Let the Children PLay
September 9th 2002 is a day that is firmly imprinted on my memory. I had a two week old little boy who had arrived early, it was also the day I opened my beloved preschool. Teacher Ann and I stood there in front of 16 children at a complete loss. I had a qualification (NCVA level 2) equivalent of a FETAC level 5 and Ann had childminding experience. In a bid to save the day we did the only thing we knew from our own childhood experiences of education. We devised a plan, a timetable if you like. Free play followed by an organised art activity, grace before meals followed by lunch, outdoor play for 15 minutes 20 if they were lucky! We always ended the day with a group singalong and a story.
We had the basics and we stuck with that for about a year. We were finding our feet and we needed this time to get used to being teachers with the responsibilities of regulations, inspections etc. Over time we became more confident in our own abilities, we began to reflect on our approach. Not in any formal way, God forbid. We spoke to each other constantly, we heard of other schools who had a ‘circle time’, we tried it and disliked it immensely. There was one thing that we were really good at and that was recognising how children learn and placing importance on the things that at the time most preschools in Ireland were shying away from. There was a belief that ‘play’ was not ‘academic’ enough.
Those first few years were difficult. The inspectorate disagreed with our ‘child-led’ approach initially. However, over time it became obvious to us and them that we were leading the way. We gradually transitioned from a teacher-led approach to a completely child-led play approach in everything we do. I will take you through an average day. The children arrive and they play!! Children have complete autonomy over where they play, with whom and using which resources. Teachers take a back step. They observe the children, they engage in lots of conversations building solid relationships. Based on their observations teachers will create invitations to play based on a child’s emerging interest. I know what you’re thinking! She must have lots of amazing tuff tray set ups. We do, but they are not set up by the teacher, what is incredible about our tuff trays is that the children generally create them. For example, if we recognise that a child has an interest in dinosaurs, we may leave an accessible box with dinosaurs, sand, logs, rocks, branches, leaves and of course a book. Once the children notice the resources, they do all the work themselves.
To facilitate child led play we decided to move to seamless transitions. We found that moving from different areas of provision was a stress point. Insisting that children who were in the middle of a game had to clean up because an adult decided it was time to eat lunch was problematic. I always liken this to an adult being told that it’s time to leave their nice meal in the middle of the main course because the taxi had arrived!!! We use a rolling lunch approach, lunch is open from 10am to 11.15am, children decide when they want to eat, spending as long as they wish. They also clean up after themselves by loading the dishwasher. Children have access to the outdoor classroom all day. They wander freely throughout areas making personal decisions about their own learning. In our preschool the children have control, they learn through play, we use Aistear and Siolta guidelines loosely, that’s a conversation for another day!
The benefits of this approach to early years education are numerous. We have noticed an improvement in behaviour and self-regulation. When children have control, they are relaxed and settled. Frustrations are reduced as they know what’s coming next, because they will decide. When children plan their own learning, the learning is enhanced. They tend to understand more, they grasp concepts much more quickly, they develop skills of literacy, language, social skills, critical thinking; really the benefits are endless.
Letting go can be difficult. I encourage you to give it a go - you won’t look back.
Celine Govern has been running The Village Preschool in Moynalty, Co. Meath for over 20 years. The Village Preschool is a beautiful early years setting which champions outdoor play, seamless transitions and child-led learning.
Celine is a qualified secondary school teacher and currently an Ed.D candidate at DCU.
Connect with Celine via her popular Instagram page, celine_teacher_teacher where she shares a fantastic, unfiltered insight into the magic of the day-to-day ongoings in The Village Preschool.
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