I must have the best job in the land. Revisiting a nursery class, I am stopped by a four-year-old, mum in tow, shouting: "Mummy, Mummy. This is the lady who showed us how to make giraffe legs." The previous week I had been working with her class, looking at focused practical tasks - the latest activities demanded by the national curriculum.
Focused practical tasks aim to extend children's skills and knowledge. So, as the nursery had just read the story of Old MacDonalds' Farm, we decided to use simple joining skills to make some of the animals.
Each child started with a piece of A4 paper. Could we make it stand up on its own? Some children realised that curving the paper into a cylinder shape would allow it to stand.
Then we tried another approach. We laid the paper flat and folded it lengthways. The children then drew five or more evenly-spaced marks on the folded section, then snipped or ripped along the lines, trying to stop at the fold. Folding the tabs in alternate directions then allowed the pieces of paper to stand up. One child suggested: "This could be the wall for Old MacDonalds' Farm."
They were familiar with using glue sticks, so the next step was to put some glue on the edge of the paper and roll it up into a tube, with the tabs all folded in the same direction to form feet. It was "a leg for the cow", or "a leg for the sheep". One child suggested: "We could use an egg box for the body."
As we were working, I realised how the structure of these focused practical tasks supported the Government's desirable outcomes for under-fives' learning. They were not a constraint - imposing the national curriculum on nursery education - but a valuable aid to support planning. These four-year-olds were listening attentively, solving simple practical problems, describing shape, position and size, talking about observations, selecting materials and equipment and handling them safely and appropriately.
The task built on the children's repertoire of skills, knowledge and understanding. The children had been safely introduced to equipment and new skills and had the opportunity to practise motor skills and co-ordination in work with materials.
The next task involved making bodies for the animals. I had turned some boxes inside out and re-assembled them, so they could be easily glued and painted. We talked about how two boxes could be joined together, which adhesives we might use and whether or not they would stay together. I showed them how to join the boxes using paper strips. They used my strips or cut their own to join body boxes to head boxes.
Apart from one boy who decided he had "worked really hard" and wanted to play on the computer, the class saw the focused practical skills as play, and continued with their model-making.
The four-year-old girl who had stopped me in the playground went home and asked if she could make a giraffe. The next day she brought in a beautiful giraffe, incorporating all the new techniques.
The play of a four-year-old could be described as what the curriculum order terms a "design-and-make assignment" - a chance to take skills and knowledge learned in focused tasks and use them in a more open-ended activity, one in which the child experiments and puts ideas into action without the constraints of time and direct instruction.
Knowledge of the national curriculum and the desirable outcomes enables teachers and nursery nurses to plan formal, structured tasks and balance these with the freedom of imaginative play. It is an ideal world and one we need to remind ourselves of when working with older children.
Unless the design-and-make assignment is supported by structured focused practical tasks, children are not equipped with the skills and knowledge to experiment and have fun.
Annette Bolton, formally advisory teacher in East Sussex, is curriculum adviser for design and technology in the London borough of Hillingdon.