The Chinese proverb above illustrates the common practice of active learning in early years education, except that maybe we would say ‘ I play and I understand’.
Early years educators are often criticised for having an easy job, because all we do is play. I would argue that play is one of the most important things we do, not only as children, but also into adulthood. Play gives us freedom as it is one of the few things that we do that has no external goal. Play is both therapeutic and a way of self regulating experience (Jennings). In play we can select our own materials and are free to choose what to do with them, helping to work out solutions to conflicts and understand one’s self. Maybe we should all take time out from our busy lives to play.
As an adult I rarely play, we might play with our children, but generally this is following their agenda or playing a rule based game. How many of us play for play’s sake ? Why don’t we build dens in the woods or take out a lump of clay and model with it?
I was once on a course with Jenny Moseley who asked us to sit for 5 minutes with an egg. We had to stay in our own space and were allowed to do whatever we liked with the egg in that time. Who would have thought that a simple egg could be so absorbing? It became my complete focus for that 5 minutes and we were then asked to put our thoughts on paper to share with others – the words poured out of me without hesitation.
I think that real understanding is achieved through more than just play. If we look at some of the most highly respected early years establishments, in particular the pre- schools of Reggio Emilia, there is one thing that sets them apart. The schools founder Loris Malaguzzi describes the teachers role as learning and relearning with the children. A favourite saying is ‘catching the ball that the children throw us’. That is not simply asking the children to tell you what the teacher already knows but retaining what the children give with a sense of wonder. We can learn a lot about the way children think by listening to them. Often they are viewed as funny or cute comments – like when my 2 year old saw manure on the road and asked ‘Mummy has the road done a poo?’, but these little comments tell us a lot about the way children think.
In the pre-schools of Reggio Emilia projects are based around what the children say and do. They would go that extra step to give the children a complete experience . A project on supermarkets for example, led them to not only visit during the day but also when the shop was closed, helping to encourage further discussion and enhance the children’s play. In the Reggio schools understanding is not achieved through simply ‘doing’ but also by having the chance to reflect and build on those experiences. It is important that when children ask questions we ask what they think and that their interpretation is seen as important. It is not the answers that are important but the process of discovery.
In our own work as teachers and parents we can learn so much from our children if we listen , share and take time to reflect both alone and together. In our own lives too , if we take time to step back and really absorb ourselves in something as with the egg exercise, we learn far more than rushing around doing things. Rather than always focusing on the present, the reflection time helps us to work out what to do next. I believe therefore that the proverb should be
I see and I forget
I hear and I remember
I do and with reflection I understand.
For further information on Jenny Mosley’s work http://www.circle-time.co.uk
For further information regarding the schools of Reggio Emilia http://www.sightlines-initiative.com/