Learning & Development: Independent learning - All by myself

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Provision to enable and challenge the youngest children to direct their own learning is carefully thought out at a centre visited by Nicole Weinstein.

It's 9am. Mozart music is playing in the background and Sam is sitting in the hanging chair watching the other children play. Cora is in the tent tending the dolls, Lucas is painting at the easel and Amelie and Aisling are in the garden watching the wrens nesting.

This is a typical after-breakfast scene at the baby room at Archway Children's Centre in the London borough of Islington. The children, aged 11 months to two years, toddle and crawl confidently between the quiet area, workshop space and outdoors.

Every detail in the baby room, from the selection of double primary colours in the paint pots to the adult-style drinking cups, has been designed to challenge the under-twos and promote their independence.

'We must have the highest expectations of very young children,' explains the head of centre, Nasso Christou. 'And we must realise that they want to learn. It's about accepting them as independent but social beings, listening to them and guiding their development. Babies are very capable.'


Her office is separated from the baby room by a floor-to-ceiling glass divide. Through it this morning, she can see the children sitting in their chairs for circle time. Staff are singing and signing while the children join in. Later, she will able to look out on them as they sit happily in their chairs, for about half an hour, eating their fruit.

Every effort is taken at the Centre to help the under-twos become independent, curious and confident learners. Ms Christou says, 'We know that our children have good verbal skills and high levels of concentration, they eat well, and they are calm and confident. By the age of two, the majority have been fully potty trained - and they know how to mix paint.'

She believes that the overwhelming need to protect young children can often hinder their path towards independence. Using the example of disposable nappies, she says, 'People say, "Paper nappies are more comfortable, they don't allow them to get wet, they can move better". But we must give children opportunities to learn about their bodies.'

The centre uses cotton nappies for environmental reasons and because they allow children to feel when they are wet and uncomfortable, which can result in earlier potty training.

Pushing the boundaries is part of the Centre's ethos. Ms Christou says, 'Within reason, the more you challenge them, the more they rise to it. What incentive is there for a child, who is playing the same games and having the same activities all the time, to develop and master new skills?'

This concept is rooted in the planning and carried through every aspect of the design, layout, outdoor space and activities.


The flexible space offers children the freedom to explore and make their own choices. They are surrounded by a calm, uncluttered space which provides lots of sensory experiences. There is a cosy area with a sofa, cushions and a hanging chair where children can sit and cuddle or listen to a story. The floor-to-ceiling windows allow the crawlers to look out on to the street, the garden and the other children. An adjoining room is used for sleeping and floor-play activities.

Most of the equipment is out of sight and stored in attractive drawers or wicker baskets. 'We redesigned the room last year because we believe that having too much on display can overstimulate children and prevent them from focusing,' says Ms Christou. 'Here, they learn where everything is and are able to make considered choices.'

Low units with sinks were installed in the toddler rooms, creating more surfaces for children to work on their constructions, 3D projects and paintings. 'We don't clear their work away before they've finished. It's not, "We've done that activity, let's clear up". They must be able to revisit it and extend their learning.'


At 11am the children begin their designated hour of outdoor play. Today they are in the toddler garden, which is set up with climbing equipment, a sand tray, balls, hoops, prams and bikes. It is partially covered, allowing children to use the imaginative play areas and the decking in bad weather.

Sam takes a walk on the 'path of danger', which has different textures and uneven surfaces designed to challenge and help develop co-ordination and balance. A stone area with rocks is being developed to provide additional sensory interest and offer more possibilities for play and exploration. Drought-resistant plants will be incorporated to promote children's awareness and curiosity about different growing conditions.

The under-twos have their own garden with a decked area for non-walkers, a vegetable plot and a wild area that attracts squirrels and nesting birds. Children can go in search of stones, twigs, seed pods and flowers.


There are four members of staff in the baby room. Barbara, the room co-ordinator, is studying for a Master's degree at the Institute of Education, Tina is qualified to NVQ level 3, and there are two support workers, Claudia and Gloria, both with unrelated degrees.

Staff plan group activities that they think will develop the children's skills and widen their interests. They introduce them to new experiences on a regular basis and ensure that these activities cover the whole curriculum in an integrated way (see box).

Ms Christou acknowledges that planning group activities for babies has become controversial. 'Many settings tend to only plan for individual children and base their plans entirely on what the child has shown an interest in. But babies are always eager to learn. Our approach requires staff to be observing, planning and evaluating continuously and intelligently.'


Back in the baby room, some resources are on display. Handmade boxes full of leaves and dried berries and boxes lined with fur, feathers and gravel, give children the opportunity to experience the world through their senses.

In the workshop area children have access to the sand and water troughs and an easel. The centre only buys paint in double primary colours and the adults do not mix the paints. 'We find that the children begin to explore and see cause and effect. By the age of three they are mixing paint predictably,' says Ms Christou.

Large sheets of black and white paper with chalk and paint marks are left to dry on the units. 'During mark-making activities, black and white materials are often used to encourage children to focus on the marks rather than the colours.'

It's 12am. The children are eating lunch with specially designed metal cutlery and drinking from plastic cups without spouts. After their nap they will enjoy an afternoon of free play with classical music in the background and staff ready to help them thrive in an inspiring environment.


On a visit to the Tate gallery in London, children in the baby room saw Matisse's 'The Snail'. After the visit, staff displayed a poster print of the painting, pictures of snails and real snails.

Children followed the snail trails with their fingers, made circles using different mark-making tools and looked at the colours in the poster. Two-year-old Max matched the different coloured sheets of paper provided with the colours in the poster.

The children learned to tear the paper and explored moving the shapes on the white paper and glued them down. As well as developing their creativity and imagination through this activity, they covered the following areas of the curriculum:

Working together and social skills by being out and interacting in public

Learning names of colours, talking together, listening and developing pen control

Sorting, matching and learning about shapes

Learning about snails, exploring materials - glue and paper

Fine motor control through tearing paper shapes.

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