In defence of topics
I have been working in the Early Years sector for 20 years, after spending 13 years as a children’s bookseller and 3 years training to be a primary school teacher. In that time, I have seen trends and fads go around and come around. Some endure, particularly those based on a sound understanding of child development and a solid pedagogy. Others are popular for a while then wither away.
The popularity of topics has waxed and waned throughout my career and those who oppose them do so vociferously. As a new practitioner I embraced topics wholeheartedly and I look back at my early files fondly, with their planning webs linking each topic to areas of learning, differentiation for ages and photos of the ‘finished’ product. Gradually, however, as I interacted with other practitioners and undertook training, I absorbed new ideas about child development and different philosophies, and consequently, my passion for topics dwindled. I discovered Froebel, the Reggio Emilia approach, loose parts, Te-Whariki etc. and my own pedagogy responded, developing into one that was more child-centred and predominantly play-based. I started planning in the moment before I knew that this was even a ‘thing’.
Topics are currently out of favour in much of the Early Years community. The arguments against them are strong and valid. Topics start from the adult and reflect adult interests rather than the child’s. Topics are based upon adult ideas of what a child needs to know and should be interested in. Topics do not support the concepts of child-initiated play supporting curious, self-directed exploration and experimentation. Topics are not child centric.
However, the arguments in defence of topics are worth considering. Children can be enthused and inspired by topic themes. They are introduced to new ideas and concepts they might not otherwise have encountered. Their interests can be supported, recognised and shared with staff and peers. Topics can provide structure and a sense of security for both children and practitioners, working with a familiar format and knowing what to expect.
For me, as in many areas, it is a question of balance; of avoiding extremes. I appreciate and advocate many aspects of the Curiosity Approach, for example, with its focus on authentic, natural materials and open-ended play, but at the same time, I recognise the value of plastic toys and resources, and my setting encompasses both. I start from the child: what do they play with and become deeply involved with? The resource’s worth comes from this, rather than the material it is made from.
A new philosophy?
More recently I have been pondering about the value of topics in Early Years settings. I have concluded that topics are not inherently bad, despite the backlash against them. It is how they are approached and used that makes the difference. For me topics should be developed in two ways:
Topics must engage and enthuse. If they don’t, they should be adapted or abandoned. Topics should not overwhelm the setting and be the only thing happening or available. Choice is essential. If a child is not interested in the current topic their own interests are still important and must be supported and validated. Know your children and what it is that truly fascinates them; is it the train or the track? Is it the rotation of the wheels or the way the track connects? Be guided by the child.
Topics can start with a new idea; a stimulus; an invitation to play. Sow a seed by reading a story or setting up a small world invitation and observe. Has the children’s interest been ignited? Would they embrace more content on the same subject? How can you devise opportunities that follow their curiosity in this new subject whilst encompassing their existing interests and fascinations? How can you do this in a setting where multiple children have very different interests and fascinations?
I recognise that children can and do enjoy some adult planned activities, especially those in which the adult is directly involved, but only as long as they are not forced to participate and are empowered to express their own ideas and thoughts in the process: no red flowers and green leaves imposed by an adult agenda.
This takes considerable skill on the part of the adult. It is all too easy for their own enthusiasm for a subject to take over and the agenda shift in their favour. Constant observation and reflection are essential to ensure that the child remains at the centre, rather than the topic theme. Go where the children lead; respect their ideas and follow their path. This may take you totally ‘off-topic’ but that is fine. It may lead to a whole new topic; that is also fine. In the Reggio Emilia approach children work on projects in a similar way. Projects come from the children but may be as a result of a stimulation provided by an adult. There may be one, primary project, or multiple projects. The key factor is that in all cases these projects are child-directed.
It is essential as a practitioner, that you constantly question your approach and ideas. No approach is necessarily wrong (or right). It is the intent and implementation behind the approach that count. Think about the why and how. Why are you doing it this way? How does this benefit the child? What is the impact? Don’t do something because that is how it has always been done, or because it is how you were taught, or because it feels safe and comfortable. Do it because you know that it supports the child’s learning, development and interests. Do it because it respects the child’s individuality and rights. Do it because it will challenge, involve and engage. Do it because it will inspire joy, awe and wonder.
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My name is Rebecca.