Early years settings can be distracting places, so how can practitioners find the time and focus to talk in depth with children? Michael Jones offers some suggestions…
Very young children learn to talk by being involved in interaction with adults. As they develop language, these interactions become conversations, where adults and children share ideas that extend children’s understanding of language and expression further, while at the same time increasing their learning in general. However, one of the biggest challenges for practitioners in early years settings is finding time to have the types of in-depth conversations that children want and need. The main obstacle to having a conversation of any length or depth is the number of interruptions that adults have to deal with. These usually involve the adult’s attention being drawn away to something happening nearby, or on the other side of the area. Another barrier to learning occurs when adults leading group activities – for example, at a tabletop – find themselves using what I call ‘management language’, where most of what they say involves organising the children and the materials and encouraging children to behave appropriately. This means that they are only able to pay fleeting attention to what the children are saying.
Two colleagues of mine, speech and language therapist Bhavna Acharya and early years adviser Debbie Brace, from the London Borough of Hounslow’s Let’s Talk Together project, have developed an approach that has a major impact on how adults and children are able to talk with each other. Debbie and Bhavna lead training called Positive Interaction, which explores ways that practitioners can become involved in the type of talk with children that maximises their language and learning. They advise settings to plan for an adult to be free of all other duties for a given amount of time, and for that person to be available for only one thing: conversation. They describe this person as the ‘planted adult’. The aim is for the adult to be able to talk with the children about what they are doing, as part of child-initiated play activities.
I saw an example of this when Debbie Brace took part in an outdoor play activity at Bedfont Primary School, in Feltham. Debbie ‘planted’ herself with a drainpipe and pebbles and gravel, and encouraged the children to roll their stones into a large tray. Soon she was surrounded by children, many of whom were learning English as an additional language, and was able to draw them into conversation about the activity. It became clear to the children that Debbie was available to be wholly involved in the activity and as a result many of the children remained with her for 30 minutes. The message communicated to the children was, “Take your time. I’m not going anywhere.” During that time Debbie was able to comment about what the children were doing, ask questions and answer the children’s own questions in detail. In short, she was able to use all the techniques needed to develop the children’s language and learning.
Quite naturally, practitioners will point out that it is not always possible to have an adult freed up to focus solely on talk with children throughout an entire session. Adult-to-child ratios, in particular, may not allow that. However, we recommend that adults plan for this to happen during the times that children are going to benefit most from in-depth conversation, for example, during outdoor play. Adults who plan to plant themselves at activities that encourage children’s child-initiated play – for example, in the home corner, at water and sand play and with play dough – soon find themselves in detailed conversations that have maximum impact on children’s language and learning.
As well as planning for the planted adult, it is important that staff work together for the benefit of all children in the session, including those who are involved in other activities. I suggest that other adults ‘manage the room’, where they move around the space, supporting children to play and talk together. They also help with the many issues that regularly arise when young children are together – e.g. sorting out minor disputes, reminding children to blow their noses, and helping children with resources. However, the key message to the children is, “My job at the moment is to get involved in conversation for a short time, but we can still have interesting chats.”
This technique can also be used to good effect in adult-led activities, where two adults plan to work together. Let’s take a session at Chapel Street Nursery School in Luton as an example. Children at Chapel Street come from many language backgrounds and cultures, and with varying degrees of experience. As a result, many of the children need support to develop their English and communication in general. Sam Randall and I planned to share an activity with children, to see how well they could focus when she was the planted adult, while I ‘worked the table’. We covered a table with paper and encouraged the children to use small wooden blocks, natural materials such as pine cones, wool and twigs, and marker pens, to see if they could create stories.
Before the session, we agreed that Sam would ‘plant’ herself on a chair, and involve children in detailed conversations about what they were doing, while I moved around the table, helping children with the resources. At times I sat or crouched down briefly beside children to talk about what they were doing. Because we used this approach, the children remained at this activity for an hour, and Sam was able to talk in-depth with several children.
As well as giving children and adults the chance to enjoy conversations, we are aiming to develop children’s ability to focus for considerable lengths of time, on activities that are meaningful. I describe this as creating a ‘magic bubble’, in which children and adults don’t realise that time is passing and are able to block out the background noise and activity that are the features of all busy settings. This happened at Chapel Street, where children began to talk with each other and share their stories. Two boys called across the table to Sam, to talk about what they were doing. Sam was able to say to them, “I’m talking with the girls right now, but you can tell Michael all about your story. When we have finished what we are doing then you can tell us all about it.” In this way, Sam helped the boys understand that though she wasn’t available, they could talk to me as an alternative, while keeping the girls focused on what they were doing.
It’s very tempting to use these sessions as an opportunity to make structured observations. I advise against practitioners taking notes while playing and talking with the children. If adults start to make notes on what children are saying and doing, children sense that the adult is not completely focusing on the conversation, and I find that the bubble gets burst. I recommend that towards the end of the session we ask children to help us take photos of what they have been doing. We can then share the photos with the children the next day. If we write down, with the children, their comments about the photographs, and display the comments and photos together, we are encouraging the children to talk for a purpose, as well as involving them in the recording process. If the display is at the children’s eye level and placed in the lobby, then children and parents can talk about the activity every day. This celebrates what adults and children have been doing together, while reinforcing the message that talk is central to all learning and social development – in the setting and at home.
Michael Jones worked for over 30 years as a speech and language therapist, teacher, advisory teacher, and trainer, and now concentrates mainly on writing about young children’s language and learning. His book, Supporting Quiet Children, is co-authored by Maggie Johnson and available from Lawrence Educational.
Exploring the World in Montessori Early Years Settings