“If you can live with Suzie cutting her arm off or putting a hammer into someones head then go ahead!” Are these words that you’ve encountered before? Or a sentiment you’ve been lumbered with when suggesting to incorporate real tools into your space for children to use? Unfortunately, this was a response an educator I was working with was hit with. This comment in turn made her reflect on her own thoughts, visions and values and second guess herself.
No people NO! As educators we need to be dynamic, open to possibilities and new ideas. Educator fear is real but just because we are scared, nervous or apprehensive about something, does that mean the children that we work with should miss out? Our National Early Education and Care Regulations ask us to take a risk management approach to children’s learning and in fact within the Guide to the National Law and National Regulations it states, “The National Law does NOT require services to eliminate ALL risk and challenges from Children’s play or environments.” (p. 68).
Fear leads educators to provide plastic tools to play with and then wonder why the children are hitting each other on the head with the plastic hammers……. well…. because there’s not much else one can do with a light weight plastic hammer…. really? is there? And then you hear the fear induced remark, “And this is why we won’t use real hammers.” In order for children to learn about and negotiate risk and safety they need to be provided with real opportunities to do so. In the words of Dan Hodgins, “You cannot learn to be safe by avoiding risks. Risks provide an avenue for practicing the skills involved in making wise choices.” They (children) need to feel the weight of a real hammer. They need to learn which muscles they need to activate to move the saw back and forth when cutting and that it takes time, persistence and dedication to cut through a branch (it won’t just happen by the click of a button or a swipe to the right). And yes, they need to understand what it feels like to slip and hit their thumb with the hammer in order to negotiate and refine their skills. Children aren’t into fake. They want to be involved in real projects like helping to fix the broken wooden bookshelf. You can’t do that with a plastic hammer!
Combat fear through open, honest and reflective discussion. Acknowledge it and plan measures and steps of how your team can push through barriers, overcome it and move forwards. PLAY! Practice setting up the space and play with the tools. Gain an understanding of what they feel like in your hands, how you can use them and the processes you go through as you work with them. Collaborate with a colleague at your service (this might even be someone from another room team) who will support your implementation. Pushing boundaries and following your vision for early education that is ‘outside of the tool box’ can feel lonely and isolating (at times) BUT gaining support from other members of your team can then lead to shared visions and goal setting. When others can see the success and ‘learning’ they will want to jump on board the train too…… but sometimes this train can take some time to leave the station.
Recently in my teaching I have been exploring and observing the relationship between the explicit teaching of skills and freedom, self-direction, motivation and creativity – But is there a place for the explicit teaching of skills within an early childhood setting?
Let’s talk it out…..
Our very own Early Years Learning Framework for Australia (EYLF),(2009) guides us to be intentional and to create opportunities for children to learn through meaningful and challenging experiences THAT are supported by interactions that promote a higher level of thinking. This doesn’t mean taking over. It doesn’t mean teacher lead or directed, and it definitely doesn’t mean sticking to the predetermined plan at all costs. It means on the spot, skilled analysis of a child’s existing knowledge and skills. Knowing when to provoke thought through asking a ‘real’ question, providing a prop or tool, stepping back and watching, or knowing which experienced other (yes, this can be a child!) can scaffold or share their knowledge to support the acquisition and enhancement of what they know and can do.
“Intentional teaching: involves educators being deliberate, purposeful and thoughtful in their decisions and action. Intentional teaching is the opposite of teaching by rote or continuing with traditions simply because things have ‘always’ been done that way” (EYLF, pg 15).
When we look at the work of psychologist and developmental theorist Lev Voygotsky (1896-1934) and his work on the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) he suggested that the ‘zone’ is the area of growth between what a child (or learner) “can do without help and their frustration level” Verenikina (2008), or what they can do with help. It implies that the meaning of teaching is a co-construction of knowledge between the educator and child or peer and child. Working within a child’s ZPD is to closely observe children being actively engaged in their learning, know how far you can challenge their thinking or understandings with the future goal of becoming self-directed, motivated, life long learners. For example, a child wanting to use twine and a twig to create a fishing rod becomes frustrated because they cannot tie a secure knot with the twine. A more experienced peer or educator can support, model and give explicit instructions to the child on how to loop the twine to tie a successful knot, guiding the child to independence.
Scaffolding is a term that came out of Vyotsky’s work in the ZPD and was coined by Bruner (1976). Bruner suggests that in order for scaffolding to work and be an effective teaching technique, you must be attuned to the child’s current level of knowledge and begin to build from there. An essential step in scaffolding is the “process of internalisation”, time to practice and gain mastery with encouragement and support from an educator or more experienced peer. Gradually lessening the level of support and guidance provided to the child. It is important to acknowledge that the ZPD is very individualised and unique. For example; while the majority of three year old children may have similar skill levels, each one is at a different individual level on any given skill. Let’s say the skill is hitting a nail with a hammer into a piece of wood. Most three year old children will have the understanding that you move the hammer up and down on top of the nail. Some children will already know that you need to hold the nail in position for this to be successful and others will know that you need to negotiate the movement of the wood, if using a branch for example.
At Raw&UnearthedPLAY we have children from as young as 18months accessing and using tools. The way we introduce the tools is individualised and based on the current skills, knowledge and experience each child brings with them. We introduce the variety of tools we have (in our tool kit) progressively over the term so that the children and families have time to learn and become familiar with one tool, rather than becoming overwhelmed with the whole kit. This enables us, as facilitators a closer opportunity to support and guide the parents or family members in how to work with their child’s abilities.
When working with children in a mixed age setting you observe co-construction of knowledge and skills unfold naturally. Scaffolding happens by both the older and younger peer. The younger children will spend large amounts of time closely watching and observing how the older children work in their play. This interaction often pulls the younger children up to a level they would otherwise not have explored (yet). “Over time the variety and complexity of ways in which children connect and participate with others increases.” EYLF, (2009). When working with children we are there to support them to push through barriers, think about alternative strategies and provide them with an abundance of time to think, reflect, process, understand, negotiate and hypothesis. Answers don’t need to found in a day.
Collaborative development and direct consultation with children about what they know and how to keep themselves and other safe is an extremely important part in the process. Planning alongside the children means that they can and will have a sense of ownership over the entire experience. Providing children with real opportunities to engage in risk assessing conversations about hazards vs risks and directly in the development of safety procedures and boundaries for safe play is necessary for life long learning. In this collaborative process, children can challenge and extend their own thinking and knowledge, and that of others. In turn this creates new shared understandings.
“Children’s active involvement changes what they know, can do, value and transforms their learning.” (EYLF, p.33).
Yes, working with tools can at first glance seem like there are just too many barriers and hazards to work through. But after collaboratively developing your safety procedures with the children, go and purchase what you’ll need in terms of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) – gloves, goggles, vests, signage, tape. You will determine what PPE is needed through your risk assessment process. Work with the children to designate the appropriate space and prepare it ready for play. Discuss numbers of children and how you will provide adequate supervision of all children and if you will have specific times that the tools will be available how will you determine this.
You don’t need to wait until you have enough money in the budget to purchase a fantastic tool wrap or the entire tool box. Start with a couple of hammers, nails and a pallet. Experiences such as this require a shift in practice. To really honor the capabilities of children we need to start by letting go of what we’ve always done. Don’t rush things, it will become overwhelming for the both you and the children and you’ll ended up crossing your arms saying, “We tried it and it didn’t work.” Take your time and provide the children with prolonged time to deeply engage and explore.
The benefits absolutely outweigh the risks in this case and you will discover this for yourself. Once the children have acquired the skills to manipulate and use tools the craftsmanship will follow. You will see their learning through their determination, creativity and inventiveness which will be recognised as deep concentration and complete focus on a project that captures their interests. Opening up the door to a whole world of real hands on projects led by the children through their own motivation to learn.
I. Verenikina(2008) Scaffolding and learning: it’s role in nurturing new learners. University of Wollongong
The Guide to the National Law and National Regulations 2011 (2014). Part 4.2 Children’s Health and Safety. Protection from Harm and Hazard (p. 68). Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority. Retrieved Oct, 2016.
Belonging, Being & Becoming. The Early Years Learning Framework (PDF). Australian Government Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations for the Council of Australian Governments. Retrieved September 2016 (p 15, 33).