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Nurseries need to create an atmosphere 'where being unsuccessful or failing is not seen as wrong'

Article By: Sue Learner, Editor

Early years settings need to encourage children to take risks and create an atmosphere where ‘being unsuccessful or failing is not seen as wrong’, according to a Montessori-trained teacher.

Jeremy Clarke, who taught at a Montessori primary school for ten years and is now leader of E-Learning at Montessori Centre International, spoke at the Childcare Expo in London about the importance of children taking risks.

He said: “Great leaders take risks. It is really important that you allow children to take risks and it is vital to differentiate between consequence and risk. Danger is the consequence and risk is the chance of it happening.

“We take risks as the reward far outweighs the danger. Writing is emotionally risky. I have seen children shut down from writing as they don’t want to take the risk of spelling it wrong.”

His words are echoed by Michelle Wisbey, who runs five Montessori pre-schools in Essex and Hertfordshire. She told that she is very concerned that children are being turned into accessories with parents competing to have the “perfect” high-achieving child and said: “I am worried it will get to the stage when parents are being competitive over what stage their child got to in the EYFS when they left nursery”.

She is also very much in favour of letting children make mistakes. “Let your child be a child.”

'Learn through making mistakes'

The philosophy of her pre-schools is very much about encouraging children to be independent and learn through making mistakes. “At our settings we do a lot of training with our staff on the importance of trusting the children.

“We are very clear with the parents that we allow the children to take risks from climbing trees to pouring their own drinks and using real knives to cut their own snack. To the simple task of taking the risk in choices throughout their day, in the learning they choose to do and the path their day will take. You may not see a pretty picture of record keeping at the end of it but you will see a true picture of a child’s ability and interests.” The principles of the Montessori method are that children learn – through choosing, trying and doing themselves, rather than being told.

Independent learning is about trusting the child that they know their own abilities. She compares it to that old analogy. “If a child is walking along a wall then they will make it to the end but if you say to them be careful, then they will fall as they are distracted by your interference.”

Not giving children the opportunity to take risks has a massive effect on their decision making skills, as it means they are scared to try things - to take the risk, however small it may be, according to Ms Wisbey.

Encourage children to use real jugs and sharp knives

At her nurseries, the children are allowed to use real jugs, plates and bowls and sharp knives and she says they rarely have any accidents, as the “children learn that things break and that things can be dangerous so they gain respect for them and treat them with care, this then determines how they handle almost everything else around them”.

It is of course a parent’s natural instinct to want to protect their children but she believes that in “the long run their child will be in more danger through a lack of awareness”.

“When I was a child, my mum didn’t always know where I was. So if you scratched your knee you just got on with it and more often than not didn’t worry about it.”

Ms Wisbey has a very useful piece of advice – “if you are watching your child do something that is making you as a carer feel a little sick with worry, count to 10 before stepping in, as invariably they will surprise you and achieve whatever they had set out to do.”

Children are 'not learning coping strategies'

“Children nowadays are not learning coping strategies to deal with things and these are skills that they need in life.

“If you don’t start early and have the chance to become resilient and make mistakes, you are never going to cope with what life throws at you. “If you over protect your child, they will never learn how to make mistakes.”

Adults intervene a lot more in children’s play now than they used to. Children used to go outside and play and adults wouldn’t get involved. Now they tend to be watched and monitored a lot more.

Jeremy Clarke would like to see adults interfering less in children’s play and letting the child lead the play.

“Freedom from interference leads to calm. If you know no one is going to intervene then you relax. If you are anxious you will only remember snapshots and emotions. If children know it is their own activity they will be calm,” he says.

This should also apply to when a child goes to play with another child and that other child says no, he or she doesn’t want to play with them. Adults will often in this situation tell the child off for being mean and force them to play with the other child.

Mr Clarke believes this course of action takes away a sense of control from the child.

Freedom to say no

“You need to give the child the freedom to say no if they are not happy with something. It is okay for the child to say no and their wishes need to be respected.

“If they are in a situation where they never have ownership of the activity they are not going to be happy. It is okay for a child to say no and it is all about then helping the other child manage the feeling of what it is like when someone says no they don’t want to play with them.”

However when he says freedom, he stresses this doesn’t mean chaos. “If there is chaos nobody wins. There needs to be boundaries in the setting. There needs to be social responsibility where children learn to look after other people and things. But the boundaries shouldn’t stop learning.

“The rule should be – you can do anything you want as long as you look after yourself, you look after other people and you look after the things around you.”

Children should also be in control of their day in terms of time and should be able to spend as much time on an activity within reason as they get a lot more out of an activity if they don’t have arbitrary breaks, he says. “Don’t give them a time limit. Every child will have something that they will concentrate on for a long time.

“Obviously you have to stop for lunch and you have to stop to go home and do activities such as group time.”

Repetition is another essential element to learning and developing in the early years as it “builds resilience so activities such as building tower blocks where the child builds the tower and it falls down so they build the tower again are ideal for strengthening resilience in a person”.

Children in the early years are absorbing so much throughout the day and so much is new. This innate ability to live very much in the present is something adults can all too easily lose. This is why Mr Clarke is insistent that nurseries “need to make that experience right now the best experience children can have”.


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