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Just Because I Can, Doesn’t Mean That I Should. Or, the Cautionary Tale of the Hairy Toes!
Alistair Bryce Clegg

By Alistair Bryce-Clegg

Author of 'Best Practice in the Early Years'

The truth is that developmentally possible doesn’t always mean developmentally appropriate. If we want our children to have the best start to their life-long-learning journey then we need to ensure that what we are asking them to do is linked directly to their stage of development. That way is likely to have maximum impact on their wellbeing, engagement, progress and attainment.

When you are working with young children there is never a dull moment. Your days are full and full on! You can often reach going home time and wonder… where did the hours go, why didn’t I manage to eat my lunch again, why am I always so tired (probably because you didn’t eat your lunch!), and how you managed to get paint inside of your shoes?!

It is often hard in this fast-paced existence to take the time to reflect on the day-to-day aspects of your practice and really ask yourself why it is that you do what you do.

For years as a practitioner I thought a lot about the input and the activities that I would plan for the children, but never stopped to think about the other ‘stuff’ that made up my day. The routines, the habits the things that always happen without question.

What do I mean by that? Well, take carpet time as an example. Carpet time, mat time, gathering time, together time…. whatever you want to call it, we all do it. Usually straight away at the beginning of the day and then again, several times until one final get together at the end.

Giving children a time to gather with each other and adults can be brilliant. But often the joy of gathering is depended by the rules and regulations that go with it.

When we invite children to the carpet, we are not asking them to gather and relax. We usually require them to sit in a particular spot and in a particular way. ‘Sit up straight…looking at me…legs crossed….show me good listening’. The irony is that sitting up straight with your arms folded and your legs crossed (and sometimes with your fingers on your lips!) does not show good listening.

When you or I are truly listening to something that we are going to engage with, we don’t have to be sitting up straight with our legs crossed. If you are watching the TV, listening to some music or a podcast, or to somebody else speaking, you don’t have to be sitting up with your legs crossed to engage with it or understand it! You are more likely to have got yourself into a really comfortable position on some cushions, or in a comfy chair. Not on a hard, cold floor (or a bit of skinny carpet) and next to someone you don’t like, in a weird sitting position!

We are not asking our children to find a space and relax, so that they don’t have to think about what their bodies are doing and their brains can concentrate on what we are saying. Before we get to any learning, we are asking their brain to keep their body in what is quite an unnatural position.

To sit up with your legs crossed you first have to find a space that will fit your body in once your legs are crossed – that can be tricky. It often results in children sitting on top of each other or kneeing each other in the ribs as they descend into an awkward curtsy in the style of Big Bird… it can be carpet carnage!

Many settings will ask children to sit in a specific spot. So, rather than sit in a space that you would prefer, next to your mate, you have to tip toe your way through the sea of wriggling bodies that made it to the carpet first, hoping that you don’t tread on any stray fingers or trip over protruding knees and toes.

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When you get to your space and have managed your descent, you then have to cross your legs. For some children who don’t often cross their legs this can put some extra stress on the muscles in their groin, which will let them know they are stressed by starting to ache after a relatively short period of time. To relieve this ache, children will often uncross their legs and stick them out in a ‘V’ shape. This will likely result in them kicking the two children in front of them and being told to cross them again. Or, they might go onto their knees, straighten their bodies and then slightly arch their back to stretch it out. This is likely to result in them being told to sit down, cross their legs and ‘show good listening, like Chloe’!

Trying, in vain, to get comfortable!

To sit up straight you also need strong core muscles. Young children and children who do not have a very active physical life at home often don’t possess this core strength, so they really struggle to maintain the position, often ending up leaning against a vertical surface or another child for support. This often results in being told to move into their own space and sit up!

Although sitting on the carpet for ten or fifteen minutes is developmentally possible for most children, that doesn’t mean it is appropriate or the best way to get children to engage with their learning.

It is like me asking you to come to the carpet while I read a story, but when you get here, I want you to assume the tree pose from yoga. Standing up straight on your right leg with your left knee bent and your left foot pressed into your right inner thigh. If that wasn’t enough, I want you to stretch out your arms and keep them straight and balanced while you listen. Possible? Yes. Appropriate? No. Unless it is a yoga class.

While your brain is engaged in keeping your body in check it is less engaged in listening and learning. One thing that lots of children are learning is that they don’t like coming to the carpet and so every time that we say ‘stop everything and come to the carpet’ their subconscious is already telling them that what is about to happen is not going to be good, and that is no way to start learning. What you end up with is disengagement and distraction.

Last summer I sat with a group of Nursery children while the adult did a shape activity on the carpet. It was a hot day, which didn’t help with the sitting, and the children were soon restless. The adult worked hard, producing a feely box with a small hole cut in the top. At various intervals she would put her hand inside the box and talk about the shape she could feel. Then she would ask the children what they thought it might be.

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On the third dip into the box she said ‘I have got one! It is round, it is flat, it has no corners or edges. Does anyone know what shape I have got?’

Harry put his hand up:

‘Yes Harry? Go on…’

Harry did not look at the box on her knee, but instead pointed to her feet which were in flip flops.

To everyone’s surprise, he didn’t say ‘circle’. But instead…

‘Why have you got hairs on your toes?’

Whilst you have to admire Harry’s honesty and enquiring mind, it definitely wasn’t the learning that the adult had intended.

It is really important that as practitioners we constantly question why we do what we do and if the rules and routines that we have in place are meaningful and appropriate for children, and not just about what we have always traditionally done.

Is sitting up straight in a space with your legs crossed and arms folded really at the top of our list of priorities for children? Or, does engagement, wellbeing and learning matter more?

Worth thinking about… (while you check your toes for hair!)