“He doesn’t know farm animal sounds.”

Maybe two years ago I was in my morning program for 2 year olds at a primary school in a practically all BAME community in Leeds. I had an British-Asian boy on my lap and we were enjoying some book about farm animals. It was clear to me as well as a line manager casually observing things that while this boy was engaged, he didn’t know that a “cow goes moo” or that he was unwilling, uninterested or possibly unable to repeat different farm animal sounds.

After the book my line manager said as much, with a very “what a shame” tone to her voice. This moment has stuck with me. Truly not to call her out to make myself look better online, but it really encapsulates the complex problems of racism in education, and specifically Early Years.

The truth is the children in our school do not perform exceptionally well under the current DfE testing regime. While they make “accelerated progress,” our “GLD” percentage is quite low and working through the National Curriculum in higher year groups seems tough for teachers and children alike. I think all, but especially us white, educators need to be on constant guard on internalising “deficit views” of children and families from backgrounds other than our own. I think it is more common than we like to admit, for both understandable and absolutely illegitimate reasons.

Yes this one boy did not know farm animal sounds, or have the vocabulary or communication skills of the “average two year old”, but he was and still is an intelligent, self-motivated learner. He was fascinated with keys and absolutely determined to figure out how to use them for himself. He was an exceptional assistant when I was tidying up or doing other things around the children’s centre, who for his age demonstrated a keen sense of observation and understanding what I was doing.

The various DfE testing regime measuring sticks we hold up to our children can get in the way of seeing their true intelligence and humanity. While I will happily blame the DfE for everything in the world, this is one issue that is bigger than them.

This is not to say a 2 year olds communication skills and vocabulary aren’t crucial, or that even I as a white man don’t have valuable information on early childhood development to share with families from a variety of backgrounds but a major, if not main trap for early years educators here is a lack of curiousity or empathy about what the realities for other families are like.

I grew up in the US as a middle-class white guy. I don’t know what it’s like to grow up and then immigrate to the UK from Romania, Somalia, Bangladesh or Ghana. I don’t know what it’s like to grow up Black or Asian and British. Though yes we are all humans, we do have very different experiences that inform so much of our daily behaviour and lives.

I feel I am getting dangerously close to some social justice internet discourse that I honestly do not like or find useful. I think there is a lot of truth in otherwise BS criticisms of online social justice discourse where people who are privileged end up wallowing in our feelings and spending more time policing language online than looking to effect any change in our immediate communities.

While we need to be honest with whatever feelings come up as we begin to or continue to learn about some basic facts about world history, wallowing in these feelings obviously simply isn’t worth anything to anyone! We do require space and support to truly come to terms with things we might be new to learning, but the real truth is this won’t be even the beginning of our journey – if anything it is the pre-pre-preparations!

Back to the issues in EYs, no one wants, much less listens to advice from someone they don’t have a relationship with. While I will happily explain to anyone, from any background at all why water play is important for any child – I would be an idiot to think anyone I haven’t built a relationship with would or should listen to me for a second.

This cuts across race, and I can think of BAME colleagues in the past who do this as well, but there are specific and damaging ways that white people fail to see the realities that many different BAME communities live in. We have been socialised and honestly miseducated on basic facts of history that make it very hard to see things right in front of our eyes.

The fact that the vast majority of us can live our lives choosing whether to think about the ways race and racism effect us is a huge privilege. We get to pretend we are “normal” when in reality we are products of the same world history as BAME people. There are very specific reasons why we are even called “white people” in the first place (that yes, we need to learn so click the link!)

I am going to end this blog going in a very blunt direction.

Historical and current day racism mean BAME communities are under-represented in positions of wealth, power, and status and over-represented in low-wage work, poverty, prison and more.

When people are being honest with themselves, there are only two logical conclusions to be made from this clear reality:

  1. Things are like this because Black and other BAME people are either genetically or culturally inferior.
  2. Things are like this because of historical and current day racism.

Unfortunately the vast majority of white society opts for cop-out of:

3: This makes me uncomfortable so lets just start saying racism is all about interpersonal prejudice and bigotry and no, let’s not look too closely into world history.

(EDIT: I hope it is abundantly clear that option 1 is not an acceptable choice, but it is one people drift to secretly if these issues aren’t properly and publically addressed.)

Young children of all colours come into this world, observe what is around them, and have no choice but to internalise the world as it is “normal.” It is sad to say but there is no way that any of us can escape this. It gets many white peoples backs up but I strongly believe we all inevitably internalise a sense of racial superiority, no matter how much we want to deny it. I think for most of us it is VERY subconscious. I hope I am being clear that I am not “calling out” anyone else as an explicit, overt white supremacist. To be quite honest this can be summed up in as “oh he doesn’t know the farm animal sounds” as if that is somehow the best measure of a 2 year old’s intelligence of his family’s “home learning environment”

“Loving all children” is and will forever remain essential, but it has never been enough.

“Umar” My first book, coming soon!

UMAR_COVER_Ver1I am so excited about a book I am self-publishing.  It will be out by June of this year, if not sooner.

Working in education in Harehills (in Leeds) I am surrounded everwhere by a “deficit” view of children and their families. I am proud that my book will matter of factly showcase the clear intelligence and self-motivation to learn of a young Asian boy from Harehills.

Umar is about a young boy who loves keys and locks.   It shows him observing the adults in his life use them, how he is determined to get opportunities to use them, how he works hard to figure the intricacies of them out, how he copes with frustration and challenge of it all and finally the satisfaction of meeting his own goals.

It’s a simple story about a boy interested in something very mundane but I know it will appeal to young children.  The illustrations definitely help!  They were done by Molly Pukes, a brilliant artist out of Leeds.  Here is a preliminary sketch!

umar colour concept
Working in a practically all BAME (Black, Asian & minority ethnic) nursery I am well aware of how few children’s books reflect anything of our children’s lives, their families, or their communities.  Ridiculously, only 1% of children’s books published in the UK last year featured a BAME main character.  (Publishers like Tiny Owl and Alanna Max publish great books and deserve everyone’s support though!).

Anyone who knows me is well aware I am huge nerd about young children, play and how they grow, learn and develop in all aspects of their lives.  I’ve cared for and taught them since 2007 in the US, Australia and currently the UK.  These topics really are “passion” for me (what a cliche!) and I strongly believe all adults need to learn more about early childhood development.  To that end, the book has an accessible introduction to how our brains grow in the first 3 years of life and important concepts like self-regulation and executive function.  I worked hard to make this section easy to understand and relatable to a wide audience.

While it’s not about him exactly, Umar is inspired by a real 2 year old boy who was in my Leeds-based nursery in 2018 who was indeed obsessed with keys, locks and doors.  He was so determined to use mine at every. single. opportunity.  He really wore me down at times!  As the months went on though he demonstrated to me what a capable and self-motivated learner he was.  By the time he left my nursery he was semi-officially “in charge” of letting other his Amu and Abu (mum and dad) and other families in and out.  He also figured out the locks to our toy cupboard and other rooms and I let him lock and unlock them for me almost every time. Young children can learn to do so much if we give them time, space and support to follow their interests.

I am including the introduction to some early childhood development basics not because I want to join the chorus of people telling parents exactly what to do, rather this information has helped me so much in my own job. Honestly, wIthout it, I would have never been able to see Umar’s fascination with keys as anything more than a nuisance. Understanding how young children grow and develop has helped me immensely in my professional and personal lives.  As it has helped me I feel strongly it can help other adults as well.

I wanted to write a book that showcased Umar’s intelligence and determination to learn about the world around him.  I know children will enjoy it but I also hope it helps adults begin to look at the young children in their lives a bit differently.  Thank you for reading this!

Thank you for reading!

UPDATE 22 February 2019: Order first copies via kickstarter right here!

Crass Truths


The crass truth that rarely gets spoken on edutwitter is that some children in early years settings are just “easier” for us adults, and some are… not.  I am not saying they are “better” or “brighter,”  I am only saying they are easier for us adults.  A crasser truth is that in the heat of some moments it’s easier to let our assumptions colour our view of these children.  To admit this is not to excuse it, especially for us who are paid to care for and educate every young child in our settings.  I feel I am taking a risk sharing this but honesty is a necessary part of reflective practice.

I work in a morning nursery program for “disadvantaged” 2 year old children and their families.  Since it is based in a Children’s Centre, and other groups use our room in the afternoon, we have to pack away a lot of our stuff by the end of the session.

Cleaning up the room is one of our few transition times during the session.  Not all, but  a lot of our adult attention turns to this.  Another crass truth is most of the children many times benefit from a little of this benign neglect.  Us adults are busier, but we are very nearby and feel secure enough to get into some great self-directed play, either by themselves or with others.  Obviously, our focus on warm interactions for the majority of the sessions plays a major role in this.

Other times of course if some of the children are feeling tired or unsettled for whatever reason, this transition towards the end of the session is not helpful for them.  Most of the time we make sure one adult is available to “be on the floor” with the children, but I have to admit sometimes things get too busy.

Here’s the crassest truth yet.  During this time one of our children last week started to whinge.  Whinging is not very endearing, nor is it “easy” for me or any adult to want to connect with a child who is whinging.  “They’re just doing that for attention” is an all too common statement in any sort of childrearing.  In “Don’t Get So Upset” Tamar Jacobson rightly asks what exactly is wrong with a young child wanting attention?

We are deeply social creatures who physically and mentally need attention, connection and relationships with others.  Children are no different, they just have a lot less experience and power for getting these human needs met.  Whinging and acting out are very effective ways of children getting at least some sort of attention from adults.  It might not be positive attention, but something is better than nothing!

Thankfully, in this moment, I had the presence of mind at the time to sit down with her and give her some genuine attention.  As she sat on my lap I said “Hey, are you tired of nursery for today?  I can look after you until your mum comes back.  What shall we do while we wait?  Do you want to read a book?”

She nodded yes and grabbed our “Outside Book” that is a file folder collection of photos of interesting things we’ve taken outside.  She sat back on my lap we looked at the pictures a little but quickly became more fascinated in the plastic latch on the outside of the file folder.

She tried hard to close it and I just quietly observed, enjoying her concentration and effort (and yes, lack of whinging).  After a while I said “that’s tricky to close huh?  Can I show you how to do it?”  She handed it to me and I opened and closed it a few times while she observed.  I handed it back and said “it’s tricky but I think you can learn to do it.  Here try again.”

She then figured it out fairly quickly, opening and closing it repeatedly, stopping each time to give me a big smile.  I said “you’re opening and closing it now” and she would reply “yeah!”

This later flowed into her being interested in my lanyard and we shared a very similar experience with the clasp on it.  After that she made similar efforts with my key to the toy cupboard.

To any non-early years people who are somehow reading this, these seemingly simple tasks this girl was engaged in are excellent examples of self-directed playful learning (with an attentive adult modeling and facilitating).  Young children develop self-regulation emotionally co-regulated by a trusted adult (i.e. cuddles and warm attention).  Young children develop executive function by setting goals, trying to achieve them and persisting with difficulties in the process (i.e. trying to open and close clasps, latches and locks or any other thing that might seem mundane to us).  I mention these two academic buzzwords because they are some of the most important and time-sensitive developmental tasks of young children.  As such they need to be a main focus for early years practitioners.

It was not this young child’s responsibility to “keep it together” during our clean-up time.  Her whinging was not endearing but it was the best tool she had in the moment for getting what she needed.  If I want her to develop the skills to “keep it together” in future situations, it is literally my job to help her co-regulate in these moments.  Because in that moment I made the decision to prioritise my relationship with her, we both had a genuinely good time and we both learned quite a bit.

Things are always easier typed on twitter than practiced with the actual young children in front of us moment to moment.  As an early years practitioner this experience was a much needed reminder for me that people, and young children included, are always bigger, varied and more interesting than our moment-to-moment assumptions about them.





The Door Master: a short case study on play, executive function and self-regulation

Developing self-regulation and executive function are two of the most important and time sensitive developmental tasks for young children. These are terms that are not understood enough in education, politics and wider society but luckily The Centre for the Developing Child at Harvard University offers this nice plain language introduction to these concepts on their excellent website (which is definitely worth a visit).

“Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses”

Mature and successful adults mostly know how to filter distractions, prioritise tasks, set and achieve goals and control impulses. I will assume these skills are valued by all parts of adult society (including edutwitter) and what we wish everyone in our education system will leave with. The main argument for this blog is that child-directed play (which is always somehow a controversial topic in the world of UK education), is, among many other things, how young children are genetically hardwired to learn how to filter distractions, prioritise tasks, set and achieve goals and control impulses. Their play, and our caring and meaningful interactions with them, are essential ingredients in their self-regulation and executive function

I work in a 2 year old funded nursery program for “disadvantaged” children. While I am under no illusion that any amount of early childhood education can erase the fukk effects of systemic poverty and racism, I take my job seriously.  I work hard and constantly reflect to make sure they feel safe and secure, provide them with an enabling environment to explore and interact in way that encourage their learning and development. I think most people walk by and see “cute” kids “just” playing (and getting upset over small things, and not obeying adults and being supposedly “terrible twos” in general). They are missing a lot, but it is not their fault. We have centuries of cultural and ideological baggage that judges young children as not much more than empty-headed “adults-to-be” but that is maybe a different blog post.

Much of what many adults don’t like or understand in children is their lack of these skills in question. One small American study illustrated a large “Expectation Gap” between adult ideas of when children develop “self-control” versus what the last few decades of brain science tell us. I’d bet my next pay check it is not very different here in the UK. It might not feel like it at times but the truth is that young children are not deliberately out to do our heads in.

While of course I still think they are cute, I have come along enough in my understanding of early childhood development to see them as as fully human in the here and now and I look at their play and interests very differently than I used to.

One of my key children is obsessed with doors and locks, let’s call him… uh, Door Master. When anyone wants to leave or enter one of the electronically operated doors he insists on using my badge to let them in or out. When we are are outside he loves practicing opening and closing one of the gate doors and trying to lock it with my key. Throughout the session I need to balance his interests and developmental needs with my need to get my work done while keeping my patience!

Door Master is a professional on the gate door knob but he is still working on using the key and I give him lots of time to practice with it. Sometimes I model and narrate how I do it a few times. Other times if he gets frustrated I will offer a few words of empathy or just let him deal with the frustration himself. Inevitably at one point he will get into a battle of wills with another child innocently trying to get to the other outside area. I then come by to tell the other child “say ‘let me out please’” or tell the Door Master myself. Sometimes they work it out entirely without me, sometimes my coaching helps them work it out and sometimes I have to open the door against Door Master’s wishes.

I am utterly bored of detailing the learning and development inherent in these sort of scenarios but it is my responsibility in a system that doesn’t seem able to see or respect young children so here it goes:

How Door Master is developing Executive Function

Setting goals: He is fascinated with doors and keys and he is insatiable in his self-chosen goal of learning how to use my key successfully.
Filtering distractions: Our nursery is much busier than his home and as he practices with my key his brain is filtering out other distractions while he attends to his task at hand.
Achieving goals: He does not yet have the strength or coordination to consistently unlock or lock the door but he is gaining it with all of his practice (and other physical play).

How Door Master is developing Self-Regulation.

Controlling impulses: When he comes into conflict with children trying to get by he is slowly but surely hitting them in frustration less and even at times increasingly opening the door for them when they or I ask him too. Everything else I could say about this is summed up by Daniel Hodgins, “don’t make moral issues out of developmental ones.” (But this is probably another blog post.)
Tolerating stress: We all know young children want to do more than they are immediately capable of. In a Nursery setting it’s our job to give them time and space to practice, practice practice. Door Master seems to loves the challenge overall but he does get frustrated at times. This is actually a form of stress that is actually quite good for him as coping with challenges is a part of life.

I’m not bothering to link to all the research behind this stuff but the point is pretty simple: if we want children to grow up able to filter distractions, prioritise tasks, set and achieve goals and control impulses we need to give them some time, space, freedom and support to actually get on with practicing it all. It doesn’t appear out of thin air and there are a few decades of research into early childhood development and neuroscience that give us some clues on how to best support it. I know it’s inconvenient for the current crop of ghouls in the Department for Education but a lot of this does involves play. If it makes them happier we can start calling it “self-regulation and executive function practice” maybe?


E and his Pegs

E is almost three.  Today was by far the most I have heard him talk.  Us adults can never know for sure but I think a big factor in this milestone was that a number of louder kids weren’t in for various reasons.

Most days with us he does not say a word. The one exception has been “no!” if someone is taking one of his toys.  That said, he does communicate fairly well with facial expressions, eyes and fingers.  Anyways, today he was fiddling with some pegs and fit three together.  He tapped me on the shoulder to show off his handiwork and raise his eyebrows as if to say “check this out.”  I responded “you put those three white pegs together… that’s pretty cool E.”  Wondering what he would do with more pegs, I then went to the shed to get a lot more and offered them to him.

He said “wow!” and then proceeded to fiddle and experiment with them until he made this.


I sat down next to him and he told me.

“It’s a truck.  It’s smashing!  It’s fast”

As he moved it up and down he explained “It goes up and down.”

If it fell apart he would exclaim “woah! uh oh!” and then work on putting the pegs back together.  He spent a good deal of the session playing with these pegs in a variety of ways.

I am bored of unpacking the learning and development inherent in this play but I am beginning to realise it’s part of my responsibility as an Early Years person in a country where early childhood is little understood or respected.

  • gross motor – pinching pegs for the amount of time he was is strengthening his fingers, hands and arms for future writing.  (Just writing this feels like I have to justify his play as some sort of down payment on future school).
  • oracy – a young “EAL” boy feeling confident enough to communicate his observations and interests in a setting away from his parents is significant, to say the least.  In the weeks and months prior to today I could see how much he wanted to communicate in his facial expressions and eyes. Vocabulary gap, disadvantaged two year olds, blah blah blah.  (Would he have communicated this to a speech and language therapist who he doesn’t see 5 times a week?  Can’t say for sure of course, and it is absolutely different for every kid but it is my personal opinion his speaking today would not have come without the months of relationship-building we have been doing).
  • Executive Function –  Since it’s “just” play and it’s “just” fun, it’s also suitably low-stakes. As his pegs repeatedly fell off and he had to put them back on he was in a state of mind where he had a (flexible) plan, experienced set-backs, persisted and enjoyed the process.  It is absolutely just fiddling with pegs but it is also absolute sustenance for developing executive function.
  • Well-being, involvement and brain development – these are all terms that I think some non-EYs people here as Charlie Brown’s teachers (“WAH WAH WAH WAH”) but they need to get with the program.  After feeling safe and secure, young children’s brains need concete multisensory experiences to make neuronal connections.  Simply put they need to be loved and they need to be able to get into stuff, touch and fiddle with things.  EYs (which is birth until 7) is about this and much more.  In the plainest language possible: Kids who feel safe and have the time and space to get into a wide variety of things have better brain and physical development than those who don’t.  Education cannot plaster over severe class inequality, but people who want to talk about social mobility would do well to start taking this stuff seriously.

Related: This week I’ve been singing nursery rhymes with a number of the kids, hitting those plastic “boom sticks” together in a simple rhythm.  A lot of kids have enjoyed this and joined in.  Today E did and sang his ABCS for the first time (while dancing) in our setting as far as I know.  My adult brain realised this and called for a coworker to come to try to take a video.  Again I can’t know for sure but I believe my sudden break in this shared moment stopped his singing.  As I imagine many other EYs people know, by the time someone comes to “document” something, the moment is over or the simple fact of the ipad coming out fundamentally changes the moment.  E continued to hit out a rhythm and dance but to me it appeared he realised he was singing out loud and was getting attention for it and got quiet again

This was not an entirely ruined moment but it was another example that has had me  realise how my quest to document and assess things (and get pictures!) can get in the way of the actual good stuff.  I have been taking a lot less pictures recently.  Young kids feed on our genuine interests in their activities and the ipads can ruin the moments at times.

I don’t know for sure all the reasons that led to E’s relative avalanche of talking today but I hear from lots of academics and experts that oracy is important in education.  Laminated pictures and structured circle times might genuinely work for some people but they would not work for me.  I hope people can respect that wacky “save childhood brigade” approaches can be done with skill, experience and to great results when given the space and trust to do so.  People in education and early years especially should be open to looking at what we do that actually gets kids talking and what we do that might get in the way at times.

Thanks for reading!


After Bold Beginnings

I helped write the letter in the Guardian this week.

While I personally do think the report should be withdrawn – as purposefully or not – it leaves out whole swathes of important Early Years pedagogy and approaches, I recognise that we do not have the political power to make this happen.  What’s much more important to me moving forward is finding ways for Reception teachers, and really all educators in all phases, to be free to work to the best of their ability and professional knowledge.

I am a little more than a year into edutwitter and it still confounds me.  At first I jumped in ready to argue with any and everybody, but I am getting very tired of it.  I can read extremely disagreeable and even hateful things online with a detached sense of curiousity about how others might think these ways.  To be entirely honest I have found the one corner of the internet where I can get “mad online.”  I imagine this is because like all of us in education, no matter our views or interests, we all put so much of myself into my work.

Adults arguing on twitter really should not be the point of all of this, but I fear we are all getting stuck here.  Education social media arguments and debates are just plain weird.  Many times we don’t know each other, and the format of twitter lends itself to discussion becoming a battle of quips, citing studies we like and silly one-upsmanship.  We then find “our people” with who we can have some good discussions with and fortify our views.  I am as guilty of this as anybody and I am interested in moving beyond this.

At the moment I honestly don’t have much hope any real discussion across views can happen, on Reception or anything else. I still tweet at some people because I can’t help it, but it never goes anywhere.  If any Bold Beginnings fans are reading this, and interested in trying to have a real discussion, where we both genuinely assume the other side is not out to set children up for failure, please send me a tweet.

So the rest of this is going to be aimed at my fellow Early Years people.  The main message of this is do not get stuck on social media.  Twitter is not real life.

If you want to see changes in our education system, and culture in general, this is not going to happen overnight.  Before we solve the big problems, we are going to have to learn to come together, where we are, and solve our smaller problems in our schools, settings, towns and settings.  There are teachers who have managed to make changes towards quality play based approaches, dealing with skeptical Heads and SLTs.  There are others who have slowly brought along coworkers to improving their interactions with children and their observation skils.  We could learn so much from blogs like these people.

What problems are you facing as educators or parents in your daily life?  What do you want to improve in your practice?  What is stopping you?  What can you, and the people around you, do about it?  What do you need help with?  Leave a comment or send me a DM.  If this stupid site is going to be worth anything, it should help us figure out ways to improve our jobs and skills offline.






Honestly, who sees me as a teacher?



A few days ago, Amanda Spielman, the head of Ofsted declared that in regards to Early Years: “Our view is that the looking-after-children side of things is very good. The education side is not so good.”

There are truly real problems in Early Years that cannot be swept under the rug.  Still, the line of thinking demonstrated in this quote is ignorant, disrespectful and downright foreboding.  The Head Cop of Education clearly does not understand how genuinely inseparable care and education are for young children.  In her eyes, proper education must mean getting four year olds “school ready” in the most myopic sense of the term.

I am anti-Ofsted, but I do have to give whichever individuals responsible there credit for their defintition of teaching in the Early Years.

‘Teaching should not be taken to imply a ‘top down’ or formal way of working. It is a broad term which covers the many different ways in which adults help young children learn. It includes their interactions with children during planned and child-initiated play and activities: communicating and modelling language, showing, explaining, demonstrating, exploring ideas, encouraging, questioning, recalling, providing a narrative for what they are doing, facilitating and setting challenges. It takes account of the equipment they provide and the attention to the physical environment as well as the structure and routines of the day that establish expectations. Integral to teaching is how practitioners assess what children know, understand and can do as well as take account of their interests and dispositions to learning (characteristics of effective learning), and use this information to plan children’s next steps in learning and monitor their progress.’

I am finally at a place where I am willing to claim that I am a teacher in my work in a children’s centre 2 year old program.  The thing is, I don’t think anybody else sees me as one.  I am not looking for pity, just trying to say the truth of the matter.  Spielman’s quote has got me thinking about this so here I am ranting to myself on a Friday afternoon.

Let’s get to it in broad, very general strokes: The older the person, the more respect – both social and financial – is given to the people teaching them. University professors make more than high school teachers.  High school teachers look down on Primary teachers.  Early Years of course is definitively at the bottom of the pile.  Even within Early Years, Reception teachers are seen as the most important and get the most attention.  In most people’s eyes de facto qualifications for working in the average baby room requires a certificate, two arms and a beating heart.  Somehow cutting hair and taking care of brand new humans are considered comparable options.

Of course this not-so-secret hierarchy in education is incredibly stupid.  The first 1000 days of a child’s life are of paramount importance to the rest of a human’s life.  90% of person’s brain develops in the first five years of life, and what happens in this time frame has a life long impact on their physical health, mental health and over all happiness and success in life.  There is no evidence to show that early capital-A Academics helps young children at all, and less time for play is clearly harmful to children’s emotional and social development. Blah blah blah.  If you are reading this you have probably heard it all a million times before.

Anyways, just a small handful of examples of me teaching in a 2 year old program this past week:

  • I am with one of my key children at our water table, scooping and pouring water into a funnel.  He tries to snatch it from me and I pull my hand a way saying “hey stop, I am using that. You can have a turn when I am finished.”  Not too long after I give it to him, “okay I am finished, you can have a turn.”
  • One of my key children is screaming and hitting another another who is trying to pull him off a bike.  I suggest to the child on the bike, “tell him to stop.  Tell him to let go.”  Today, after weeks of these sort of instances, the child yells “let go!” (while still hitting the other child) and the other child listens to him and let’s go and looks for something else to play with.  After the dust settles I tell the child on the bike “you told him to let go and he listened to you.”
  • I am helping a key child get their shoes on and they tell me “Yusuf doesn’t like me.”  I reply “you think Yusuf doesn’t like you?” “Yeah.” “Why do you think Yusuf doesn’t like you?” “Gonna hit me” “Yeah I wouldn’t want to be hit either, if someone trys to hit me I tell them to stop.”
  • We noticed that the children are not using the smaller wooden blocks at all, and using duplos more, so we replaced the wooden blocks with a basket with many more duplos in them.

If you aren’t familiar with the Ofsted definition of teaching, look at it again.  If you are reading this, you are probably already get this already.  Honestly though, would your friends, family or coworkers see the above as examples of teaching? Would Spielman?  These are “just” regular everyday interactions with an adult who has the time, patience and interest to talk things through with young children (and knows early childhood development).  Call it teaching or don’t, but those of us who know the real value of these “regular” human interactions, can’t let them be muscled out of education by technocratic, test-loving ghouls.

I think I get on with my actual weekend and will end this with a quote from Early Education’s far more appropriate and excellent response to Spielman:  “The problem is that education is not a production line, practitioners are not machines and children are not widgets. It is not realistic to think that the existence of a written curriculum can produce a uniform experience.”




Decluttering the Emotional Environment: Over-Scheduled Days and Too Many Transitions

Originally Published in The Early Years Collective E-Zine, Issue 1.

The best designed physical environment, with carefully selected loose parts displayed in the most Reggio of baskets are not worth that much if the emotional environment isn’t right. To me, the emotional environment of a setting can be most simply judged by a few criteria: do the children feel safe, secure, respected and like they belong there? Do the adults feel relaxed, confident in their role, and able to have the presence of mind to interact meaningfully and mindfully with the children? Perhaps most importantly, are the children and adults alike happy to be there?

Just as we might move a shelf to different wall, add or take away some resources, or rearrange other physical objects in our rooms to better fit the needs of the children and our overall aims as educators, we also should be open to new approaches and techniques that help improve the emotional environment. As a team, and individually, this requires us to be honest, reflect and at times be willing to try new things in our practice.

Whatever task we might be doing, young children are experts at sensing if we are stressed, annoyed, relaxed, genuinely interested, frustrated, calm, distracted or anything else we might might be feeling when interacting, or not, with them. This of course has an enormous impact on children individually and as a group. Settled and confident adults tend to find themselves with settled and confident children. Stressed and distracted adults have a similar effect too. It is our responsibility as the adults of setting the right emotional tone to a room.

There are a lot of things that needlessly stress adults and “clutter” up the emotional environments of many settings but this article will only focus on one topic, the daily schedule. Yes, young children thrive on routine and familiarity but I’ve worked in too many places that treat the daily schedule as a cruel and impatient taskmaster. If the schedule on the wall states “10:15: Outside Play Time”, many adults rush the children through getting ready as if it were a once-a-day train that we might miss! Not only does nobody involved enjoy this stress, we miss out on opportunities for younger children to increasingly learn to get on jackets, shoes or water-proofs themselves. Instead of investing the time for children to increasingly learn to handle these tasks independently, “doing it for them” because it’s faster ensures we will always be burdened with these tasks.

When I’ve worked in situations like this, my patience went way down, my stress way up and I know the quality of my interactions with the children suffered quite a bit. I would go home everyday feeling miserable and upset with myself because I knew I wasn’t giving these children what they needed. I couldn’t keep up with the pace demanded by this setting and nobody benefited. I’ve noticed a sort of an unspoken sense of pride amongst some practitioners: look how quickly and efficiently I can get the kids through lunch, or ready to go outside or anything else. While I appreciate working with organised and capable coworkers, I am not sure speed and efficiency should be valued over the quality of our interactions.

Parents (who might know much about early childhood development) might like the look of a schedule of 30-45 minute intervals titled things like Literacy or Work Time, thinking this is what will get their children ready for school, but these sort of schedules do not allow children enough time to truly get engaged in anything. Many days children need time to suss out their play options before getting into some thing truly engaging. A rule of thumb I agree with says children need at the very least an hour of free play at a time to truly get into some engaging play and to see it through to a satisfying end. Settings I admire like Discovery Early Learning Center in the USA, have changed their environment, schedule and approach over time as they’ve learned to trust in following the pace of the children. These days they simply let the children play all day. The pictures from their Facebook page show children absolutely brimming with engagement, curiosity, well-being, persistence, confidence and everything else a quality early years setting should strive for.

Some adults can be tactful about it, others more bossy but one of the worst parts parts of transitions is the fact adults have to interrupt children in the middle of their play. On an episode of the podcast “That Early Childhood Nerd,” Heather Bernt, an American consultant says we “teach children not get engaged by our interruptions.” Her guest, Tiffany Pearsall, asks if you only had 15-30 minutes to engage in something you enjoy as an adult – knitting, reading, cooking a nice meal etc. – would you really get into it, much less bother at all? I’d add to this: How would you react if you were happily in the middle of perfecting a new recipe and someone told you it was time to put your kitchen tools away before you were truly finished? Many interruptions are unavoidable given the realities of group-based education and care but I do think we should give children’s play the same respect we would as the favourite hobby of any adult.

If you are currently in a setting with an over-scheduled day, consider minimising the transitions and chopped up parts of the day. If some transitions are truly unavoidable, is it always the end of the world if you get off-schedule a bit somedays? Do you worry what your co-workers will think if you can’t herd the kids to next thing like they do? If so, is it possible to talk to them about it? If you’re worried you won’t get good observations in a certain area of development, could you bring something specific into provision? Or perhaps get some mentorship on how to further see all of the learning inherent in children’s play? If you are lucky enough to be in a setting that values long stretches of play time, are there still any “sticking points” in the day that might be worth discussing with your team?

Young children’s brains are in a distinct and sensitive stage. What education should look like for them should not be confused with us “playing” mini-Primary teachers and getting them to sit still because that will be expected of them in a few years. “Learning time” is every single second of the day they are with us. Young children’s brains don’t stop growing when they are getting jackets on to go outside, fighting over toys, having runny noses, getting their nappy changed, eating meals, or falling down and skinning knees. These aren’t parts of the day to impatiently rush through so we can get to the part of the schedule where we think we put our “teacher hats” on. Rather, these seemingly insignificant parts of the day really are valuable opportunities for connection, learning and growth.

Over-scheduled and hurried days do not give children the time and space they require to engage, persist, experiment, think critically or deeply engage in their play. When we streamline the daily schedule and minimise the transitions, we can use our patience and energy for more meaningful and mindful interactions instead of burning through it quickly trying to keep a group of young children in line and on schedule.

Our daily schedules shouldn’t just be randomly thrown together or “what we’ve always done.” In my opinion, schedules should include long stretches of free play time (with constant access to outside), minimal transitions and move at the pace of the children. More than anything else though, schedules should best serve the actual, specific needs of the actual, specific children in our settings. This means they will change as the children grow, leave or as new children join us. Serving the best needs of the children also means they are sustainable and not needlessly stressful for the adults. Figuring this all out will take observation reflection, discussion and the freedom for educators to experiment.

A lot of us like to joke our job is like “herding cats,” but when are we going to realise that cats aren’t meant to be herded? Just like a spring cleaning and decluttering of a room, if something in the schedule is not helping the relationships and emotional environment of a setting maybe it needs to be changed or even chucked out!

From Classroom Cop to Reflective Practitioner Part 2

Tomorrow is the last day with the children in our Children’s Centre’s 2 Year Old program (most of them are three now of course).  I am going to miss them quite a bit, as I have with any group of children who’ve “moved on.”  Though honestly I am going to miss these children more.  Changing my views on what early learning practice looks like has made these relationships deeper and clearer to me than any previous group of children.  The only way I can put it is that it’s with this group that I’ve begun to learn to see these individual children for themselves in the here and now and not as future four, five, sixteen year olds or much less adults in training.  My views of them am no longer weighed down by that secret scale of judging them based on how well they do or don’t live up to a typical preschool routines demands.  I’ve earned to not only respect but see their intelligence and emotional lives – in all it’s 20-something months on this earth glory – in the here and now as well.  Their intelligence and emotional lives obviously don’t look anything close to an adults, but it is there.  I am more sure than ever that there it deserves just as much as respect as any adult. As John Holt put it, “be wary of saying or doing anything to a child that you would not do to another adult, whose good opinion and affection you valued.”

I am more confident and clear-sighted than ever before in what my approach to my work should be, and it feels quite good.  I more or less just trust in letting the children’s happiness and engagement (i.e. the Leuven Scales) guide me in most every decision I make with the kids.

If children are happily playing with well selected resources, I will do my best to not interrupt them, and sit in one place or at least work on some stuff as close as needed and let them get on with things themselves.

If I am needed because of a conflict, I will do my best to calmly help them sort it out themselves as much as possible.  I will suggest phrases like “don’t hit me,” or “can I use that when you’re finished?” If a child is hitting somebody else I’ll gently block them from doing it and say something like “I know you’re angry about not having the truck now but I’m not going to let you hit her.”

If a child is hurt I’ll do my best to calmly help them assess their accident and give all the cuddles they require until they’re ready to enter the play again.

If a child is new and not yet feeling secure or safe enough to get into some play, I’ll do my best to engage them in play or conversation while leaving plenty of opportunities for them to take the lead of the play themselves.

If a child invites me into converstation, play or interactions of any kind I’ll do my best to respond with genuine interest.

Part of me naively still thinks it shouldn’t be more complicated than this but of course it is: I work with all sorts of other adults who have different lives, experiences and views than me!


Earlier this week I took a group of our children over to the nursery next door as that’s where they will be in September.  Long story short I saw a coworker who normally works with older children intervening in a conflict over a bike and she went straight into the “how about you have it for five minutes and then he can have it for five minutes” spiel. I didn’t openly contradict her in front of the children but quickly after  blurted out “we’ve been doing less of that lately,” (absolutely not true in nursery!) “why can’t he ask the boy on the bike for a turn when he’s finished?”

I really surprised the both of us.   She looked at me as if I was speaking a foreign language.  “… I thought we teach the kids to share in nursery?”  In my shock at myself for blurting something out at such pointless time, I tried to mutter something about “I am not sure they are learning anything about sharing when we force them to.”

Later on I apologised for springing that on her. I don’t think she was too offended but I could tell she had no clue where I was coming from.  She was only covering for the day in nursery, so trying to explain myself to her isn’t the biggest priority, but this interaction made me reflect (yet again) on the fact how little in my ten years of working with babies and young children has there been a shared general approach or ethos to our practice in any given team or setting I’ve been in.

Today we visited the nursery again and one of my program’s children kicked another one in a conflict and one of the nursery teachers came over to “make him say sorry” and then talked of giving him a time-out because he wouldn’t.  She did ask what we did in the Children’s Centre and I gave the honest answer that it depends on which adult is dealing with it and kind of left it there.  Just like with the Sharing Incident, I did not feel it was the right time to tell her I personally think there is no point in forcing a 34 month old to say sorry.

These two incidents beg the question: when is the time to have these conversations with co-workers?  It seems to me it is never the right time as we are busy with so much else (some necessary and some not at all, but that’s another blog post).  I am not and have never been a room or setting leader and I appreciate the difficulty of hiring from a low paid and respected talent pool, but I think developing a truly shared approach amongst staff is a widely unmet challenge in settings in the UK and across the world.  I have my personal views on things, but I recognise there is more than one way to skin a cat, or cook a lasagne.  What matters is that we work from a similar recipe.

In early years we like to talk a lot about gender, “getting it right for boys” and getting more men into the field.  What we talk bout a lot less is race, class and immigration.  Like I’ve mentioned in the previous post, I recognise my experiences have obviously shaped my views.  I am interested in how people’s different experiences in terms of culture, race, class, immigration and more affect their views of child rearing and educating.  I know I have a lot to learn from others, at the same time I am not going to be shy about my views and what I have been lucky to learn these last few years.  I am slowly learning how to talk and reflect with coworkers in the moment, but the answer is further to be found in us having time to really talk with each other, and possibly leadership that steers and mentors us in a general direction.  I would love to learn more from the examples of settings that have steered their ships in a shared direction.


Anyways I am about to have my first UK summer school break and I am looking forward to it of course, but for the first time in ten years of working in this field, I am looking forward to meeting and learning with next year’s group of children.  I have strong opinions about my practice as is apparent but I’ve also learnt that there is never an end point in our practice.  It’s a terrible but true cliche there always more to learn!IMG_6361