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EYFS Provision: Going with the 'Flow'...

When it comes to Early Years provision for play-based learning, there are many elements that have to work together to support, facilitate and enhance children’s learning opportunities. So how do we know when we have got our environment, our provision, our teaching right? For me, it’s that indefinable moment when everything comes together and, as leaders and practitioners, we can see: purposeful engagement; enjoyment from children and adults; and ‘light-bulb moments’ of inspiration happening all over the classroom. Sometimes, we can just feel that we have really got it right and everything we and the children are doing is connected in a cohesive educational whole. This is indicative of ‘flow’.

‘Flow is the theory of optimal experience - the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great costs, for the sheer sake of doing it.’ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

In recent years, the onus has been on us as Early Years practitioners and leaders to plan and create a physical environment in order for this to happen. There is a wealth of information regarding enabling environments, tailoring provision to meet children’s needs and personalising learning for all. What tends to happen is that schools invest heavily on resources and infrastructure to facilitate this learning – they buy lots of educational toys and build outdoor learning equipment. However, with budget restrictions limiting this investment, perhaps it’s time to actually go back to basics and consider how our pedagogy can create a ‘flow’-rich environment in early years.

The first consideration, I would suggest, would be the use of our adults: our most valuable resource. When do adults need to interact with children and when is that interaction interference in children’s play? Adults are a vital part of the enabling environment in Early Years, but sometimes it can be difficult to know when to stand back and observe, when to speak or stay silent, or how and when to interact. And, of course, the moment can be lost if we spend time weighing up the appropriateness of our actions. Observation of practice is subjective because our actions and what we see can be different to what someone else would do. This differs according to each child, each moment, and each practitioner.

I believe that the answer is to build in reflective practices. This enables us to think about decisions we make about our interactions and interventions. We can think about why we acted in certain ways, the outcome achieved, and whether it was the best course of action in that moment. 

Talking over issues like this a coach or our peers allows for reflection on different options or comparisons with other people’s strategies. Video footage can help unpick scenarios and move our understanding forward. If we can create a depth of understanding about how children learn, the value of play and developmental appropriateness, each time we choose to intervene (or not) will make a difference to the development of our children.

‘Development Matters’ advocates a traditional cycle of observation, assessment and planning to harness moments of curiosity, puzzlement, effort or interest – that ‘teachable’ moment for practitioners to seize and make a difference. This cycle needs to be used in real time. Practitioners are ensuring that they are aware of the learning needs of individual children (observation), thinking about what it tells us about the child (assessment), and being ready to respond (planning).

Children become deeply engaged in activities if they are playing and selecting activities for themselves. The role of the adult is to observe and wait for the moment that will make a difference. The skilled practitioner uses that moment to ‘teach’ the ‘next step’ as appropriate for the individual. Every interaction should involve observation, assessment and planning. That leads to an understanding that the best interactions cannot always be planned for in advance, the best interactions happen when we respond to the child’s interests and efforts. The difficulty with this, of course, can often lie in recording: if we are constantly recording observations, it can limit our interactions with the children. The educational system we are working within has driven us towards a belief that we have to have ‘evidence’ for our every judgement and that therefore we need to plan specific activities to artificially generate this.

If we return to pedagogy and the theory of flow – and indeed our basic understanding of how children’s minds work – we cannot help but conclude that all children are naturally keen to explore and learn. Our role, therefore, is continuous facilitation and support to enable this to happen at each and every possible moment.  However, this does not automatically need artificial activities or written plans.  So what, then, does this look like in practice?

The development of continuous provision enables children to use resources to develop their learning in the absence of an adult. The resources do not need to be continuously available, indeed, they shouldn’t be, as this can mean the environment becoming stale and underused. We can then link the resources themselves to assessments, levelled around the ability of the children. This is enhanced with open-ended resources that will encourage investigation, exploration and thinking, as well as resources linked to children’s interests that will encourage engagement.

It’s not as simple as finding a few toys and resources that you know the children will like, of course. Thought needs to be given to the level of challenge you are enabling. This could and should be implicit, which will happen organically if you have linked the type of resources available to your assessment. The important thing to remember here is that if you are planning for all children to have to complete a specific challenge, this becomes explicit challenge, which then becomes adult-directed and not child-initiated play.

Observing, assessing and planning ‘in the moment’ involves the co-creation of a learning journey. This observation and interaction with the children, as they pursue their own interests and move their own learning on, can look too fluid and unfocused. However, designing provision in this way can lead to truly deep, personalised learning; happy, engaged children; and stress-free adults. This is the perfect combination for the magic of ‘flow’ to happen.

Originally published in Headteacher Update: 

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