this area, provide:

- pens, pencils, large paper, labels, small books
- examples of museum guides
- access to a photocopier
- stapler
Using developing mathematical ideas and methods to solve practical
Recognising numerals 1 to 9
Beginning to form recognisable letters
Distinguishing between different marks they make
Using language to imagine and recreate roles and experiences
Finding out about past and present events
Using simple tools and techniques
Using tools and materials for a particular purpose
Singing songs
Learn some old songs, such as:
- My old man says follow the van
- Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do
- Soldier, soldier, won't you marry me
- My grandfather's clock

Sheila Ebbutt is director of maths specialist company BEAM. For information visit www.beam.co.uk


Tuning in

Making time to talk to parents and carers is an important way of finding out about children's current interests and about what matters to them. Such information helps practitioners to provide a curriculum that is both relevant and meaningful.

Having an existing interest in a particular theme means that children approach it with enthusiasm and expertise, giving them confidence and increased motivation to engage in the activities provided. Children can use this expertise best in carefully planned, open-ended learning opportunities without prescribed, uniform outcomes.

Enhancing provision

Any significant interest that a child or children may have should be explored by enhancing a setting's continuous provision - that is, by adding theme-based resources to the areas of provision that are available daily to children. These should comprise:

- role play
- small-world play
- construction play
- sand and water
- malleable materials
- creative workshop area
- graphics area
- book area.

By taking this approach, children can choose to engage with the theme, or pursue their own interests and learning independently. Adults need to recognise that children require a suitable length of time to explore any interests in depth and to develop their own ideas.

Adult role

If children's interests are to be used to create the best possible learning opportunities, the adult role is crucial.

Adults need to be able to:

- enhance continuous provision to reflect the interests of children

- use enhancements to plan meaningful learning opportunities across all areas of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS)

- know when to intervene in children's play - and when to stand back

- recognise that children need a suitable length of time to explore areas of provision to develop their own ideas

- model skills, language and behaviours

- recognise how observation, assessment and reflection on children's play can enhance adults' understanding of what young children know, and realise how these should inform their future planning.

Personal, social and emotional development
Communication, language and literacy
Problem-solving, reasoning and numeracy
Knowledge and understanding of the world
Physical development
Creative development


An obvious resource is a collection of photos of children as they have grown up to the age they are now, and photos of their families. There may be photos of incidents in children's lives that bring their stories to life, which you can attach to a group timeline, to show when different events happened.

Children can record their own stories. You could provide a historical role-play area, with items from a past time, for children to explore stories of times past. You could offer the makings of a museum of found objects. You could provide an archaeological dig in the sand area, and children may want to display the objects found in the museum. Children could make their own time capsule, and think hard about what to put in it.

To explore the theme of ourselves yesterday, have at the ready:

- photos of people and things from the past, photos of adults and children, old photo albums

- digital camera

- large sheets of paper and sticky tape to make a group timeline

- a range of objects, toys and artefacts from ten, 20, 50 years ago and more

- old newspapers

- old dressing-up clothes, furniture and artefacts for the role-play area

- broken pots and china (without sharp edges), bones and skulls, fossils, and other archaeological 'finds' to bury in the sand area, tools, tent

- plastic boxes with lids to make a time capsule


My Grandmother's Clock by Geraldine McCaughrean (Picture Lions) There is a grandfather's clock in grandmother's house, but it does not go. The hands on its big face never move. But grandmother doesn't need the clock to show the time - she says that there are so many other clocks telling her the time. She can count the seconds by the beating of her heart, an hour in the time it takes for the bath water to get cold, a week by the dust that settles on the grandfather clock, and a lifetime in birthdays, friends and in what you can remember.

The Grandad Tree by Trish Cooke (Walker Books) The changing nature of their apple tree, as it grows and goes through the seasons, reminds young Leigh and Vin of their grandfather, who is gone but lives on in their memories.

Just Like You Did by Marjorie Newman (Bloomsbury) This book is about a new baby in the family that George doesn't like. But the baby does things 'just like you did'. A novel way of looking at children's history of themselves and their own growth.

The Quilt Story by Tony Johnston (G P Putnam's Sons) The moving story of how a quilt was made - the quilt that links two generations and tells their story.

When Grandma Came by Jill Paton Walsh (Picture Puffin) When Grandma came to visit Madeleine, she told her that she'd seen a great whale, but she'd never seen anything as tremendous as her; she'd seen a kangaroo bounding, but nothing as bouncy as Madeleine.

Mockingbird by Allan Ahlberg and Paul Howard (Walker Books) A variation of an old lullaby in which family and friends promise the baby an assortment of presents.

Roxaboxen by Alice McLerran (Simon & Schuster) A book about a group of children who create an imaginary world on a rocky hill near their homes. They name the town Roxaboxen. The children gather the materials to build their houses and roads from what they find around them.

Ug by Raymond Briggs (Red Fox) Ug is a Stone Age child ahead of his time. He wants soft trousers, and he doesn't want to kick a hard stone around. This will give children a way of looking at how things have changed over time.

Stone Age Boy by Satoshi Kitamura (Walker) A modern boy trips and falls into a Stone Age world. He has to learn to live without all the things he's used to. What can this book tell us about how life was lived long ago?

The Museum Book by Jan Mark (Walker Books) Suppose you went into a museum and you didn't know what it was? What might you find there? There's lots of information and ideas here.

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