I did my Diploma in Children's Services as a mature age student, after over 25 years of teaching and interacting with children of all ages. The day I was inspected at my workplace, my supervisor commented on the effortless way that I extended the children's play.
'That's experience,' she said, smiling knowingly. 'You can't teach that.'
Well, maybe that's true- or maybe it's not. What can I share with mums, dads and carers about extending play?
I think I have always looked at play through the eyes of the children first. If you don't have enough of a relationship with the child to see his perspective on the world, you won't be able to pick up on where to go next.
Take 'Jerry', a very bright, alert 5-year-old who loved books and who often had trouble 'letting go' of family members in the morning. He walked up to me in the yard on the very day I was being inspected and proclaimed, 'I can spell Mum. M, U, M!'
What would you say and do next? Praising Jerry's new skill is instinctive, but knowing whether extending on it will enhance his learning or overload him with unrealistic expectations requires an understanding of this particular child's nature.
So, knowing Jerry's love of all things literary, and knowing that he'd been writing his name for some time and had a pretty good grip on the rest of the alphabet too, I said 'That's amazing, Jerry. Can you write it as well?'
He promptly crouched down and wrote 'MUM' in the sand at the edge of the sandpit, then looked up at me with pride in his eyes.
Do we go on from there, or praise it and leave it? This is preschool, not 'big school', remember. This is still 'play'.
Know your child! Knowing Jerry's close connection to his family and knowing that he loved a challenge, I said 'Brilliant! What about 'dad'? Do you know how to spell that?'
He shook his head.
I had no doubt he was able to go on from here, but respect for his play required checking out whether that's where his head was this morning. 'Do you want me to show you?'
I told him the letters, both sounding and naming them, and he immediately wrote them in the sand by himself. We smiled and celebrated his achievement together, reading and sounding out the words.
Is that all?
Some of the other preschoolers had come over to watch what we were doing by now, and Jerry showed them his words proudly as he continued writing in the sand with his fingers. Would you take the other children's interest to mean they wanted the same information, or would you consider it 'lesson over'?
Will every 4- to 5-year-old child be interested in how to spell and write 'mum' and 'dad', and ready to learn it? (Look, up there- it's a flying pig!) No way. So no, you don't keep up the intentional teaching- you shut up and watch what the other children do, waiting for a cue.
As we talked to the others about what we'd been doing, it soon became clear that they were far less interested in the words themselves than they were in the concept of making marks in the sand with their fingers. I sat back and watched for a while as they experimented.
One child decided that he wanted to draw a huge rocket ship, but became frustrated because he ran out of space. So I just quietly moved over to a much larger area and started smoothing the sand out with my hands to make a bigger 'drawing board'. I didn't have to say a thing- the kids 'got it' at once, and soon lots of them were using the enormous area for art. Some even started organising their own 'drawing boards' in other areas of the sandpit.
It was easy enough to feed the children snippets of information about rockets as they drew, and to diffuse ownership disputes over the original rocket picture by asking 'where is the rocket going?' and diverting them into other parts of the solar system. Soon we had planets, stars, moons, Transformers, Superman... and a large group of children co-operating and admiring each other's work.
When we went inside, I 'fed' their interest some more by going to the storeroom for all the books on space I could find. Later that day I got out the cardboard boxes and masking tape so they could build spaceships (and even got a satellite from one adventurous builder). A few days later when the 'space' interest was still going strong, I made a space suit dress-up out of some left-over insulation material with a plastic food tray (from some supermarket packaging) for the clear visor in the helmet. That led to talking about air, breathing, things that lived under water where there was no apparent air... that led to sharks, crocodiles and things that bite... We'd come a long way from 'I can spell mum'!
So what are the basic principles of extension of play?
1. KNOW your children. Only by knowing their natures and circumstances can you be sensitive to their readiness for learning. A less 'literary' child than Jerry may well have found my request to write as well as spell 'mum' daunting and discouraging.
2. RESPECT their preferences. Keep giving choices about whether they continue along the path you can see, and be prepared to divert or abandon ship altogether. Showing me he could write 'mum' could easily have been enough for Jerry without the challenge of a new word.
3. KNOW WHEN TO BUTT OUT and just watch for your cue- over-enthusiasm for intentional teaching can be your enemy. Children need to find their own point of stimulus in an activity, such as the concept of writing in sand. Once they've found that perspective of interest, give them time to experiment; you can drop enhancements in when and if you think they're needed, like the 'larger drawing board' I created when I saw frustrations arising.
4. MODEL ideas. Talking is overrated. Children learn from each other largely by watching, not being told- use this for your own advantage. I only had to clear a 'drawing board' with my hands once to 'teach' this skill to the whole group.
5. DIVERSIFY TO ENGAGE EVERYONE. Every interest can be diversified into art, every interest can be reflected in literature, every interest can be turned into a dramatic play experience to expand on children's experience of the things they're curious about. I had children making space collages and discovering the joys of making 'space dust' by drawing with glue then sprinkling the page with glitter and tipping off the excess. I had other children lying in a corner with a book asking which word said 'satellite' (true). I had children marching round the room, stiff-limbed, wearing a space suit and pretending there was no gravity. I had children in block corner making more rockets. There was something for everyone.
6. CASUALLY DRIP-FEED RELEVANT INFORMATION. You never know what they'll pick up on. But be prepared for a lot of your input to fly away on the wind! You won't know if they're interested in your extension unless you put it out there.
7. CHERISH THE RED HERRING. Those crazy interjections aren't signs of a lack of focus or understanding- they're indicators of interest and learning readiness! The kid who drew a Transformer in space was ready to go to box construction and see that masking tape could be used to make 'joints' that moved. Red herrings are how our interest-based programmes grow into learning webs.
Sure, being able to do all this instinctively is a product of experience. Practise doing it, not saying it; practise dropping little bits of information and then zipping your lip; practise watching for your next cue. But above all, know your kids!