One of the fundamental features of play-based approaches to learning and development in the first five years is a focus on children and their interests. Formal, rote or instructional learning in this space has limited, if any, benefits to children, while approaches that promote engaging children in fun and interesting play can have an amazing impact.
The Early Years Learning Framework strongly acknowledges this approach, particularly through the Principles and Practices that support educators to think holistically and individually about each child, their family and their community. Since the introduction of the National Quality Framework I have seen a big shift in the sector towards focusing on “children’s interests”. When I speak to Team Leaders in particular about their approaches to educational programs and practices, I often hear variations of “I extend on children’s interests”.
This is worth exploring. On the surface, this seems obvious and clear. We’ve been told for a long time to explore children’s interests – surely we should promote the things that engage children? But as with all of our teaching strategies, we have to be prepared to engage in critical reflection about what they mean and how they affect children.
What do we mean when we talking about extending children’s interests? In my experience, it often means something along these lines: “Saanvi was showing an interest in dinosaurs, so we added some dinosaurs to the sandpit and added some more dinosaur books to the reading corner.” I’m sure you will have heard similar approaches.
Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with simply extending interests – it’s important that children are given space and opportunities to explore their own growing and changing interests. But what worries me is that many educators, and even those leading teams, seem to think that is enough. Extending interests is not an educational goal all by itself, and is not the intent or the guidance of the Early Years Learning Framework.
Our work with children is about supporting and guiding their individual journeys towards the five Learning Outcomes. The Outcomes were developed to provide a signpost for the skills and capabilities that would support children to become successful life-long learners. But in the first five years, we’re not going to sit children down in rows with a blackboard inscribed with “The 7 Steps to Becoming an Effective Communicator”! We engage children in learning environments, interactions and experiences that help children explore and develop those skills.
One of the best ways to do this is using children’s interests – not as an end goal itself, but as a door for children to engage with those environments and experiences that will promote learning. To continue with the dinosaur example I mentioned at the start, just adding dinosaurs doesn’t promote any specific work towards the Learning Outcomes. But using Saanvi’s interest in dinosaurs to promote counting (“how many dinosaurs do we have here?”), or patterns (“how many dinosaurs with spikes are there?”) or social interactions through role-play (“I think that dinosaur is upset about something! What do you think one of the other dinosaurs could say to her?”).
When thinking about this topic – think about it in this way. We don’t teach about children’s interests, we teach through children’s interests. Children’s interests can illuminate the way for us as teachers and educators, and provide some roadmaps for the Outcomes we’re heading towards. To get a bit cliched – interests are the journey, not the destination.
The other thing to consider is how saying we just follow or extend children’s interests positions us as qualified educators. Identifying something a child likes, and then providing more of it, is not a complicated skill. If you say that’s all you do, you’re not casting yourself – or the profession – in a great light.
It also highlights a parallel issue, one that I always bring up in interviews. One of the Principles of the EYLF is Intentional Teaching, which highlights the importance of teachers and educators being specific and purposeful in the work we do. To me, it means those things that a professional brings regardless of the children’s interests. The things I choose, as a teacher, to teach – whether children are interested or not (or not yet).
This can sound blasphemous to many educators – not following children’s interests, but my own? But we need to remember that Intentional Teaching is a Principle for a reason. It highlights the importance of the role of a teacher or educator in the learning process – not as a passive observer and follower of children, but a co-constructor of knowledge with children, and often leading that process.
It’s important to critically reflect on what putting too much emphasis on children’s interests can mean for children – as the EYLF asks, who is advantaged and disadvantaged by the choices we make as professionals?
What might never be raised or addressed if we only follow children’s interests? It’s unlikely that children in a community with low Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representation will show an “interest” in Indigenous perspectives. I believe that regardless of that, we should (and must) engage with those perspectives anyway – in fact in a community like that it may be more important, or children may not have any understanding of Indigenous perspectives in that crucial first five years of their lives.
Children’s interests may seem like the most uncontroversial topic out there – but it’s worth another look. When you answer that question about how you teach, make sure you’re considering how your answer positions your own important work as a teacher or educator. Let’s start talking about teaching through interests, and not just about them.