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Moving from a 'jolly' to a deep and meaningful experience

A reflection based upon rich and varied experiences of taking young children out into the Wider World by an Associate.

Beginnings:

There is a big world out there waiting for us all. As a toddler I was taken for rides in my child seat on my father’s bike to the local pond to feed the ducks and to see various local businesses in action including the blacksmith and thatcher. My mother meanwhile took me on the bus to the local market and town shops. This is hugely different to young children today. Moving on a couple of decades I went to Papua New Guinea for two and a half years on Voluntary Service Overseas to teach. This was the first time I had ever been on a plane and I didn’t come home during that time. My love of and interest in from those toddler years have nurtured my interest in travel, learning about the world’s peoples, cultures, religions, and these activities have continued and taken me far and wide. Travel broadens the mind, but it has to be taken in appropriately sized steps as one size fits few. In my 17 years as headteacher at Chelsea Open Air Nursery School we established over 50 business and community links locally which supported and extended the diversity of the multi-faith, multi-ethnic, and richly diverse backgrounds of the children in our care. The one parameter we always started from when taking children outside the safety of the nursery was asking the questions “Why are we taking this child or children?” And “What can they learn?” “ How can we follow-up and extend this learning?”

Starting local:

Young children need to start local. The closer to home we offer opportunities for learning and extending their interests, the more effective our provision is likely to be. Two-year olds are fascinated by water, toilets, and the movement of things which are all linked to their schematic thinking and learning. We add to this by talking to them about bathroom matters when changing nappies and toilet training. So, it isn’t really surprising that they then start to watch the water go down the plug or try to flush the whole toilet roll down the toilet is it? They are trying to extend their own learning with what is available. If we nurture and extend this learning by putting some food colour in the sink or toilet and then lifting a drain cover outside to see when and where it appears then we are adding to their understanding of water, plumbing, and sewage. If we invite in a sewage engineer who is willing to bring in photos of the vast networks of drains, piping, sewers etc then we add further opportunities. In water play we can add in piping and gutters of different widths for hands-on exploration. This could also connect to further possible questions about what else lies underground leading to all sorts of possibilities such as dinosaurs, archaeology, tube trains, cables etc.

Staying local:

Another group of young children might be inspired to want to write a letter having seen adults receive them. Mark-making for a purpose is a clear benefit and then buying a stamp at the post office and using real money before actually dropping the letter/postcard in the box starts the process off. All these stages in the process add in further learning connections, language, and varied vocabulary. When a reply is received the learning can go in many different ways including being able to read and discuss it. Then perhaps the practitioners arrange a visit from a post person, visit the post office or read the story “Flat Stanley” and create their own Stanley or Stella to post off somewhere in the wider world…

The huge benefits of building up young children’s knowledge and understanding of their local community alongside making strong connections with local people, local businesses, and opportunities ultimately not only sows the seeds of learning but helps to genuinely strengthen your community. People and Communities is an area of Understanding the World which is often more challenging but if you are out walking talk to local people such as the traffic warden, the road sweeper, the refuse collectors. Explain how they could help your children’s learning, and some will respond and go and talk with their leaders and more often than not come back with ideas how they can help. Also approach others apart from the more usual fire fighters and police who are sometimes forgotten within the community such as the Mayor, the park warden, the hairdresser, health clinic etc. Parents can also be very helpful in this area too if you let them know what you are considering.

The why, where, when and how:

In my opinion early childhood practitioners most benefit the children they teach if they reflect long and hard about where, when, how, and most importantly why they are taking children out into the Wider World. Many schools and settings take children out once or twice a year as a sort of ‘reward’ or achievement milestone of being a child in that place and time. Sometimes these are viewed as a treat because the definite personal, social, and emotional learning which occurs. These bi-annual visits generally include a performance or theatre visit experience during the winter months and a wider range of generally outdoor experiences during the summer. Whilst for some more vulnerable children these opportunities will enrich their lives forever but for many the learning potential is sadly not as fulfilling and beneficial as it could be. These experiences are at the level of “jollies” rather than child-led deeply meaningful learning experiences. For practitioners they also represent a large amount of work and responsibility if planned, risk-benefit assessed, and carried out properly.

What to do before going out:

By sharing stories, providing meaningful experiences and discussing with the children before visiting you will also get to understand what they already know and where they need to explore next. For example: with Stoke’s rich history of pottery it would be important for children to play with clay regularly and make their own creations before arranging to visit a pottery. Using real (Ikea) china in your home corner will also offer them the opportunity to learn after a risk -benefit assessment of china’s properties once fired. Or if going to visit the canal, river, or pond a discussion about water safety and the safest way to look at water by sitting or better still lying on the ground next to the water source to really experience it.

If visiting a museum with historical artefacts such as suits of armour, you will of course need to consider your setting’s response to weapon play which is highly likely to result on your return. Thus, be prepared and plan how to extend and redirect.

To ensure maximum learning benefit we must start with the unique child and what they are interested in. This is more challenging because it could be just one child or a few children and thus we will need to carefully consider not only the why but the where, when, and how, staffing ratios, and crucial procedures such as risk-benefit assessments. We also need to consider how this restricted visit might be seen by parents. By developing a policy or procedural means to explain to parents why their child is or is not going out the next day will be highly practicable. Parents in my experience only want the best for their child and are quick to see the value of this approach to learning particularly when carefully explained to them.

Going further afield?

Then we must consider the where, as in my experience travelling long distances of over 20 minutes maximum with large groups of small children in coaches, minibuses, or on trains generally is fraught with issues including sickness, sleeping, toilets etc. Thus, the nearer the venue for exploration, the better. You are also more likely to build up strong and cohesive links with members of your local community which can last for years. These might have economic or food connections such as the local shop, the bakers, the bank, the restaurant, or they might be more open-ended such as a construction, historical, or industrial venue where seeing how things are built or how different things were in the past will fascinate and enthral some young children. This in turn supports the enrichment of local communities and respect for children and of course your business.

Places of interest to consider:

There can also be a bias in early childhood towards the ‘soft and fluffy’ experiences in those which are mainly offered to young children on visits. Anything involving animals generally falls into this category. This is because early childhood is predominantly female-led and areas such as maths, science, technology, and engineering may not be areas of confidence or experience. Many of our children will grow up to work in these fields so children need to learn about them. In an area such as Stoke-on-Trent there are some real jewels which can be explored to just this end and often by prior arrangement you can involve curators and other staff to explain, demonstrate, and involve the children in their rich heritage. Similarly linked to the Characteristics of Effective Learning and all the areas of early learning children need opportunities to be creative, problem-solve, and think critically. This might be enabled by links to a local garage or civil engineering firm who if asked might supply a range of car parts such as a bumper, steering wheel, tyres, nuts, and bolts which the children can tinker with in a role play or discovery area of the nursery. Contacting the local park, garden centre, or allotments can be really rewarding as well as organisation such as the Woodland Trust, Forestry Commission, National Trust, and other local museums. As a practitioner you just need to get the courage to ask. The worst that can happen is they say no, but better still they will probably say yes as most folk want to help young children learn and grow in their local community.

What to do on your return:

When returning from visits with lots of photos it is really important to capture the learning quickly. This can be easily achieved if the photographs are printed off ready for a beneficial discussion with the children who went out. The photos act as prompts to re-tell the story of their experiences. This can be used in learning story observations for individual children capturing their vocabulary, learning experiences, and social and emotional responses. It can also make for very powerful displays which celebrate this learning and its links across the EYFS especially for parents and visitors or as a book which the children can ‘read’ over and over again with their peers thus extending the potential learning and interest still further.

Then of course you should also reflect upon what you have learned. Through my own research, everyone child and adult learns through going out on educational visits if they are really focussed upon learning.

Summary:

The key is to start with children’s curiosity and interests. As we observe these, we demonstrate how we value them and their learning and our responses as observers, listeners and responders to their actions and words will demonstrate we value them and their learning. To summarise my advice is:

  • consider your children and their interests, fascinations, schemas, and dispositions as to finding your starting point - younger children should stay as close to the setting as possible
  • start small and take as few children from your setting as possible
  • ask businesses, venues, if you can bring a small group for a short time
  • ask those on site if they can help you but, beware of anyone who wishes to give a ‘lecture’
  • consider what can be learnt before, during and afterwards by the children
  • consider if the visit is sustainable in terms of cost, staffing, distance, suitable clothing, and whether the visit can be repeated for other children helping to future-proof staff time and energies
  • ultimately think about your role and responsibilities as leader and whether the visit is a ‘jolly’ or a deep and meaningful experience.

Good luck, go out and learn.

Kathryn Solly