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A whole new box of tricks

Collections of objects to wonder at and study are the latest idea for early years science. Carolyn O'Grady investigates

Finding the extraordinary in the ordinary is how Pat Brunton, of ALC Associates, describes the training company's approach to helping adults working with under-eights address the pre-school and early primary curriculum.

Next spring the company is launching a range of Wonderboxes containing objects - some ordinary, some unusual - to encourage children to think about the extraordinary in science, design and technology.

The first of these wonder-full ideas boxes feature toys, natural materials or kitchen utensils. They are accompanied by suggestions for activities, further investigations and ideas for involving parents and carers in children's learning.

They are part of an education approach which views children as researchers, in the way advocated by Learning and Teaching Scotland in A Curriculum Framework for Children 3-5, says Ms Brunton.

"Children have their own ideas about how things work and why things happen.

They are bubbling with ideas," says Linda Thornton, a former headteacher and science and technology adviser who is a joint partner in ALC Associates with Ms Brunton. "Giving these ideas value and encouraging children to share them and to listen to the ideas put forward by other children provides the starting point for further investigations, exploration and discovery."

The approach is also designed to encourage social and communication skills, practical skills such as observation, manual dexterity and hand-eye co-ordination and reasoning and thinking skills, including problem solving.

A book on the Wonderboxes approach will be published in the spring, explaining how to create your own collections and how to use them.

Ms Brunton, a trainer and project consultant, emphasises that the point of the book and boxes is not just the objects and utensils. "Talking is just as important as doing," she says. "It's about adults setting up interesting opportunities and starting points to provoke comments, ideas and interesting conversations with the children.

"We want adults to encourage children to express and develop their own ideas and to ask questions. It's up to the children where the conversation goes. The skill of the adult lies in facilitating the process of questioning, discussion, investigation and reflection. They have to trust the children to come up with ideas."

The Toy Box includes pop-up puppets and jack-in-the-boxes to demonstrate forces such as push, pull, stretch and twist, together with toys to prompt discussion and investigation on magnetism, water and air power. Children might, for example, reflect on why things move, find other objects which move and investigate which things move fastest.

The Treasure Box will contain natural materials such as wood, sand, stone and seed pods. As well as prompting explorations of texture, shape, colour, structure and pattern, Ms Brunton hopes these will encourage adults to make more use of natural materials with young children rather than always giving them plastic objects. Children might consider what the objects are, where they come from and extend their investigations to finding other interesting things in their environment.

The Tool Box contains kitchen utensils such as spoons, whisks, funnels and sieves, with different properties and functions to enable children to explore mixing, separating and measuring, discover joints and levers and investigate the science of cooking through heating and cooling such materials as ice, jelly or chocolate.

"Scientific, designing and making activities are a perfect way to encourage children to develop the essential dispositions and attitudes for learning," says Ms Thornton. "The investigations will help practitioners foster curiosity, open mindedness, a willingness to put forward ideas and critical reflection in children."

Pat Brunton and Linda Thornton talk about Wonderboxes - Starting Points for Knowledge and Understanding of the World at 3pm on November 14

ALC Associates, tel 01872 273492 email

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