Linking quality to children's interests

Earlyarts continues its exploration into the world of quality in early years creativity with an engaging Q & A with London Early Years Foundation (LEYF) CEO and Earlyarts board member June O'Sullivan.

Q. Is quality important when it comes to young children's creativity?

Short answer is yes, because of the way children learn. Children don't learn in any linear style but more in a relative way and the more creative the engagement and the environment is, the better. Children learn through their interests and, if you can learn through these, you have a more effective learning outcome. They concentrate more, listen more and have more fun, acquiring additional language additional skills and growing knowledge.

Q. How do we know what excellent quality practice looks like?

For London Early Years Foundation (LEYF) at least, quality is driven by action research, which is when you start to question yourself and start to question the environment of what is happening with our children. For example, structurally we looked at whether children really care whether the staff are male or female and what they see as being important in the role of the male staff. At the moment 8% of our staff are male which is higher than the actual statistics from the government of 2%.

We also asked why men are important in the early years settings. In the exercise children had to choose a photo. We gave them photos of all the staff and photos of stereotypical activities e.g. science, sport, etc. and they had to decide which members staff they wanted to put them against. Interestingly they didn't choose the men to do rough and tumble or football, rather they chose the men to be the superheroes. Cooking was fairly even, interestingly, but other comments we received were that children were fascinated when one of the male staff came in wearing pink, and another one was wearing an earing.

Therefore we found out that the two things that drove their narrow thinking were broader societal issues, i.e. colour and jewellery. So this is one way to gauge quality; through the eye of the practitioner and the child.

Quality is not about going on endless courses, not about buying fancy goods, it's about understanding how and what you're doing with your children. It's the conversations, the experiences, and how you make those more aligned to their thinking and their interests. Be more imaginative - if you're not an imaginative person yourself you should listen to the children!

At LEYF, children run meetings to ascertain what they're interested in; leading discussion from the point of view of the children; enabling the children to drive the staff's imagination. It gives us a better perspective from the children and what they're capable of. People can misjudge and be unambitious with their children, and that must be blown out of the water. For example some people assume that because they're small they can't know anything. The fact is the children are capable of knowing and doing all sorts of things if you provide them with staff who extend their thinking in a creative way. Sometimes you need to take away the toys, to make staff be more creative in their practice.

It would be great to hear Earlyarts members' views on children's cultural capital. We know the gap between class in society is often brokered by that cultural capital. One feature of this is the concept of language and language acquisition which allows for a bigger way of accessing the world. We should be thinking more creatively about taking elements of the broader arts practice into the way we think about, and the way we work with, children at the foundation stage. I would like a culturally smart nursery.

Q. What ideas about quality practice did you take from the UnConference?

The UnConference highlighted how we can influence people's thinking to take ordinary things like story telling painting, food and cooking and give a slight twist on it, so some of the activities at the UnConference were good to help people see this from a slightly different perspective. We need more of these approaches to be woven through the foundation stage to underpin the importance of that in all kinds of environments. The point of the UnConference is to give a twist on what is considered 'normal' practice, introducing techniques and approaches that allow cultural capital to develop, allow for children and staff to feel more confident about the things that matter, and still take children into that sphere and develop things such as language.

We need many more of these conversations. To weave some of these things into daily practice so people can advance children's learning using creative ways of looking at things that do not have to revolve around expensive or inaccessible forms of art. For example, my son was obsessed with washing machines as a child, so to learn the alphabet we would chant in the washing powder aisle in Sainsbury's, B for Bold, A for Ariel etc.

People in early years sometimes associate the arts with the BIG arts such as ballet, and opera, and it's important to link some of the more accessible artforms within children's creative frameworks, such as movement and singing.

June O'Sullivan is CEO of London Early Years Foundation and an Earlyarts Board Member.