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The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) is a familiar curriculum for most Early Years practitioners in the UAE. The EYFS was designed to be play-based, however, parents and schools have become increasingly focused on targets and learning outcomes. This can put pressure on schools to place very young children in traditional classroom settings rather than in an environment created for play.

Early childhood philosophers such as Dr Maria Montessori (1870- 1952, Lev Vygotsky (1896- 1934) and Jean Piaget (1896-1980) have extolled the virtues of enabling environments and play-based exploration for over a century. Today, most experts in Early Years education understand that learning is best achieved when children communicate with each other, sharing their understandings, feelings and knowledge.

At Ranches Primary School (RPS), we consider the environment itself as the best teacher. Providing an interesting and ever-changing environment for children to explore is an ideal way to develop their curiosity, provide opportunities for them to ask questions and to talk about things they have discovered.

When setting up an Early Years setting, practitioners should stand back and ask questions such as ‘How experimental is our environment?’ and ‘To what extent do children experience flow, immersion, and unconscious concentration?’ The aim is to create an environment where education will be almost inevitable.

One of the most important characteristics of the best Early Years settings is the use of natural and neutral tones. The calming colours of nature, greens, blues, browns and creams are most conducive to a calm and receptive mood. Bright, colourful and cluttered settings are thought to be a factor in the cause of hyperactivity and inability to concentrate in some young children.

One way to create an innovative play-based environment is to explore unusual arrangements for furniture. Cupboards and shelves positioned flat against the outer classroom walls can convey a hard look and do not send a positive message to encourage children’s engagement. Positioning furniture at angles, on the other hand, conveys a welcoming invitation for children to come and engage with a comfortable, welcoming space. We enjoy sourcing furniture items from garage sales and flea markets because children prefer cosy seating and familiar ‘home furnishings’ to the more traditional classroom furniture.

At RPS, we are always searching for interesting items that can be used in the classroom to stimulate a child’s curiosity; an Arabic jug, blue stones, miniature logs, and large shells were sourced from

nearby souks and were offered as an alternative to the traditional primary coloured plastic fruit and veg. These new and intriguing items were placed on ‘invitation tables’ outside the classroom as an enticement for children to enter the environment. Placing a collection of interesting and intentionally organized materials in a location visible from the entrance sparks a child’s curiosity. Igniting children’s motivation to come in, these evocative objects send a message of welcome to entering children, making them feel secure in the transition from home to school.

By trying to provide our children with the very best of everything, we may be unwittingly overstimulating them. Offering just a few dinosaurs in a basket or a small pile of mobilo can have a huge impact on engaging children and maintaining their interest. It is also recognized that using non-representational (open-ended) items such as log discs for plates or pinecones for food is very important as it exercises the brain’s frontal lobes responsible for the development of imagination.

Many Early Years practitioners are now using small ‘provocations’ within the environment. Provocations are experiences that are set up in response to children’s interests and ideas. When a practitioner sets up a provocation, she is providing hands-on exploration for children to practise, test, construct and deconstruct their ideas and theories. Good provocations motivate children and develop concentration, independence, social interaction, and higher order thinking.

Provocations can be simple, complex, or super complex. Simple provocations are those with essentially one function, complex, those with two, and super complex, those with more than two. For example, water in a tray is a simple provocation. If the practitioner adds some dinosaurs, it becomes a complex unit. Adding some rocks and plants creates a super-complex unit. The more complex the materials, the more play and learning they provide.

Here, one practitioner at RPS describes how she developed a simple provocation in response to the children’s interests.

‘The children came up with the idea of a car wash after I’d put out some bubbles and water for them to splash with when it was hot. The children were observed putting their scooter wheels into the water tray ‘for cleaning’. So, I added a few sponges, a till and some writing materials. The children then spent about 20 minutes in dramatic play, interacting with each other and developing new vocabulary. Some children demonstrated how to take turns, and some discussed the concept of paying with money and writing receipts. Very little adult guidance was needed during their play, however, in subsequent sessions, an adult gently prompted the children to explore questions related to capacity and materials.’

Learning is a natural process that develops spontaneously. When we place our trust in the child, we are often surprised at the immense amount of learning that takes place through the child’s interaction with his or her world.

At RPS we believe that children learn best when they are free to move their bodies throughout the day. They should not be constrained to desks. For children to really benefit from access to schools, from the age of four or five, the environment needs to remain focused on fostering a child’s natural curiosity through play to ensure he or she becomes a life-long learner.

By: Samantha Steed MEd, BA (QTS) is the Principal at Ranches Primary School, Dubai.