Excellence in the early years

Gary Wood

Gary Wood

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Below is a transcription of a previously existing podcast that has been converted to text for your convenience.

In this in-depth episode, Caroline talks to Alistair Bryce-Clegg, an established and well-known educational consultant specialising in the education of children in the Early Years. They discuss elements of good practice, such as how to support children’s common play behaviours, continuous provision, planning, resources, transition and much more!

Caroline: Welcome to the curriculum, a podcast by Cornerstones Education. Here we discuss all things curriculum plus leadership issues, teaching tips, and much, much more.

Hello and welcome to this latest edition of The Curriculum, a podcast by Cornerstones Education. I’m your host, Caroline Pudner and today I have ventured out of the office yet again, this time to meet someone rather special, particularly in the world of early years education. It’s Alistair Brice Clegg, who’s a well-known early years expert and educational consultant, who has published Is it 20 books?

Alistair: I think it’s 22 books.

Caroline: He’s even given a Ted talk, which you can see on the website, on YouTube, and whose main work is offering training and fantastic conferences and resources through his wonderful website Abc Does. He’s even made a recent TV appearance on a very popular program, but more to be revealed in a moment.

Alistair: That was scary too.

Caroline: So firstly, welcome to the podcast, Alistair. Thank you so much for inviting me into your home. So for anyone listening who isn’t aware of your work or what you do, could you give us a brief lowdown of what your work is and also how you got to the point that you are at now?

Alistair: Well, I started my life as the child of a teacher, so teaching has always been a big part of what I do and a lot of my family are teachers. I was either going to be a teacher or a Blue Peter presenter, I think very early on, I decided I was going to be one of the two. I used to go to school with my mum a lot and watch her teach. She, to be fair, was a key stage two teacher and was a very good teacher. She spent most of her time in year six, which is where apparently all the good teachers are. Or so the myth was. Her view of early years, I think at the time early years didn’t even exist, but of Reception and nursery was that that’s where all the play bits happened. So maybe if you weren’t so strong as a teacher or whatever, you went and taught down there, and then there’s plenty of catch up time by the time you got to year six.

 So, although I never intended to go into early years, I did. I worked, for a year as a classroom assistant in a primary school, and then went and did my teaching qualification and said to my tutor, even though it’s a primary course, I’d like to do juniors, please, because I can’t see myself as an infant teacher. And she was either really wise or cruel and said, well, you know, I think you maybe need to do some infants. So, I’m going to pop you in reception. And I did a really long placement in a reception class and initially hated it. It was quite early on in the year. When I trained you did quite long placements, and then some time in university and, had a really inspirational teacher called Sally Roy, who was just amazing. And I think by about halfway through the practice, it began to click a bit, and by the end, I was absolutely in love with it and this concept of how important it is for early development and how complex child development was.

In my head, if I’m honest, I was thinking in my early 20s, you know, when you’re four and five, there’s not a lot you can do really, sing some songs, take my guitar, play in the sand, read some stories and that kind of thing. Then you realise that, yeah, it is about singing songs and playing in the sand and reading stories. They’re all valid, but they are all pathways into future learning. And if you get a handle on that and you can make those really exciting and engaging, that’s when you’re really going to capture children’s learning. I think, to understand, that’s where the hook comes for later on. If we can really get children inspired as early years children, then you stand a much better chance of keeping them when the curriculum starts to get a little bit narrower and a little bit drier. No wonder some children disengage. I think we as adults wouldn engage with some of the curriculum that’s out there and being promoted.

So, I got the bug and then ended up specializing in early years and then spent the majority of my teaching career as an early years teacher across all the age groups in early years and Key Stage one, then became deputy head of a three form entry infant school and then became head of that infant school. I opened an early years unit, the first early years unit in the north west of England, which was interesting, scary, and a little bit of a disaster to start off with, but got better. Well, we’d gone from being three reception classes and a nursery in a separate building where we had five tables, 30 chairs, a carpet area, and we were very much topic driven as a school. So, we did teach on the carpet, go and do an activity related to the teaching point at a table, then play time, then sometimes activities in the afternoon if there’s readers to be heard. And we moved to knocking one of the walls off the nursery building on essential space and three other learning spaces and a big outdoor area, and suddenly we were free flow, continuous provision, self-access, about 12 adults in one gigantic space. It was a complete change. At the time we thought about it, we talked about it and we thought we could do it. And then the children arrived and we suddenly realised it was significantly harder than it was going to be. So, we had some teething issues, but we stuck to our guns and we went with play being the major part of what we were doing. And it took us a little while, but eventually we started to get that to work really well.

As a result of that working well, I got asked to go and speak to other places that were setting up units. I got asked to go and work with some students at university, at Manchester Metropolitan University, and then I started to get asked more and more to write little bits or go and speak at various conferences. So, over the last maybe four years of my headship, a consultancy seed started to grow. And then I’d been a head for ten years. I also was hitting 40 and an opportunity came up and I thought, I can either take this opportunity and do some consultancy full time. I loved my job as a head. I loved it and I thought if it goes wrong, there would be no issue in coming back to headship at all. I enjoyed being head of the school and lots of aspects of that. I still miss it in this job, even though I love what I’m doing. And that was ten years ago. So, I started off with one job, working with a local authority in Blackpool and thought, well, I’ve got one job in the diary, let’s just see what happens. And then it has just grown and grown. I started a blog, which you’ve mentioned, which now has become a website, and then started to offer my own training, do lots of writing for Bloomsbury and various other people, and I now have the lovely job of being able to work both nationally and internationally. I get to see early years practice all over the world and realise how remarkably similar and sometimes different it is, but that really helps me to continue growing. All the best things I learned about early years, I learned them from watching other practitioners. So, I’m a little bit lucky and quite greedy in that I get to watch lots of really talented people do really amazing stuff, and I just add all those skills into my skills bank and then help other people by talking about, well, here they try this and here they do that and maybe try that.

Caroline: I suppose those people, when you are isolated in your own setting, you haven’t got the luxury of doing that. So having someone like you to come in who’s seen so many, like you say, internationally, wherever it is to distill some of the best practice, it is very valuable for people.

Alistair: I think what’s also really important for me to cling to is that apart from the fact I am still going and working with settings, most of the time, if I’m not doing training because that keeps you sharp and it keeps you fresh, and it means that you’re not just saying, oh, I’ve got this great idea I had in the bath, try this. But also, the fact that each team is really unique and individual, just as children are. So, it’s never a one size fits all. So I’ve got a view of early years, I write about it, I talk about it a lot, but that doesn’t always apply as a complete package to everywhere that you go. So, I don’t go in and say, here’s the Alistair Clegg way of doing such and such. It’s about going to work with a set and saying, well, where are you now? Where would you like to be? Have you thought about this way? You’ve reflected on that and then putting realistic steps in place rather than a one size fits all, because it never, ever does. And as people, all of us grow and change, your thinking grows and changes and therefore your practice grows and changes. So, it’s fluid, and there are fundamental principles that you can talk about around pedagogy of early years. But ultimately, it’s it really is a fluid process of change because your team changes, and one team member difference, can make a huge difference positively and negatively to where a team is in terms of their development. So, I think we are sometimes conditioned into this aspiration of the utopian existence of an early years space. I’ve never found it. I just find lots of people who are working really hard on a journey, to quote a really naff phrase, but it is on a journey to be the best that they can be, given who they are and the team they’ve got. And of course, each year group of children, each cohort is different from the last. So, there will be common threads again. But that’s why you’re your environment and your approach has to be unique and change across the year because the children themselves are unique.

Caroline: And I’m sure many of our listeners listening to this who were early years or any teachers will know what you mean by that from one year to the next. It can seem so different. Children’s interest, which is really important at early years, can change depending on what your group of children are, the mix of children, the ages of them.

Alistair: Absolutely. Their interests. And I think that’s what the Early Years Foundation stage curriculum, not that it’s a perfect curriculum, allows you to do if you have got the self-confidence and the freedom to do that within your setting. Whereas when I first started to teach, the first job I got, the file of information was left by the previous teacher who’d retired and it had the topics in it for the half term, so there were six week topics and the teaching plan was mapped out. So, I could have told you in three weeks time what I’d be doing at 10:00. And we stuck to it like glue, and there was no opportunity for children to or to recognise differences in children. You taught the topics that you taught. And again, there were often science based. They were key stage one topics that were taught in reception. And I remember one of my favourites ‘not’ was we used to do houses and homes as a topic which can be exciting, but we did the seven main types of housing in Great Britain. So, we had to talk to our four year olds about the different types of houses, like bungalows and flats and semi-detached and detached, and I remember sitting there thinking, well, why am I doing this? Which child is going to walk out of school and go, oh, look, mummy, there’s a bungalow and there’s a semi-detached house. But it was on the topic planner, so you did it. Then you’d do a math sheet because we were very worksheet based and you’d put all the numbers in houses for no other reason than you were doing houses and homes. So therefore, everything had to tie into topic. So as an adult, I found that very restrictive because all of my creativity, which is one of the reasons I went into teaching because It’s a very creative profession, kind of gets sucked out wihen you’ve got to stick rigidly to this kind of topic based approach.

Caroline: So actually, it seems like your approach and what you like about this age group is the creativity, the flexibility and responsiveness, responding to children, knowing the framework and where you want the children to get to or the body of skills that you’re hoping they’ll work on, but very much going organically from the children, from the setting.

Alistair: And that’s how my practice has changed over time. When I first became a reception teacher, I didn’t have any of the depth of knowledge that I’ve got now around child development or skill based learning. I very much liked the element of fun that was in early years. So, I came from an engagement angle and I do say far too much now. Often to practitioners, high level engagement is your link to high level attainment and progress. Engagement comes from high levels of wellbeing and high levels of wellbeing. Children who are settled and happy and play, for the majority of children and adults, to be fair, brings high levels of wellbeing. That’s why a play based approach makes sense. So, that’s the kind of the angle I came from that I wanted children to be really happy in this space. When I began to marry that with reflecting on my own practice and thinking, well, why am I doing that? And what in my head am I thinking the outcome of that is going to be? What’s my expectation of play? It’s another phrase that I overuse now. Then I started to get a far more productive play based approach, as opposed to just having a very enthusiastic, fun based approach, which it used to punctuate formal teaching. So, it would be formal teaching then a fun based approach and formal teaching. And where I am now is about integrating learning into play and understanding that actually play is not something you do while you’re waiting for the learning to come in the form of an adult.

A really good early years space looks like play and feels like play to the children, but it’s underpinned by some really good rigorous thinking, reflection, observation, planning by an adult. So, when somebody comes along and says to any of the settings that I work with a lot, can you talk to me about attainment through play, they are able to say, well, this is my environment, this is why I created this is the assessment that prompted these areas, this is what my expectation of these areas are, these are the skills I’m trying to develop, these are the interests of these particular children. So that’s built into there. And there is a narrative around how the space is supporting teaching and learning, as opposed to people who want to see how good a teacher I am. Come and watch me teach on the carpet and then leave. It’s about if you want to see how good I really am, come and watch me do a bit of interaction, but go and then look at my provision. And when I do observations, which I do a lot of often with senior leaders, often in schools, and I really encourage them to look at the spaces where there are no adults. Yes, observe the adults in interaction, but let’s go and find spaces where there aren’t, because that’s where you see true play and learning happening.

Caroline: I was going to ask you that actually, what you look for when you go into a setting, what immediately strikes you other than a ball of Play-Doh, Hopefully not the eye.

Alistair: Wouldn’t be the first time!

Caroline: I think it’s true. You could tell a lot from the children and what they’re doing independently.

Alistair: And children always tell the truth.

Caroline: Unfortunately!

Alistair: What’s hard to do sometimes is to not to interrupt play to talk to children. But I always find is, any random stranger, especially a smiley one, children are falling over themselves to show you something, tell you something, or ask you to fasten their shoelace. It’s usually one of those three things, because in early years, they’re also really used to usually adults coming in and out all the time. So, I have lots of discussions with children and always I start with, I’m just new here. I’ve come to play today. What are the best things do you enjoy playing with? Where should I be looking? Where are the really good stuff? And that’s where you find their perceptions and also what’s interesting, I am very interested in perceived gender difference in early years and looking at that aspect of are there gender differences? And it’s not binary in terms of male and female, but all of that. I did an Ma in teaching with an earlier specialism quite a number of years ago, and I’m in the middle of my doctorate at the moment again in early years, which felt like a very good idea at the time. But you forget that to get a doctorate it’s really quite hard. So, I do sit there sometimes thinking, hmm, this is interesting. But what’s really good for doing the doctorate bit is that it allows me to indulge myself in aspects of early years practice that I find interesting, like the kind of gender lens thing that I’m looking at the moment that I wouldn’t necessarily have had time to do in my day to day as I would get distracted with other stuff. So not only does it improve your thinking, I think it allows you to reflect. It also allows me to take aspects of things that fascinate me, because there’s so much fascinating stuff in the development of children and just dig into it.

Caroline: Yeah, because there’s a lot of people, I suppose, in that field researching that in very meaningful ways. And in doing your doctorate, you get a chance to absorb that and really look into that, and then you distill it.

Alistair: It does, and it changes the idea that there’s been some nice gaps in between my further study, because it does make your brain hurt, but already my doctorate has changed my practice because you reflect in different ways, but also you just have access to other, amounts of information to have a look at. I’m not saying to be a successful early years practitioner, you’ve got to do a doctorate by any means at all. But I think even if it’s blog reading or TS reading, there’s plenty of information out there. In fact, there’s almost too much information out there. But just to keep yourself fresh and allow other people who fancy doing a doctorate to do a doctorate, allow them to distil the information and pass it back to you in a distilled form, because even that, again, can help to shape your thinking and kind of move you forward.

Caroline: Can I just go back on to play again because you talked about play because I’ve written a bit about this and talked to early years practitioners about it and like you say, for a while, it’s been thought of as something you just let children go and play. But it’s central, isn’t it? Is there anything that you’ve seen or that you think about play? I know you’ve written a fantastic blog about common play behaviours. I wonder if you can explain what that means.

Alistair: It’s the idea of play being as open ended as it can possibly be, and allowing children to explore a play space and interpret it through their own medium, as opposed to saying, we are all going to be playing with this and this is how you play with it. So I very much feel, children need to collect a body of knowledge that’s going to take them through life. They need to know things, but they also need to apply those things because it’s when you apply what you know then it becomes a reality. And the more you apply it and the more creative that you can become with it. So when we think about things like the characteristics of effective learning, where they talk about children being creative and critical thinkers, you’re only ever going to become a creative and critical thinker if you’re given the opportunity to think and be creative in its broadest sense. So a really nice, open ended space allows for that to happen. If you are leaving the carpet and your choice is quite narrowed. So it’s tricky words in the sand. It’s pouring in the water tray with jugs. It’s can you make a hedgehog on the malleable materials table? And all you’re being given are a list of tasks. It’s little wonder that a lot of children will disengage from those tasks because they’re not of interest. Whereas if you said on the malleable materials table, we are experimenting with imprinting or joining or rolling, but you can imprint whatever you want. In fact, you can make your own imprinting devices by wrapping string around a block. Or you can use the tires on the truck, whatever it may be. I’m still getting you to explore how you make an imprint, but I’m not saying you can only make an imprint by using this particular, whatever it may be. So if I’m wanting you to explore pouring, if I want you to explore moulding, I’m not saying you have to. Just because we’re doing Under the Sea as a topic. You’ve got to mould with a starfish your shape. I’m going to say there are loads of things you can mould with, and I’m going to link some of those things to your interests so you can create your own.

I very much think that an environment linked to learning is one that is underpinned by skill development, but that is very much driven by children’s interest and then peppered with adult input. So, if it is autumn and we are talking about autumn, for example, which is moving into winter, and then, you know, you might pepper your environment with aspects of the thing. That you are talking about. But I wouldn’t be saying today you could make a hedgehog in the malleable materials table. Can you print with an autumn leaf? So you might, and what I would have done as a teacher at autumn and did, I’d got autumn leaves, I’d have got my autumn palette of colours. Only I’d have put them in a tray. I’d got me autumn coloured sugar paper. I’d already have half a display in mind. And I said to the children, right, either independently or with an adult, you are going to paint the back of an autumn leaf, and you’re going to print in autumn colours. And I think if it’s a play-based environment, my question would always be, why are we doing it? If children are doing that independently, does it reinforce skills of autumn? Does it reinforce knowledge of autumn? Does it articulate their understanding of autumn? Or are we saying actually what we’re doing is printing, so you can print with a variety of objects because we’re exploring how to print. Some of those will be autumn leaves linked to the thing that we’re talking about. If I engage with you in your printing and I might or might not, depending on the role of the adult, I might use the language of autumn that I used on the carpet when we were talking about it as a reinforcement, but I’ll use in the context of printing. What I won’t be saying is you’ve got to use a leaf to print.

Caroline: So what you’re talking about really is the difference between enhancing those pepperings. You are enhancing it.

Alistair: Rather than continuous provision.

Caroline: Rather than continuous provision, which is actually about supporting the characteristics of learning. So, if you really want children to be creative thinkers, you have to allow them space to be imaginative and also to come up with an idea or theory. And as maybe we’ve talked about this before, if you’re the adult in that setting that you might be there just to encourage, just to nudge the child to be confident enough to see that through and maybe fail. But at least they’ve been using their creativity.

Alistair: And some children need more support than others. There’s often lovely opportunities for peer learning that goes on, so a child will have an idea and you can see another child see that idea and think, oh, I wouldn’t mind having a go at that. I can sometimes use the analogy of a toolbox and say, If I’m doing training, if you imagine a child’s head being like a toolbox and you open that box now, what you want to give them is tools that they can get out and use again independently. If you just give them activities, they don’t often separate the tool from the outcome. So, if we’re just printing with autumn leaves, they’re not exploring the printing process. Whereas if we explore the printing process, then that’s a tool that I can use later on. And the other important bit for me about continuous provision is if I teach children to print using whatever resources, I can’t then put them away till next autumn. If I’m teaching you to do, say, spherical printing so often you might get conkers and roll them around in the bottom of a tray to explore that or different sized balls. If you then say, well, I’m putting the conkers away till next autumn when we do spherical printing again, I haven’t created an element of continuous provision, so if I teach you to print, I need to be able to then provide some printing resources. If I teach you to use different techniques to paint with different brushes, different things to apply paint with, I can’t then put them away. I’ve got to leave access to those. So, you could think well in this picture, when we did do that painting with a pan scrubs or whatever it may be, which was great. I might try some stippling with that, or I might try and create an effect with that using what I learned about that resource.

So sometimes enhancements are enhancements and then they disappear. And sometimes enhancements become part of provision because they are allowing children to access a skill. So there’s a balance between these and there are people in early years who don’t like the concept of an enhancement. Children should be able to explore an environment. And I think you’ve got to be careful that your enhancements make sense. Like, for me, if you put tricky words in the sand, you could call that an enhancement to sand play. But it’s a rubbish enhancement because who wants to come to sand, and pull tricky words out of the sand.

Caroline: That’s not what children want to do in sand. They literally they write the word sand.

Alistair: You’re not going to get boys rushing outside shouting drop your scooters! There’s tricky words in the sand. Come on, come on. They’re literally going to be going outside saying don’t go in, there’s tricky words in the sand. And she’s got a clipboard, don’t go in. And so then, what I would talk to practitioners about is, well, why do we have a sand tray? What are the skills and experiences that we want to encourage children to learn through sand play, for example. And so even though you could bury tricky words in your sand, what’s your expectation when a child outside of an adult or even with an adult comes and finds those tricky words? If they know them, they know them. If they don’t know them, they don’t know them, what do you think’s going to happen if we dig them out of the sand? So for me, I would keep tricky words well out of the sand tray or the water tray on a ping pong ball. But, um, I think then we start to think around, okay, if you think about a sand tray where the kind of idea for common play behaviours comes, that it’s not an absolute, it’s just to get you thinking. And you would think, well, if I am not at the sand tray with children and they go to explore sand, what are the things that they commonly do in the sand? If they’re at the water table, what are the things they commonly do? So, they’re not exclusive play behaviours.

We’d then work as a team and we’d talk about things like, okay, if you’re not in the sand tray, what are the things that children commonly do with sand? And somebody will invariably say, throw it. We have a big discussion about that. And when children are throwing, why might they be throwing? And I love the psychology of play, and I love getting practitioners to reflect on if they do that, why might that be? So, we often talk about trajectory. If in the throwing of sand, we talk about negative attention, you throw sand at somebody, they cry, you get negative attention, you throw sand to somebody, an adult comes over and you get a bit of a dressing down, negative attention. And then I sometimes say to people, what else is there to throw in your indoor environment? So, if you’ve got a child who’s throwing sand because they can and they’re maybe exploring throwing it as a skill or maybe a schematic play, what else inside can they throw or you know, that kind of trajectory bit about cars at ramps. And then we have discussions around appropriate things to throw in the indoor environment and how actually by just tweaking that you can sometimes stop some of that more as it’s perceived antisocial behaviour. So, we talk about all the different things that children might do in sand. You get filling and emptying and get sieving and sifting, you get digging, you get enclosing and burying. So those things and then we start thinking about those as skills. So we’re saying if the skill of digging, for example, what’s the most emergent thing you might dig with? probably your hand. What then makes digging really easy and accessible for children at the beginning of that development, and then you’re all the way through to how can you add challenge etc. what common play behaviours are not is top, middle, bottom. So you’re not saying, well, once you’ve had a scoop in preschool, you’ll never get a scoop again, so you’d never see a scoop in reception. Or you’re not saying right, your pink basket children, your orange basket children, which I’ve seen and neither is saying top middle, bottom shelf. So you’re not saying you can use things in the top shelf, you can use the things from the bottom shelf. What you’re basically saying is, the majority of my resources for digging will be the ones that are going to be continuously out, will be linked to where my children are currently, but I’m going to give them some more emergent digging resources, because they will use those resources in a way that maybe I haven’t even thought about. You don’t always dig with a digging resource.

 Also I’m going to give them a bit of challenge because a classic example is things like if you talk about construction and the skills of construction, when we look at blocks and if you’re building it low level with wooden, flat wooden blocks, there is not a huge amount of skill for a child who’s well-rehearsed in building with blocks, you tend to stack them one on top of the other or bridge and create little holes to pop through. But blocks are amazing for small world provision, as well as having block areas, because children can quickly construct with plain wooden blocks, which allows them to then articulate their small world play. If we only ever give them Meccano to build with, they’d spend longer making the structure. And actually, if they’ve gone into the small world area, there’s probably not gone into construct. They’ve gone in to rehearse the skills of small world. So low level construction materials like blocks. Brilliant. Yeah. When blocks start getting very challenging and is when they get bigger and you start to build really high and really wide and you’re looking at balance and things like that. So, you don’t ever ban or take away emergent resources. That’s not the idea of a common play behaviour. It’s about thinking about your provision in a in a slightly different way.

Caroline: And it’s interesting because those emergent, those sort of quick to use resources, like you’re saying, the blocks can quickly construct something, if a child has an idea and they’re urgent to make a shelter for their small world tiger who’s running away from something, they don’t want to make it out of Meccano, they’re going to lose interest. And likewise with the big scoop might help to create big waves, which is part of another play.

Alistair: Or you want to dig a big hole etc. But if you only ever give the child a scoop, they’re only ever going to scoop. So yeah, it’s variety. It’s because the resources that you put out invite a type of play. If I put a particular resource out, then I am already channelling your thinking as a child. Unless you are extremely creative and think, oh no, I can use that resource in a different way. And so, the other day, in a small world area where it was girls actually, who were playing with fantasy figures, and they wanted a castle like Elsa’s castle. So, they got the blocks and they knocked up this three storey castle in a very short space of time. It was lovely, but the play was brilliant. I saw it again with some boys that were in the sand on this occasion, using buckets and scoops, and what the adult had done for their enhancement. She’d done some little mini-me’s of superheroes and she’d put velcro dots on the superheroes face, and then she’d cut all the heads of her children out and laminated them with a Velcro dot on the back so you could put your face on any superhero. And they were having in the sand a superhero interaction, which is not uncommon. But they wanted hideouts, so they used a bucket in their hand to make some really quick, simple moulds. That was their hideout. And so if again, if you’d said, well, buckets aren’t available to mold with, you’ve got these small jelly molds in a teaspoon, they’re not going to do it. That’s why they’re going to rake the sand together with their hands and get it done. So Common play behaviors are not about restricting play. It’s not about restricting resources. It’s about practitioners just thinking about skill development.

Caroline: It’s about knowing the children. The common thread of what you’re saying is, it’s sort of just get into their heads for a bit, which I’m sure all good practitioners will do. Think again. Watch them as you’re getting to know them and see not just what their interests are, but like you’re saying, see how they play. If they’re throwing stuff, it’s very easy to judge, why children are doing things, but just standing back and thinking and watching them and working out. Are they practicing a new skill? And it’s then I can’t remember the word now, but it’s allowing that to happen and it’s making room for that. It is so that they can explore it.

Alistair: The hard thing in school based practice and the schools that I work with is that there’s often not a lot of room in their timetable, because there will be a lot of expectation around good level of development around their session of phonics. Often, they may not do continuous outdoor access, so there’s play time to throw into there. Plus you’ve got PE plus assembly every day. And suddenly these periods of continuous provision are just getting shorter and shorter and shorter. And the direct teaching is getting longer and longer and longer.

Caroline: CanI ask you about that, because as regular listeners will know, we’ve been looking at the shift now in and the big news about curriculum and about from Ofsted talking about testing being less emphasis on testing, still concerned with outcomes, but more on schools deciding what their curriculum is going to be and looking at the quality of education. So, in terms of what you’re saying, it seems to me quality of education in early years is what you’re talking about, which is looking at children, responding to them and allowing them to, develop their characteristics of learning skills in that area.

Alistair: And engaging them and getting to know them. And that you have a balance between knowledge and skills, that you are giving them knowledge as an adult, but you’re letting them rehearse their own skills through the play space that you provide. And a lot of the work that I do talks about rather than pulling children out of play to come and learn, trying to take a lot of the learning into the play space, which can be quite a tricky thing to do, especially if you’re used to saying, I’m going to do a maths input, then I’ll have red group, green group, blue group, yellow group, and then my TA will do whatever they’re going to do. I’ll be outside and you just end up on this group rotation.

Caroline: So, could you give us an example of what that might mean then?

Alistair: There are lots of ways you can do it. You can if you’ve got a really well structured play space, a space that’s been linked to who your children are and their development by their very interaction with that space, then they will be hopefully taking on board a lot of the things that you want them to learn. If you’ve got an overview in your head of where you want to go, where your children are through observation and assessment, then as an adult, it is really quite easy once you get the hang of it, to involve yourself in play and start delivering those objectives. So rather than saying come to my table, we’re going to make towers of ten with multilink, which I’ve done a million times, especially when I was a teacher. I might be in the construction area and if it’s appropriate, We are doing exactly the same objective, but we are doing it through in that play space. And then if I’m in the play rather than behind the table, it means that I am able to manage, scaffold, observe, record, reset. Because often in a good play based environment, especially with younger children, it gets unwound reasonably quickly because they interpret resources in lots of different ways and they don’t put things back. And, you know, so things that have been set up to facilitate learning, like often if you get your children who’ve got like schematic behaviour for transport and I’ll fill in an empty and you get a lovely water tray with nothing in it, and then 15 minutes in, everything that you possess is now in the water tray. If you’re not there to acknowledge that and then decant the stuff again, you cease to have the water tray as a usable environment because everything’s just in it and children can’t get their hands on it.

Caroline: And you’re with a group behind a table.

Alistair: And you’re looking up and everything’s going okay. I said the other day to a practitioner I was working with, I sat in on our group session and she really was engaged in the children in the group. This group of six that she worked with, they were really enjoying the interaction they were having with her. She was differentiating her questioning and there was no outdoor access at this particular space and the other 24 children were in play. And so I said to her afterwards, can you articulate for me the progress and learning of those six children you worked with? And she was brilliant at saying that’s where they were. That’s where we got them to. I differentiated there etc. and then I just said, could you do the same for the 24 that were in play? And she said, I don’t know what you mean. And I said, well, can you talk to me about what they’ve been learning during the last 15 minutes? Or the potential for learning because obviously it’s prescriptive. And that was a kind of a penny drop moment for her where she said, actually, no, I can’t because I was head down, partly because you were watching me.

I was head down working with this group. They’re in play. And so then said, well, it’s great that they are in play. Can you start to articulate the environment you’ve created and how that impacts on their learning? And that’s when you start to get the interesting conversations about why have you got what you’ve got. I Said to someone the other day who had a jigsaw table. Why just why have you got a jigsaw table. And again, she found it hard to articulate why she had a jigsaw table other than, well, we always have a jigsaw table because jigsaws are good for early learning skills. Well, there are loads of really good early learning skills you can gain from a jigsaw, but you can also gain them from lots of other things. I know with children we used to have puzzle tables and some years they loved them and they couldn’t get enough, and other years they didn’t touch them because different children have different you know.

Caroline: Yeah, I suppose people have been talking about year one, year two, getting more, more focus on knowledge and, being a bit more rigorous really in terms of that and getting children to acquire knowledge. What’s the role of EYFS then with that? You talked earlier about applying knowledge and that’s very much what I think as well, where you have in your mind what you want children to know about and to have an understanding of, but without them being able to apply that, looking at your idea of really good continuous provision, if they’re doing it there and they’re doing it with you as well in adult led, then is that what you think and can you still prepare children for what they’ve got to do.

Alistair: You can. I wrote a whole book on transition, and the ethos of the book is that they play based approach should travel through into year one with the children. There is nothing to stop you applying national curriculum objectives. It doesn’t matter what your opinion on those is, if you are asked to apply them, there is nothing to stop you applying those through a play based approach in Key Stage one and even beyond, it’s about people’s interpretations and perceptions of the word play. And so lots of settings I work with who do have a play based approach going into year one and very successfully and beyond. Some of them have struggled to keep calling it play, because the perception of parents is playing is what you do when your babies.

Caroline: It’s such a shame, isn’t it? We need a change in culture

Alistair: We do, I’m not in a classroom. I’m not a head teacher, so I can afford to say no, we need to keep calling it play because we need to value. And as adults we should be playing more, never mind children. So people call it things like a discovery based approach or an investigation approach. And actually, what it is, is a play based approach. If you think about continuous provision as not being, the stuff that’s just out all the time, nor is it the stuff that just holds children till they do a group work or an adult gets there. If you think about it as being a tool for teaching and learning, for children to be able to rehearse their skills as well as find out, investigate it, then there shouldn’t be anything that stops you applying that principle to a year one curriculum. The provision will be structured in a slightly different way.

What’s interesting again around the concept of common play behaviours is I sometimes work with year ones who are doing transition and the year one staff really want it to work, and they understand the fact that for lots of children, they’re not yet national curriculum or they’re not in a level of maturity yet where they can sit in the carpet but go to a table, etc.. So, it’s a more developmentally appropriate transition. So, they think, well, I can’t turn my whole classroom into an early years space because I need the tables and where we’re going to put them and lots of practical things go on, and so they do four corners and they end up with like a sand tray, a bit of role play, often a shop because they think it’s got money in it. And that’ll really help the knowledge of money and, maybe some construction and something else. But then when you look at how they resource those areas you might find in your sand area, because it’s all that’s left for year one, you’re going back to kind of scoops and buckets. And in your construction area you’re kind of going back to Duplo and that’s all the provision they’ve got. So, children are being invited to visit skill levels that are significantly lower than they were when they left reception. So always I talk to reception about giving an environment map to year one and saying by the end of the year, if you’re taking my children, this is where we were. These are the areas of learning we were really strong and these are the ones that were developing. So, if you can only have four corners, make sure your four corners are fed from this observation/ assessment. And I can give you a lot of my resources because likelihood is when my children come in, in that first six weeks of assessing them, I’m going to create an environment for assessment. My provision will be more basic provision than continuous provision whilst I assess them. So, you can utilize some of these resources because I won’t be using them in the same way.

Caroline: Lovely idea. I’m sure one that practitioners could just put in place immediately.

Alistair: Well, sometimes heads will say to me, it feels like my year one children have gone backwards in terms of their play and something you’ve done once you’ve finished your worksheet. So, then you’ve got children who are not at a maturity level to want, or a compliance level to want to sit and do a worksheet about whatever. So, if they know there is the carrot of play, what they tend to do then is rush that bit just to get to the play bit. And the play bit is not even a play that’s going to take them forward in their learning through play.

Caroline: Low stakes for them, really isn’t it.

Alistair: And then sometimes you get that behaviours kick off. So it’s about the science of play and thinking if I’m going to have play it’s got to be enjoyable. But it’s also there as a teaching tool. So it looks like play. It feels like play. You enjoy it like play, but there’s a bit of rigor underneath and a bit of thinking around what we have.

Caroline: Have you got a book on this topic that listeners could get if they wanted to have a read

Alistair: It sounds like a horrendous hard sell!

Caroline: I asked you!

Alistair: I’ve got a couple of books on continuous provision. There’s one that’s continuous provision in the early years and one that’s continuous provision the skills, they’re kind of partner books. They both would stand alone but they do go together. And then I did transition into Key Stage one, which is a blue book which is a lot less photographs. It’s a lot more theory. And it talks about how you use assessment and observation to help you to create a space, and then how this concept of continuous provision to continue the learning of the children, but also to continue to support the adult in their role.

Caroline: And very important that you don’t go back. You’re saying it’s building on. Because I mean, thinking about this thing of knowledge and the rigor of the curriculum, I’d argue that cognitively, the brain of a child in early years, if you’ve got this great continuous provision and an atmosphere of inquisitiveness and curiosity and, and you’re helping children make links rather than stay static in their learning, that’s a fantastic foundation for the brains they’re going to need if they’re then expected to learn quite a lot of chunks of knowledge and be expected to apply them flexibly, in actual fact, the early years can play a huge part in that, can’t it? a good setting.

Alistair: It can make them really enthusiastic learners. It can make them really quizzical. It can make them really curious. But also it’s that passion for learning that you recognize that coming to school is a positive thing, or coming to nursery is a positive thing, that actually you have a really good time there and you celebrate it for what you do well, and you get to indulge yourself in the activities that you do and that you learn loads. I often say on my training, you know, it’s like if I was to talk to my, you know, delegates and say to them, right, I’m going to talk to you about knitting for the next 15 minutes. I know, given a whiteboard and given the skills that I’ve got, I could make knitting sound funny, interesting. I could show you amazing pictures of knitting. I can show you a park in Japan which exists, which has been knitted by a woman. It’s a massive play park. Oh, I’ve got loads of knitting stories and we get the end of 15 minutes. Everybody’s been engaged. We’ve all talked a bit about knitting. We may have learned something we didn’t know already, but then I say, right. For the next hour, delegates, we are going outside into the room next door where I’ve set up loads of activities. We’re going to stay there for a whole hour this morning, then have some lunch, and then we’re going to go back for a whole hour this afternoon. But they’re all linked to knitting, so you can practice with knitting, you can draw some knitting, you can read books about knitting, you can make knitting patterns on squared paper. And then we’re going to do it again tomorrow, and we’re going to do it again. And so for an adult, If you’re a knitter, you’d be thinking, get in. That’s a dream come true. I’m going to literally be able to knit all day. I love this. If you’re not a knitter and you don’t have any idea you want to be a knitter, you can be thinking, I’m not going to do this. And you might indulge it for the first hour and you might discover a passion for knitting, but unlikely. You’re going to be thinking by Wednesday, right?

Caroline: Not everyone is and so you’re talking about almost there’s a sweet spot and there’s a balance, isn’t there?

Alistair: Well, there is. I can still talk to you about knitting. Then what I can do is send you off into an environment that allows you to rehearse all of those skills across a wide range of different areas to be creative and critical etc. and I can thread in elements of aspects of knitting.

Caroline: But it’s not domineering

Alistair: It’s not. And if you don’t choose to knit doesn’t matter because I’d have to be able to say to you, I’ve got knitting on that table because I want the children to develop the skill of or experience. Now, to experience knitting is not an early years outcome to develop fine motor dexterity. Maybe. And maybe you could argue, well, knitting is good for that and hand-eye coordination. But then I could say to you, well, I could do that with dinosaurs and I could do fine motor dexterity and, hand-eye coordination. I could get dinosaurs and put their footprints into salt dough. We could bake it, make our own fossils, mix them all up. And try and match the dinosaur’s feet to the right fossil. That’s fine motor and that’s hand-eye coordination. But what it isn’t is knitting. So, it’s about, being able to say, if I feel I need to give this knowledge to you about knitting while I’m in control, where I’m the adult and I can make the magic happen and I’ve got all these things at my disposal, plus my skills. When you go into a play based environment, it’s not about knitting. It’s about you exploring skills for life, rehearsing skills that you’ve learned. And then maybe, maybe if it’s appropriate, we pepper it with aspects of knitting, but if it isn’t, then we don’t.

Caroline: And it’s going back to that knowledge thing. If the knowledge of, say knitting, could be anything. Oh no, I’m going to be thinking about knitting cardigans for dinosaurs.

Alistair: Oh, now. There we go.

Caroline: So, not the sort of like banging it home, that’s what you’re learning all week or all half term. The enhancements are authentic like you said earlier then great. But it won’t be long before they maybe encounter that again and then that knowledge is built on. But yeah, it’s a fine line isn’t it? You’ve got to keep the children engaged and interested while they develop those skills. Like you’re saying, those lifelong skills.

Alistair: But they don’t have to knit, nor do they have to play with dinosaurs. So again, working with the setting recently and they’ve got a lovely tough spot and they put loads of autumn things in and conkers and leaves and all sorts of things and magnifying glasses and a big sign that said, can you spot signs of autumn? And by the end of the day, nobody had been anywhere near the table. So, I was talking to the team about because what I also asked my settings to do is do an observation of the environment, as well as observations of children, and record them regularly. So, we often spend a lot of time observing children, rightly so, but rarely do we step back and say, well, actually, what I’m going to do today and next week and the week after is observe my space for an hour and see who goes where and what’s working and what’s not. So, we’re talking about observation of space. And I was saying nobody went anywhere near that. Why? And then again, just an interesting discussion about when you’re four and five, A It’s asking can you spot signs of autumn? Does anybody actually want to spot signs of autumn? and in play is a child actually ever going to do that? Is it about investigating? Well, what was the investigation? And even though there’s sometimes not a firm conclusion and opinions can differ, it’s just useful to have that conversation.

So often I will say to adults, even though children interpret resources differently from how you’ve got in your head, it’s still good to ask the question for anything you put out. What is my expectation of play when there is no adult? So, if you’re putting out Goldilocks and the Three Bears finger puppets, do you expect children to reenact the story of Goldilocks independently when there is no adult? Or are we going to get different play or bear attack or whatever it may be? You know, when you’re putting those things in the water tray, what do you expect children to do when there is no adult? And so sometimes even just asking that question makes you think, is this really continuous provision or is this more of an enhancement? So maybe I am talking about Goldilocks. We are reading the story. I did want to put my finger puppets out to reinforce the language, or maybe for a bit of adult, but I’m not going to make them the feature. They’re going to be an enhancement. And actually, I need to think about this small world area, what the skills of small world that children, I want children to develop through their interaction with this space. Can I fill it with resources that are open ended enough to allow that to happen.

Caroline: Going back to your common play behaviours in each area. And then I think that’s a nice model. It’s an easy model to sort of imagine, and it also takes the pressure off having to impose your topic or your theme.

Alistair: And create loads of resources and we’re talking about shapes, so we’ve got shape in every area and its shape construction and it’s gluing shapes and, the time it takes for adults to do that, I find with a more play based approach, a more child led approach to learning, you free up more time. You’ve still got to think, you’ve still obviously got to organize your resources, but it allows you more time to think about your engagement with children rather than the relentless laminating of resources to be able to put, bits of whatever you’re talking about in every single area.

Caroline: This is a big issue now, isn’t it? It’s teacher workload. So, have you got any other tips people listening who maybe are overwhelmed office practitioners. That’s a big one, isn’t it? Is looking at stepping back a bit.

Alistair: What I find is often, but not always, you get overwhelmed. Your EYFS practitioners, because their senior leadership have got unrealistic expectations of what you need to do on top of early years foundation stage that you’re doing anyway. And you know that you’ve got that good level of development. You know there’s going to be a national score that comes out. In some schools adults are given a percentage increase that doesn’t actually relate to the children in their space. It was like you got 68% last year, so you need to be at 72% this year, regardless of who comes through your door in September. And that’s when practitioners start to feel less inclined to play in inverted commas. Because come the spring, you’ve got a very short time left before you’re submitting your evidence for your good levels of development. So often things start to shift a gear and it is less play based and it becomes more extra sessions of phonics, lots of interventions going on when actually if the understanding of child development was better, and also if the environment was structured in such a way that supported learning, you would have loads of opportunities to reinforce the skills they’re going to need through the play. But again, that needs a lot of thought, a lot of consideration.

Caroline: Yeah. And I suppose actually now might be a good time for schools to be doing this because what Amanda Spielman and people from Ofsted are saying is now is the time to reflect on your curriculum, your whole school ethos, your approach and play in the early years could be, you know, a major part of that, because after all, that’s the foundation on which you want your children’s experience throughout your whole school. It starts there. So I think it might be a good time to reflect on that.

Alistair: I firmly believe, and I know now, given a good 25 years of experience behind me, that actually if you give a really appropriate, engaging, play based curriculum to children in the early years, you will get the results that you want, but you don’t see it as quickly as if you give them a daily 50 minutes of phonics to prepare them for the year one phonics checker. So it’s about having the faith to say, well, actually, at the end of reception, given the markers that we’ve got to judge children by, and it’s a whole different discussion as to how appropriate they are, I might not get my children to those markers because actually, developmentally, they’re not all appropriate and my children are all very different. But if I can get them inspired, if I can get the groundwork done and I have the time and the freedom to do that, then in an appropriate time they will get to where they need to be.

Caroline: And I suppose just a positive thing to say about this is that Amanda Spielman, who’s the head of Ofsted, she’s actually said in an interview that it may well take time. So, she’s actually suggesting that in their new framework next year that what they’re assessing is the quality of education rather than just the outcomes. So that’s promising if it allows practitioners and senior leaders to then step back and look at their whole education.

Alistair: And children don’t make linear progress. It’s peaks and troughs, it’s plateaus. Things happen.

Caroline: You can’t just assess it every term

Alistair: Little things are big things. So, it takes very small trauma in a four year old’s life to have a massive impact on, their self-esteem, their wellbeing and what they do within school. Also because of the pressure some reception teachers especially feel for things like phonics and writing, they start to do very formal approach to phonics and writing before children are actually academically ready, cognitive ready in terms of maturity ready, and therefore they start to switch off very, very quickly.

Caroline: So you got negative outcomes from well-meaning interventions.

Alistair: Trying to get positive outcomes.

Caroline: Rather than stepping back. Being brave. I say brave, but actually it looks like the climate may allow for you to be more forward thinking in a way and just think, right, we won’t do that. You said before the podcast we had a quick chat and you were saying it’s actually if a child isn’t ready for phonics yet, it’s not to think, oh, well, before that is almost like a kind of void. There are there are incremental steps, aren’t there, that you can still build upon.

Alistair: That are developmentally appropriate.

Caroline: Veryvaluable.

Alistair: That are based around play and interaction, you know, in simple things like singing and rhyme and all that kind of thing. You know, you’re looking at initial letter recognition and shape all of those things to come. I mean, I had an email, I get loads of emails, which is great. I love having that interaction with people. But somebody was saying to me, it was October half term, and they brought their Nursery children in a staggered start up to October half term and said, my last group of Nursery are just in before the holiday, my head teachers asked me to start setting for phonics with my Nursery children on Monday. What am I supposed to do? And of course the answer is, well, you don’t because you just don’t. It’s not developmentally appropriate, etc. etc. but she can’t just go back to her teacher and say, sorry, I’m not doing it. It’s about trying to open up that dialogue and say, well, here’s something you can read about what comes before phonics. Here’s a book you can read about what comes before phonics. Here’s a blog post. You can read about it. I’m doing all of those things. And of course, there’s been lots and lots of reporting in the past, you know, a couple of years around the whole concept of ability grouping and how actually research is starting to show quite clearly that ability grouping does not provide all the benefits that we often thought it did and were sold to us. And actually, mixed ability groups are where children make better progress.

Caroline: It’s interesting. I’ve been reading about this as well and differentiation later on. It’s exciting and it’s good to keep abreast of what’s happening.

Alistair: And also you think about self-esteem. Little wonder. I know there’s a particular phonics approach that’s used in lots of schools, and in one school I was working with 9:00 comes, everybody’s going to do their phonics. And there was a child from year one who came into reception for his phonics session. Adult was lovely, the atmosphere was lovely, but he is still a year one child going into reception to sit with reception children for his phonics. And you’ve got to kind of think for that year one boy, even if it’s not said you’re externally to him, how does that make you feel? Of course they know. Even when you see in red group, blue group, green group, they know.

Caroline: I know my own children have said that ‘I’m in the middle group’ and they’re only six.

Alistair: Exactly. And if I talk to children in a setting and I ask them about what groups they’re in for, what they will tell you, which group they’re in and who’s the bottom group, just like they always tell you who the naughtiest child in the class is. And I find all that fascinating, the language children use, where they acquire that language from their perception of the naughtiest child in the class. And you might say, well, why do you think they’re the naughtiest child? Because they always do A, B, and C, and then you start to think about those behaviours and think, oh, well, why are they happening? And that’s why early years is fascinating.

Caroline: If you’ve got an open mind.

Alistair: Well yeah, I think so. What I’m always trying to do is to understand how children work and then of course I had three of my own and that massively changed my view on how children work. Also, the whole nature nurture debate, which we can’t even begin to touch on today. Also, the influence that teachers actually have on children outside of the home and how much influence parents and peers have, which is way beyond teacher control.

Caroline: This thing about adverse childhood experiences and how you can make that a positive influence, you know, there’s huge amount of research on that.

Alistair: You know how your children are preschool and how your moral values reflect to them and then they go to school and then they bring with them a whole different raft of opinions, and they want to fit in with their peers. So, things change. Again, the job that we do is an amazing job, but it’s never a simple one. The more you look into it, the more complex it becomes. And that makes it, on the one hand, really fascinating. But sometimes you just think, how on earth do we piece all of this together? If I’ve got 30 of these little bodies sitting in front of me, all of whom is unique, and then I am trying to bring together a space and a curriculum that allows them to flourish and be valued, and their uniqueness to shine. That’s not an easy job, but it’s easier when you are in the play with them, when your environment is open ended and ambiguous, so they can interpret it in lots of different ways. You’ve got a good knowledge of who they are and also where they need to be in terms of their development, and you can start to reflect that in your space. You’re constantly reevaluating, observing, reevaluating. Then it seems much easier than it did way back in the day when I was saying, right, we’re all going to do a carpet session on shape. Now we’re going to do half an hour shape activities, then we’re going to go out to play. That was so much harder in that respect than what a good play based environment would produce.

Caroline: And I think this goes into a wider topic about a curriculum. When you’re reviewing your curriculum or looking at your curriculum principles for the entire school is the early years is an incredibly important part of that whole dialogue as a team, as a senior leadership with all the staff. And we’ve written a lot about this, but it’s very important that you see it as a whole from the things that you’ve been saying today and whether you know how you’re going to go down that route with your approach to how you want to encourage those inquisitive minds and that and that engagement in learning right from the dot that the time they come into school to when they leave.

Alistair: But often in the early years, we would use the Leuven scales of well-being and involvement. And they are a useful tool for lots of different things, but they apply to all children and adults. I think in terms of whole school ethos, happy staff make good teachers and, happy children make good learners. And if you’ve got stressed, overworked and unhappy staff, then as much as you try and leave all of that at the door. We are human beings and we are interacting with little human beings, and also children are very demanding and they are constant. So, in an early years environment particularly, there is no break and you do feel shattered by the end of the day because the life has been sucked out of you whilst really loving that.

Caroline: But what adds to work, I was talking to another teacher recently and he was saying it’s we don’t mind hard work, especially when you love the job and you and you know you’re making a difference. The workload issue seems to be when meaningless tasks are put upon you. Like you were talking earlier about cutting out laminated letters for things. It’s not effective to your practice or to the children’s development. And I think to do that properly then from what you’re saying, you need to stand back and reflect on practice in the early years. And I’d argue as well as a whole school, you think, what are your curriculum principles. What are the principles? What’s the ethos in your school? If it’s the environment and a love or community spirit or whatever it is, how does that translate? And then it sort of it gives you parameters to work within. And obviously from what you’re saying, strict topics and keeping rigidly to things in early years isn’t always the best approach you can enhance. And you can do direct teaching. But for those of you listening who do topics in the early years, it’s nice to hear Alistair’s approach to how you enhance children. But really, you’re there to sort of encourage those common play behaviours and develop their skills within them and for them to make connections. It’s quite organic, isn’t it, really.

Alistair: It is, but it’s underpinned by quite a lot of rigor and assessment. For people who want data, you’ve got lots of data in terms of your observations, in terms of your assessments against the early years outcomes. So, there is lots that goes on and there are some settings I work with that don’t have any topic at all. So, they would just say we don’t do a topic based approach. We go with seasons, weather, so what’s happening currently in our lives. And then we go with whatever pops up. So if you find a spider in the sink, we might go off the spider in the sink. Then we might end up doing hairdressing because somebody had their hair cut. then someone went on holiday so we’d be in the holiday. So, although if you are a topic based school and you’ve got your topic boxes all beautifully labelled and laminated, which I did, I was in Comic Sans because that was the law if you’re in infants, Then you think and suddenly, oh, how would that work then? So we wouldn’t do autumn, you know. Well, it’s ourselves usually followed by autumn, followed by celebrations, followed by, you know, growth. We wouldn’t do that. And I think, well, you do lots of aspects of that because in the spring when things are growing, you will still plant your seeds. Maybe you’ll talk about growth, but what you won’t do is a topic on growth. You’re just applying those outcomes and objectives to whatever is coming up at the time.

Caroline: And we’ve seen as well as some schools that do a balance of that. So they might do an idea for a topic every other half term, but within that allow for that responsiveness to children’s interests. like you say, if someone’s come in and their grandparents died, you know, they’ll talk about that. And, you might go off on a another theme, but it’s being more flexible which is important.

Alistair: It really is and I think what is always good to do is not to say, right, from next half term, we’re going to be topic less because often then, if that’s where you are comfortable, even though you think, well, no, that makes sense to me. I’d like to move in that direction. If you jump, it often spirals out of control. So, teams I work with, where we think about moving forward, we often spend half a term just discussing it and saying, right, if we were to take a step away, how would that look? What might we put here? How would that work? And then that feels so much more comfortable thinking, well, I’ve reflected on it for half a term now I’m going to do it, as opposed to saying, right, when we come back on Monday, we’re not doing topics anymore.

Caroline: That’s a huge leap, isn’t it? For the the children as well.

Alistair: Well it is yeah. And staff often think oh that’s a good idea, I want it done. That makes sense. I want it done now. But again, the most successful outcomes are usually from teams that have had a period of consideration and reflection and then dip their toe in the water and then got going with it.

Caroline: Right? Yeah. If people want to find out more they contact you can’t they. And you do conferences, training all sorts of great stuff. So, if anyone listening wants to find out more or get some bespoke consultation for their school, obviously contact Alistair. But before I go, I have to ask you about the program because I’ve been I don’t know if the listeners listening at the moment have caught a wonderful programme on channel four recently, it’s called People’s Home for four year olds, and Alistair has actually cropped up on the on the programme. What was your role on that?

Alistair: What was really interesting, they had done a series last year which I’d watched as a viewer, and that was two episodes long, and they’d done, six weeks, where they bring some four year olds into an old people’s home and they turn the day room into what they call a nursery. But it’s not what we would understand as a nursery. It’s really a place for the children to come and do activities with the adults. And then they did lots and lots of tests and the adults around their cognitive ability, their mobility, the grip test, lots of things. Looking whether that improved over six weeks of being with the children and what they found in the first series was there wasn’t just a small improvement, there was a dramatic improvement for all adults.

For the second series, they decided to double the length of time. So, it’s a three month experiment, and they decided to look at the impact on the children, which actually nationally and internationally, there are loads of studies on the impact on adults, but there are very few on the impact of children. So, we did a series of tests with the children. Again, not that I’m a huge fan of tests, but we use the Leuven scales of Well-Being and involvement. I did an I can vocabulary assessment on their spoken language, what sort of words they use in the length of their sentence, the complexity of the language they were using. They did a visual facial analysis, which is fascinating stuff and was done by a university in London where you put headphones on and you kind of put your head not in a box, but towards a box with a television in the back of it, and they play a cartoons. But while the cartoons are playing, it’s bits of film, bits of cartoons. The software analyses your facial expressions, and by analysis, they can do things like judge your level of empathy, anxiety. And they did it with the older adults. And it looks at their depression scale. And with the children it looks at things like empathy and I suppose because your face shows understanding or not when you’re watching, it’s fascinating. So, they did that at the beginning and the end. So that was all done. We had weekly diaries that went home that the parents filled in on a daily basis and sent back to me once a week, looking at changes at home. And then we did a questionnaire of 20 questions about being old, which we did at the beginning and the end of the experiment. So, lots of questions about, I think if you watch the programme, you’ll see Lily at the beginning where one of the cameramen says to her, how old is old? And she says, 32 or 34. So that was one of the questions from the questionnaire. And then we observed them over these six weeks of their interaction with the older adults. And I could talk about the programme again for another two hours, because it was a fascinating experiment to be involved in.

We saw the older adults make dramatic progress in the first six weeks, and then gradual progress in the second six weeks, because basically what they are doing is revisiting established skills. So, mobility, memory, language, these are things they have had and they are coming back. So, the progress is quite rapid to start off with. And then they kind of refine that as it goes on. Children, on the other hand, dramatic progress from day one to the end of the experiment three months later, they were on an upward trajectory all of the time, and all of them made rapid progress. And that’s because they are three and four years old, and they’re learning lots of this stuff for the first time.

Caroline: Their brains are just so absorbent, aren’t they?

Alistair: It’s not rocket science. If you think you’ve got a group of ten older people, most of whom are in their 90s and over 100 was one, Sylvia, who had been visited by four year olds every day. Of course it’s going to make them more mobile. It’s going to get them thinking, it’s going to get their brains working. But the significant improvement that the children made, both in terms of well-being, language development, language usage, the empathy was just we’d expect at the end of 12 weeks. Ask them the questionnaire again, you know, and saying, what is old? They’re not in 34 anymore. They’re saying, well, I’ve got a friend who’s 92 and her name is such and such. So, you know that those children have a massively good concept of what it is to be an old person, which they didn’t have 12 weeks ago, and that will stay with them as they become young adults and then adults. So, how they treat older generation will be different because of their interaction with these older people. They took on some of the old people’s language, which was funny. So, the Home Diaries would say they’d started saying things like ta-ra and calling their parents love and things like that. And there was one little girl whose mum said to me when she never wanted to do things before, she just used to say no and have a bit of a meltdown. I’m not doing it. And obviously that happened at old people’s nursery and one of the older ladies had said to her, if you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to get cross like that. You just say, no, thank you very much. And so they’d practice doing that. And now her mum’s saying it’s now really frustrating because I’ll say, Lois, you need to get dressed. And she just turns around and very politely says, no, thank you very much.

Caroline: I don’t know what’s worse!

Alistair: She said I preferred it when she had the meltdown, because then what do you say to that? You can’t say, well, that’s fine, but actually we need to get dressed, otherwise we’re going to be late. No, thank you very much.

Caroline: Yeah. It just shows that they’re picking up on the language.

Alistair: But then even their own complexity of sentence obviously they all were at nursery and preschool and of course they’re going to be exposed to that anyway. But we saw dramatic spikes in how they move forward.

Caroline: I think what I was impressed with is the feeling that these children, because I’ve been I’m a mum, and you can’t always give children full attention. They’re not always felt like they’re being listened to by an adult constantly, whereas the older people, maybe because of their lack of mobility or just because.

Alistair: no, they just did.

Caroline: They just did it. But I was so touched by how much the older people listened to the children and responded to them and accepted their pictures and said, that was lovely. I’m going to frame that.

Alistair: That was a key thing for me. Was that in a classroom situation or as a parent, they weren’t trying to manage a group of 30 children. They weren’t having to pick somebody up from swimming and make them tea at the same time. And so they were really quality, sustained shared talkers and sustained shared thinking, we had periods of time where they would sit for 40, 45 minutes just colouring in with an adult. So, you’ve got a four-year-old with an adult colouring in and chatting.

Caroline: So that Doesn’t come across obviously on the on the programme, but that’s amazing.

Alistair: And they would talk and the adults were prepared. The hard thing about it was from my point of view, is that the adults were never going to interact with children in the way that an early years practitioner would. So, there were sometimes a little bit, this is what we’re doing and this is how you’re going to do it. And let me just help your hand while you’re doing that, because you need to stay inside the lines and thinking they were being really helpful, but actually being quite, you know, direct.

Caroline: It’s probably how they’ve learned.

Alistair: Exactly, how it was with their own children, how it was in their school. But the level of language shared, cooperation, thinking was just a joy to watch. So, a lot of my time, if you watch the program, you’ll see they’ve got the shelves. You can buy it from IKEA with all the box holes in them. And there were nine cameras, all from both sides of the room that were behind those shelves. So, occasionally you might see the glint of a lens. But for the children and the adults, you really do forget that the cameras are there. But also, they were hollow behind those shelves. So, I got to be like the peeping expert that I could stand and literally watch them in the gallery where you see the little television screens, you can actually watch it live and you get to see lovely things going on. One thing that was interesting was that all the people that were involved as experts in inverted commas, all asked, could we not be called experts because the term expert, well, it’s like a self-given title. And what is an expert? It’s not about your qualifications. It’s not always about your time served. It’s about a skill that you have got that’s unique and polished and honed. So, I work with experts on a regular basis that are classroom practitioners that wouldn’t call themselves an expert. So, you’ll see when I pop up, underneath, it says Alistair Clegg, early years consultant. But Channel 4 were really keen for the viewing public to be reassured that the people that were making the judgements were experts.

Caroline: I introduced you as expert. Well, it’s funny, isn’t it? We use these words.

Alistair: I’m describing the programme as we were expecting. Every time they said it, my toes just curled a little bit because you just think, yeah, it’s in general usage, but, what is an expert? Some of those children were bigger experts in some of the things, that they talked about than I was, because it’s what they know and it’s where they come from.

Caroline: Also,I suppose this is an experiment. So, you’re waiting to see what’s going to happen and you learn from what you’re watching, don’t you? Obviously you’ve a huge body of knowledge and you’ve seen so many different things. But what’s really clear to me is that you’re always learning. You absorb yourself in the good practice that’s out there and reflect on things, and that’s such an important skill for all of us in life. But also, if you’re in a profession like this where you’re working to care for children and help them develop and work in a setting. And so, yes, back to the program again. I thought it was it was fascinating because as a viewer, you’re waiting to see and you’re pleasantly surprised and I think, you know, my children who are quite young enjoyed watching it.

Alistair: And what I really liked was the production team who made it were really authentic. So, there’s nothing scripted about it. There’s nothing staged about it. They let it happen. And obviously we as viewers see a heavily edited version because we filming it over more than three months from beginning to end. And obviously you couldn’t show all of that, but you get a really true picture. And when the results are shown, the majority of people make really good progress, but not everybody made really good progress in every area. And it would be very easy for them to say, oh, it was just a brilliant everybody made massive progress and they don’t. Like with children, we said before for all of us, but especially the young and the old, little things that happen in your life can have a major effect. Vic was really ill. He had a potential diagnosis of cancer. And halfway through the experiment, he disengaged from the whole thing because he was really worried about his health. And actually in the end, it was okay. But that also affected his results because he wasn’t part of the project. But that was all right, because, yeah, it is life. And I think sometimes, we are not in sausage factories when we’re dealing with children. We’re dealing with real children and real lives with a society that has changed more in the past ten years than I think it has done the previous 50.

So, the children that I’m working with now are very different to the children I was working with 25 years ago, even down to things like speech and language. Every school I work with, some even now have a speech and language therapist employed as part of the school team. Whereas when I first started teaching, it would be the odd child with some kind of speech delay or difficulty, whereas now it’s lots. You’ve got the whole social media aspect of everything. I worked with some two year olds the other day and the setting had a home element to it with pictures and picture frames, and we were laughing, watching a child who was trying to swipe across a picture frame. So, she’s looking at the picture, but trying to swipe across the bottom, obviously very used to an iPad and thinking, you know, she couldn’t work out why the picture wouldn’t change when she swiped it. So, we are dealing with children who have got access to all of that kind of technology from two upwards or before. That means we have to stay current. We have to be relevant, because otherwise you can’t meet the needs of your changing children, if you’re not aware what those changes are.

Sometimes when I was a head, we used to get CBeebies magazine and the CITV one delivered to the staff room with the TTS on a Friday, which was a slightly bizarre thing to do, but then they went into our literacy bits. But I used to say to my staff, if we are dealing with children who are talking to you about Ben and Holly’s little kingdom or Octonauts, and you’re still teaching things when your kids were little and you’re going back to Andy Pandy and whatever it may be, playschool. If we’re trying to create an environment that links into what they’re talking about, you have to stay current in what you know. So, you either watch CBeebies and CITV when you go home. You’re lucky if you’ve got little children of your own, but if you haven’t, a quick flick through the magazine on a Friday, let’s you know when they’re talking to you about Peppa Pig and Cousin Chloe, you know what it is that they’re talking about?

Caroline: Going back to your point earlier about being aware of children’s worlds and not just what they’re interested in, but how they work, how they behave, how they think. And, in terms of the television programme as well, it was looking at the way life happens, not trying to impose constructs all the time. And it’s being a bit more flexible and responsive.

Alistair: Also, there is a real honesty between the young children who often don’t have a filter, which we all know if you’re in early years is great, but also there was a real honesty with some of the older adults who also just didn’t have the kind of filter that we have in everyday life. So, they would tell it like it was, and they were quite blunt, often with children.

Caroline: I know, I noticed that, and the children didn’t respond in a bad way actually.

Alistair: Not at all, and the adults just said it as it was going to be. And the children equally then were really happy to share. You know it’s going well when you’ve got children who are then happy to share personal things with their new friends, their older adults, you know those bonds are coming because they are happy to divulge things that are obviously very important and precious to them. It was good to see those relationships also develop over time.

Caroline: Yeah, and maybe something for practitioners to take away or for schools to think about. As I was watching it, I was thinking about this whole thing of community involvement. And like we were talking about before the podcast, about when you take your children to an old people’s home to sing to them, which is a lovely thing to do, but actually that’s a meaningful relationship that you build on over time. And then you see those positive benefits to both groups. So, it could be a model of it. If some people watch the programme they might want to get that relationship going with the group or grandparents who can come in.

Alistair: And there are things to consider, obviously, if you’re going to take children to an old people’s home, but also the idea of getting older people to come into your space, obviously, with all the appropriate checks. I’ve had people tweet me about, after watching the programme, I got my granny to come in and read stories to the reception children. They absolutely loved it. And again, they’re brilliant boosters, but they are kind of one off events. What we really need is a model for sustainable interaction between these two fairly untapped resources.

Caroline: So if anyone’s listening actually who is actively interested in doing this, it’d be great if we can find out about schools who want to sort of start doing this.

Alistair: There’s a lovely website called United for All Ages, and they’ve also got a Twitter feed, and they do a lot of work on establishing intergenerational care. If you are thinking about it, their website’s got loads of papers and research and all sorts of stuff on it, and it’s really good to have a read through and help you to consider that. And also, channel four did a document which is on the channel four website linked to Old People’s home for four year olds. And again, it’s just basic information about setting up this kind of intergenerational relationship, so that’s worth looking for.

Caroline: Good. Well, we’ll put those links at the end on the podcast description and also all the links to your website and the TED talk that you did, which I loved. I watched that quite a while ago. When did you do that? It was a couple of years ago.

Alistair: Yeah, it was a couple of years ago,it was scary. Because you are live streamed and you’ve got your 15 minutes and they’ve got a big clock in front of you counting down. And so, while you’re trying to think about all the things you wanted to say that you’ve rehearsed a million times and the clock’s really going.

Caroline: The clock’s big. I’ve seen a lot of Ted talks where they accidentally show the clock. It’s big.

Alistair: And when you get to zero you’ve got to try and finish. Basically they say if you go over then often they don’t then upload your Ted talk. There’s only a certain amount of minutes, so if you go over your 15 you’re actually stealing time from somebody else. But trying to get all in your head while you’re being filmed live, whilst it’s all going on, and finish on time, it’s hard.

Caroline: That’s not everyone’s cup of tea. I bet there are people listening now, thinking that sounds like my idea of a bad day.

Alistair: It was a lovely thing to be invited to do, and I was very honoured to do it. But I mean, I’d do it again, but it was a scary experience.

Caroline: It was worth watching. Definitely. So, there’s loads you can find out about Alistair and he’s you obviously do conferences training.

Alistair: And they’re all on my website. So, if anybody’s ever interested, they can just have a look in. All the info is on there.

Caroline: That’s fabulous. Thank you so much. It’s been really a real eye opener listening to you and talking to you and hopefully you the listener as well. It’s giving you lots of food for thought, lots of practical tips and also just ideas for what to reflect on really, and just to stand back and look at your practice. But if you need any guidance with that, obviously there are there’s some really good guidance out there. So thank you once again and thank you listeners for joining us today. I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have. And we’ve got we’ve got some great guests lined up for us over the next few months as well. So do subscribe to the curriculum podcast if you don’t already do so, so you don’t miss a single episode. And until next time, it’s goodbye from me. Goodbye.