By Alistair Bryce-Clegg
Author of 'Best Practice in the Early Years'
There is a huge amount of learning attached to any significant event in a child’s life and celebrations like birthdays, Eid and Christmas are great opportunities to develop a range of skills. At times when children are excited and motivated by the events in their life they show high levels of engagement, and this is an opportunity that is too good to miss.
The problem is that often as practitioners, our focus is on the run up to an event. We spend a lot of time talking about what is going to happen, which for children can be a difficult concept.
If you take Christmas as an example, if you are 4 years old then you will have only experienced 4 Christmases and for at least half of those you would be too young to understand or remember what it was all about, so predicting what is about to happen from memory is an almost impossible task.
I remember very early on in my Early Years career being observed when I delivered a carpet session to my children all about Bonfire Night. I based the session on using and developing descriptive language linked to fireworks.
I had spent hours turning loo rolls into rockets using a year’s supply of shiny paper from the stock cupboard. I gave them tissue paper tails and glue them to sticks. I started my session by running across the room waving the sticks in the air and shouting ‘woosh!’. In my head I looked like one of those athletes in the Olympics that does amazing acrobatics on a bouncy mat, but I think in truth, I just looked like a fool!
I certainly got some engagement from the children and the people observing, but not the sort that I was looking for! Even though I had read some firework poems to the children and we had watched a tape (yes, I am that old) of fireworks, it wasn’t real or relevant enough to enable them to take part in the activity.
So, after all my dancing, poetry and prep, when I said to the children “What noise does a firework make?” they just looked at me blankly!
Now, if I had waited until the day after Bonfire Night, when lots of the children would have had real experiences of seeing or hearing fireworks for themselves, then I would have had a very different outcome to my carpet session.
Some of the work that we do with children around significant events is giving them knowledge and experiences to remind them of what they have done before, or creating the opportunity to do something completely different in order to build a new memory or gain a new skill. But if we want to maximise the potential for learning and development, then revisiting after the event is key. Recent recall and reminiscence is a very powerful tool that it is easy for children to access.
When we talk about reminiscing, we often think about people telling stories from the past. But there have been lots of studies that show that giving young children the opportunity to reminisce about recent events can support their short and long term development.
In order to relive an experience a child has got to use lots of different aspects of their brain to help them to recall and recreate what happened. Another really powerful aspect of reminiscence for children is that it is personal. It happened to them. This is not your interpretation of what it feels like to pull a cracker or the taste of Christmas pudding, it is theirs. Personal memories will be detailed, structured and closely linked to emotional responses. This can help children to find ways to express how they felt and why.
It is also worth considering here that for some children their experience of Christmas might be very different from others and not filled with family, food and gifts. It is important to be sensitive to this, but also to ensure that they have an opportunity to recount their experiences of the festive season no matter how different.
When a child is reliving their experience of an important event, it also gives adults the opportunity to engage with them and support their use of talk and language. As the child talks about their perspective, we can also talk about ours, highlighting the things that are the same and those that are different.
Being able to reminisce is also important when it comes to having conversations about how the child and others felt during the event. When we give children opportunities to revisit real feelings we can also help them in determining why they felt like that and, if it was a negative feeling, how we can support them to process it.
We know that the more we talk to children the faster their language develops, but reminiscing is particularly useful for young children’s language development. When children are telling the story of a recent past real-life experience, their narrative talk contains longer and more complex sentences than it does if they are just talking about what is happening to them right now.
It is linked to lots of aspects of language development like phonological awareness, word usage, story structure, the ability to talk to an audience (even if that audience is just one other person) and even in some cases the ability to embellish a story (in other words tell a lie) for effect!
Talking about the past and the future are very abstract concepts young children who live very much in the present moment. Encouraging them to reminisce also allows them to use their higher-order thinking skills.
Being able to tell a good story and understand what that is will be crucial not only for children’s future writing ability, but also their reading comprehension. In Early Years, there is no better place to start than with your own story.
As I broke up for the Christmas holidays, I would make sure that every last bit of tinsel had been taken down and packed away for next year. I always liked the feeling of coming back to a clean and clear space for the start of a new year. But this year my advice is don’t bother. Leave it all up – Christmas tree and all.
Let the children come back to painting with pine needles, exploring the scent of spices in a tough spot and decorating the tree in your role play area. Create lots of opportunities for reminiscence, allowing them to recount their own ‘lived’ stories of the festive season, and use those moments to enhance their learning, language and emotional development.
You won’t regret it!