– By Máire Corbett, Early Childhood Ireland
I was in Derry recently. I love wandering around places with my camera. I’m always on the lookout for quirky little details, and other features that catch my eye. Sometimes these make me smile (like the Derry girls mural); sometimes sad (like the still evident legacy of sectarianism in Northern Ireland) and sometimes make me think… like this plaque I noticed above the doorway of the Verbal Arts Centre. This lovely red-brick building is located on a corner site on the Walls of Derry and was formerly the First Derry National School, opened in 1894.
The plaque reads: To Imagine, To Create, To Learn. Since I saw this, I’ve been thinking about it. At all stages of the journey of education, we focus on learning. What children learn, how they learn, how we support learning, how we assess learning and how we demonstrate that learning has taken place.
Are we starting in the wrong place? I read something years ago along the lines of just because something has been taught, doesn’t mean it has been learned. That resonated so much for me, especially in relation to maths!
I wonder, should we reflect more on how we can use imagination as the starting point for young children’s learning? How about if the materials we have in our settings are considered in the light of how they support children to use their imagination, rather than purely what these materials can teach? In our interactions can we encourage children to imagine, to wonder and to make meaning in this way? If children can explore and think, as Aistear suggests, through the prism of imagination and creativity how much richer could children’s learning be? My colleague Kathleen Tuite also wrote about imagination lately in her Scéalta blog post here.
While I had my own setting, when pieces got lost from the puzzle tray type jigsaws, I left the remaining pieces out for children to play with. In hindsight, that was where the real fun began. I didn’t know about loose parts then, but that is what the pieces became. Instead of the focus being on ‘learning’ what piece went where, and slotting each one into the correct place, the children could really engage with the pieces. The conversations became about what kind of tractor this was. The children shared stories about what kind of tractor they had at home. We chatted about what animals they had on their farm and on other farms they knew. Tales were shared about ambulances, and Garda cars children had seen in the town and the sound of the fire engine and when someone they knew got a new car. We heard of the names of pets at home or at Granny’s house and the man down the road who has a dog who barks a lot. Of course, some of these conversations happened when using the play tray, but when the main aim moved from finding the correct space to fit the piece into something richer happened. Children could use their imagination more and became more creative in the process. And for me, that is much deeper than merely popping a jigsaw piece into its own slot.
This reminds me of Berkley Professor, Alison Gopnik’s findings which she outlines in her book The Gardener and the Carpenter. She outlines (pg 175) what happened when children were shown what a toy can do and what happened when they could explore it themselves in their own way and their own time. When children were shown what to do, they did that, but when left to their own exploration, or the adult ‘accidentally’ found something the toy could do, they discovered many more functions that the toy could do. She says, ‘Teaching seemed to discourage the children from discovering all the possibilities the toy had to offer.’ Earlier in the book (pg 36) she says ‘Ironically, in a society that values creativity and innovation more and more, we provide fewer and fewer unfettered opportunities for children to explore’.
So, in pondering that old plaque over the door of that old school in Derry, I am reminded of the Loris Mallaguzzi quote we’ve heard many times over the past few weeks in our explorations of the Reggio Emilia Approach ‘Nothing without joy’. If we start with imagination and creativity, the learning takes care of itself in the form of a deep, joyous experience for children.