Every EYFS teacher has the same intention: using a child’s interests as a basis for planning. But actually doing it can be incredibly difficult.
Logistics is the main issue: discovering and then planning to meet the interests of every child requires huge teacher workload. We have a large number of children across a Reception cohort. They are all individuals with their own interests – yet we cannot produce multiple plans.
And if we are to tackle workload problems by sharing resources and planning together, as has been advised, the task gets even more difficult.
Are we trying to achieve the impossible here?
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Yet another problem is that it can lead to shallow learning.
When I joined my school as early years leader, I noticed that the children’s interests were already quite influential. The class environment featured Power Ranger figures, Disney books and superhero characters everywhere.
The team had also bravely made the decision to take a completely non-thematic approach, purely led by the children’s interests.
While this method was certainly child-centred, it was proving difficult to work with. We found that the "themes", particularly the more "commercial" ones, were too narrow to really offer depth to learning. They were lacking in concepts, vocabulary and key first-hand experiences.
We knew that we needed to address this, yet we also didn’t want to go all the way back to rigid topics. So what did we do?
We began with a team discussion about what we actually mean by children’s interests. We agreed on the definition: a strong intrinsic motivation that draws a child to particular type of play or concept.
We then identified multiple areas from which we might derive a particular starting point for planning:
- Commercial: an interest in characters from TV, films, comic strips etc.
- Experiential: a curiosity derived from a child’s key experiences – visits to hospital, the zoo, travelling on a plane.
- Thematic: a common early learning theme – eg mini-beasts, space, dinosaurs.
- Schematic: a repeated pattern of play behaviours identified as a particular schema.
Through this process, we began to realise that we could cater for children’s interests, but use them to complement rather than substitute one another.
We wanted to do this through a topic approach to knit everything together, but one less rigid than is traditional. We looked at training materials by Sally Featherstone and have adopted her principles of flexibility using topics, in which she advocates a more fluid pace and coverage.
So what does all this look like in practice?
We work with a "voting" system, which is a really fun and effective way to acknowledge the child’s voice in deciding on a new topic. The topics offered are influenced by recent interests or strong themes, which we feel would engage the children. The children really love this and there is lots of excitement at the beginning of a new topic launch through their involvement in planning potential visits, visitors, books or questions that they might like to explore.
We work much more loosely with this over-arching theme. We have a very flexible approach, running each for as long or as short as needed and really going with the flow by tuning into the lead of the children. Sometimes new experiences or interests can arrive and move the teaching in a different direction. We recognise that enhancements and activities don’t always need to match our topic, as long as they have purpose and are highly engaging.
Again, this has proved really successful.
I would say the key points of making this approach work are as follows.
- Thematic: try using "topic votes". Offer a limited selection of topics (two or three) followed with some mind-mapping, allowing children to generate questions that they might explore.
- Commercial: use popular cartoons, Disney characters, film, TV influences to "dress" areas and enhancements (eg pencil pots, notebooks, number cards).
- Recent experience or event: use talk times within keygroups to explore experiences. Provide related props or make changes to role play areas.
- Resource-based: use home-visits and discussions with parents to regularly adapt the learning environment. Knowing the types of play that best engage your children – Lego, trains, sand play, bikes – is crucial.
- Schematic: use longer observations to tune – in to children’s schemas in their play and reflect on the resources provided.
- Weather related: offer flexibility in planning to respond to changes in the weather. Planning can completely change to make the best opportunities of snow or flooding.
Helen Pinnington is early years foundation lead at St Thomas More’s Catholic Primary School in Bedhampton, Hampshire