Sunday, October 16, 2011

Structure v Spontaneity

With a room full of toddlers it can get quite hectic from time to time. While it is important to provide time for them to spontaneously explore & play I believe it is just as important to provide structure throughout their day. Many of these children come to me via the nursery, an environment in which they have little experience with structured group experiences. As these children often have difficulty remaining focused for even a few moments I have started beginning each group time going over the expectations during group = using their eyes looking at who is talking & their ears to listen. How they position themselves is not so important unless they obstruct the view of others.

I see these times as opportunities to begin their preparation for school. Yes, that's right. If I help them build foundations now by encouraging the development of their attention span, then as they move into older group they should be better equipped to meet the challenges that face them.

I'm sure there are people who will read this & be outraged that I introduce structure to children so young & that's ok. Everyone has their own philosophy. However, we are aware that the early years are crucial for brain development so why not include these social & receptive language skills in their repertoire. Afterall, the more children learn during this stage of their development, the better prepared they will be to learn & build on other skills in the future.

Tell me what you think.


  1. I believe that as long you can justify why you do something that's all that matters, I rarely worry about other settings & whether they would do it the same as me. I think you're right to encourage young children to become aware of the need to be able to listen & concentrate, even if only for a few minutes at a time. I have started using the whole of the first term (sept-dec) as settling-in time, going over routines, expectations etc. again & again.

  2. Kia Ora Greg,

    While I'm not at all outraged by what you're doing, there are a few points I'd contest - if you don't mind.

    Firstly is the notion that we must prepare children for school - that we are 'pre-school'.

    I think this (very common) position is a symptom of our sectors inability to articulate and fight for the right for children to live in the 'here and now' - which stems from our own image of childhood and children. Are we training them for some distant place where they will get to be who they are? Or do we respect them as individuals with rights (human, pedagogical, and cultural) to be as they are now and learn as they do best.

    The second point is our (the ECEC sector) inability to fight for a child's right to learn the best way - through social and cultural interactions. Despite about a trillion studies now showing that we learn at our best when we initiate and direct the learning, we happily succumb to 'schoolification' as a result of (mainly) social discourses on the 'right' way to learn, and the need to prepare children for school. I think it's really sad to see toddlers forced to sit and pay attention to the teacher.

    I don't know about Oz, but in Aotearoa most kids start school at five - but the legal age is six - social pressure however prevails and rarely do you find a five-year-old at kindy. Not many countries start this early for a good reason - learning is recognised to be best happening within social situations - play.

    I would argue that everything you do at a formal 'mat-time' you can achieve within the context of play - songs, story reading, social rule games etc. Passive spectators learn very little - we have to physically do it. A child is truly concentrating when they are in charge - when you are, they're quickly bored and restless and before you know it mat-time is all about behavioural management.

    Have you considered conducting some research? Replicate the contents of mat-time into the play context and see how different / same children engage. Would be interested in your thoughts and experiences Greg.

    Ka Kite


  3. Kia Ora @ko,

    I'm commenting here as blog is having issues with me commenting or responding to comments on my own blog.

    I understand what you are saying & respect your philosphy regarding the rights of children. Often people espouse to believe in something, yet their practices often tell a different story.

    I agree with much of what you say & the only real issue I have is of my own making as I didn't explain clearly enough what I am aiming for.

    In no way do I expect young children to attend to static group times for extended periods & they are very much a minor part of the day. My point was simply that these children will be heading to quite structured kindergarten settings soon & I am trying to equip them early on with the tools to help them cope with these environments.

    I understand that there are schools that provide open ended. stimulating leaening environments baased on play & children that go to these kindergartens will be very lucky. However, I am also aware that many schools have a very structured routine & if children go into these settings unprepared we are doing them an injustice.

    My wish is for the primary/secondary systems to learn from early childhood about how children best learn. Schools have come a long way from my day, but they still have a long way to go on their journey.

    I value your input & hope you don't think too poorly of me, but if I haven't convinced you than so be it. I am confident I am providing the children in my care the best opportunities I can at present. Can I improve? Most definitely & some of what you suggested could go towards such self improvement. Constructive criticism is one way to help us evolve as individuals & professionals. I am also sure your children a in very capapble hands.

    Keep up the good work. Thanks for the feedback.


    Greg's comments above were copied from my blog.

    Thanks for replying Greg - and for clearing up a few points. I can understand the sense of doom many in ECEC feel when advocating for play when the reality for the child is that soon their wings will be clipped. The unfortunate dilemma we face is whether the child will cope...

    A centre I know of who follow a Pikler philosophy of free-play have been tracking their 'graduates' as they enter primary school and talking to their teachers about how they are adjusting. The feedback is positive - socially capable, curious, and keen to learn.

    Both Victoria Uni and Uni of Auckland are conducting research (masters or doctoral projects) into primary teachers perceptions about the mat-times and whether they have any positive value to classroom learning. From what I've heard the response is that teacher-directed group-learning is of little benefit.

    While I'm a strong advocate for free-play, I'm acutely aware of its limitations Greg. The task of blending 'out-side' knowledge into a child's reality in a way that results in authentic learning is really complex - I'm sure many teachers struggle with the concept of co-construction! I'm working on a article about this so maybe we can revisit it later.


  4. I agree with both your comments - i do resent being seen as preparing children for school & prefer to ay that I am preparing them for life. However we do have to accept that when they leave us they are going into more formal settings & to prevent a complete clash of cultures more settled times like singing or story time only hlep to develop their concentration levels.

  5. "Rather than getting children ready for school, we need to get school ready for them." This is a quote from Docia Zavitkovsky, President, NAEYC 1984-1986, Founder of Play Matters, and lifelong supporter of parent cooperative schools.

    Now, I am a fan of STRUCTURE -- and this is how I see it in early childhood...It is like building a strong, cozy house. A place where children and adults feel at home. A place where things are easily found and have a place. These things include objects, people and feelings. Everything has a place and everything has a time. Young children, especially very young children, need to know what to expect of time, space, and adult support. They need to know that the walls of their house are not wobbly.

    I also describe what I do in terms of a garden, just in case you think I am keeping children inside ;). Childhood is about the garden and there is a garden gate that educators hold open. That gate leads to the wide world. We hold it open for them until they can open it themselves. A poetic way of saying, "yes" we prepare them for that great, big world and that it is how it should be because so much of what defines how we think, problem-solve, and define the world is shaped in early childhood.

    In the end, our strong houses and structures look different and that is how it should be, but they should all be strong structures and they should suit our personalities and inspire us to come home to each day and feel happy.

  6. I am all about being spontanious within a structured routine. :) This means the children have an idea of what to expect next simply by a routine that I have implemented. This allows for spontanious interactions and formal teaching moments. This may make no sense to anyone but me but I do believe that the children leaving my classroom are ready for a more formal classroom setting, with a very structured curriculum & a public school system with stringent expectations. However they will know how to make that fun!

  7. I agree LeeanneA.

    Structure is critical - but perhaps we could reconceptualise this as 'continuity' that eludes more to fostering emotional security than an expectation that children do as we want/need?

    If we elevate daily routines to the status of ritual where rhythm and stability provide a platform for more 'formal' teaching spaces, we create a 'basket' of safety from which the chaos of play can grow from. Imposing structure into play means it is no longer play.

    An example of a routine that has been ritualised for the sake of relationship building and teaching: mealtime - the children come inside for Qigong (breathing and movement exercises that shifts their energy inwards and calms), Karakia (Māori 'prayer' as a way of focusing), hands are washed and the children sit at their tables; candles, flowers, glasses, water jugs, chopped fruit, a teacher at each table engaging with the children about absolutely everything...

    The same ritual everyday. Not a routine to be hurried through, but slow, calm and purposeful space of learning.

    I think these kinds of 'structures' are ideal: holistic, small groups, plenty of attention, the same framework everyday. what do you think?


  8. It is my belief that the environment you provide assists in building structure without verbalizing or enforcing structure. Children will create their own structure - because there is less chaos found within that structure. Children are more apt to 'play' - explore and thrive when they have formed their own structure within a routine you have guided them through.

  9. I'm a believer in mat time for toddlers as part of their routine, but it's how you conduct that mat time that is the crucial issue.

    Mat time has a lot to recommend it when it's done age-appropriately. My mat times are never compulsory- if a child chooses to leave after sitting down, well, so be it, that's okay- I've failed to capture that child's needs in that moment, and that's food for thought and valuable developmental information for me.

    The gathering of a group together is part of the 'belonging' experience for me- every child is welcomed individually by name and the whole group waves 'hello' to them. Children rarely want to leave before they've heard their name!

    Then we have community social norms, or 'rules' as some call them; if we're not addressing the whole group, how can the guidelines represent that whole group? For toddlers, I might run a little puppet show where one puppet hits another, and have a little talk about whether that's okay. I find the children are as fascinated by this as they are hypnotised by the dreaded TV screen, and of course it's MUCH more interactive and fun- children will talk to a puppet, for example, when they won't speak to an adult or peer.

    Group time often shows me important information, too- toddlers are rarely formally diagnosed with ASD, for example, but when a child won't come to my group (and as I said, usually the children WANT to come to my group) it alerts me that the child might have some specific needs.

    I could go on and on, but that's enough food for thought for now. :)

    Forcing children to sit? NO. Drawing the community together for a short time? YES.

  10. Kia ora Aunt Annie,

    There's certainly plenty to stew over in your post :) On top of the pile is the rather alarming thought that you might have a label such as ASD floating in your head when a child wanders away from your mat-time!! EEEEK Maybe it's as simple as 'boredom'?

    I agree about your points around belonging, but surely this can occur in a myriad of ways/places - and in ways that perhaps move beyond your personal values/beliefs/practice to better reflect those of the child?

    I'm intrigued about how much young children learn about (social justice) issues when it's taken out of context and presented in a transmission style - ie the puppets role play hitting because some child wacked another earlier on. Penny Brownlee talks of how such information is good only for trivial pursuit, that to truly learn something we must do it. I'm interested to hear if the children are absorbing more than the fun of a puppet show. I've had this same conversation before with colleagues - how do we subvert dominant discourses like sexism, violence, classism etc in away that creates authentic learning as opposed to being told how it should be? It's a conversation that could go on for years.

    I read that you are primary and secondary school trained. Does this influence how you see learners and the way you approach learning? I ask this - in all respect - because of your questioning and problematising when a child fails to engage with mat-time (and there is a lot of frown-inducing research about the influence of primary trained teachers in ECEC).

    Excellent concluding sentence!