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Three Little Words
Alistair Bryce-Clegg

By Alistair Bryce-Clegg

Author of 'Best Practice in the Early Years'

There are three little words that I say too often… Thrill, Will, Skill.

When it comes to Early Years, there are three little words that I find myself saying all of the time: thrill, will and skill!

It is a mantra that I learned many years ago and it has stuck with me. The basic idea is that if there is no ‘thrill’ for the children in your setting they will not have the ‘will’ to engage and, therefore, they will not acquire any of the skills that they need to be lifelong learners!

Now, when I talk about thrill, I don’t mean that you have to provide a series of big ‘moments’ to constantly shock and surprise your children — although these can be very impactful every now and then.

I will never forget my Early Years team arranging for a ‘real’ pirate to visit our Unit (he was actually a brilliant actor called Norman dressed as a pirate, just in case you were wondering).

Serious, man pirate with eye patch and old hat with funny faces and expressive
The Pirate

All the children were assembled in our central area…. waiting…the staff had REALLY built the moment…the atmosphere was electric…a pirate was coming…then Norman appeared at the window in full pirate costume, staring at the children through one menacingly unpatched eye and slowly tapping on the glass with his hook.

The hysteria that ensued was not an entirely positive experience for children or staff! Although all of our intentions were good, it turned out to be very much the wrong kind of thrill. If you think of the child catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, only dressed as a pirate, that was about the long and the short of it!

Thrill comes from finding something that interests you. That could be something that you know you love like cars, or spiders, or Elsa from Frozen. But thrill can also take you by surprise when your interest is grabbed by a resource and interaction, or an experience. If we want children to truly engage with the environments we create and ensure that they have impact on wellbeing, learning and progress then we need to create spaces that foster an ethos of thrill, will, skill.

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If we look at the Characteristics of Effective Learning and use them as a guide, they open up lots of opportunities to build a bit of thrill into your environment.

Often when I am working with Nurseries, we will take each characteristic in turn and ask how it applies to the space we are in and the thinking that underpins the resourcing, planning and interactions.

Playing and Exploring:

It is through play that children get maximum opportunities to engage with their own learning preferences, if those preferences are available.

When we talk about child led learning what we are often referring to is adults creating opportunities for learning based on how individual children have expressed that they like to learn, or what they are interested in. If the planning and the environment is too topic based, or activity led then children get less opportunity to create their own learning through play. It can also be the case that when children are introduced to an activity or idea by and adult there is lots of ‘thrill’ because the adult is making it sound exciting. But, when children are then asked to go independently into the environment and continue with the same idea or activity without the adult, that is when the thrill disappears, and children become bored and disengaged.

Asian Chinese Little Girls Fishing With Scoop Net At Outdoor Man-made Pond
Fishing Nets

When we talk about exploring a space, we don’t mean a 3-day expedition into the unknown of the outdoor area! The question I would ask you is ‘does your environment have opportunities for children to explore, experience, plan, try and fail?’. Are your resources open ended enough that different children could interpret them in different ways, or do you have lots of ‘toys’ or activities that are set up with one clear focus? It is through opportunities to explore that we can really find our thrill.

Active Learning:

For me, the word ‘active’ here means two things. Active as in physically — do the children have lots of opportunity to move around your space both indoors and out? Do they have opportunities to work in large open spaces at different levels as opposed to always being sat at a table?

Part of the fundamental development of all of the children that you are working with is their physical development. Not just their gross and fine motor skills, but also essentials like their balance, proprioception and building a robust vestibular system. The more they can move as part of their play the better this will be.

Also, I think about active learning in the sense of children being an active part of not only deciding on what they will do but also how they will do it. As adults, we support children in their learning, but we should also be allowing them to support us in creating spaces that will allow them to thrive.

Creating and Thinking Critically:

I was talking to a group of parents via Zoom the other day and I was discussing with them how many of the jobs that their children will do when they grow up have not even been invented yet!

We really are preparing our children for an unknown future. To give them every chance of success we need to ensure that they are creative and critical thinkers, able to think around a problem and come up with multiple solutions. We need to ensure that they are happy to get things wrong and resilient enough to come back and try again. If we create learning environments that enable children to truly play and explore, where they are central and active to their own learning then they will have no choice other than to experience creativity and think critically.

Kid play at table with tools. Handcrafting concept. Child in helmet cute playing as builder or repairer, repairing or handcrafting. Toddler on busy face plays at home in workshop.
Kid play at table with tools. Handcrafting concept. Child in helmet cute playing as builder or repairer, repairing or handcrafting. Toddler on busy face plays at home in workshop.

Dispositions for Thrill, Will and Skill…

A ‘disposition’ in an inherent quality, so something that our children possess as a fundamental part of who they are as learners. The more engaged they are in their learning, the more successful learners they will be! Here are some dispositions that we need to enable our children to develop.

  • Curiosity– Open ended, flexible and changeable learning spaces
  • Enthusiasm– Through discovery and the opportunity to pursue own interests
  • Cooperation– Playing together, listening, sharing, taking turns, managing a changing space.
  • Confidence– Opportunity for children to make their own decisions, increases their confidence.
  • Creativity– Encouraging children to express their own creative ideas in an open learning space.
  • Commitment– Create activities and opportunities that enable children show a great level of commitment to things that interest them.
  • Persistence– Being committed with drive and enthusiasm to complete their self-chosen task
  • Imagination– In addition to recognisable resources, open ended natural materials will stimulate child’s imagination
  • Reflectivity– Giving children lots of opportunities to think about and share their experiences enables children to reflect on their own learning.

This is just the beginning of a much longer list. It might be useful for you to complete it and discuss with your team how you support children in developing these dispositions. You can also share it with your families to help to explain why play is so important to children’s learning and development.

So, in order to create the moments of thrill that will give children the will to engage with the environment and develop the skills that they need we need to invest in rich play spaces that offer movement and physical activity with space and features that allow a range of energetic and strength building play experiences.

Spaces that stimulate the five senses, maybe providing access to music and sound, and different smells made by plants and leaves.

Play spaces that actively encourage social interactions allowing children to choose whether and when to play alone or with others, to negotiate, cooperate, compete and resolve conflicts. Environments that create opportunities to manipulate natural and fabricated materials, use tools, and have access to bits and pieces of all kinds. Most importantly, a play space that offers children challenge and activities that test the limits of their capabilities.

Just be on the lookout for any slightly sinister pirates!

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