Engaging experiences, a generous supply of suitable resources and time for young girls and boys to enjoy what is on offer - all contribute to children's learning in early childhood. One significant contributor that is often overlooked is the example set by adults who are in a sustained relationship with children day by day.
There is a great deal of discussion within early years provision about what should be planned for young children. In instances where practitioners struggle to balance detailed, written plans with a flexible, responsive approach to the day's events, they may lack the energy to view themselves as a crucial part of children's learning environment. But practitioners are a vital resource and their spontaneous actions matter. So:
- - How do you behave to make a positive contribution to what young children learn?
- - How might you be more aware of the example you set to children?
Children, young and not so young, learn best by a combination of 'show-tell-do'. Thoughtful adults are sensitive to the balance between these three aspects.
- - Show - children benefit from being shown how to do something, like how to hold a magnifying glass. But 'showing' is not always about instruction or 'how to'. It is equally important that children observe practitioners taking the time to find missing jigsaw pieces and welcoming anyone who joins the search.
- - Tell - sometimes demonstrations need to be explained, for example, why it's important to position a saw in a particular way. Practitioners also need to share their knowledge - or their ideas about how to acquire knowledge - when responding to children's questions. What is important here is that practitioners' responsiveness 'says' clearly that the most interesting questions to research are those posed spontaneously by children, such as, 'How do worms get babies?'
- - Do - children need to be intellectually and emotionally, as well as physically, active. They need time and friendly encouragement to try a new skill or to become familiar with new resources. Practitioners need to participate as equal play partners, showing how much they value children's choice to play this board game or dig for that treasure.
THE POWER OF DIRECT IMITATION
Young children do not switch off their looking and listening skills just because familiar adults are not trying to teach them something. They absorb the subtleties of 'what to do here' because they pay close attention to adult behaviour within the normal day. So, even toddlers show by their accurate imitation that you regularly say, 'Whoops-a-daisy', for example. Older children may choose to use your phrase, 'Now that is impressive!' when they admire a friend's mural.
In my visits to nurseries, I encounter young boys and girls who show basic courtesy in a natural way. They say, 'excuse me' or 'can I have?' Three-year-olds already understand the give-and-take of this kind of exchange. These children spend their days with practitioners who consistently behave in ways that they wish children to emulate. (Some children are also fully supported at home by their parents.)
- - Children are not told, 'You must listen'; instead, they are shown what conversational turn-taking feels and looks like in practice - an approach that applies even to toddlers and babies. Their familiar adults show respect by listening and adding something meaningful to an exchange, rather than set questions that follow a prepared adult agenda.
- - Practitioners understand that social skills, such as sharing, are learned over time and helped by a well-resourced learning environment. Children are not reprimanded with a tetchy, 'Nice children would share'. Instead, the practitioners take the spontaneous opportunities in any day to model how to ask and wait your turn.
Sometimes, you might deliberately set out to guide a child, or a small group, in how to do something. The children will benefit from your thoughtfulness in how best to show, tell and break down a sequence into manageable steps. This is particularly important where technique and safety are in question - for instance, how to hold tools when walking them to where they are needed. However, young children also learn effectively when alongside an adult occupied with a task that interests the children. They will then choose to ask questions or request, 'Can I do that too?'
Take gardening, for example. Young children can be enthusiastic, and increasingly knowledgeable, gardeners. Here resources definitely matter - robust gardening implements that fit little hands and appropriate-sized watering cans or wheelbarrows are a must. But children learn so much from the example offered by a fully engaged practitioner who shows how to dig with care, looks carefully to tell the difference between weeds and wispy vegetables and follows sensible hygiene routines, without making the process boring.
CONSISTENCY WITHIN THE SETTING
Any kind of early years provision should have an environment in which children feel relaxed and able to gravitate towards an adult - or other children - engaged in something of interest. In such circumstances, children learn a great deal of direct value to them, and which may not have been specifically planned for that day. Learning is a subtle business; it is just as much about dispositions as it is about skills or aspects of knowledge, and again the adult as consistent role model is vitally important.
Young children should experience a consistent approach among all their familiar adults. Their closest relationship will be with their key person, but children will inevitably spend time with a range of practitioners within their setting, especially out in the garden or if the group operates within one large room. Consider then:
- - Do the practitioners in your setting find it enjoyable to be outside, even if you need to wrap up against the cold? Or do their actions, even words, communicate that the garden is boring or that nothing of interest happens on a local walk?
- - Does your team think time well spent stopping and staring at a ladybird? Do they find ladybirds interesting for many reasons - most of which the children will decide? Or do they think ladybirds are handy only because they can ask 'how many spots does it have'?
- - If something goes wrong, do practitioners in your setting give up? Or do they take time to look over their collapsed cardboard house - and maybe chat about what to try with the next version?
To ensure a consistent approach, managers need to be alert both to the individual strengths of their practitioners and the scope for improvement within their own team.
For example, if practitioners voice a concern like, 'The children could be kinder to each other', start by asking them for recent examples when children have seen or experienced acts of spontaneous kindness by practitioners to a child or fellow adult.
If the practitioners struggle to provide examples, it does not necessarily mean that adults within the setting are unkind, but that the team needs to talk about what kindness looks like in practice for young children.
If adults are unaware of their own actions, they are probably not alert to voluntary acts of kindness between children. Opportunities will be lost to say, 'That was thoughtful of you to help Polly at snack time' or, 'Thank you for making sure I was alright when I banged my hand'.
In the spirit of fairness - not to mention a basic understanding of how young girls and boys learn - nobody should expect young children to be patient or empathise if their familiar adults are often impatient or oblivious to children's feelings.
The senior team needs to make it clear that adult behaviour is a constant influence on children. It is important too that senior staff always act upon comments such as 'If only the children would/wouldn't ...'
Say a practitioner has complained about how much the children always shout at each other. Observing this practitioner might reveal instances when they shout across the room or raise their voice to a child. The manager should then share the findings of the observations, emphasise the adult's responsibility to be a positive role model, and repeat observations at a later date, when it's to be hoped, they will be able to give positive feedback on any improvements.
It is vital early years settings create an atmosphere where staff are aware of the example they set through their own behaviour. The Steiner Waldorf kindergartens put into practice the key principle that practitioners should be 'worthy of imitation' (Oldfield, 2009). This concept is valuable to early years practitioners, whatever broad approach they follow.
- Jennie Lindon is a psychologist and early years consultant. She has published over 30 books.
- Lynne Oldfield, 'All about the Steiner Foundation Stage', Nursery World, 6 August 2009
- Jennie Lindon, Guiding the behaviour of children and young people, Hodder Education, 2009
- Jennie Lindon, Reflective practice and early years professionalism, Hodder Education, 2010