At a recent conference about children’s thinking the presenter, the acclaimed author Marion Dowling, made a comment about why it is so important that we should understand children’s thinking processes and how we can then use this in our work. As she stated – “we can’t compel children to engage”. I’m sure every practitioner can empathise with this, having sat in front of a group of children with a book and knowing that not every child is listening!
Marion then went on to describe a situation she had observed in a reception class, who had been learning about Goldilocks and the three bears. When it was time to review their learning the teacher didn’t fire questions at the children but chose to dress up as ‘Mrs Locks’ who had lost her daughter ‘Goldie’. By using this subterfuge she was able to ask the children quite naturally what her ‘daughter’ had been doing and what had happened next. Marion described this teacher as a ‘sparkly thinker’, a wonderfully descriptive phrase which encapsulates those practitioners who bring that extra magic sparkle to an activity.
In her book Young Children’s Personal, Social and Emotional Development she frequently refers to the importance of the practitioner, as key worker, role model, sympathiser and empathiser. In terms of personal, social and emotional development the practitioner is more important than any other resource. ‘ nurturing young children’s personal growth is primarily dependent on practitioners who are both disposed to do this work and skilled in doing it.’ (page 182). However, I would go further and say that in all areas of development the quality of the practitioner far outweighs the quality of the resources. Children will always learn far more from a good practitioner – the ‘sparkly thinker’ – with a cardboard box than a poor practitioner with the most expensive resources.
The example given was in a reception class, but the ‘sparkle’ should be evident with every age, from birth onwards. So how can this be achieved in a setting? Can practitioners be taught to be ‘sparkly thinkers’? I believe any practitioner who wants to achieve this can do so, if you follow some simple rules:
- Give the practitioner the confidence to be flexible, go with the flow and follow the children’s lead. Tell her/him that’s its OK to use resources in a different way – if the children would like the pirates and the dinosaurs together in the sand that’s fine. Observe what happens. So the planned small group work was disrupted by the window cleaner, no problem. Let the children watch the bubbles.
- Encourage thinking ‘outside the box’. Does the particular activity always have to be presented in the same way? Restrict the colour of the blocks they are allowed to use then gradually allow more colours to be introduced. The children love the idea of having ‘new’ colours added, whereas normally they would just tip them all out without thinking about it.
- Encourage enthusiasm. Ideally this would be genuine, but at the end of a long week this can be a tall order, so even a level of ‘faked’ enthusiasm is better than none. Be warned, though. Children are very perceptive!
- Engage with each child. The level of engagement depends on the child. Some children like the full on sustained shared thinking for a long time, for others it may just need a brief word at the right time.
- Model ‘sparkly thinking’. A lot of settings now have camcorders and cameras. Use these to record good sessions and share with other practitioners. This should also boost the confidence of the practitioner recorded.
- Play to strengths. If you have a practitioner who is outstanding at displays then encourage her/him to do displays as well as train others. Some practitioners enjoy story telling rather than reading from a book or prefer to be outdoors.
- Have a magic box ready for when all else fails! This could contain open ended resources such as unusual fabric, peacock feathers, Christmas decorations, pampas grass top and small ornamental animals. The more unusual the items the better. This can then be brought out and an item selected by the children about which to weave a story or spark some ideas.