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An irresistible invitation to learn


Tuesday 11 December 2018

At this time of year, we can get caught up in making and doing and performances. The sentiments in this post apply all year, but this is a timely reminder of the importance of getting silly, the value of laughter and having fun!

I recently attended the Cork Autism Conference and listened with wonder and awe to the speakers, especially Gina Davies, speech and language therapist, Attention Autism Programme. Gina’s talk inspired me to go back to my playschool and discuss it with my colleague Laudine. This talk was relevant to every child, not just those with autism. If we could create an atmosphere like Gina described in our playschool, all our children would benefit in so many ways.

Here are a few of the ideas from Gina’s talk that inspired us:

  • Learning about the world should be because we want to rather than an act of compliance.
  • We want our children to develop a love of learning.
  • We want to have mutual sharing between educator and child.
  • We want to give the children an irresistible invitation to learn.
  • Boredom is very stressful – it makes children want to break the rules and misbehave.
  • We want to make the work fascinating!

So how do we do this? Well, be playful, make it worth the effort and LAUGH!

The laughter is an integral part of the model – laughter builds relationships, improves social skills, contributes to well-being and to good mental health. Gina said “When things get tough, don’t get serious – get silly”!! So now we had the theory, all we had to do was put it into practice. This was not difficult at all. After all, we had a great group of little boys and girls who just adored laughing. Gina told us that the average child laughs 200 times a day and our children were no exception.

One thing we very quickly learned was that when we, the educators, were happy and relaxed and not afraid to laugh, it became infectious and everyone was going around with a smile on their faces. One example is playing in the autumn leaves. Our playschool is out in the country with lots of big trees. Every October, the children spend many happy hours playing in the leaves. But this year was the best fun ever because not only did the children have fun but also the educators and even the parents joined in and everyone laughed together. Such a feeling of joy and happiness radiated from the children and the adults. Nobody wanted to go home – they were all having way too much fun.
We had squeals of delight and unbridled joy as everyone jumped and swam, buried each other, played monsters, made it rain leaves, played “leaf tag” – I could go on and on. Playing in the leaves was an irresistible invitation to learn.

So what did the children learn? They learned to play together, to respect each other’s space, not to be too rough or hurt anyone. They learned to recognise other children’s wishes – not everyone likes to be buried in leaves but some can’t get enough of it! They learned to run, jump, wriggle, throw, they used their arms and legs in all sorts of imaginative ways. They learned to make-believe, role-play, communicate with each other and the adults. They learned about autumn in the process and in a much more fun and meaningful way than sticking leaves on a sheet inside.

Laudine remembered another example of how the children provided their own irresistible invitation to learn. She was in the vegetable garden with some children. At this time of year, the vegetables have been harvested and the garden is just for digging in. Some boys were digging trenches, finding worms and treasure, chatting and laughing and really working up a sweat.

There was a pile of sticks by the hedge which had been used to stake the peas last summer. One boy stuck the sticks into the clay, saying “I’m making a forest”. Earlier that week we had walked to a local wood called Rahin Wood. For the next few days the children could be heard chatting and laughing about how they were planting Rahin Wood and all the fun they were having. “Don’t knock down Rahin Wood”, Laudine heard Shane laugh! These children were learning about their world because they wanted to. Their work was fascinating, they loved what they were doing and there was mutual sharing between educator and children.

Another example of this irresistible invitation to learn was gathering the THOUSANDS of apples during storm Ali. Everyone worked together while singing our autumn songs. A really easy way to learn songs amid a lot of laughing and joy, and a huge sense of achievement.

Returning briefly to what inspired me to provide these opportunities for our children. Another inspirational speaker at the autism conference, Dr. Luke Beardon, talked about how children with Autism have unbelievable senses and can experience sheer joy in processing. In his opinion, this can be mistaken for a sensory dysfunction and neurotypical people cannot have empathy with what it is like. Giving our typically developing children the opportunity to experience their world in a highly sensory and hands-on way can go a long way to help them feel this sense of joy, and in the long run learn to empathise with their peers who have autism. Observing our children at play demonstrates the truth of what Gina said – how being playful is certainly worth the effort, and this enables children to develop a love of learning for life. Learning is a process, not a result and we must value that process.

When adults are enthusiastic, involved and value the process they inspire curiosity in children and learning becomes automatic. They are given an irresistible invitation to learn.

Most important of all – we have all learned to value laughter!


Caitriona Cooney, Happy Days, Kinnegad

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