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A reflection on starting out

When I was just starting out as an Early Years consultant, I knew that I needed to let nurseries know what training I could offer and how I could help them. Bearing in mind that was well over a decade ago, when social media was in its infancy, this was trickier than it sounds now.

I was confident that I could help many nurseries, because the EYFS was about to become statutory and I had already been implementing it into the setting I was working at, as well as reading up as much as possible on written observations, development matters and the huge pack of documents that formed the Early Years Foundation Stage in the early days.

I had to reach out to those nurseries who I felt would be most interested in getting additional training and support, in an effective and professional way.

So, I bought some high-quality paper, had business cards printed and crafted letters of introduction to post to nurseries, costing me a lot for a new, small business. I spent time scouring through Ofsted reports of nurseries and settings. I chose to focus on the nurseries whose Ofsted reports had recommended improvements because I felt they would be the most interested in raising their inspection grades and they had clearly identified areas for improvement.

Wrong!

Not a single response, even with follow up phone calls.

And then an Outstanding nursery contacted me to design and deliver training for them…

It’s obvious – now – that it’s the managers and leaders of Outstanding settings who value well-trained staff, who want to have training that is specific because they have already identified for themselves where improvements need to be made, and who know the personal benefit to staff morale when they invest money into staff development.

The other reflection is that these settings rarely commission training to satisfy the requirements of an inspection report, but they do it for the benefit of the children and in the interests of good pedagogy. Often the inspection report identifies symptoms rather than root causes of poor practice because there is only so much that you can unpick during a one day visit. It is down to the staff within the setting to clearly identify what is needed in their unique circumstances, in their unique setting. And also being aware that this will change from year to year, cohort to cohort.

Counterintuitively – it’s probably the people who are already good who want to improve!

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Guest post

A Gender Gap in the Early Years?

A guest post by Verity Downing (MEd Open) – Master of Education

Qualified Early Years Practitioner and Independent Academic

 

Within this reflective opinion piece, I refer to ‘female students’ and ‘girls’ and ‘male students’ and ‘boys’ as a matter of reflecting the phrases used in the government data, although, I respectfully acknowledge that gender and sex are deeply personal states of being that everyone expresses differently.

 

This title is ambiguous, I grant you. But what I’m referring to is the gap between the success of female students and male students across the EYFS that has remained a constant from 2013 to the present (DfE, 2019). This may come as a little bit of a shock, especially as I think it’s fair to say that we’ve become accustomed to describing our EYFS as ‘gender neutral’.

While it is an absolute positive that we can see, from information published in October of 2019, that the “gender gap continues to decrease” (DfE, 2019), it has only done so by “0.6 ppts from 2018” (DfE, 2019). This translates to girls still exceeding the success of boys with regard to “a good level of development” (DfE, 2019) by “12.9 ppts” (DfE, 2019). The biggest consistent gap between the success of boys and girls can be seen in reading and writing, however, in recent years, gaps are becoming worryingly evident in “self-confidence and self-awareness […] and the world” (DfE, 2019).

These gaps lead me to think: are girls outperforming boys, or are these gaps showing themselves because there is a disparity between what practitioners expect from boys and girls, or perhaps, looking farther afield, do the ELGs and Development Matters statements lend themselves towards stereotypically feminine strengths? I will stop myself from going down the rabbit hole of theoretical comparisons and the fundamental underlying principles of EYFS’ culture, and instead, concentrate on how we can tackle this disparity and ensure that no child is being disadvantaged as a result of their sex or gender expression.

My concerns with there being a gap between the success of boys and girls at this early age are;

  • that boys may not be being supported to reach their full potential,
  • that girls are seen to be over-achieving in the EYFS and are consequently being set-up for a fall in their future education (due to teachers’ expectations being too high of them as they were seen to be doing so well in the EYFS) and,
  • that these gaps could continue into later life.

It is our responsibility to liberate children from the “deleterious impact of gender-stereotypes” (Wolter et al., 2013, p. 64) and support them as they develop confidence and capabilities across the social and educational spectrum. A wide-ranging set of skills and interests will serve them well in the long-run.

Researchers offer the following explanations for the persisting gap:

  • It is thought that practitioners could fall into adopting traditional gender-based stereotypes of children (Baroody and Diamond (2012), Chapman (2016) and Runions (2014)), which can affect the children’s outcomes (Matthews et al., 2009), Robinson-Cimpian et al., 2014).
  • Sanford (2005) suggests that there is the chance that learning and educational development is happening in the EYFS, but that it is not being recognised. This goes back to my point that EYFS guidance tends to focus on feminine strengths. If, for example, boys are regularly seen playing with the blocks, it is possible that this familiarity closets the learning that is taking place (this example may explain the gap that is evident in “shape, space and measure” (DfE, 2019).
  • This also relates to practitioner’s valuing and recognition of behaviour that fits with their gender-based ideals. Chapman (2016), in her work that delved into how gendered ideas affect play within Australian EYFS settings, details that EYFS practitioners may give varying amounts, and types, of feedback to their students depending on their sex and behaviour.
  • While it goes without saying that all EYFS practitioners strive to ensure that they have relationships with the children that encourage feelings of safety, trust and fun, it is thought that girls are more likely to have better relationships with practitioners than boys, as their perceived superior social skills bias practitioners towards them (Robinson-Cimpian et al. (2014), Runions (2014) and Sanford (2005)). This in turn will influence where the children play and consequently what learning experiences they encounter. It could be concluded that the feeling of safety that is cultivated through these relationships may lead to female students exploring more areas of the setting, and boys not, resulting in the ELG gender gap (Downing, 2020).
  • Children may police each other with regard to behaving within gender stereotypes. Prioletta and Pyle (2017), who spent a considerable amount of time observing EYFS children at play in settings in Ontario, Canada, found that “in 70% of the videos, girls and boys played separately” (p. 398). This data also showed that the predominantly girl-only play happened at “the art/writing centre” (p. 398) and the boys-only play was mostly observed at “the blocks centre” (p. 399). I imagine that this will be relatable to many. This peer-on-peer policing based on understandings of gender can restrict the breadth of learning experiences that the children have. The writers go on to detail how at the girls-only play centres, the opportunities for literacy learning experiences were abundant, yet this is not the case for the boys-only play (Prioletta and Pyle, 2017). There is probable cause to think that this trend could be partially responsible for the gap in outcomes that are presented in the government data.

What can we do about this?

The smallest changes can make the biggest of differences.

  • Invite as many different people into your setting as possible. Sometimes there is nothing more influential than for a child to meet a ‘real-life [insert job title]’. Additionally, think carefully about how you interact with your visitor and the language used about them as the children will follow your lead. This then leads into ensuring that your setting represents people defying gender stereotypes in society. Also, if a female/male comes in to visit and is in a traditionally feminine/masculine job, ensure that this is as equally represented and appreciated as someone who is working outside of gender stereotypes.
  • This leads on to ensuring that we are mindful about the language and phrases that we use when around the children. “Matthew, can you please hold the door open as you’re a big, strong boy” may seem like a harmless phrase, but this is conveying all sorts of messages to Matthew and the other children who are listening in.
  • Think critically about how you assess your children. “Dominic is playing with the blocks again. I’ve already got an observation of him using positional language”. Don’t overlook this; what else is happening there? Is he sharing and taking on his friends’ ideas? Is he persisting when that top block wont quite stay still? Is he making a garage just like the one that mummy took the car to on the weekend for it to be fixed? Sometimes we have to look beyond what is right in-front of us and recognise the children’s play for its variety and value.
  • We need to get to know our children. The more that we talk 1:1, in small groups and in bigger groups with our children, the better. This immediately nips in the bud any chance of us falling into gender stereotypes if we can value and understand our children for their special, individual, little selves. Also, choose a topic to discuss with your key group. Let’s say ‘People who help us’. Brainstorm it together and model using inclusive language. If an unhelpful gender stereotype comes up, address it. Handle the situation gently and ask lots of questions. “Girls can’t be firemen!” “Why do you think that? Have you seen this book where there are lots of pictures of girl firefighters? Heather, would you like to be a firefighter when you grow up? It would be great to help people, wouldn’t it?”. These conversations allow us to open the children’s horizons.
  • Let’s encourage the children’s ownership of the resources. If you notice that one area is dominated by boys which could potentially alienate girls, or vice-versa, address it! Ask the boys why they don’t play with the playdough. “We like to play outside”. So, take the playdough outside! “We like the building area”. Incorporate little diggers and signposts into the outdoor playdough area. The results can be astonishing! Plus, think of all of those opportunities for incorporating fine-motor skills and mark-making skills into that play. I can sense the reading and writing gap narrowing as I type!
  • This then opens up the wonderful world of the role-play area. Building on from your brainstorming, “Perhaps we could turn our role-play area into a fire station?” Facilitate the children to have an input into creating this area. The opportunities for encouraging inclusive play in this area are endless. Oh, and get involved! Model playing different roles. This is a great way to build and strengthen your relationships with the children that will encourage them to see you in a whole new light. Prioletta and Pyle (2017) say “becoming involved in children’s play can be a useful way for practitioners to encourage […] alternative ways to be a girl or boy” (p. 405). We mustn’t underestimate our competences, versatility, and adaptability, and instead should push ourselves and capitalise on it because we can be incredibly influential in showing the children that everything is available to them.
  • In an ideal world, there would be a more balanced EYFS workforce, with more men joining the profession. However, when reflecting on their research, Wolter et al. (2013) said:

“it is not the biological gender of the kindergarten practitioner per se that has a differential effect on girls’ versus boys’ competence. Rather, our female practitioners were just as effective in supporting individual learning in boys as in girls as long as they took care not to provide predominately feminine gender-typed activities but offered masculine gender-typed activities to the same extent” (p. 64).

 

I have written this piece, chose to focus on it for my Masters research, and hope to continue researching it during future Doctoral work, because I really believe that we owe our littlest learners the best start to their education; a start that is free from the restraints that society puts on sex and gender expression. We want our learners to develop skills and interests in the widest reaching range possible. We want our learners to take these skills and interests on into the big wide world and change it for the better. We want our learners to be whatever they want to be, and we as practitioners can support that. And it’s wonderful.

(Please note, statistics for the 2019-2020 period were due to be released this month, however, due to the pandemic, the scheduled release will not be going ahead https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/announcements/early-years-foundation-stage-profile-results-in-england-2019-to-2020)

References:

Baroody, A. and Diamond, K. (2013) ‘Measures of preschool children’s interest and engagement in literacy activities: Examining gender differences and construct dimensions’, Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28(1), pp. 291-301.

Chapman, R. (2016) ‘A case study of gendered play in preschools: how early childhood educators’ perceptions of gender influence children’s play’, Early Child Development and Care, vol. 186, no. 8, pp. 1271-1284.

Department for Education (DfE) (2019) Early years foundation stage profile results in England: 2019, [Online], Data Insight and Statistics Division, Department for Education. Available at https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/839934/EYFSP_2019_Main_Text_Oct.pdf (Accessed 5 October 2020).

Downing, V. (2020) ‘The stronger the bonds, the greater the chances of success: Actioning on research to address the gender-based achievement gap in the Early Years’, Impact: The Journal of the Chartered College of Teaching, Issue 10, Autumn 2020, pp. 34-36.

Matthews, J. S., Cameron Ponitz, C. and Morrison, F. (2009) ‘Early Gender Differences in Self-Regulation and Academic Achievement’, Journal of Educational Psychology, 101(3), pp. 689-704.

Prioletta, J. and Pyle, A. (2017) ‘Play and gender in Ontario kindergarten classrooms: implications for literacy learning’, International Journal of Early Years Education, vol. 24, no. 4, pp. 393-408.

Robinson-Cimpian, J., Ganley, C. and Copur-Genctruk, Y. (2014) ‘Practitioners’ Perceptions of Students Mathematics Proficiency May Exacerbate Early Gender Gaps in Achievement’, Developmental Psychology, 50(4), pp. 1262-1281.

Runions, K. (2014) ‘Does Gender Moderate the Association Between Children’s Behaviour and Practitioner-Child Relationship in the Early Years?’, Australian Journal of Guidance and Counselling, vol. 24, no. 2, pp. 197-214.

Sanford, K. (2005) ‘Gendered Literacy Experiences: The Effects of Expectation and Opportunity for Boys’ and Girls’ Learning’, Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 49(4), pp. 302-315.

Wolter, I., Gluer, M. and Hannover, B. (2013) ‘Gender-typicality of activity offerings and child-practitioner relationship closeness in German “Kindergarten”. Influences on the development of spelling competence as an indicator of early basic literacy in boys and girls’, Learning and Individual Differences, vol. 31, no. n.a, pp. 59-65.

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Recommended Resources

Spirals in Nature

I used to think that there was nothing better than a children’s book with great illustrations and a compelling story.

Last week I discovered that a book with great illustrations, a delightful story, set in nature, including facts for discussion AND links to schematic play, is even better!

The book is called Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature, written by Joyce Sidman and illustrated by Beth Krommes.

In it, Joyce explains the benefits of spirals in nature, from fitting into small places to being strong and being able to hold on. She includes the more obvious spirals in nature, such as the sunflower head and daisy, but also includes whirlpools, tornadoes and waves. Within each full-colour page, the correct names are given for each spiral, such as the nautilus shell.

The love of nature and of being outdoors is obvious throughout the book but combines this the science in an engaging way.

Then, on the final pages, the science is explored in a child-friendly and easily explained way, just right to start the conversations with children about the way spirals support and help nature – from the butterfly’s tongue to the Fibonacci sequence.

This is an ideal book for children who may be exploring spirals or rotation in their schematic play, especially with Beth’s charming illustrations, which are full of tiny, precise details to discover.

In short, this is a book that can be enjoyed for its lyrical words, gorgeous and meticulous illustrations or the science of spirals in nature. That has to be perfection!

You can purchase both Kindle and hardback editions of the book on Amazon here (Affiliate link) or order from your local bookstore.

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Guest post

Quality story books reflecting positive images for all

Quality Story Books for the Foundation Stage reflecting positive images for all
By Fiona Greenwood

I was delighted to be contacted by Fiona to tell me that she’d been inspired by Kala Williams’s Early Years TV interview. Here’s what happened:

After watching Kala Williams on Early Years TV I became painfully aware of how few books we had in our Nursery which reflected diversity. It also made me think about stereotypes in children’s books and illustrations and I decided to spend some of our fundraising money on some good quality books.

As Kala had discussed, it struck me how few books there are which reflect Britain today so after searching the Internet I phoned my local Waterstones to help me in my quest.

They were incredibly happy to help and it was brilliant to see how many appropriate books they had for sale in their store. Vicky also ordered more for me and below is the start of what will become our new library. Some of these titles will also become our Core Books which the children will get to know extremely well.

I am Assistant Head at a predominantly white British Nursery School which made it so important for us to question the books we had and purchase new books which showed positive images of our whole society, not just of our immediate area.

This first list are great stories that depict black girls as the main character – not set in Africa – but here at home!
Look up! by Nathan Bryon
Billy and The Beast. by Nadia Shireen
Biily and The Dragon. by Nadia Shireen
Suzy Orbit Astronaut by Ruth Quayle
Ten Minutes to Bed Little Mermaid by Rhiannon Fielding
The Dinosaur Department Store by Lily Murray
Cendrillon by Robert San Souci is a fabulous Caribbean Cinderella. Imagine the discussions with this book!

Here are a few books where the illustrations depict diversity
Jack and the Flum Flum Tree by Julia Donaldson
When a Dragon Comes to Stay by Caryl Hart
Flotsam by David Weisz

The next few books kick stereotyping into touch for both boys and girls
Pink is for Boys by Eda Kaban
Not Every Princess by Jeffrey Bone
The Girls by Lauren Ace (This is a beautiful book)
Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love

And a few Early Years books about our environment in danger
World in Danger by Frankie Morland
Greta and The Giants by Zoe Tucker
A Planet full of Plastic by Neal Layton ( with multicultural images too)

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Guest post

Five Fantastic Faeces Facts

Five Fantastic Faeces Facts. (5 minute read, just for laughs)
by Jungle Jo

Yes that’s right, I’m going to talk about poop. Some of you may find it a bit disgusting and others like me chuckle about it. I’m surrounded by it every day with my animals and children so to do my job I need a crazy sense of humour. Like it or not poop is really interesting and super important for the planet. There are several names such as dung, frass, guano, droppings, pats, manure, pellets, scat, dodo, number 2’s etc. dozens to choose from. It all depends on the animal its structure, shape and what the animal eats. Whatever you want to call it here are some cool facts for you to chuckle about.

1. Animals eat poop including humans. Animals can eat it to hide the scent of their babies from other animals such as wolves eating their pups poop. Some animals like rabbits will poop a soft nutritional pellet overnight and eat it. So actually eat their own poop (imagine that). The first time they ate it, their digestion hasn’t completely absorbed all the nutrients so they don’t waste it; they just eat it a second time round. Cockroaches, worms and millipedes eat other animal poop which cleans up the planet but then they will poo an amazing fertiliser which in turn grows our fruits, trees and veg. Of course the dung beetle is the most famous poop eater of them all. Thank you very much poo eaters you rock.

Humans can use poop in our food products the most expensive coffee in the world has been eaten and excreted through a civet cat. There are drinks such as beer and even green tea which benefit from faeces. Finally shellac is the excretion from an insect which we use to coat many of those tasty crunchy coated sweets which we all love. Yummy…

2. Animals and humans can use poop to make houses. There are several species which can use other animals’ faeces to make a home or nest. Birds are great at using herbivorous animals poop. It has a great fibrous structure and dries solid. Using poop for your house can repel other animals; it can be shaped into many different structures both small and large. It can work as a great insulator. It can also become a wind block and rain proof once smoothed and finished off with a coating of your own dribble. Humans have used animal excrement for thousands of years. Normally horse or cow manure mixed with urine, hair, mud and straw. It has protected us from all of the elements and many countries still use it to this day. Remember that it’s super strong and thankfully over time the odour becomes weaker. Just remember to not light a match.

3. “Poo with a purpose” or a “very important poo” (VIP). Here I am backing up the point I make on the video. Spiders are not everybody’s best friend but I love them and own 4 tarantulas. Their poo is absolutely awesome. They do not poop like we do. Every living thing, plant and animal, as we know must eat and excrete. The spiders and tarantulas of this world are the perfect recyclers. They eat and then their excretion is their venom and their WEB. Yes their web is their poop. It is completely recycled into a liquid protein silk which they can use for their houses, to catch their prey, to dance on and generally show off their skills in remarkable patterns and orbs. If their web breaks they can eat the broken web to recycle it and remake their web again. They can poop a tiny silk pellet which they leave in their webs, if they don’t catch any more food they will eat the silk pellet to make more web. Oh my goodness, it amazes me. The Madagascan bark spider is smaller than your thumb nail and can throw its first single thread of web downwind 25 meters across. Spider silk, poo, web whatever you want to call it is super strong and super fantastic.

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Articles

Children’s Multicultural Books

I had the enormous pleasure of interviewing TEDx speaker and author Dr Brynn Welch on the last Early Years Summit. Dr Welch’s particular research interest is diversity in young children’s literature and having books where children can ‘see themselves’. It’s something she cares passionately about – so much so that she wrote her own book for her son, Ben, called ‘Bennie Goes Up, Up, Up‘.

The interview really made me think about the books that we provide for children and how it is so easy to choose books without thinking about the messages we are sending children subliminally. For example, you don’t have to be a star athlete or President – you can just be you enjoying regular activities. It also reminded me of something that Carmen Powell said in October 2019 when talking about her book ‘Matthew and the Magic Goat‘, that the main character in her story has a prosthetic limb, but this isn’t mentioned or play a part in the story. It’s simply part of his life.

Having books that reflect children’s own race, ethnicity, disabilities, family structures and every other facet of their lives is so important because it helps them to relate to the story and the messages about making friends, being kind or just reflecting their own experiences. Belonging and being part of the wider community is an essential part of self-esteem, self-worth, empathy, understanding, Theory of Mind and so much more – but is incredibly difficult if you can’t relate to the stories that are being told.

It is also important that children appreciate and value families that are different from their own, with different cultures, heritages, traditions and artefacts, especially if they are unlikely to experience this in their immediate environment. Books may be their only window onto the wider, multicultural world.

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Recommended Resources

Informative and beautiful sharing books

Penny Tassoni MBE is very well-known for her textbooks for Early Years practitioners and educators because she knows how to explain difficult concepts in a very approachable and accessible way.

She has now applied this same skill to an informative and useful set of picture books for children, covering sharing, making friends, tidy up time and children’s food. The books are designed to be read together by parents and carers with their children to help the children to make those all-important connections. They are beautifully illustrated by Mel Four with clear images that are sure to delight children.

In the back of each book, there is a double-page of advice and help for the adults, which help and guide, without being too prescriptive. This is ideal for first-time parents, or if you are an educator working alongside parents.

These are a highly recommended set of books to have in your Early Years setting or on the bookshelf at home. I hope Penny Tassoni will go on to produce more in this delightful series.

* Disclaimer: Featherstone/Bloomsbury were kind enough to give me a set of these books for review purposes

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Viewpoint

From Early Years Summit to great practice in the setting

In the weeks, months and sometimes years after an Early Years Summit, I meet enthusiastic people who say “after watching the Summit, we implemented….” or I’ll get emails with pictures showing the changes as discussed in the Summit and how the children have benefitted.

I love these interactions because there is always a judgement call with the Summit – what to include, the length of the presentations, how many, who and so much more – so it’s just fabulous to hear and see that we’ve pitched it just right, thereby having a direct impact on the children and everyday practice.

So I was just delighted to receive an uplifting email from Emma less than a week after the Summit had finished, explaining how she had already implemented some of her own learning from the Summit. Emma and the participants in this vignette have kindly given me permission to share it with you.

Thank you very much indeed for sharing your experiences, Emma!

I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did.

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Articles

The Aquatic Classroom – 3 opportunities for transferable learning

When Jo Wilson from AquaSensory first contacted me, I was a little bemused as to how swimming lessons could be relevant to an Early Years setting. However, once I got talking to Jo, I realised there are lots of things we can transfer from the way AquaSensory is taught and the way we use resources in a setting.

I’ve chosen my 3 favourite ‘transferable learning’ moments, but there are plenty more!

  1. ‘Bubble of Joy’. This is the way that Jo explains to parents how to be ‘in the moment’ with their child in the pool. It is all about shutting out external distractions and really focusing on being together in the water.This has so many parallels with good Early Years practice. Being able to focus together with a child on something, whether that is an activity or a toy, is the bedrock for Sustained Shared Thinking (those lovely in-depth conversations you share with children).Describing this as a moment of ‘Joy’ explains the pleasure of spending time with children. I would suggest this may be a precursor to Professional Love, as described by Dr Jools Page.
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