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Gerbil Trap

Alistair Bryce Clegg

By Alistair Bryce-Clegg

Author of 'Best Practice in the Early Years'

What do you get when you cross a bucket, some sunflower seeds and a pair of adventurous gerbils? The opportunity for children to explore their entire range of problem solving skills, of course! In his latest piece Alistair Bryce Clegg explores the ideas of Loris Malaguzzi and owns up to the great gerbil heist of 1974.

Often in Early Years settings, you will hear people talk about ‘the Reggio approach’.

Over time this has come to mean lots of different things to different people. Sometimes practitioners will use the term when they are referring to their resources, sometimes when they are talking about how they have dressed their environment or set up an activity. But the Reggio approach cannot be applied to one aspect of your practice or environment. As the phrase suggests, it is a way of approaching all aspects of how we understand children.

Reggio Emilia is the name of the city in Northern Italy where a young teacher named Loris Malaguzzi joined together with a group of mothers in the Spring of 1945 to start their own school. It turns out that Loris had some new and exciting ideas for what schools and education should look like, and over time the Reggio philosophy developed. It is now a global approach to early childhood development.

When asked about how it all started Malaguzzi said:

‘A simple liberating thought came to our aid, namely that things about children and for children are only learned from children’.

It is really good to remind ourselves of this on a regular basis. So many of the things that we are asked to support children’s development don’t actually come from children but from adult’s ideas of what children should be doing.

One of my favourite aspects of Malaguzzi’s work is his statement that children have 100 languages. Now that is impressive! I mean, I can speak a bit of French and count to ten in Japanese – but even if I worked on learning languages for the rest of my life, I don’t think I would master 100!

But that is not what Malaguzzi meant. He made the statement in response to the fact that most education systems only focus on children’s ability to read and write and a lot of what we do, even from an early age, is to get children ‘ready’ to be able to do this. By focusing on these specific areas, often through formal teaching, what we are missing out on is the hundreds and thousands of ways that children can express who they are and what they know.

As a practitioner, I was really struck by this thought and what I have tried hard to do throughout my career in early years is to give children opportunities to communicate using all of their ‘languages’ through play and exploration. But also, I have had to work hard on understanding those ‘languages’ as seeing them as valuable insights into how a child is growing and developing.

I will try and show you what I mean through this cautionary tale…

I was working with a nursery that was in an area of high social deprivation. One of the key areas for improvement that had been identified was children’s spoken language as it was felt that their lack of talk was slowing down their development. Also, because of their lack of experiences at home, the children were very reluctant to mark make or take part in the planned activities both independently and alongside members of staff.

I know that if you want children to talk then they need something that they want to talk about so, as part of my intervention, I introduced 3 gerbils to the space. Gerbils are great because, unlike hamsters, they don’t sleep during the day, so they generate lots to look at and talk about.

I happen to know lots about gerbils because when I was at infant school in 1974 (yes, I am that old) our school gerbil had babies. My teacher Miss Dickinson, who I loved and once asked to marry me, told us that we could have one or two of the babies to keep as long as we asked our parents.

I REALLY wanted a gerbil and I also knew my parents would say no, so I lied and said my mum and dad had said I could have two. One for me and one for my brother!

At the end of the day, Miss Dickinson said she would double check with whoever picked me up. At this point I thought was doomed, my lie would be found out and I would be in trouble for lying and still be gerbil-less.

As it turns out, fate was on my side and my Grandad picked me up. Miss Dickinson asked him about the gerbils, and he said, ‘I am sure that will be okay’! I found myself walking home with 2 gerbils in a shoe box. It was one of the best days of my life!

Anyway, back to the tale…

One morning we came into the nursery to find that the gerbils had escaped and were hiding out somewhere in the provision.

Rather than keep the children out of the space, which had been the preferred plan of the team, we let the children in, gathered them together and told them what had happened.

The news resulted in significant interest from the children and generated lots of questions about where the gerbils might be and how we might get them back.

Rather than the usual routine of adult input and group work, the children were given free access to the environment for play and exploration. The role of the adults in this session was just to play alongside the children, watch, listen and support them in anything that they wanted to do.

What the children produced in that short session was quite amazing. When we took our lead from them, they showed us their ability to think, create, problem solve and communicate in ways that they never had before.

What the team saw from that session completely changed their view and expectation of what the children were capable of. More importantly, it changed their approach to teaching and learning forever.

This is a ‘gerbil trap’ independently created by a 3-year-old using collage materials. She worked on it for a good half an hour before taking it to an adult (she had never independently approached an adult in provision before) and explaining what she had made.

There is a way in and a way out, but the way out is a trick, it is blocked with a piece of apple! From looking after the gerbils, she knew that their favourite food was sunflower seeds, so she has hidden some ‘stripey food’ under a blanket. She also though the gerbils would be tired so has made them a bed. This, however, is not just any bed, it is a sticky bed so that when the gerbils fall asleep, they will stick to it and then we can catch them.

You can even see that she has represented the gerbils by sticking eyes in the trap. She wasn’t able to say how many eyes there were as she had not yet developed the skill of counting but did say ‘them are the gerbils. Gerbil, gerbil, gerbil.” As she said ‘gerbil’ she pointed to each pair of eyes. Amazing!

Some children used construction to build gerbil traps. Some painted pictures of the missing gerbils. These boys who had been identified as ‘reluctant mark makers’ certainly weren’t reluctant when it came to designing their gerbil trap.

Their work together involved discussion, collaboration, strategising, problem solving, invention, imagination, turn taking, sharing…the list goes on.

Once they had finished they also were really keen to share what they had made and how it worked. In the end we got more talk than we knew what to do with.

I am not suggesting that you get some gerbils and release them into your nursery in an effort to engage children – although it could be interesting!

What I think we all need to do on a regular basis is remind ourselves of Malaguzi’s idea that children will naturally express themselves in many different ways using many different ‘languages’. As practitioners, we need to make sure that we provide opportunities for children to be able to do this and also make sure that we place equal value on each way that they find to express what they know. The worst thing that we can do is underestimate the potential of any child.

Just in case you were wondering, it took three days to eventually catch the gerbils, and only after the nursery team emptied their entire stock cupboard, to find…no gerbils (they weren’t best pleased). It was the Site Manager who caught them in the end using his own ingenious gerbil trap that consisted of a bucket, a ramp and some sunflower seeds.

Although the children were thrilled that the trap had worked, they were even more fascinated by the fact that one of the gerbils had returned without their tail! How had it lost it? Where was it now? Will it grow back? A whole new enquiry, in 100 different languages, had begun!