Pile of fun

15th October 2004 at 01:00
In the second of a three-part series on the balance between "play" and "teaching" in early years education, Ruth Merttens explains why certain activities work better in larger groups

Last week I suggested that those of us who are fed up with the polarised ideology of early years education, in which one is forced to choose either "play" or "teaching", should revolt and opt for a common-sense approach, in which both are not only possible but desirable.

As teachers, we sometimes talk and behave as if were things only different and class-sizes ever-so small, we would never need to do things with a large group of children.

However, I believe this is both an error of judgment and muddled thinking.

It is not that we teach children in large groups in the early years because economic reasons dictate that we have to. Rather it is that some things are actually best done with a larger group. We can start a list:

* learning and singing a simple song;

* reciting or singing a nursery rhyme;

* telling or performing an oral story;

* counting, as in chanting the numbers in sequence, to 10, 20 or 100

* reading some stories, especially those from picture books or animated tales which can be projected;

* learning sequences, such as the days of the week or the months of the year;

* modelling a pattern or a process, including some demonstrations involving the use of a puppet;

* discussing feelings or problems to do with large group situations, such as playtime, where we all need to take turns to express feelings and to listen to each other.

This list is not intended to be all-encompassing, but it should remind us that the large group can be very productive and creative. I call it teaching "on the rug". What we can do in a larger group is as (not more, not less) important as what we can do when working with a few children, and it is very specific: lWe use rituals and ritualised practices, such as nursery rhymes and counting chants, where a large group means that those who can do or do know can carry those who are still learning.

lWe demonstrate patterns or processes, such as giving out red, blue, green, yellow bricks and going round the circle rehearsing the pattern: red, blue, etc, or modelling how we count along a number line, not necessarily starting at one.

lWe help children practise ways of being taught, and forms of learning which will stand them in good stead throughout their education. Learning to listen to a story and respond to questions as part of a larger group is easy to acquire aged three as part of a familiar and comforting daily routine, but may be hard at age six when you have never got into the habit of listening in this way.

I am often reminded what good actors teachers have to be. They act shocked at a child's misbehaviour, they pretend surprise when a child produces a carefully-made paper flower, and, pertinently here, they produce a daily performance when reading or telling a story "on the rug".

An oral story can hold children's attention in different ways. The teacher draws upon a greater range of acting skills. They make eye contact with different children, they use voices, pauses and gestures, and they can alter the story as they go along to fit the mood of the class. In a similar vein, these dramatic strategies are pressed into service when we demonstrate to a large group of children how Freddie Frog hops just one more space along the number track across the carpet. Twenty or more children enjoy the performance and most of them remember an image and the words, enabling them to repeat the operation.

The key to these exchanges with children in a large group is, as with so many pleasures in life, little and often. In the quiet and familiar routine of the nurseryreception day, or the playgroup half-day, children may come together for several "on-the-rug" sessions, each lasting perhaps no more than a few minutes.

We may start the day with a piece of teaching - perhaps an oral story to stimulate some English or finding a child's arm-span in crayons as a measuringcounting exercise.

After milk or break time, we may come together for a nursery rhyme or song and some counting. Before lunch, there may be a story.

The day is punctured by these moments of togetherness, times when we learn and talk and listen as a large group.

These will be sometimes playful, sometimes formal, sometimes noisy, sometimes quiet, but always fun. And children are not just learning, they are learning how to learn.

Once young children have acquired the skills of turn-taking and listening, responding to and starting discussion, participating in joint activity, the door has been opened to a wider horizon.

Ruth Merttens is co-director of the Hamilton Projects at www.hamilton-trust.org.uk

* Next week: Working in small groups

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