Have you ever noticed that when you walk into some nurseries that they have beautiful displays? Let’s say the children have all made butterflies.
What do you notice about those butterflies? Do you see real children’s’ work?
When I was looking at nurseries for my eldest child I looked carefully at the work on the walls because I was looking for something in particular. Had the children done all the work themselves?
You might think that’s a really odd question! Surely the children do the work themselves? I saw so many nurseries and preschools where all the butterflies looked pretty much identical. The basic shape was lovely and neat and the outlines for the wings and body were drawn beautifully. They looked great but they looked, and indeed were, adult work. Of course the children had stuck various bits and bobs on but I wondered how much they had actually learned.
Is there anything really wrong with that?
Well there might not be if the children are all really proud of the work they have done. But what is it telling them about themselves as learners?
Young children, when left to themselves, are creators of their own environment. They love pulling all the cushions off the sofa and grabbing blankets to make a den. Inside they create caves, spaceships, cars, fairy grottos and all manner of things. If they need you to fix the sheets or blankets they ask you. They are using their imagination, testing building materials and trying things out for themselves.
When I trained as a teacher, the popular learning style at the time was called Child Centred Learning and it was exactly that. Our classrooms were set up with a range of activities and the children could choose from these activities. The problem with this style of teaching and learning was that children could avoid activities they didn’t like or were not so confident at. However a vigilant teacher could encourage and challenge children to try things that they were avoiding. The huge benefits were that the children were learning to evaluate activities, make choices, manage their time and also choose how to tackle a task (rather than being given a precut butterfly and told to stick on what they had been given). They were learning about learning and becoming confident learners as opposed to passive consumers of the education system. These were essential skills for the more challenging content they would face further up the school.
In fact I wrote my degree dissertation on Child Centred Learning in a nursery and its benefits. The two things I noticed most were that the children were very engaged in the activities and that their language was more developed than we might have expected.
So is there a right or a right or a wrong way to learn?
As with everything it is very individual. There are well documented styles of learning. According to which papers you look at there are a different numbers of learning styles. And then when you take age into account there are more!
What I think we need at the forefront of our minds when we plan learning opportunities for children is what are we aiming for? Is the most important outcome for a 5 year old to be able to sight read 200 words and spell nonsense words? Or is it to know how to tackle a new task and be ready and confident to take a risk?
At Caterpillar Learners we provide a template or a structure for an activity; for example, we show them an Incy Wincy Spider and explain to the adults the steps that are involved.
Then we provide them with a range of materials to explore and encourage them to dive in. We talk about spiders having 8 legs and the children set about cutting 8 strips and then they cut a shape for the body. We then demonstrate the pleating for the wiggly legs and the children have a go at this. Then they choose what they would like to use for the face and any decoration and exactly where they would like to attach the legs. From the photos you can see that all the spiders are unique.
So you can see that there is a template and a guide for making the spider but the children have made lots of choices for themselves which develops their confidence and independence. The structure is there so that we can ensure particular skills are incorporated; for this activity, counting to 8, cutting, pleating. We like to call this scaffolding as we can add or subtract the level of support each child needs very easily while we work and explain to the adults why we are doing this which also provides confidence and support to them.
If young children become passive receivers of education they can develop low self – esteem, anxiety and lack of interest in what they’re learning. They tend not to develop problem solving, resilience or independence.
So in answer to my question “Is there a right way or a wrong way to learn?” the answer is both yes and no. It’s not so much about the content of what children are learning is more about the skills they are learning. Skills that when learnt early will serve them well for the rest of their lives.