Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things “early childhood education.“
This week, we’re on episode 33 of the show. We’ll be discussing teaching children through play with Alistair Bryce Clegg, author of the blog ABCDoes.com, and early-years consultant from Cheshire in the U.K.
We touch on his journey as an educator and how we cultivated an appreciation for the skills required to be successful in working with young children. We also talk about the complexity involved in the profession, and the importance of engaging children through child-led activities and play. As Alistair says: “Thrill, will and skill all feed into each other in the teaching process.”
If you’re an educator looking for insight into how to make your classroom more fun and engaging then stay tuned for this episode of the Preschool Podcast.
Alistair, welcome to the Preschool Podcast. So great to have you as a guest today.
And I did a primary degree, which meant that I had to do primary teaching course. To get it over and done with I asked if I could do my early-years bit first. So in the UK I was put in with a reception class – the children who come in at four and tend to leave around about five – and I just thought, “I’m going to get my head down and I’m going to get this done, get this out of the way, and that I can get on to the proper job of becoming a proper teacher,” where you actually teach children who can do something as opposed to these very small, very annoying children who cry a lot and can’t even go for a wee on their own in that kind of thing.
And initially in my first teaching practice with my reception class wasn’t great; didn’t enjoy it to start off with. It was very early on in the years. We’d all just started coming to school [because] we start at four over here in the UK. And there were very little children who weren’t used to being at not at home with a significant parents, so they were finding the transition is difficult. And I was finding them really difficult.
But I was with a really inspirational teacher called Sally, who I’m still in touch with now, and seeing the magic she kind of worked with those children. And I kind of began to get a sense of the fact that early-years education – far from being unimportant, which was what I thought it was and the important stuff happens later – you kind of get that realization that early-years education is the most important. Because that is the time when you can really inspire children to love learning, when you can really invest in them in terms of their thinking skills, their curiosity, their love of the world, but also their love of being in education which they’re going to be in for quite a long time.
So eventually I ended up specializing in early-years education, and subsequently through my teaching career that’s what I’ve done. I ended up being the head teacher of an infant school with an early-years unit attached to it. And I’ve done a lot of work now: I blog about early-years; I write for Bloomsbury, a publisher, around early-years; and I do a lot of training around early-years, because it is indeed my passion.
And then I was blessed with three boys of my own. So a lot of my work also looks at the particular engagement of boys, which is not always binary in terms of boys and girls and how they behave. But no matter where I go in the world, if I say to anybody: “Is anything particular you’d like us to talk about?” they’re often, like: “How do you engage the boys who just seem to want to run around outside, tying girls to railings by their plats and poking them with sticks?” And so I do a lot of work on the engagement of boys, which I absolutely love because, actually, it’s usually nothing to do with the boys at all. It’s got far more to do with us and our kind of biography as educators and how we try to engage children sometimes in the education process, which is not always the way the children want to be engaged.
So I’ve been involved in early-years education now for nearly 25 years, and so it’s been a long and fascinating journey. But I think I am more passionate about it now than I ever was, just because there is so much to know and there is so much impact you can have on children – children’s lives – through quality education. And that’s what we need to be about.
Very cool. Question for you: you said that when you first started in the early-years, you actually didn’t realize how important it was. And it was only until you were directly exposed to early-years education in the class, working with the kids, that you realized: “Wow, this is actually the most important time for education for young children.” Why do you think that there was that discrepancy in knowledge that – before going in the classroom to work with these children – you didn’t realize how important it was?
I think I still see that, regularly – not from the people I work with who are within the early-years, but certainly when I do a lot work in schools and I will work with senior leadership teams who are making judgments about early-years practice, or people who have gone into early-years who have previously been very used to teaching older children. And it’s a common misconception that because children are little, therefore they can’t do very much. And so therefore it’s when they’re older that the proper learning happens.
And also I’m very passionate about , and I think that your high-level engagement is where you get the biggest potential for attainment. And not just academic attainment, but for children to attain in their social-emotional development. And play is where you get the highest level of engagement. And I think play for a lot of people is just something children do when they are messing about. And there is a huge element of messing about through play, and there should be. But I think a lot of early-years education is thought of as little children who play around in sand and water and faff about a bit. And then actually when they get into school, that’s when proper teaching starts, when you do your reading and your writing and your maths and your geography and your history.
But actually, all of those early links – behaviours linked with learning, cognitive behaviours, the passion, the interest, the curiosity – they start from birth, really. And the more we can really target those early years and get children really fascinated by the world they live in and the environment they exist in, the more likely they are to be really good, long-term learners. Whereas if we massively turn them off when they’re young because we’ve pushed too hard, too soon, or we give them a very narrow, a very dull curriculum that doesn’t link to their interests, they get those learning habits and it’s very, very hard to break them. But they begin to decide that school is not them, all learning is not for them, and that’s you get lots of children who switch off.
So it’s a common misconception. And I think I was just brought up with that misconception, because my work with older children and I didn’t look at younger children as being just, you know, little children who played around a bit. Very misinformed I was, and I make it my mission now to make sure that as many people as possible realize that, yes, they might be little but there’s a huge amount of potential in small children. Just because they are young doesn’t mean that they can’t achieve amazing things.
Totally. Now, one of our objectives with the Preschool Podcast is to inspire future leaders in early-childhood education. And you mentioned that you had an inspirational teacher: Sally. Can you tell us a little bit more about why she had an impact on you?
– Just because she did things that I couldn’t do at the time. I had done some work experience; I’d worked for a year, what we had over here in the UK at the time called classroom assistant – somebody who would go in and support the teacher. And I had done that for a year before I started my qualification, and I’d worked with older children over here. And people kept telling me: “Oh, you’re really good at this,” and, “You’ve got real talent for this,” and, “blah blah blah.”
So I kind of had in my head that I really enjoyed it; I seem to have this rapport with these older children. And that’s what I thought I was going to do. When I was suddenly faced with a four year old, all of those little tricks I had up my sleeve that work with a 12 year old weren’t working anymore. And I would say things to the children, I remember once famously asking this group of thirty four-year-olds to line up at the door. And they didn’t even know where the door was or what a line was. They were just wandering round vaguely. And it was a bit like herding cats. And I finally gave up and said, “They can’t even line up at the door!”
And actually what I should have been thinking was, you know, my strategies for behavior management, et cetera et cetera. So I saw her [Sally] – and I know we talk about it a lot in education – but those moments of magic where you see children who are literally so absorbed with what the adult is saying, or hanging on their every word. And lot’s of the time there’s lots of exciting things that went on in her space. But on the whole she was quite measured. She was quite a gentle soul. But she would have these children who were not used to this environment, who were often at that age are very used to being quite indulged because if there’s only one of them then they’re not used to sharing, and then all of a sudden they’ve got to share. And she literally in her conversations with them would have them eating out the palm of her hand.
And I thought that was just amazing, because at that time although I knew I was going to be very successful in my work with children – I had been, with older children – I didn’t have that skill. And that’s only because I was coming from very much the wrong angle.
It almost gave you an appreciation for the skills and expertise that it takes to be an early-years educator. Interesting.
Absolutely. Massively underestimated. And she [Sally] didn’t speak down to children, which some people do. If you’re not used to children you often speak to them like small dogs. And often you listen to people and their voice will go up three octaves. And they start to speak in an almost very patronizing way. She just spoke to them like children. And she had high expectations of what they were capable of for, also, their behaviour. She gave them lots and lots of opportunities for independence, which is something I’m also extremely passionate about, that young children need to have opportunities to be independent, and they can be.
So I saw a great deal of the practice that I still have honed to this day, twenty years later, and came from watching her as a very, very skilled and able practitioner all that time ago.
Very cool. I’ve heard you say the word “magic” a couple of times. Can you tell us a little bit more about you what you mean by “magic”, in the context of early-years?
For me, in times gone by the magic moments for me – especially as a very young teacher – would have come from me creating some sort of “Ta-da!” moment where I would have whipped something out of a bag, or pulled a cloth off something, or got a snake in, or a visitor. And so I often thought about the magic things as being ones that were very much adult-created. And I think there is still a massive place for that. You can give children in early-years experiences that they’ve not previously had, or moments of awe and wonder.
What I’ve learnt through my career, what I promote a great deal more now, three words that I use far too much in my life, are: “thrill, will, skill”. Partly because they rhyme and they’re easy to remember. But the whole concept is that in the environment that we offer children, in the curriculum that we offer them, if there is no thrill, there will be no will to take part. If there is no will to take part, they will never acquire any skills. So we need to have environments, curriculum that give children a thrill.
But “thrill” is an individual thing. There is the “Ta-da!” thrill, where you do whip off a cloth and there’s a snake underneath and everybody goes: “*gasp*, that’s amazing!” and we can all be fascinated by looking at the snake.
But also I really strongly promote this idea of child-led learning, where you might say, “I’ve got a group of children in front of me. I know that you are really interested in dinosaurs. I know that you’ve got a real fascination with superheroes. I know that you’ve got a real fascination with Disney princesses. You’ve got a real fascination with cars. And therefore I am going to try to incorporate that into the environment I create and the delivery I give, as well as the things that might pop up as the day goes on.”
The other day I was working with a group of children, and there was a massive spider in the sink. And nobody thought, “Today we’re going to talk about spiders.” Nobody thought, “Our math was going to be about spiders or whatever it may be.” But because there was a massive spider in the sink and everybody was fascinated by that spider, suddenly we ended up with a week’s worth of work that was all gauged around their investigation of the discovery of their interest in the spider.
And I think to be really successful in early-years you’ve got to have that element of flexibility where you think, “I know why I’m going to teach, roughly. I know where my children need to go next. But how I get there, I might have a rough plan in my head but if I think I’m going to deal with “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”, but a spider in the sink pops up, I need to be able to say: “I’m going to put Goldilocks on hold and I’m going to run with the spider.”
So moments of magic that may happen when we pursue children’s interests, as well as those moments where we can make the magic happen by giving them an experience maybe that they haven’t had before, or one that’s fairly exciting.
I was listening to one of your TEDx speeches on your website, and you talked about the difference between teaching versus delivering. Is this sort of what you mean by these magical experiences in the child-led learning? Is that sort of in line with that?
Yeah, that kind of fits into it. I think teaching and delivering are, or can be, seen as being very interchangeable. And often there are – especially in the UK over the past maybe 10 years – there’s been lots of initiatives that are often government-driven, where do will say to all settings or all schools: “You all need to teach this. This is how you teach it. It comes in modules. Here’s module one.” And so people then have got that book and they know what their module is. And they sit down with the children and they teach module one.
And that really, for me, is more about deliverance. Somebody else is telling you to teach. It doesn’t matter who’s sitting in front of you – you know you’ve got to do module one, followed by module two. And that’s more just delivering facts, whereas teaching, for me, is about knowing children. It’s about knowing what their next steps might be, so we have a really good idea about child development. And then going into their environment, getting into their play. So not pulling them out of their play necessarily to come and learn something with you. So, “Stop doing what you’re doing and come and count these bricks with me.” If I want you to engage in counting I might say, “Well, I’m going to come into play with you, if it’s appropriate. And we are going to count together as part of your play, as opposed to stopping your claim to come and count with me.”
It’s a very finely tuned thing, because what you don’t want to do is to think, “That’s a really good idea, so I’m going to take counting into play.” Then you see a child engaged in some really good play and then you kind of break into that play and say, “Right, well, if you can just stop what you’re doing – if we count these, how many have we got? If you count those, how many have we got?” And actually that just turns them off completely. So it’s that balance between observing children, as I often say to practitioners I work with, I say, “You need to look and then look again.” So look and see what you see, and then look again and reflect on that and say, “Am I looking at that or am I looking at something completely different?”
And sometimes you just walk on, because what they’re doing is brilliant and they just need to be left to do it. Sometimes you might observe and record what they’re doing because it’s evidence for next steps. Sometimes you might enhance what they doing. It’s got nothing to do with what you’re thinking about teaching, but what they’re doing is valid and you might say, “Oh, have you seen this?” Or, “Can I suggest you have a look at this and wonder what would happen then?” And sometimes you might join that play, and you might then be able to, through that play, deliver some of the objectives that you’re thinking about to do with whatever – talk, counting, personal social interaction.
So it’s quite a complex process to be a teacher as opposed to just a deliverer. But also for me teaching is really exciting, really exciting. Because you are going with the moment. You are not saying: “I’m going to bring you here. We’re going to do this. You say, ”I’m coming into your domain. And with you, I’m just observing. With you, I’m supporting. With you, I’m scaffolding your learning. And with you I’m delivering something new. With you, I’m reinforcing. Some of you already know. With you, I’m assessing whether you know this or not.” And all the time you are running with their interests, you’re running with their engagement. And that’s what keeps it a really exciting job.
It’s funny because this conversation I feel like almost takes us full circle back to your inspirational teacher, Sally, and where you really gained an appreciation for how complex and challenging early-years education is. Because, like you said, you have to be flexible and you have to adapt. And I can imagine that that’s much more challenging than having a prescriptive curriculum with module one, module two, where you just sort of deliver that.
It is, and it takes practice, and it takes knowledge. And actually when I look back now on the people I worked with like Sally and I thought their inspiration at the time. But when I look back now with the knowledge that I’ve got that I didn’t actually appreciate and just how knowledgeable they were and just how skilled they were in terms of their practice.
But for when you’re new to teaching or you need to work with the age group of children, that whole concept of child-led learning is difficult because you haven’t got the knowledge of next-steps. You haven’t got the knowledge, necessarily, of progression for children or child development. And so often very new or young teachers I work with prefer the delivery because they’ve got something that they can hold on to and they are secure in that. And that’s okay. I think like anything – any job you do – you develop as time goes on, and what you don’t get at the very beginning of your career is the finished article. I think when you’re working with children, even at the end of your career, you never have the finished article because no two children are the same; no cohort of children is the same. Society changes. Interests change. We live in a digital age now, which we didn’t as much ten years ago.
So how I engage with children now in terms of the digital access that I use just didn’t even feature when I was working in the classroom. So that’s also what keeps it really fascinating. Even though all these things change, though, children are fundamentally children.
And what I find interesting in this conversation, too, is the whole concept of, “Is it an art versus a science?” And I feel like it’s almost easy to attribute someone like Sally’s ability to work with children to just that and say, “Oh, well, Sally’s just really good with kids.” But actually it’s almost like you’ve learned to realize that actually it’s much more than that, and she has a lot of skills that she’s developed over the years that she’s purposefully and proactively implementing.
Yeah. You’ve always got your Piaget’s and your Pagrotsky’s and various people who will talk about the development of children in their early years. And they are fascinating to read and they are… a lot of the principles of what early-years education are based on the discoveries of those philosophers and their thoughts. And I think anybody can read that, and lots of people can understand that.
Where the skill of it come is, I think when you’re going to work with young children you do have to have an interest in it and a passion for it. Because if you didn’t, especially your early-years children are by their nature quite needy in that the world is a wonderful new place to them. They’ve got so many new experiences. They want to tell you about it; they want to talk about it. They don’t want to wait their turn – “I’ve got a bit of news and I want to share it.” And trying to wait until all 29 of the children have all shared their news first is torture. “I just want to be able to say it. And at the same time I need a wee, and at the same time I want to touch that, and at the same time I want to go over there.” You’ve got all that going on.
And so I think if you didn’t enjoy it or have a talent for it, they would just drive you mad. They would literally suck the life out of you on a daily basis. So there is an element of having a real, “I love it and I get them.” And so when I talk to teachers – especially who teach older children – who might say, “I could never do it. I’ve tried it but it just drove me mad.” And I think there’s an element of that. But it’s marrying that whole “I’ve got a passion for this, I’ve got an interest in it,” but also you hone those skills over time. You begin to learn that it’s not just about children being able to write their names, know their sounds and know their numbers. That actually comes at the very end of the process. A teacher once said to me, “I make sure all my children can write their name by the end of the year, and some of them can even write their surnames.” And that was her marker of, “I know that I will have achieved when my children get to five and they can write their Christian name and their surname.”
And actually for me that comes way, way at the end of the process. “You will eventually learn to write your name. But I’d rather you had a passion for learning. I’d rather you had higher-order thinking skills. I’d rather you were a processer, in terms of a learner. I’d rather you were a critical thinker. You weren’t just waiting for an adult to come and give you the answer, or an adult to come and give you an activity. I’d rather you have a high level of independence.” All those things are far more important to me than “Can you write your name by the time you are five years old?”
And if you want to write your name and you can write your name, that’s amazing. But where we go wrong is when we see that as a mark of success. So we put aside all the “thrill, will, skill”. We put aside all the individual interests. And we start going down the lines of, “Listen to me on the carpet. Then come to a table and practice writing your name. Come and listen to me on the carpet. Then go to a table and practice you numbers.” And children get this kind of diet of sausage machine, really, which doesn’t take into account their individual personalities or their individual learning styles or that passion or excitement for learning. It’s just about end-results that are very adult-driven, and that’s a shame. And unfortunately you see a lot of that. And that’s not just UK-wide, that’s kind of worldwide.
This is a really engaging conversation that I think I could continue on for hours. But unfortunately we’re running short on time so I’m going to force you to give me a 30-second answer or less to this question: For those that are listening to the podcast that maybe are just starting out their careers in early-years education, like you were, what would your advice be to them?
My ultimate bit of advice for early-years educators would be: “Go with your gut.” So if you feel it’s right, if you’ve got a real sense of it then go with it. And follow children’s interests. Again it comes back to that phrase which I use all the time, which is: “High-level engagement gives you the potential for high-level attainment.” So the more engaged your children can be, the more potential you have to really extend their knowledge. And you will get that engagement by following their interests as opposed to trying to get them to follow yours, which often works when you’re leading. So if I’m on the carpet and I’m talking to children about something that I’m interested in – it could be sport or space or Goldilocks or spring or whatever it may be – that’s great. But when they leave me and go into play, they don’t carry that interest with them a lot of the time, because they haven’t got the knowledge.
So fine, when you’re talking to children you can really impart knowledge to them. You can really sell it to them [because] you’re good at that. But when they go into play, follow their interest because that’s where their engagement lies.
Great advice. If people want to get in touch with you or learn more about your work or your writings, what’s the best way for them to do that?
I have an early-years blog, which is just www.ABCDoes.com. And I also write for Bloomsbury. So either through the Bloomsbury UK website or through Amazon you can usually pick up my books. And on my blog there is a “contact me” button and that comes direct to me. So if anybody asks me questions about my work or wants to know more about it that’s probably the best place to look.
Awesome. Alistair, this was a really engaging conversation for me. I really liked some of the concepts you brought forth, and especially the idea of how you have to develop and grow your skills over time as an early-years educator, and really that appreciation for what early-childhood professionals bring to the table in terms of their expertise and skills. Great knowledge for our younger early-childhood educators out there as well as everybody in the community at large just to know all the effort and hard work, but also the knowledge and skill sets of early-childhood professionals. Thanks so much for coming on the show today.
You are very welcome. Thank you.