Enabling Environments

Find ‘Real-world’ Learning Opportunities in the Early Years

  • Find ‘Real-world’ Learning Opportunities in the Early Years

Providing children with real tools and materials, and real-world contexts in which to use them in their play, can benefit their development on many levels, says Juno Hollyhock…

When I was a young child I was not allowed primary-coloured plastic toys. Unlike my friends, who had wonderful worlds of LEGO, dolls and assorted bright, clean, cheerful things to play with, I was stuck with screwdrivers with interchangeable heads and a wind-up train set from a very early age indeed.

The screwdriver, in particular, hurt as the huge stuffed clown that it had replaced (given by a lovely lady, who I really hope does not read this article!) sat for what felt like a lifetime in the hall cupboard right where I could see it every time I opened the door. I longed for that clown with every fibre of my frustrated little being.

However… I was permitted to scrabble around in all manner of mud and dirt. I was always encouraged to ‘help’ when my father was carrying out any kind of DIY, and I spent many, many happy hours familiarising myself with random tools, bits of Erecto shelving fittings, the inner workings of broken clocks and watches and, oddly, the lumps of glucose left over from beer making!

Whilst I am not advocating this necessarily as a strategy for upbringing, it certainly made me much more familiar with, and comfortable around, tools and fixing things as I grew older. The weight and feel of a screwdriver in my hand was normal; I was used to the smell of oils and grease, and I knew what a hammer was for and why you had to be jolly careful with it. My nature was to be curious, to have a go, to try to mend broken things, learning new skills as I went.

Children love to help, and making their help meaningful and real gives them a hugely valuable lift in terms of confidence and wellbeing. The child who knows she has done something useful, and who can see the result of her work and is praised for it, learns that she has something of value to contribute in the world, and this sets patterns of thinking that grow into confidence and self-worth during early adulthood.

Children of any age can begin to become familiar with real-world contexts. Early years is a terrific time to do this, and the outdoors is the perfect location. Little boys and girls have always loved building bricks, so why not take this one step further and introduce real bricks and some sand to your outdoor space for them to play with? They will soon get the knack of putting the sand between the bricks and creating low walls. As an exercise to encourage teamwork, this is excellent.

If there is work that needs to be done to your outside space then devising a way to involve the children will help them understand how such things happen, and will help your piece of work to become a learning activity. Even very young children can be involved in painting and decorating, moving things around using trolleys and pulley systems, tightening screws on toys and cleaning areas with hose pipes and brushes (n.b. – wet weather gear is most definitely recommended!).

If you have an area that you are considering fencing off, you could use willow fencing and allow the children to have fun weaving the willow in and out of the stakes once an adult has put them in the ground.

Useful skills can be developed in bicycle maintenance – why not wheel out all of the setting’s tricycles and have a ‘garage day’ with children squirting oil on chains, tightening any loose parts (have these checked by an adult afterwards!), checking any tyre pressures and generally beginning to be familiar with how bicycles work just by interacting with them in a new way. This doesn’t have to be explained, necessarily; a growing familiarity with the workings of the bicycle will be enough to stimulate children’s brains and plant memories for the future.

Children, and young children, in particular, definitely need to have undirected play where they decide their own schema and activity, and just get on with doing what they want to do. There is, however, a role for directed play that has a practical outcome – ‘doing with a purpose’, if you like. What’s more, when they grow up, they’ll save a fortune in bike maintenance. I did.

Juno is former executive director of Learning through Landscapes, which offers a range of services to support outdoor learning and play in the early years. Its membership resources and publications provide a regular supply of fresh activity ideas, and it offers on-site support through advisory visits and half-day, full-day or twilight training sessions for nurseries.