Why you should let your child take the lead: let their curiosity guide their learning.  

October 4, 2021

“Childhood is not a race to see how quickly a child can read, write and count. It's a small window of time to learn and develop at the pace that is right for each individual child. Earlier is not better,” Magda Gerber, Founder of Respectful Infant Educators

The Reggio Emilia approach is an educational philosophy and pedagogy that puts children at its core. Children learn through discovery, exploration and play in sensory-rich environments. Relationships are also at its centre and the values of respect, community-mindedness and responsibility are fostered through collaboration, play and discussions.

Rather than following a rigidly planned curriculum, children have the opportunity to take the lead by showing what they are interested in and taking their learning in different directions as new discoveries arise. While most commonly implemented in preschools, there are considerable benefits to bringing a Reggio-inspired approach into the primary years.

Why does this student-driven approach so suit the Early Years and primary age children? Of all the people in this world, those most capable of slowing down, noticing and producing the greatest awe over seemingly the simplest things are arguably its youngest. A caterpillar crawling along a leaf; shadows cast on the ground; a baby coconut fallen from a tree - will it still grow? Every day a myriad of questions are asked and a myriad more investigations are embarked upon, in search of answers.

The Reggio Emilia philosophy views children as competent and innately curious, and capable of directing their own learning in an authentic and meaningful way through these interactions with the world.  

By providing an early years and lower primary environment that is not overly structured, this ebb and flow of observing, enquiry and igniting interest in peers can be given the time and space it deserves. By having space to do this, the natural curiosity children have is nurtured and they become self-motivated agents in their own learning. This provides the foundation for a lifelong positive, inquisitive and independent attitude to learning.

In Reggio Emilia-inspired settings, such as found in the Green Shoots early years division, the environment and materials are hugely important, viewed as ‘the third teacher’. Children have access to high quality art materials, enabling them to express themselves and spend time exploring materials such as clay, charcoal, oil pastels and watercolour paints. Loose parts, recycled and open-ended materials encourage creativity and resourcefulness. Items such as bottle tops, buttons, bamboo straws, wooden blocks, pieces of fabric and real kitchenware can all be used over and over, one day being the stock in a pretend shop, the next being used to create an imaginary world for mysterious creatures. Natural and authentic materials as opposed to manufactured toys and plastic give children greater connection to the real and natural world and they are arranged thoughtfully to provoke curiosity, while creating a calm and homely atmosphere. 

Time is reserved for play throughout the day, and it is highly valued as essential for children’s learning and well-being. Through play children explore and make sense of their world, practice new vocabulary and process their understanding. Last year, we entrusted our reception class with woodworking tools and together they measured, sawed, sanded down, hammered and constructed a small fence for our garden. The next day, several children could be seen crawling under one of the classroom tables, toy hammers and wrenches in hand, busy ‘fixing the tables’ a game which continued for days. 

Play, by its nature, is creative. Children use their imagination while drawing upon their ability to problem solve. The social nature of much of the play young children engage in gives them meaningful opportunities to communicate their ideas and to understand others through social interaction, leading to stronger relationships and a greater ability to get along with and understand other people.

When adults are invited to join the play, they can help deepen the children’s understanding of a concept and broaden their language, simply by commenting and playing along rather than trying to direct the play, which would take ownership away from the children. For the child pretending to be a doctor, wielding a stethoscope and wanting to check whether their teacher has a fever, the teacher plays along. 'Oh you think I have a fever! I see you have a stethoscope to check my heartbeat. Do you have a thermometer you can use to take my temperature as well?'

Numerous studies and reports validate the need for a focus on child-led and play-based learning in the Early Years that can continue into lower primary. The 2009 Cambridge Primary Review, an independent enquiry into the condition and future of primary education in England, based at the University of Cambridge, recommended England fall into line with international practice by extending the Foundation Stage to age six.

The review cited how in many EU countries, children remain in preschool or kindergarten settings until they are six or seven, where they follow a curriculum that is developmentally appropriate with a focus on play, social, physical and moral development.

In Tinkering and its Relationship with Problem Solving, Stuart Brown, MD., of the National Institute for Play discusses the relationship between early tinkering and ‘joyful hand-brain activities’ with a later ability to innovatively problem solve amongst engineers, concluding that, “for preschoolers (3-5 year olds) assure that they enjoy the hands-on experiential tactile pleasure of block play. By using blocks, children can piece together shapes to create a bigger picture, whether it is a representation of something they have seen or from their imagination’.

A 2018 report from UNICEF entitled Learning Through Play, highlights the importance of play well into the primary years. “Play-based learning continues to be critical, yet it is often neglected in favour of academic-focused education approaches. Yet, in this period, active, play-based learning approaches can transform the educational experiences of children in the early primary grades and strengthen learning motivation and outcomes.”

According to the report, “By learning through play, children develop and retain interest and motivation, two of the key indicators of successful learning. Further, play fosters creativity and imagination, critical components in enabling us to cope, to find pleasure, and to innovate. Play and opportunities to engage actively in learning strengthens students' creative powers. Giving primary age students opportunities to engage actively with materials, issues and topics opens up the space for inquiry and problem solving.

Reception & Year 1 Teacher Becky Lloyd

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