As you are no doubt aware from your own experiences of learning anything new, success has as much to do with self-belief as it does with any level of intelligence you might possess. So, when we look at establishing the best possible start for our children as they venture into the school classroom, keep this close to mind.
During their enormously influential early years, your children are sharing so many experiences of learning with you. But what can be overlooked are their first experiences of what it means to try to learn. Every experience is teaching them something about the impact of their actions and whether the effort is worth their while. So, with that in mind, ask yourself “What is the point of endlessly naming shapes, colours or the sounds of the day?”
When experiences of learning are negative (they get the wrong answer) or seem meaningless (what is the point of this?) children soon see it as futile and are less likely to bother trying. This impacts their potential achievement, both directly as they lose interest in the process of learning and through its effect on their self-belief, attention skills, concentration, and persistence.
Soon, classroom experiences of learning are going to replace many of the freedoms of experience that you now enjoy. When this happens, children may find limited opportunities to use their natural methods of learning; to pursue an idea for as long as they need, to be autonomous in the decisions they are making or to access the resources or environments they need.
Now is your opportunity to embrace these styles of learning. Give your children opportunities to think and demonstrate what they can achieve with experiences they are interested in. Let them see why the properties of a shape might be important or how you can use the sounds of words to communicate with each other. Offer the time and opportunity for children to self-direct, allowing them to explore their direction of enquiry, revisiting as often as needed and trusting in their judgement. And let them see and feel the impact of their learning as their ideas take shape, regardless of what their intentions may have been.
As children play, they try out various roles, initiating and manipulating experiences as they see how something beyond their means or capabilities feels. As they play, they are investigating and making decisions on what they will do next, exploring the power of an idea and what can come from it. When they hit difficulties or make a mistake, they learn that this is how you learn more, what it means to persist and to try new ways of thinking. All of which are powerfully important to future learning.
But these are not things you can know in advance or plan an activity to manage. Instead, think about the opportunities your children have to access their environment and how free they are to connect with the experiences they need in the moment. Can they explore new ideas and discoveries in different ways? Are they allowed to combine different resources and concepts? Can they move into whichever areas they need – inside and out – as an idea occurs to them? Observe them during the day with these questions in mind.
As this is happening, offer meaningful, measured, and focused praise. But watch first, be careful not to interrupt a key moment of engagement and wait for those natural breaks or when they turn to you for guidance. Offer them interesting, novel, and authentic resources with the time, space and freedom they need to engage in the rich learning opportunities they offer. Allow ideas to germinate, free from excessive distractions, interruption, or management. And be ready to see what they have to show you, even if this may be quite different to what you may expect. Remember, memories of this experience are forming constantly.
Resources should be:
Fresh, interesting, and stimulating, capturing attention, generating ideas and challenging thinking
Plentiful so they can be explored in various ways
Open-ended rather than manufactured for a purpose, where a predetermined goal may limit the investigation and deeper learning
Thought-provoking, encouraging discussion, questioning, and investigating their purpose, allowing them to become the ‘expert’
As you offer any activity, avoid being focused on getting it done or achieving its outcome, think instead of the rich journey. Consider an elaborate piece of artwork, a favourite film, or a book you enjoy becoming lost in. These experiences are not about getting through as many as possible, but the deep enjoyment you take from each one. Offer this deep engagement to your children.
Within these rich, carefully considered experiences, your children can see the results of their endeavours. They will learn that their opinions, their thoughts, and their voice can all have meaning – and consequences. And that the level of their effort has an impact on their end goal – developing a belief in their abilities and the confidence to try something new. Help them to see a mistake or failed attempt as a step on their journey to better understanding, promoting the self-motivation they need to stay with it. And as you do so, establish all the features of lifelong learning… learning superpowers indeed!
Whilst children need to engage in enriching experiences, there is no evidence that “super enrichment” leads to “super development.” So, avoid seeking out ways of doing this, it is unnecessary. Simply think of the experiences you are offering your children as they engage with their world. And be aware of how your children are communicating with you as you enjoy the rich and diverse opportunities all around you.
I hope you enjoyed this focus on nurturing lifelong learning in the years before school. Next month we will continue our focus on learning by looking at motivation. If you would like to know more, check out the courses and accreditation available at www.nurturingchildhoods.co.uk coming soon, the Nurturing Childhoods Academy, where you can take courses, join the community groups and bring your professional development to life as together we begin developing the potential of all children in their early years.