We’re all about putting the joy back into childcare and it starts right at the beginning of the day by using interactive displays as a heuristic planning tool. It’s kind of informal but nonetheless effective and it complements how we use our environment (as the third educator) for planning wonderfully. It doesn’t take as long as it does on paper and it’s not as boring as it is on paper either. It’s actually really engaging and a really creative process and, even better, the kids can get involved. If you like, our interactive displays are mere suggestions about what children might choose to investigate, explore, find out about and these suggestions are often based on children’s current interests or at least based upon the interesting [research] questions children ask throughout the day. Well, as current as they were as of yesterday by the time they left but even then, if they went to the beach with Grandma after tea yesterday then the odds are that making mud chapatis are out and building dams is in. Hey ho, that’s how fast children’s interests change and that’s why forward paper planning is pretty pointless especially if it’s done for the whole week (or further) ahead.

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So, each display (or provocation if you’re of a Reggio persuasion) starts with a research question. A question, most usually, posed by a child during their play, you know, from our eavesdropping or from children’s existing knowledge of the world. “Do trees shed their skins like snakes?” was a question Joely Moley asked after he found strips of bark had come away from the logs. I’d have never thought of that. Would you? Each display will have a range of interesting objects with a range of accessible and open-ended resources and loose parts close to hand – some natural, some synthetic – it’s all good so long as they can be used creatively and imaginatively. And they’re not packed away in coloured, lidded plastic boxes, with labels (remember how much Mrs O used to love those?) no – they’re in baskets and bowls on low shelves. It is always the very first thing children check out before they start their day. They look, they pick things up, rub them, turn them around in their hands, sniff them, shake them and all the while we can see the cogs going round and round in their little heads, wondering, wondering what they are, what they  are for, how they can use them in their play. We actually set up different provocations in different areas across the setting – indoors and outdoors – on a bamboo mat on the floor, on a low Japanese style table, a folding lap tray table, anywhere so long as it’s accessible.

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Sometimes they will ask us “what can I do with this?” Anything you like. Cogs keep turning. If they immediately take off with them and use them in their imaginative play then it has been an instant success. If, however, they put them back down and go off to play then 2 things can happen:

1. they will either come back for them later when they’ve had their eureka moment or

2. they are not interested in them in the least and we need to critically think about what we have done and why we have done it that way. We need to reflect in action right now if we are to make it a success today rather than reflect on action at the end of the day and think about how we can make it work better for tomorrow. Goodness only knows how many learning opportunities we could be robbing our curious little explorers of – doesn’t even bear thinking about…

If 1. happens then it has been a success afterall – just not an instant one that’s all but that’s okay. If 2. happens then we need to ask ourselves a few questions.

  • Did we not hit the mark so far as their current interests are concerned?
  • Were the display objects just not interesting enough?
  • Should we have used that good old effective teaching strategy that allows learners to observe the educator’s thought processes in how they might be used? This is called modeling and I’m not a big fan of it with very young learners as I think there’s a real risk that children can think that what we are modeling is what is supposed to be done with things rather than encouraging them to explore their own ideas. If they seem really stumped though then I might do a bit modelling where I think they’re missing out on something really interesting or fun such as bark rubbing or blowing paint through straws. Sometimes just seeing us doing it ourselves kinda gives the kids “permission” that it’s okay to use things in ways they wouldn’t normally use them, or in ways that their parents wouldn’t let them use them. [Think blowing milk across the table at a restaurant – maybe not how they want Manky Franky to behave in polite company].

But we don’t ever abandon the display. Why would we when a lot of thought went into pulling those resources together? – they didn’t happen by accident you know! No, we jiggle it about a bit and re-present it then and there. And we might re-present it quite differently than it was before: perhaps in a different space completely so rather than being on a table top indoors we might put it all inside a large lidded basket to add intrigue. Where they can pull out the objects themselves and wonder what if..? Or put it in a corner of the garden to be “found” and explored. This “jiggling it about a bit”is reflection in action in practice and it’s a really good way of demonstrating how we respond to children’s current interests and needs. To evidence it, take a photo of the original set up and photos of any subsequent amendments. Upload them to your record-keeping space later. You needn’t even necessarily write notes on the changes and why you made them because you wouldn’t be making the changes at all if it had worked the first time, right? But if you want to, if you think it will help you at inspection time then go on and write notes but keep them brief huh? (Or perhaps do what we do: we jot down little notes on a disposable plastic tablecloth or even a storage box lid – or any surface that’s nearby and will wipe down – snap a picture then wipe off. Got the evidence).

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This continual critical thinking and reflection is beneficial in a number of ways:

  1. it shows that we don’t think for a moment that we’re perfect: that we always get it right first time, that we’re so clever we can’t ever be wrong. Instead, it shows that we’re always still learning about children and how they learn, that we’re flexible, that we’re responsive;
  2. it can improve the quality of our provision because we’re not just offering a ‘one size fits all’ service – far from it. The environment and the resources change and move with the needs of the children on a day by day, even hour by hour, minute by minute basis (Owen and Stupans, 2009);
  3. it can stimulate our own personal and professional development (and that of our team if we work with others). How so? Well, when we are constantly questioning, we won’t always know the answers. We will need to share practice with others, do research, perhaps even invest time in training. What is interesting though is that reflecting from our own professional experiences, rather than learning from formal teaching, can be the most important source of personal professional development and improvement (Jasper, 2003).

All 3 combined are elements of outstanding practice. And you can take that to the bank. (Schon, 1987; Boud & Walker, 1998; Epstein & Hundert, 2002).

So come on then clever clogs, what goes into these interactive displays exactly?

We like to think of our displays as kinda like treasure baskets but for older kids and so there is no right or wrong thing to go in them. What we do always try to include though are open-ended resources (preferably natural ones and preferably ones scavenged by the children from the woods or the beach on previous outings) so they already have a real connection with them. They might even remember where they got them from and what they did with them before and this in itself can spark their imaginations. Yes, they might have scratched shapes and letters and numbers in the sand previously but now they can use them to mix their clarty marty or cast spells or call lightning, cause storms or summon winds. (Joely Guacamole is Thor today, can you tell?) Sometimes though, it’s as simple as a bowl of flowers, a basket of different sized brushes for different purposes, a basket of fabric remnants, a stack of log slices, anything. As you can imagine, we never throw anything away. Below, the children are using threading buttons, wire plant ties and plant stakes, the lid from a broken incense stick box and the back panels from a cube storage shelf and all to make “ice lollies”and later to build “caves for bears”.

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You’re not gonna believe I’m saying this but when you give it a go yourself for the first time, you might want to start with a theme or a special day and go from there. Perhaps you have one of PACEY’s Hungry Caterpillar packs (they’re free you know?) Think of all 7 areas of learning and go resource hunting but don’t get hung up on everything being all, well, caterpillar-y. Remember, we want to ignite children’s natural curiosity and creativity so you might want a pile of stones. What will they do with them I wonder? [We’d assume they’d line them up into a roughly caterpillar shape but they probably won’t – not unless we model that because that’s what our own limited adult imagination would have us do coz, like, we’ve been reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar for years and years and years and we’ve been making caterpillars from cardboard egg cartons for-ev-er] … chalks (always, always always put in something for mark-making), books (fiction and non-fiction), puppets, dolly pegs, string, sellotape, tubes, magnifying glasses, jars with lids, bowls, baskets & boxes for the hunter gatherers in the group, large tweezers or tongs etc. The possibilities are endless. Make sure they’re all things that you don’t mind finding their way into your mud kitchen though. Remember, it can all be washed…

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Sometimes the displays last for just a day, even just a morning, or an hour before the resources are changed. What usually happens (if they’re interesting or engaging enough) is they just gradually and naturally morph all by themselves as objects are transported off for other more meaningful purposes [play – as intended] and replaced with other pieces [which we hope will also soon be transported off for more meaningful purposes]. Afterall, kids don’t just suddenly stop being interested in bees do they? Noooo-ho-ho they become interested in where they live, how they make their homes, why they disappear after summer, why they buzz, why bees don’t eat beans or marry butterflies, why some have orange bottoms, why bears like honey, how honey stops your throat from hurting, who’s looking after baby bees while mammy and daddy bees are out working all day? Crikey it’s simply exhausting being a kid isn’t it?

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Now then,  we all know that the more open-ended opportunities there are and the more playful the environment is then the more child-initiated learning there will be – or at least we hope so (Nursery World, 2003). Ever had one of these situations where you’ve been learning about something and decided to source a suitable craft? Yep, I’ve done it too [hangs head in shame…] This is forward planning for you and forward planning of the worst kind – underestimating children’s creativity, imagination and ability to make things happen. (If you’re easily offended, don’t look at this – I’m telling you, don’t look).

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But now I think you’re wondering: how can we be sure that children are learning what we hope they’re learning? Well firstly, relax, because the children are actually likely to be learning far more than you ever expected them to. You had Scott Snot down for learning to count from zero to ten but he’s actually been learning how to solve problems like making sure everyone gets to take a turn at using Thor’s hammer coz it’s really, really popular coz it’s really, really cool. You had Moody Trudy down for practising writing her own name but she’s actually been filling all of the containers with water so that Manky Franky can wash his cars, Pipsqueak can water the seedlings and Freddy McTeddy can bath the dolls. And there’s Wary Mary trying and trying and trying to fasten her zip instead of sorting beads into sets of 4 while Shaun (the sheep) cuts grass and wild flowers to make dinosaur spaghetti in his steak house restaurant. And this is why we shouldn’t get so hung up on forward planning but, does it mean that the children aren’t all in a different place today than they were yesterday? That they haven’t learned and developed and grown because they didn’t do what you planned for them?

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But you still feel like you really should have something written down don’t you? You know, for Mrs O? Well okay then. How about something like this?

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Okay, so it’s not in the darkest ink but I think you can see what I’ve done here. Dry wipe pen, straight onto glass, take photo as evidence and upload to wherever you store stuff like this (we use our Facebook secret group “planning, observations and assessments”), rub off for the next day. See how open-ended the learning goals are? OP, OG and PH could be achieving those goals through absolutely any activity whatsoever – and they did. OP used buckets of water and a wallpaper pasting brush to paint a bat on the wall and she spent ages doing it, describing everything about the bat as she went along. OG has recently begun toilet training so this is an ongoing learning goal and is very important to him at the moment. He’s frequently reminding the other children that he’s a big boy now and that he’s starting school soon which means we’re supporting him for his next transition. It’s difficult to capture this in a photo so we captured this as a video and shared with Mum then uploaded it to our evidence page. PH is also becoming increasingly independent and spent the best part of the day fastening and unfastening her zip,pulling her leggings up and down and taking off and putting on her socks and shoes. Did they achieve their goals? Hell yes and what’s better is they did it their own way. All we had to do was give them the time and space and freedom and be there if they needed us.

But now you have a burning desire to write an observation don’t you? Well, do one then. We like to do ours using the same kind of things the kids like using. Wanna know what we use in one of our outdoor spaces? White IKEA Trones shoe storage boxes which I bought years and years ago to store my son’s lego bricks and cars and other small toys. We write on them with – you guessed it – dry wipe pens, take a photo, upload yeah yeah, you know the drill… It’s also where we store the kind of things we don’t like to leave around all the time like paint and glue bottles, batteries etc. We also like using magnetic boards which we use with dry wipe pens. This way, we can record our evidence anywhere and everywhere.

We’ve even been known to write on paper sometimes. Yeah, really we have, only it’s nowhere near as much fun and feels much more like work.

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References

Boud, D. and Walker, D. (1998). Promoting reflection in professional courses: the challenge of context. Stud High Educ, 23, 191‐206.

Epstein, R. M. and Hundert, E. M. (2002). Defining and assessing professional competence. Jama‐J Am Med Assoc, 287, 226‐235.

Jasper, M. (2003). Beginning Reflective Practice (Foundations in Nursing and Health Care). Cheltenham: Nelson Thames.

Owen, S. M. and Stupans, I. (2009). Experiential placements and scaffolding for reflection. Learning in Health and Social Care, 8, 272‐281.

Schon, D. A. (1987.) Educating the reflective practitioner: Toward a new design for teaching and learning in the professions. San Fransisco, CA: Jossey‐Bass Inc.

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