Who is your child's best teacher? Part 1 of 2 By Emma Hart - Head of Teaching
Who is your child’s best teacher?
What is our role as parents and teachers, and how can we help our youngest learners to reach their full potential?
Have you ever watched a baby really engage in something new for the first time?
There is a great scene in the documentary Babies (2010), where an infant is attempting to stack rings on a stick. It takes total concentration and precise motor skill. The infant makes many attempts, with many failures, but it doesn’t give up. There is very little, to no intervention from an adult. The child has obviously been introduced to the toy and understands what to do, but has been given space to practise it on its own. It proves frustrating and challenging, but the child doesn’t give up, despite repeated failures. The desire to master it and learn is much stronger.
As an adult watching this scene, it is very difficult to resist the urge to want to help the child and take away their frustration. However, left alone, the child clearly persists and makes improvements. It also proves to be an excellent exercise in building resilience.
This begs the question, what does our intervention do to the learning process, and is there a way to do it without interrupting a natural flow?
I was fortunate enough to be invited to work with a group of African women and their toddlers some years back. They were new to the country and had very little English, so my role was to assist with language development through some simple songs and prop activities. The women were shy and not very engaged in the class, given that they couldn’t understand much of what I was saying. Similarly, I found it difficult to engage the children, they were curious but very attuned to their mothers, and I was struggling to find a connection and earn their trust enough to present the lesson.
I decided to do a dance, we formed a circle and I started the music, an African piece. They warmed to it quickly and before I knew it the whole room had erupted into song and dance, they were no longer holding back and had now opened a cupboard in which Djembes (African drums) were stored and were passing them around. I was then treated to the most amazing learning experience. The women played the drums skilfully, while some danced and sang. All the while the toddlers moved between them. I noticed the women had left some spare drums around so that if a child wanted to play it could. Some children sat beside a woman and watched and copied. The women were not telling the children what to do or moving their hands and bodies, they were simply enjoying playing and dancing themselves and thus modelling the skills. The children watched and joined in when they were ready.
What I observed was a natural learning process. These very young children were managing to keep a steady beat and even add some simple rhythms. No-one had told them what to do or how to play the drums, they simply followed the adults and experimented for themselves. If they got tired they changed to dancing, moving between the two activities, even helping each other, all the while watching their parents and following their lead.
It was the perfect classroom, playful, skilful, with high expectations and lots of freedom for the children to experience and try out things for themselves. There was structure but no control, and above all it was so totally joyful!
Following this they were so receptive. We had found our universal language, and everyone was learning. I was struck by how simple it could be. The key elements that made it a safe and fun learning environment were social connection, which promotes a deep sense of belonging (one of the key areas of the early years learning framework) and the space for exploration and discovery.
Similarly, a few years later I attended a workshop with Finnish music education specialist, Soili Perkiö. My ears pricked-up when she started talking about her classes for babies and their parents. What she was describing echoed the experience I had had with these women and their children that day. In Soili’s classes the parents are the music makers, they play the instruments joyfully, whilst the babies sit in the middle of the circle and watch. There are extra instruments placed in the circle so that when the babies are inspired and ready they pick them up and start experimenting for themselves. There is very little intervention from the adults, but rather encouragement and modelling. Soili described it as a very vibrant scene. The parents enjoy themselves and have little concern about whether their child is learning ‘correctly’. The focus is on building a genuine desire to be together, playing and making music. This is the part that is contagious, and inevitably the babies are not able to resist participating. Again, there is an emphasis on creating a feeling of belonging through social harmony.
This approach makes total sense as we are born learners with a need to bond and attach. Babies are natural scientists with an inbuilt ability for inquiry-based learning, but also require a safe, familiar environment for this to occur.
Children learn through discovery. They need to watch and then try, repeating this process over and over again as they encounter various ‘failures’ and ‘successes’, however, in this context, nothing is a failure. Rather, it is all a vital part of building the skills necessary for the learning process and understanding how things work (or don’t work). This means we may see a lot of experimentation, fumbling, and general ‘not doing something the way it should be done’ to begin with, before they find the way something is designed to function or work. The process needs to be pulled apart, in order to be fully understood and internalised.
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