Herding cats whilst juggling with ferrets – why would anyone want to work in Early Years? Alistair Bryce-Clegg

Author Alistair Bryce-CleggYoung children are truly remarkable beings and masters of ‘the unexpected’. There is one thing that you can be certain of when you work in Early Years and that is, that you can never be certain of anything! Like the moment when you have them eating out of the palm of your hand, gazing at you wide eyed as you deliver pearls of wisdom, and then from amongst the crowd a hand slowly rises. You pause with anticipation, waiting for confirmation that you are indeed the World’s best teacher and that this child is going to utter a statement of learning and understanding – only to be met with the phrase ‘My Granddad’s dead’. Just three little words that can completely kill a moment! Of course no matter what you were talking about, it is not going to be as interesting as death. Usually at this point on your carpet, the children will engage in a ‘dead-off’ each of them trying to outdo the others with the deaths of pets and relatives. It takes a skilled practitioner to be able to Segway from death to ‘Five Little Speckled Frogs’. Difficult, but not impossible!

It is in the very impetuous and inquisitive nature of little children that their potential for learning lies. The more we learn to embrace and enhance their ‘uniqueness’, the more we can enable them to pursue their interests and engage in learning. After all, it’s high-level engagement that will result in high-level attainment. When children are happy and secure they can focus all of their energy on being inquisitive. If they are unhappy, upset or bored then their brains are more focussed on resolving those issues than on exploring the world around them.


Sometimes as an adult, I think that we impose our agenda for learning on children a little too much and that this can result in children switching off, disengaging, fiddling with the person next to them – or usually in the case of boys – fiddling with themselves! The more experience I have in working across the very diverse Early Years sector, the more I am convinced that the more child- initiated we can make learning the more success that we will all have (children and adults).

As a teacher I was completely topic driven and I LOVED it! A topic meant that you could theme everything to one interest or subject and on the whole that made things significantly easier when it came to planning and resourcing. But… the problem with a topic is that it can be too focussed.
It is one thing when as an adult you talk to your children about a subject – a good Early Years Practitioner can make anything sound exciting (with or without the use of a feely bag and some whispering!). It is not the adult-led aspect of a topic that is the issue. It is what the children are expected to do when they leave the adult and enter the realm of their own learning. They may well have loved it when you were regaling them with tales of planets, rockets and space travellers but when they get to the malleable materials area – why do they have to make a planet out of dough? When they get to the junk modelling area – why do they have to make a rocket or complete a writing frame around a journey into space before having to paint stars onto black sugar paper with white paint?

As practitioners we need to think about why we create the areas of provision that we create and what it is that we want children to learn and experience as they work and play in them.
If we are encouraging our children to develop dexterity in the dough then does it matter if they don’t make a planet? If we are teaching them a variety of joining and construction skills in the junk modelling area, do they have to build a rocket? If we want them to mark make or write, do they have to write about space? Of course the answer to all of the above is ‘no’!

When we are planning for children’s learning we need to think of the topic as a stimulus or an enhancement to continuous provision. What is more important is that we clearly identify what it is that our children need to learn and then plan for how we can use our environment and their interests to teach them those next steps and allow them to consolidate and apply the new skills that they have acquired.

So next time you are planning a topic, keep it to your carpet session and your direct input. Plan your continuous provision for skill development and purpose and then enhance it with children’s interests, what you are teaching (basic skills) and what you are talking about (topic). That way you have the most potential to maximise opportunities for learning and engagement and keep fiddling fingers occupied!

Best Practice in the Early Years bookAlistair is a popular Early Years Consultant and ex-headteacher dedicated to helping settings enhance their EYFS practice. He works with individuals, settings and local authorities both nationally and internationally. His latest book Best Practice in the Early Years contains lots of activities and techniques written in his creative and witty style. Click here to find out more.

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