Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Symbolic exploration and expression in the Early Years

Communication is a basic human need and it can take many forms, for example written and spoken language, the visual arts, dance, music, mathematics and physical movement.  These symbolic language forms allow Early Years learners to explore the world and to construct meaning.  Developing a student's communication skills through listening, speaking and understanding, and using symbols, and generalising it to other contexts, develops and builds the students' cognition.  

Language is necessary for all learning as it allows for critical and creative thinking, and it is necessary for inquiry and collaboration, so that knowledge can be accessed and processed, conceptual understanding can be developed, and students can reflect on their ideas and experiences.

When students start school they already bring with them their own identity, expressed through the home and community languages, facial expressions, gestures and body language.  The home language, if different from the language of instruction at school, should be nurtured and developed, as it is critical for cognitive growth.  

Through play, young children also develop their receptive and cognitive abilities (listening, remembering and thinking), representational abilities (using symbolic systems, drawing and mathematical symbols) and relational abilities (playing with peers, sharing and taking turns, and respecting others).  Literacy is built so that students make meaning from written, viewed or oral texts and so that they can become multi-literate including using digital technologies.  Numeracy is built through play as learners make sense of the world by finding patterns, manipulating shapes, measuring, sorting, comparing, locating, counting and grouping, estimating, connecting, posing problems and solving them.  Visual arts, dance, music and movement also help students to explore, share and reflect.

When I go to schools on an authorisation or evaluation visit I often ask them for the language profile of the students (and sometimes the teachers as well).  I hope that this is reflected in the school's language policy, and that the policy is a living document referred to by teachers as they plan the learning and teaching.  We often use the expression "all teachers are language teachers" and this is also true of symbolic exploration and expression.  Teachers should be planning for opportunities so that students can develop literacy and numeracy in meaningful real-life, practical contexts, such as during circle and story time, and having students update displays such as date and weather charts in the classroom.  I'm also looking to see that the learning environments reflect the students' home and family languages and the host country language, not just the language of instruction.  This can be seen in labels around the classroom in different languages and scripts and heard in, for example, greetings during registration.  In Early Years spaces, both indoors and outdoors, I'm also looking to see that there are opportunities and spaces to include dance, reading, mark making and writing, drawing, building, physical movement, exploring various materials and imaginary and cooperative play.

The IB has identified various experiences and strategies that support the development of symbolic exploration and expression including:

  • playing games
  • rhymes, poems, stories and songs
  • counting patterns and sequencing,
  • drawing and mark making
  • block play
  • conversations
  • problem posing and problem solving
  • modelling language associated with inquiry
There should be many opportunities in Early Years classes for learning through play to explore and reinforce language and mathematical concepts, knowledge and skills.  Stories and role play can provide a rich opportunity to develop language comprehension, and songs and rhymes can help develop sentence structure and vocabulary, phonemic and graphemic awareness and memory.  Children's literature can also connect to maths, for example through positional language (on, under, behind etc) and vocabulary associated with size and number.  The illustrations in these books can also be a rich source for discussing shapes and patterns.

The following ideas are taken from The Early Years in the PYP publication:

  • routines and transitions can be good opportunities for language development
  • draw learners' attention to rhymes, sounds and language patterns
  • ask open-ended questions to promote problem-solving and mathematical thinking
Opportunities for using symbols
  • the arts are a great opportunity for developing communication as well as for learning about pattern, size, shape and quantity
  • provide opportunities to use a range of materials such as paint and clay
  • provide opportunities to explore different ways to express ideas, feelings and perspectives
  • puppets, role play and dramatic play are great ways to develop expression
Making Marks

  • show that signs and symbols communicate meaning
  • encourage invented spelling
  • model writing during the "morning message"
  • consider book making and other ways to write for an authentic audience
  • encourage students to read what they write and to explain their mathematical marks
  • acknowledge the many ways that students can use to represent their mathematical ideas
  • read stories from a variety of cultural contexts
  • encourage recounting and telling stories
  • use dual language books
  • provide various opportunities for students to read (by themselves, with a peer, with an adult)
  • read and tell complex stories that address numbers, counting, pattern and shape
Units of Inquiry
  • follow the learners' interests
  • provide opportunities for students to use oral language, reading and writing as they explore real-life situations
  • read books that tie in with the central ideas
  • gather data through observation and experimentation, and record these using emergent writing
  • encourage learners to record data by making marks or conventional symbols
  • set up a variety of play spaces such as construction, water, sand, dramatic play, mud kitchen, book corner and so on
  • provide opportunities for representing ideas through visual images, sound effects and role play
  • use open-ended materials such as blocks, toy animals, buckets, measuring tools and so on
  • include board games that encourage mathematical thinking
Finally, let's think how we can link symbolic exploration and expression with the approaches to learning and the learner profile:

Thinking skills - encourage students to observe carefully and to apply their skills and knowledge in unfamiliar situations or outside of school to develop open-minded thinkers
Research skills - record observations by drawing, charting, tallying and use emergent writing skills to present information in a variety of modalities to encourage risk takers and inquirers
Communication skills - taking on pretend roles and situations, understanding that mark making conveys meaning and communicating using a range of technologies and materials will encourage students to be knowledgeable communicators
Social skills - playing cooperatively in a group, sharing and taking turns will develop the learner profile attributes of caring and principled
Self-management skills - being aware of body-mind connections and using strategies to solve problems will help students be balanced and reflective

Throughout the Early Years, literacy and numeracy are key symbolic language forms that will support all learners to gain more highly developed understandings over time.

Photo Credit:  Picjumbo on Pixabay

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