Monday, December 30, 2019

What's new and different: The Early Years

As a way of getting back into blogging for 2020, I decided I'd write a series of posts about what is new and different in the Enhanced PYP.  I decided that I'd start with the Early Years, since I'm preparing for a workshop in February which focuses on this age group, and also because the PYP has always recognised that the experiences during the early years lay the foundations for all future learning.  This has always been seen as a crucial stage of learning, with rapid development taking place in the physical, social, emotional, intellectual and aesthetic abilities.

In the previous curriculum document, Making the PYP Happen, there was no section that was entirely dedicated to the Early Years.  Teachers had to read through the entire document and pull out the areas that were most relevant.  One important paragraph was this one:
Teachers of students in the early years are encouraged to support students’ interests, build up their self esteem and confidence, and respond to spontaneous events, as well as support the development of skills in all cognitive areas in relevant ways. Children, from birth, are full of curiosity, and the PYP provides a framework that gives crucial support for them to be active inquirers and lifelong learners. 
In the Enhancements, the online resource PYP: From Principles into Practice is much more explicit about the early learner, and the age range has been extended from ages 3 - 6 (previously this was 3 - 5).  There is also a more specific directive that supporting children's growth requires that all members of the learning community value this as being a time where play is the driver for inquiry.  In fact play is so important that teachers must plan uninterrupted time for play as well as creating responsive and interactive learning spaces for play, because play provides opportunities for children to develop in all the key developmental domains.

Just as in the older grades, the programme of inquiry for early years students is organised into transdisciplinary themes.  In the case of the early years, the school may choose a minimum of four units for these age groups, two of which must be Who we are, where students learn about identity, relationships, well-being and being part of a community, and How we express ourselves, where the focus is on discovery, creativity and the expression of ideas and feelings.  The idea here is that the units of inquiry are iterative and flexible and that they centre on concepts of significance in the lives of the students.

The role of the teacher is now much more explicit.  Whereas previously schools and teachers were able to determine the frequency of play, now this is a central and protected part of learning.  Again, previously play may not often have been documented in PYP schools, now the teacher should be actively documenting the inquiry that emerges through play.  As well as this, by listening attentively, teachers can plan learning experiences such as stories, songs and rhymes, that extend students' language capabilities and encourage the development of their communication skills.

An important role for teachers is that of creating stimulating learning environments and experiences where students can develop at their own pace and where individual children can follow different pathways.  The key word here is flexibility as teachers plan, facilitate and co-construct inquiries, scaffold and reflect on both student learning and their own teaching.  Timeframes and routines need to be flexible and responsive to the needs of the students.

Children are natural inquirers, and the PYP teacher recognises them as curious and capable learners with a sense of agency.  The central features of early years are:
  • Play as the primary vehicle for inquiry, with planning for uninterrupted time for play
  • Building strong relationships with students and their families
  • Creating and maintaining responsive/interactive learning spaces for play
  • Offering many opportunities for symbolic exploration and expression.
Let's think about each of these in turn.

As mentioned earlier, play provides benefits for cognitive, social, emotional and physical development.  There needs to be a careful balance between student-initiated play and teacher-initiated experiences, in particular because play involves choice based on personal interests and therefore promotes agency.  Through play children construct meaning about themselves, their peers and the world as their ideas develop in the light of new experiences.  They also develop self-regulation through play.  During the time given for play, teachers initiate different learning experiences, both indoors and outdoors, and they interact with the students, responding in ways that will extend the learning, while monitoring and documenting this learning against individual developmental milestones.

The family is now seen as a crucial component of early inquiry, so encouraging positive relationships between home, family and school will provide a strong basis for learning.  Trust, agency and belonging are fundamentally important for child development, and building strong relationships are essential for an effective learning community.

Learning spaces
Effective early years education relies on the creation of safe, stimulating and inviting learning spaces that encourage exploration and learning through play.  Teachers need to pay attention to the structure, purpose and function of learning spaces including the provision of a range of materials as well as areas for various forms of play (role play, block play, the arts).  The learning spaces should be flexible, providing for many different learning experiences.  Students should be involved in the design and construction of these spaces and there should be choices for both group and individual play.  Displays in these spaces are important and should reflect the process of student learning.

Symbolic exploration and expression
Becoming literate and numerate is an important aspect of the early years, and one that evolves over time based on a student's developing abilities.  The development of understandings in language and maths is encouraged through interest- and inquiry-based explorations.

Here's a video of the EY areas in my old school.  What do you notice about the spaces and about teaching and learning that goes on there? 

Photo Credit: VisitLakeland Flickr via Compfight cc

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