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Three ways to embrace learning through children’s interests

Explore the benefits of play-based learning and incorporate children’s interests into activities with these tips and tricks from experienced early childhood educators.
Children's Interests

As educators, we understand the value of play for the development of young children. In line with this understanding, early years education programming has evolved significantly to include children’s interests.

In the 1990s, early years education programming became less rigid in structure (Rosback, Coulson & Cowen, 2014). There is now much greater pressure on educators to adapt their teaching to children’s preferences. This may seem challenging; however, these resources contain fun activities that incorporate children’s interests and make facilitating play-based learning easier!  

What are the benefits of play-based learning?

There is a misconception that play detracts from ‘proper learning’, however play is integral to children’s development. Directing their own play allows children to develop a sense of self and an awareness of their own agency.  Furthermore, children at play learn to:

  • Make a plan and follow through – “I want to draw my family. Who will I put in my picture?”
  • Learn from trial and error, using imagination and problem-solving skills – “My tall tower fell down! Maybe my friend can help build it up again.”
  • Apply concepts of quantity, science and movement to real life – “I like these big seeds. How many will I need to cover this part of my picture?”
  • Reason in a logical, analytical manner by acting on objects – “There are still some pieces missing in this puzzle. Which ones might fit?”
  • Communicate with classmates and negotiate differences in points of view – “I want to be the mother. Could you be the baby? Or maybe the grandmother?”
  • Derive satisfaction from their own accomplishments – “We did it together!”
  • Develop creativity and explore aesthetics and artistry – “I wonder what will happen if I mix these colours together?

(Learning Through Play, 2018, The LEGO foundation, UNICEF)

Uncovering children’s interests

The authors of Inspiring Play Spaces say communication and developing relationships with each child are key when planning play-based programs. To incorporate children’s interests into enriching learning experiences, we must first uncover what it is they’re interested in. The authors make the following suggestions for gathering information on children’s interests:                               

  • Put a family contribution form near your sign-in area and parents can write directly on that. These ideas can provide you with weeks of stimulus for your program.
  • Listen closely when chatting to children as they play. You might hear about their current interests, activities, social engagements and recent outings that could all contribute to your program.
  • By sending home a sharing bag, you give each child the opportunity to share things that interest them. These interests could inform the program and create wonderful learning opportunities for other children.

Once you have gathered information, you can discuss how to implement it in educational experiences. Playing and Exploring in the Early Years author, Anni McTavish, recommends regularly discussing children’s interests with your teaching team. This could be held informally after school, or in a staff meeting where you decide how you will further explorations.

Examples of building on children's interests

So, you’ve gathered topics that excite the young learners in your educational setting, but what to do with them? Here are three case studies where educators have devised fun activities guided by children’s interests.

Making a whale

In Inspiring Ideas to Support Children’s Interests, the authors explain how a discussion about whales led to an exciting craft project.

This two-metre-long wire and papier mâché whale was created after a group discussion about whales. The children’s interest was sparked in a discussion about a whale’s size. They were encouraged to think of how they could create a whale on a large scale.

Educators shared pictures of whales on their IT screen. The children were then given clipboards to try to recreate the shape needed to make a whale. The general consensus of the children’s drawing ‘plans’ was that the whale needed to be ‘big and round’. The children achieved the shape by wrapping chicken wire around a large bucket and manipulating the rest of the wire into the body shape. They then added the fin, flippers and tail using chicken wire also. The children used squares of cut-up newspaper and a mixture of papier mâché glue to cover the frame.

Once the whole frame was covered with a thick layer of papier mâché, the children painted the whale. This kind of structure can be done on a smaller scale using the same materials.

Personal action figures

Engaging Children In Play – Book 2, is a handy educational resource for educators looking to create stimulating play spaces. This activity uses printouts and the outdoor environment to enhance children’s learning experience.

Method

Take full length photographs of the children, print them out and then cut around the body. Laminate each photo for durability and attach them to a base. Wooden ice block sticks, cubes or small recycled containers such as yoghurt pots work well. Give each child their very own ‘action figure’ so that they can travel to new and mysterious lands.

Resources

  • Camera
  • Printer
  • Laminator and laminating pouches
  • Wooden ice block sticks, small cubes or small containers

Handy hints

  • Leave the figures hidden around the classroom for children to discover when they arrive!
  • When making the figures you may want to include the educators in your setting and the children’s parents.
  • Use the action figures with small world activities, as an alternative to regular play people.

Questions to help you extend the experience and to ensure challenge

Questions for you:

  • Could you use this activity to support with transition and settling in periods?
  • Could you set up a search activity where children have to find their friends’ hidden action figures and mark off who they find using their own class registers?

Questions for the children:

  • Where have you travelled to?
  • Where would you like to go next?
  • Can you find any of your friends hidden outside?

This activity gives children opportunities to share knowledge about their local environment, consider others and express interest in different occupations. Furthermore, children can demonstrate agency by adding new narratives to collaborative play.              

Are dragons real?

This case study from Playing and Exploring in the Early Years shows how a discussion led to a series of activities including a visit from a special guest.

Case study: Did dragons exist?

The interest developed with a question (something to think about): “Did dragons exist?” The educators gave the provocation to the children (aged five years) as part of their creative curriculum, aiming to get them to talk together, think creatively, hypothesise and problem solve. What could be the possible answers to this question?

The play developed as the children became more interested in castles, knights and dragons. It included making imaginative stories using the small-world castle and figures, building castles and engaging in lots of talk. The children took on the parts of the characters they had created and gave directions and orders, “Pull up the drawbridge there’s a dragon coming … They played collaboratively, concentrating for long periods and becoming strongly involved in the stories.

The educators recorded what the children did and said, using photographs and making notes, and used this record to plan the next steps.

The educators invited Sir Percival the Knight (a member of staff) and his dragon to visit the class to provoke more thinking and develop the children’s ideas about knights, castles and dragons. The visitors told the story of the knight and his dragon and spoke with the children.

The conversation between them and the children developed with the children asking lots of questions. This led to even more ideas, inspiring the children, who in the following days became engaged in role play, building a castle and finding clothes to wear as well as preparing a banquet.

Incorporating children’s interests into play-based learning is not only beneficial but also essential for their development. The activities and case studies highlighted in this article demonstrate how responsive programming can be seamlessly integrated into early childhood education. By embracing flexibility and creativity in our teaching approaches, we can support children by developing vital skills. For more ideas on how to incorporate play-based learning into your setting, check out the Engaging Children in Play series.

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