In the early years we have a term: ‘Fluffy Duck Syndrome’. It is very useful to understand what this term means when discussing the ‘best’ methods for young children’s learning. ‘Fluffy Duck Syndrome’ describes a situation where the adults decide that the children are going to make an piece of artwork for their parents. The adults prepare a set of resources that are all the same – same size, same materials, same ‘end result’ as the goal. The adults give the children step-by-step instructions as to how to make their cards. At the end of the activity, all the children have a card that looks exactly the same. The cards are the same size, with the same art materials stuck on in exactly the same places to create exactly the same pictures. The Fluffy Ducks are officially all in a row. The cards look lovely and neat, and the parents are pleased. But there are some important learning opportunities that get lost in this approach: not least, creativity, individuality, choice, experimentation and decision-making.
There are times when ‘direct instruction’ is entirely the right approach to use with young children. This is what some might call ‘teaching’ but what people in the early years often refer to as ‘adult-directed learning’. When our children are helping prepare the snacks for snack time at preschool, it is completely appropriate for the adults to show them the best way to do it. In this situation, it is the best and most efficient way for learning to happen. ‘You should hold the knife like this when you cut, to be safe’ and ‘it’s best to cut the chunks this way so they are bite size’ and of course ‘shall we count the chunks to check that we have got enough for everyone?’ Similarly, if you want to help a young child learn how to get dressed independently, you would help them understand how best to do it. Why on earth would you not? (Although this is definitely not to say you should not at least encourage them to try and do it by themselves as well.)
Interestingly, it is not just the adults who use ‘direct instruction’ in the early years. You will often find the children using this technique brilliantly as well. When the children teach us, we tend to refer to this as ‘child directed’ or ‘child initiated learning’. ‘You have to put on the chef’s hat, Lynne, because you are going to be the cook in our café and we don’t want hair in our food. Remember to wash your hands before you start cooking, so you don’t spread germs.’ The adults are highly responsive to this kind of instruction from the children, because it is such a wonderful way to help them build confidence and vocabulary, and to find out what they already know. It’s a bit similar to saying to the children ‘you be teacher’ at primary or secondary level.
And then there is ‘play’. It strikes me that the term ‘play’ is sometimes misunderstood when it comes to learning in the early years. ‘Play’ is not some kind of random, free-for-all where children race around the setting chucking toys at each other. (Yes, we too have an agree set of ‘rules’ to ensure everyone is safe and can learn.) ‘Play’ is a cleverly structured set of learning opportunities, devised by the adults in response to an in-depth knowledge of their children. The ‘play’ sometimes begins with the adults putting out a set of resources that they know will inspire their children to learn a specific skill, attribute or piece of information. (In the early years we would usually refer to this as ‘adult initiated learning’.) If yesterday the children were really keen to play on the ride-on toys, then today you might create a ‘road network’ together, and encourage them to ride the cars and bikes along the roads. You might also offer resources so that they can create a set of road signs to use in their play. In doing so, you guide their play, and you also create opportunities to learn – in this instance, building physical dexterity, identifying symbols in the world around us, and learning how and why we follow ‘the rules of the road’.
Early years practitioners also love to give children a choice of resources, as a method both for differentiating learning and also encouraging children to make considered decisions. This is often referred to as ‘child initiated learning’. The children’s ‘choice’ will always be limited by the resources you have available in your setting, and this is why creating an ‘enabling environment’ is such a key factor in a great early years setting. You provide the ‘best’ resources to ensure that learning can happen. The children can only play with what you offer them (although often they will not play with it in quite the way that you had anticipated.) However, when children initiate play of their own accord, the adults do not stand back and let them get on with it. They make subtle but crucial interventions to ensure that the play builds learning. One of the best techniques for this is ‘sustained shared thinking’. As you join in with the child’s play, you talk together about what is going on. You ask the children questions to guide and build their thinking, as they play. These are mainly open-ended questions (‘What do you think will happen if we add another block to your tower? Why do you think it might topple over?) At exactly the same time, you can encourage learning to happen in other ways (‘Shall we count how many blocks were in the tower when it fell over?)
If we go back to those Fluffy Ducks with which I began this post, why then, in some instances, is adult directed learning (a.k.a. ‘teaching’) the ‘wrong’ thing to do? If your goal is to create a setting full of children who know how to follow adult instructions, surely that activity is entirely justified? The point is this: a set of identical cards is one possible outcome of the activity, but it is not necessarily the most appropriate outcome for this particular activity. One of our aims as educators is surely to encourage children to think for themselves, to take creative risks, to experiment with different art resources and to end up with artwork that is an expression of their own imaginative thinking? This is an art activity, after all. And if that is the case, then the best method for this particular activity is to give them the resources and then let them decide what is ‘best’ by themselves. To let them learn through that wonderful technique that us adults might refer to as ‘play’, but which, for small children, is simply what they do.