Learning and Development

Why Early Learning is an Emotional Experience

  • Why Early Learning is an Emotional Experience

Barbara Isaacs explores how children can be enticed to learn in early years settings…

During recent research into Anna Freud’s early work in Vienna and in London during World War II, I came across the statement, “learning is an emotional experience”, which was made by her during the time she worked with a nursery in her native city. I started to reflect on what this means in context of early years practice and in support of young children’s emotional development in Montessori nurseries.

The Early Years Foundation Stage identifies personal, social and emotional development of children as one of the prime areas of learning. Further more, it emphasises the role of the key person, not only in respect of information sharing with parents but also in facilitating transitions. In this context, special attention needs to be given to the settling-in procedures, where continuity of routines between home and setting should be on the list of priorities. The younger the child, the more important this continuity is.

It is satisfying to see that currently, many nurseries consider it good practice to facilitate home visits, establishing an important initial link between the child, parents and carers and practitioners. Over the past 20 years (since the introduction of funding for four-, three- and now two-year-olds) the details provided by families about their children have been extended. The information asked for includes not only the child’s heath details but also important people in the child’s life, favourite toys and books, and in the case of babies and toddlers, the outline of important routines – such as nappy changing, feeding, going to sleep and resting. All these elements take into consideration the importance of the child’s early experiences at nursery and the need to establish meaningful emotional bonds and secondary attachments, which contribute significantly to the child’s internal working model of relationships.

As early as 1912 Montessori wrote about the importance of “enticing the child” into the setting. At that time it referred to three and four-year-olds joining the Children’s House. From the Montessori perspective, an important aspect of this ‘enticement’ is the way in which the learning environment is prepared to welcome the child. The clarity, availability and consistency of organisation of the learning materials, and their readiness for use, make a significant contribution to helping young children familiarise themselves and settle within the new environment. It also contributes to children’s ability to choose an activity and to do so over and over again. This urge to repeat and engage with the familiar is best demonstrated by the two- and three-yearolds who are keen to hear the same story over and over again until they remember it word for word. In the context of Montessori practice, this need can be witnessed, when children want to re-polish the already very clean mirror or wash their hands several times in succession.

Enabling environments

Another element of the Montessori practice that supports children’s emotional development is the way the teacher maintains the favourable environment, ensuring the activities are ready for use – complete and consistent in their presentation, in a basket or on a tray, always to be found in the same place.

Sometimes the teacher will make small changes to the activities to introduce a new season or particular interest of the child, for example, changing conkers for counting by including small cars, dolls, bugs or snowflakes. Children delight in spotting these differences, and the teacher will always explain they were made because of a “new area of interest” – often demonstrating that the “child’s voice” was heard.

The Montessori approach also places importance on the beauty of the learning environment, by including small vases of flowers or plants in the classroom, by ensuring that any displays are presented with attention to detail, the nature table is appealing, the art area well stacked with interesting resources and tools, and the book area is comfortable and includes interesting, well-cared for books of all kinds. The teacher herself is a significant element of the favourable environment and therefore presents herself to the child with grace, courtesy and in an appealing manner.

All these details are noted by the child, who comes to know the classroom well. They are also tiny messages from the teacher to the children that say “I am thinking about you”, “I want to make your learning interesting”, “I enjoy preparing activities for you and care for the way in which the environment is prepared for you.”

In turn, the child absorbs this caring approach and feels appreciated. He thinks about the activities in the classroom and looks forward to doing them again, either on his own or with friends. This feeling of care provides a welcoming and calm atmosphere for the child’s learning and nurtures trust in the environment, which is prepared with the children in mind, thus providing a strong emotional base for the children’s learning and fostering a sense of wellbeing and belonging.

Barbara Isaacs is the academic director of Montessori Centre International.