Dull clock-watchers have no time to think

15th April 2005 at 01:00
Kate Lee says early years teachers should eschew guilt and slow down

It's 9.20 am, so it's time to take the register. If it's 10.30 am, it's tidy-up time. Fruit and water appear at 11 am sharp and, if show-and-tell doesn't start by 11.50am then there's absolutely no hope of having the children ready to be collected at noon.

But what if Hannah and Lucy are right in the middle of an elaborate dressing-up session involving an unprecedented degree of layering?

And what if Joe has just discovered that the small fat jug can be filled up right to the top from the tall thin jug and, clearly fascinated, is dying to repeat the exercise? And can the story that has attracted an enthralled little circle of wide-eyed listeners always be finished later?

Convention can drive early-years staff to consider the timetable first, forgetting that having the time to explore, reflect and refine is crucial to the development of thinking skills.

Being free to bring things to a conclusion without feeling hurried is also important.

Pause for a moment to consider the reflective approach taken by great minds.

Charles Darwin reputedly spent hours sitting gazing at ant-heaps - to the extent that his housekeeper worried about him having "nothing to do" all day; the novelist Flaubert, when working on Madame Bovary, spent a whole afternoon gazing at the countryside through pieces of coloured glass in the course of his research, and accepted that each novel would take between five and seven years to complete.

The leading mathematician Sir Michael Atiyah often writes precisely nothing in the course of a hard day's work; he simply thinks.

We live in an age when productivity and results are paramount, and targets and goals abound. Qualities such as patience and thoughtfulness seem to be somehow out of fashion - yet without them, true insight (which cannot be hurried any more than it can be found in a curriculum document) is likely to elude us.

Giving children time in their earliest years to pursue their own interests and practise emerging skills is crucial to their successful development as learners. It encourages tenacity and concentration, and allows children to get into the habit of thinking carefully, slowly, deeply.

Of course, when the pressure is on for staff to include activities that relate to specified areas of learning, and to account for the breadth and nature of those activities, it takes both courage and confidence to simply go with the flow.

If that sounds familiar, take heart from the knowledge that a more fluid approach can provides a rich source of information which you can use to shape your planning.

Watch play develop - see where it leads, see what fires the children's imagination, and then build your planning around this. You never know, it might even save you time - and we could all use more of that.

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