What could be better than this?
“Children must be given access to a wide range of reading materials (books, poems, and other written materials) to ignite their interest.”
The statutory framework for the early years foundation stage
Not much! For young children their interest in the world around them often starts with the books we share and read with them. To meet someone who actually writes or illustrates books can be a truly inspirational experience. However, for many adults, authors included, being asked to engage a group of three, four or five year olds for any length of time can be the most daunting experience they could think of.
Having worked with under fives for many years, as a teacher and early years consultant, I have experienced those tumbleweed moments when small children simply vote with their feet! Here then are my top tips for planning and delivering a successful author visit to any early years classroom.
Part one: Telling stories.
#1. Location, location, location. Nursery age children in particular are most comfortable in a space they are used to being in. Take them out of their familiar surroundings and other exciting new things will soon eclipse your attempts to command attention! Try to meet the children in their own classrooms to minimise other attention grabbing goings-on.
#2. Attention spans. There are many rules of thumb for determining children’s attention spans. Most typically it is the child’s age plus 1, or the child’s age x 4. Whichever way you consider it, young children do not have long attention spans so if you are reading your story to them don’t expect to be doing it for more than around 15 minutes for a nursery group or 20 minutes for a reception group. After that they will probably start to fidget.They are also remarkably capable of simply wandering off, no matter how exciting you think you are being!
#3. Bring your character to life. Young children are immensely skilled at willingly suspending their disbelief and they love a puppet or character to engage with. Where they can be shy of unknown adults, a puppet gives them someone non-threatening to talk and listen to. Puppets can also gain their initial interest and help them understand the themes or emotions within a story. If you can illustrate, then drawing your characters will also be a great starting point. Children see being good at drawing as a highly prized skill.
#4. Keep it interactive. Songs, rhymes, chants, actions, sound effects, using other languages…all these engage young children and keep them involved in the story. There are many song tunes which children will know from an early age to which you can put your own words – try teaching new lyrics to twinkle, twinkle little star and see how easy it is!
#5. Question time! Ask any early years child a question and the responses can range from a detailed description of their new shoes to the more varied random thoughts that enter their heads; “How old are you?” and “Do you have a mum?” would be fairly standard fare. Instead, try asking them open-ended questions about their views on your characters’ behaviour or experiences. Older children may have prepared questions to ask you – try throwing questions back to them to so it is a more interactive experience.
You’ve made it alive this far!
But having survived reading to a group, you may be required to provide follow-up activities which can be tricky even for an experienced teacher when they don’t know the children involved. Fortunately the early years educational programmes can guide your plans once again:
“Providing opportunities and encouragement for sharing their thoughts, ideas and feelings through a variety of activities in art, music, movement, dance, role-play, and design and technology.”
Part 2: Sharing thoughts, ideas and feelings.
#6. Avoid templates if you don’t need them. Writing is a creative art, full of individuality and imagination. Killing individual creativity with identical outcomes does seem to be the complete opposite. It’s a personal view but if you can develop activities that allow children to show their own creative skills they will enjoy them so much more. Even if you are just making masks or hats try to create a minimal structure which children can adapt or add to as they like.
#7. Retelling the story. Children always enjoy retelling stories they hear and there are many different ways you can do this. Simply folding a sheet of A4 paper into a book and letting them stick in or draw/write about your characters or key events is an easy way of doing this. Alternatively you could create a stage using tape on the floor and help them to act out the story using key props. The “helicopter story” technique can be something children are used to doing – check with their teacher.
#8. Choices, Choices. Develop group activities rather than trying to involve all children in one follow up activity – you will probably find they will stay engaged for longer. For a class group of 30 reception children for example, you could have five groups of six children. If that is too complicated, then try to ensure children can make choices about the materials they use – again encourage individuality. Children can also find it frustrating to have to wait so make sure there is enough of everything!
#9. Use what is always there. Most early years classrooms have some fairly typical resources which you could ask to use for follow up activities. You will always find some sort of blocks or construction toys, sand and water trays and dressing up resources and props. Thinking about the theme or action in your story may prompt activities that these resources will be suitable for. If your character is a pirate, for example, you could use plasticene to build pirate ships that float in the water tray or build a full size pirate ship with the blocks.
#10. Use the adults! Be a bit bossy and ask the other adults to join in the activities and be part of them. Try to discuss your activity ideas before hand with the teachers as they will be able to ensure other adults in the room can support your session and make the activities work well for all the children.
So there you have it. With some careful planning and discussion you will have successfully created and delivered a great session which children will remember for years. You will have ignited their interest in story and sparked their imaginations and creativity.
What could be better than that?
©Chez l’abeille 2017