As a PGCE student entering the world of education, it sometimes felt like I was a small fish in a very big ocean. My background experience was that of running a private dance academy and working as a teaching assistant in various primary schools. From working in schools, I had some experience of teaching styles and became curious about how children learn. I started the PGCE course at Bath Spa University with an open mind and eager to learn how to be an effective primary school teacher.
When I was allocated my placement at St. Werburgh’s Park Nursery School, I couldn’t help feeling apprehensive about completing my training in a nursery setting. I questioned whether the training I would receive would be sufficient and beneficial for teaching in a primary school. However, looking back on my journey and experiences, I now value the importance of early years education. I truly believe that the teaching strategies learnt and taught in nursery schools are some of the best training any teacher can get, and can be transferred to working with children of any age. Upon reflecting on this journey, I wanted to share an illuminating key experience at St. Werburgh’s Park Nursery School that has developed my teaching philosophy.
Letting children be free
Children are born explorers. They enter this world with a burning desire to learn. So why is it that many of us feel the need to stop children in their tracks of learning, for the sake of keeping the classroom tidy? From my experiences as a primary teaching assistant, it was relatively common to observe practitioners stop a child from completing an activity if they were not doing it as the teacher asked. At St. Werburgh’s Park Nursery School in Bristol, their aim is to provide opportunities for children to confidently follow their own curiosities and become inquisitive in their play. The school’s ethos and beliefs were captured during a mark-making activity I planned during my PGCE placement (June 2014). For months I was particularly interested in early mark-making and carried out many observations of children in this area. However I noticed that the majority of children accessing this space were the same group of girls. Therefore, I wanted to experiment with using the outside space, to see if the area enticed all children to explore it.
I placed a large white sheet on the ground and spread different art resources (pastels, felt tip pens, stencils, chalks) across it. After some time, I noticed lots of different children making marks on the fabric- many were boys who spoke English as an additional language. The children seemed interested in drawing objects in their natural environment – flowers, trees, cars and people. To some, this piece of work may look like an array of scribbles. On the other hand, some may appreciate the learning experience that took place. Children were using their mathematical knowledge to collaboratively count the number of apples on the tree and record the number in their own way; a dot, line or scribble. They would write letters or sounds in their names and even tell stories in relation to their marks.
It was a very hot day, so I asked the children to think of a place where we could mark-make in the shade. The children chose a spot and moved the fabric next to a giant tub of potatoes the children had planted. The sheet began to get dirty (compost footprints everywhere) and my immediate thought was to stop what they were doing – I didn’t want them to ‘ruin’ their piece of art. Luckily, I didn’t…
The fabric was getting wet now. A group of children were busy watering the plants when they noticed the sheet of art work. They wondered what would happen to the marks if they poured water on top. As they were pouring the water, lots more children became involved in the activity. We then dragged the sheet into an empty space so that all could access the fabric. One child spotted that the different coloured chalk marks were mixing into one another and creating new colours. They appeared to enjoy this feature and asked me how we could make the sheet even more colourful. From the help and advice from an experienced Early Years Practitioner, I was told about Brusho, a wonderful powder paint that creates magical colour effects when used with water.
The powder was sprinkled on to the fabric and the children began making their work of art. It was astonishing to see how many children wanted to take part and before long, the whole class explored the activity. The children appeared very excited about what they had created and used the sheet as an enclosure for the space under the veranda for the following few weeks.
As this situation highlights, there are amazing opportunities for children to be autonomous and independent in their learning; we just have to take a step back and watch what happens. I appreciate that there will be times when practitioners need to conclude an activity or re-direct the learning, however it is having the confidence to let children be free. I am extremely grateful to St. Werburgh’s Park Nursery for providing me with this ethos for learning, as it has helped shape my teaching philosophy and swept away my preconceptions.