Peering out of the office window on a cold and drizzly morning, I notice a group of Reception children. They are outside talking and gesturing frantically, gathered around an assortment of grubby-looking trikes.
Intrigued about what all the commotion is about, I pick up my coat, stick on my gloves and venture out to observe an early years lesson – a daunting prospect for many senior leaders in primary schools around the country.
If you have limited early years knowledge and expertise, you may feel slightly perturbed about evaluating the role of the adult in supporting play during child-initiated learning time. You may not even have a firm grasp of what it involves – certainly many can misunderstand how crucial the teacher role is and quite how much learning can take place in these scenarios.
But observers need to feel as confident in their early years observation and feedback skills as practitioners do being observed.
It is fundamental to understand exactly how early years practitioners support learning in the setting. Effective practitioners do far more than tend to young children. Within child-initiated learning time, the adult acts as an observer, co-player or extender and will, of course, move between these roles.
So what exactly makes for excellent teaching within child-initiated learning? Here are six steps I have identified, with each using the observation mentioned above as an example.
1. Is the practitioner listening carefully and tuning into the children?
I make my way to the race track area outside, I observe a teacher listening from a distance to a group of children talking confidently about how dirty the trikes have become. The teacher appears to be tuning in to the children’s ideas and thinking about how the conversation and play could be extended. Subtly, the teacher moves towards the group and poses one simple but hugely effective question: “What do your mum or dad do when the car is dirty?”
“They take it to the car wash!” replies Declan, with a grin.
Within moments the children have decided to source the bricks from the construction area to build a car wash.
2. Does the practitioner join children in their play and engage in meaningful interactions that enhance learning?
The teacher continues to extend the children’s play, prompting them to think about how many bricks wide the car wash will need to be. Enhancing play, rather than hijacking it, the teacher poses a second crucial question: “What else will we need to clean the trikes?” Without hesitation, two girls find a bucket and fill it to the brim with water from the outside tap. Hurrying back, they ask the teacher whether there are sponges in school.
3. Does the practitioner value the children’s ideas and skilfully build upon them?
The children play for several minutes, washing the trikes diligently removing the dirt and grime from the tyres. Giving time for play to evolve, the teacher observes children role-playing as customers and car-wash attendants. After several minutes, the teacher crouches down to a car-wash attendant and asks a salient question: “Aren’t you going to charge to wash these cars?”
4. Is the practitioner supporting the children’s play rather than taking over?
Running to the writing hut, never willing to miss an opportunity, Seth reaches for a clipboard and pencil. After a lengthy discussion among the children, it was decided that customers would be charged £7. With a little help from his teacher, reminding him not to reverse the number, Seth writes the number 7 on the clipboard.
“Stop right there, Miss – we are charging now!” the teacher says to the next customer.
Purposely modelling to the other children, the teacher asks the customer to read the price on the clipboard and accurately count the number of coins. Immediately, another child wants to be responsible for receiving payment for the coins and the teacher steps to one side.
5. Does the practitioner encourage opportunities for problem solving and sustained shared thinking?
As the play evolves, complications occur in the running of the car wash, and as a result, two enthusiastic children are keen to write a series of rules to support the smooth running of the venture. While the play continues, the teacher supports the children to identify the sounds in unfamiliar words and write them down. Through a range of fun, effective and skilled interactions, the teacher developed the quality of children’s play to a high standard. Number recognition, accurate counting and early writing were just a few of the key skills developed.
6. Is the practitioner making specific use of positive praise and offering effective feedback?
Both of these are crucial to encourage, build upon and develop play in the early years. There is no doubt about it – children are most engaged when adults play alongside them. And, by doing this, early years practitioners are able to gain an accurate view of what children are capable of doing and plan next steps effectively.
Tim Barber is an early years specialist for a local authority and former assistant head at St Thomas More’s Catholic Primary School and Preschool
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