How to Stop Using Pre-planned Topics and Plan from Children’s Interests.

Many teachers (myself included in the past) base their planning on weekly, monthly or termly topics.  Using topics helps us to come up with ideas, focus the children’s learning, ensure we cover all areas of development and makes planning easier because we can re-use plans from previous years.  All of this sounds attractive but there are downsides too.

  • Topics can lead to a narrow focus of learning that isn’t necessarily relevant to the children.
  • Topics may have to be changed before the children have explored all the concepts adequately.
  • Topics are sometimes repeated in the same way, year after year without any consideration for the different dynamics or interests of the group.
  • Pre-planned topics come from the teachers ideas and don’t  take the children’s’ thoughts views and questions into account.
  • If we follow a topic, we may miss a rich learning opportunity  because it doesn’t fit in with our theme or topic.

There are ways we can improve this while still maintaining topics and themes.

  • Don’t plan topics too far ahead. Rather than having firm topics set for the year, review them on a monthly or weekly basis and adjust them in line with the children’s interests.
  • Choose topics that are very open-ended and can encompass many aspects of learning for example, water, questions, stories or movement. The book  First Hand Experiences: What Matters to Children has some great suggestions for selecting topics from the real world.

Some settings decide to follow a child centred or emergent curriculum where children are co-constructors in the learning process. Projects are not pre-determined by the teacher but instead they are chosen based on the children’s interests.

Planning from the children’s interests can be difficult to begin with if you are used to following a topic based approach.  Below are some common questions and misconceptions.

  • My children don’t know what they want  to do next when I ask them? How do I plan for them?

A common misunderstanding is that teachers should ask children what they want to. It is more important to think about what might be driving the children’s learning and using those insights to inform our planning.  By all means engage the children in conversations about their interests but asking them directly may not yield useful answers. Rather than asking children what they would like to do, set up open-ended activities and observe children in their play.  Watch for patterns or common recurring themes, watch for resources they return to time and again. When interacting with children offer suggestions that might extend their play e.g. I have something that might work really well for that or I wonder what would happen if we tried this?

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  • If I plan at the end of one week to start something new next week how will I have time to get the resources ready?

The planning should be a natural progression of what was already occurring, rather than a completely new experience.  If the children were enjoying mixing paint colours, give them a new media to explore like a different type of paint, pastels or dough. Provide the children with a challenge e.g how many shades of green can you make or can you match up these shades?  Add one small item to their play or ask a different question .  There may be times when a completely new interest emerges. Involve the children in the planning process – what do we have that you could use for that? How could we find out more about that?

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  • How on earth can I record my planning to show Ofsted / Head teacher or an inspecting body?

This is probably the most common question.  When you are required to record planning how can you make in the moment planning visible?

  1. Have a clear long-term plan. This would outline all of the things that you intend to achieve in your setting and your core philosophy.  Also include how you will organise your environment and the strategies you will use to support learning.  This will be a core document and can be referred to if you are asked how you fulfill particular criteria.  Collate the things that happen everyday like snack times, transitions, group reflections  and explain how each of these items map to the standards you are following. 

This example was mapped to the 2008 EYFS.

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2. Medium term planning will use observations to create an overview plan of opportunities for exploring projects and interconnecting themes, based upon the children’s’ genuine interests or explorations.  A medium plan might include a list of resources to be collected or a description of some of the key materials within different areas.  You may also want to highlight key skills to be developed, for example to use a variety of ways to represent pattern or to co-operate and listen to others ( these will likely come from your observations).  These might fit with a project you are following.  Daily/weekly schedules could also form a part of your medium term plans and stories or songs you plan to share.

3. Short term planning This is a joint record of what you observe the children doing, their fascinations, questions they are  asking, clear patterns of play , an analysis of this data (what learning is taking place? can you identify schemas?) and then using this analysis to determine what will happen next.  Often the term next steps will be used.  I prefer to break this down into more useful questions –

  • How might you encourage those interests further?  
  • How could you encourage their interest to be more complex? 
  • How could you bring that interest into other areas of learning/activities?

These plans could be daily or weekly records of what you will provide in the environment and the adults role within it. Keep them simple and flexible so they can be changed and adapted easily.

Think about what you are recording – only record information that is useful for future planning – don’t record for the sake of it.

Examples

Planning for children's interests

planning for children's interests

Use any format that works for you.

  • All my children have different interests, how do I plan for all of them?

Sometimes there will be clear group interests but often, children will show an interest in different things.  For individuals, watch for patterns in play –

  • are children following a particular schema?
  • how do they play,?
  • what questions are they asking and can these be incorporated into the future planning for the whole group?

  Some weeks you may be planning for a particular group of children or developmental milestones for a few individual children.  Some children will not display a clear fascination every week. Talking as a team and documenting learning will help you to reflect on learning and decide on next steps.  Don’t overcomplicate things.  If there isn’t a clear interest put out exciting materials, follow something seasonal, share an interesting book, observe children in free play or talk to parents to develop ideas.

  • My children love Pirates/Fairies/Star Wars what ideas do you have to support those themes?

Don’t assume that the idea the children appear to be interested in is necessarily their fascination.  Think deeper – what aspect of cars do the children love, is it the motion, is it speed, is it building roads and tracks or do they like them to be transported from one place or another?  Watch and listen over a period of time before organising complex and sometimes expensive resources to support a theme.

  • If I always plan from interests how can I make sure that children are challenged to try new things and cover all areas of the curriculum?

Use the children’s interests to channel them into other activities by linking resources, moving them into different areas or using slowly adding new elements to their existing play. Use small group times to focus on specific skills that children may not choose to demonstrate at other times.

What about small group time?

For small group time the teacher may decide on an area of focus e.g number, rhyme or cutting with scissors. Through recording the children’s progress the next session can be planned according to the children’s skills, needs, questions or next stage of development.  This probably won’t be the same for every child. 

Turning Planning on its Head

When I was a student teacher we were taught to plan by asking the following questions:-

  • What will I teach?
  • Why will I teach it?
  • How will I teach it?
  • What resources will I need?
  • What will I do next?

For child led, in the moment planning, turn these questions on their head.

ALWAYS START WITH THE CHILD

  • What are the children learning and what do they  already know?
  • Why are the children learning? (interests and fascinations)
  • How are the children learning?
  • Which resources/materials do they find  motivating?
  • What is my role as a teacher in extending this learning? What resources can I provide? How should I present them? How could I present this learning in a different context? What questions could I develop further?

Perhaps the most important thing to remember when planning in this way is that the teachers role is not to let children do as they wish.  The teachers role is to reflect on how the children learn, to interact with the children and to work as part of a team that shares ideas for the benefit of the children.

I like the analogy of throwing a ball used by Filippini in The Hundred Languages of Children,

We must be able to catch the ball that the children throw us, and toss it back to them in a way that makes the children want to continue the game with us, developing perhaps other games as we go along.

As I see it, the children throw us an idea, we think about it and toss it back to them from a new angle or in a more exciting way and this back and forth continues as we learn and develop together.

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