Using Characters and Themes to Inspire Early Learning supports practitioners in planning and resourcing topics based around popular themes in the early years. Each theme is introduced through a ‘spark’. The ‘sparks’ are an object, or group of objects, found in the classroom, for example a magic seed. The projects then develop by presenting letters, posters, postcards etc. from a characters ( these can be found in the appendix of each section). The characters in the book have been invented by the writers, Jo Ayers and Louise Robson but I see no reason for not utilising other familiar, book, TV or film characters.
Each chapter introduces a new character and theme, including pirates, knights and castles and people who help us. For those settings who revisit these themes every year, the sparks and resources presented in the book would offer an exciting new angle for engaging the children.
Who is it for?
The book is targeted at teachers in the 3-5 age group, personally I felt some of the themes and activities were more suited to the upper age group, but I would still use the sparks with a younger group and adapt activities to their level and to fit the classroom environment.
How Does it Work?
The book emphasises planning with the children after igniting the initial spark, gathering evidence from comments, questions, observations, photographs and recordings.
The introduction states that topics were chosen based on gathering children together and asking them about their favourite interests. I would have liked clearer descriptions of the children’s involvement in the planning, as some of the topics felt more adult directed than others. In a session which began by finding a mysterious seed, an alien is grows in the seed but it is also mentioned that this could also be an insect. I would have liked to have seen a description of the thought process behind the decision to make it an alien. Did the children decide it was an alien? There is a good mind map in the appendix showing the children’s comments and questions which explains this to a certain extent, but I would have liked a little more clarification as to how these comments and questions fed into planning.
The chapters are clearly laid out and contain plenty of photographs and support materials. I would have preferred to see the support materials alongside the description of the activity rather than in the appendix ,as I found flicking between the two distracting. The scenarios weren’t always easy to visualise without reading the materials in the appendix.
I particularly loved the Nancy the Knight and Lord Lawrence chapter for a meaningful approach to the topic of castles. I felt the description of this topic flowed well and the activities were hands on and playful. I could also see how the children led the learning in this topic.
Who would Benefit Most From this Book?
The book would be a great resource for settings following a topic based approach. It would add wonder and awe to familiar topics and I can see it working really well in reception, kindergarten or year 1 classrooms. I love the idea of the sparks and think these could also be useful in settings that use more in the moment planning. With a bit of imagination, one could listen and observe the children, discover their interests and invent a character and scenario that would help them answer questions or develop their interests further. This book would be a great starting point for doing that.. For a theatre person like myself, I can easily imagine adopting this approach in the classroom but it may not be for everyone.
What Did I Think
I love the approach but wish the book was laid out a little differently. I really wanted to hear the story of how each project developed, to hear the children’s voices and see how the children’s ideas and questions led to the next stage of the project or even perhaps how different classes adapted the same scenarios but in different ways.
There is plenty in the book for those who would like to try this approach by following scenarios that work for others or for those who want to try this fun approach but adapt it in their own way. I think it would be a great addition to a teaching library for new teachers, teachers looking to add a but of fun to their curriculum or those looking for a different approach to topic based learning.