As anyone who is a regular reader of the blog will know, I am very passionate about getting children writing (especially boys). Over the past few years I have done lots of project work with individual settings and Local Authorities on improving Mark Making and Writing across a variety of settings.
So, I spend lots of my time thinking about, and watching, what motivates children to want to mark make and write.
Undoubtedly as in all things motivation is the key. If children aren’t motivated to write then they won’t. Often things that we think are a great idea as a writing inspiration don’t catch children’s imagination and therefore they are not bothered (usually finding that they need to do a poo just about the time you want them to write! It is an old trick but it always works as which one of us is going to take the risk of saying ‘no’ to an oncoming and urgent poo?!)
A topic based approach to learning can often cause disengagement when it comes to writing as opposed to a child led approach which usually results in a high level of interest.
Well, what is my brilliant idea for the writing area? Simple – get rid of it.
I know it sounds a bit drastic and some of you might have even given out an audible gasp as you read the last sentence, but from what I have seen across ALL of the settings I have done this with, it makes perfect sense and produces some amazing results.
Removing any explicit area is not something that you should do without some consideration and evaluation. So, the first question I usually ask when we are thinking about a ‘writing area extraction’ is ‘What can you do in the mark making/writing area that you cannot do anywhere else in your setting?’ (So far, no one has come up with an answer.)
The thing about having a mark making area is that you are making it a ‘destination activity’. If you are thinking about paint, or construction then it makes more sense to have an area(s) to go to build or create. But with basic skills, you want children to practise them everywhere. They should be part of what you do in EVERY area not something that you have to go to a specific place to ‘do’.
Of course if you are not keen on writing or not very good at it then you will just avoid that destination heading instead for construction or the scooters! If there was a range of mark making resources in the construction area and outside with the scooters then you would be far more likely to use them. Even if you weren’t rushing to pick them up, any adult playing/working with you would have far more opportunity to get you writing on the spot than they would if they had to say ‘How about we go to the mark making area and….’ [I sense another poo coming on!]
The flip side of that – and I see this an AWFUL lot – is that children who do like to mark make and write find themselves in the writing area for long periods of time on a very regular basis often having a lovely time producing the same sort of mark making again and again. Although children feeling accomplishment and success in a skill is brilliant for their self esteem and wellbeing (and should be encouraged), We also need to consider what those children are actually doing at the writing table (again) and how we can promote their self esteem whilst also taking their learning and experience forward.
If you are a reluctant writer and you are inspired to do a bit one day, you might be disappointed when you make it to the mark making/writing area to find that it is already full – of children who can write!
What am I suggesting? In the first instance you need to observe your writing area. This is best done several times a day over a period of time, especially during periods of Continuous Provision.
Who is in your writing area and what are they doing? More importantly, who isn’t in your writing area and what are they doing? Usually a profile quickly emerges of those that do and those that don’t.
Next think about your other areas of provision. How many of them contain opportunities to write? Not just a clip board and a pile of A4 paper in the construction area, do you have little books, scrap books, a small range of writing materials, prompts for writing in every area? I have seen prolific mark making as part of sand and water play and exploration, all be it slightly soggy at times!
Have you got mobile mark making stations or carriers? Everything from your humble Pringles tube covered in wrapping paper to a cutlery drainer will work. You can personalise carriers for individual children meaning that everyone (or just key children) has got their own to take wherever they go.
I have recently done some work using cardboard wine carriers that were personalised by the children – they worked really well.
Keep your eyes peeled in charity shops for a good old tea trolley. They make brilliant mobile mark making and writing stations both indoors an out.
You can also use writing belts and themed writing bags that children can carry with them so that you get a ‘mobile’ opportunities to write as well as ‘static’ writing opportunities in all areas.
In most settings, space is at a premium and the explicit areas of provision that you create should link directly to your summative assessment, as this tells you what your children need most in terms of support and challenge (see this Gap and Strength Analysis post for more information on this).
By making writing an explicit area we are discouraging children from seeing it as an integral part of their play and learning.
In all of the settings where we have taken away the ‘writing area’ and put writing opportunities in all areas and then assessed the results, we have seen no change at all in the mark making and writing of the children who were regulars in the writing area. Where we have seen the biggest change is with the children who never went near. Their engagement with mark making and writing significantly improved overnight and that engagement was sustained.
Staff also reported a huge increase in the number of opportunities for mark making and writing through play that presented themselves.
For me, when it comes to ‘Basic Skills’ in Early Years I consistently see the biggest successes with children’s engagement and learning in the environment when they are implicit not explicit.
I would urge you to look at your Mathematics and Reading areas in the same way as your Writing area.
I rarely see children in Mathematics areas actually doing Maths in the absence of an adult, whereas I see lots of practical maths experiences going on in Continuous Provision, when areas are enhanced with Mathematics resources. Mathematics areas are more often than not empty or used by children for role play.
When it comes to reading areas, how often do you see your reading area full of children reading? Children tend to like to read on their own or in 2’s and 3. Not in groups of 6 or 8. I observe more exploring of books and reading happening where children have small spaces to go and read in.
Think about creating a few ‘book nooks’ in your space rather than a large reading space that you will find used for role play or messing about! Also add some baskets of books to all of your areas of provision, so that adults and children can use them in their play and exploration.
I am a firm believer that it is as important to observe your environment and how it is working as it is to observe your children. We often spend a lot of time creating valuable profiles of our children, but rarely do the same with the space they are working in.
Now, that has given you something to think about on this stormy Saturday morning! Honestly, give it try. You can an always put the areas back (but my experience so far tells me you won’t). Just make sure that if you do make an Area of Learning more implicit than explicit that you have got lots of engaging linked resources in your other areas. Remember, engagement is the key!
Of course, if you would like me to come to your setting and work on this with you, you can stand a chance of winning me for the day for only £1. Until mid day on the 17th of January 2015 you can donate on my Macmillan Cancer Care Just Giving page here and the lucky winner gets a free visit from me!
Have a good if blustery weekend!
I’m very interested in your info from the conference you Mention. I am from the United States. I do. Have a writing area but much opportunity in all play areas to write. I love the idea of getting rid of the writing center completely and integrating it more as you suggest. I’ve got a small classroom so I have plenty of things I could add there instead. I also all planning to work on. Math and book center. I’m having the to many kids problem too. I would appreciate any info
You are willing to. Share.
Can I recommend the use of a good old fashioned tea trolley? They make the most remarkable writing trolleys and have been embraced by many a reluctant writer. We recently introduced them to our setting and the children just love wheeling them around. Argos sell plain white ones, then we customized them with gems!
I’ve never had a writing area in my current classroom but have had maths and reading areas. After hearing you speak last week my colleagues and I decided to get rid of them and had a mad moment of total upheaval and change on Friday after school. I must admit, I’m having minor palpitations about what our practice is going to look like after half term (no group work or set activities?!) but I’m also excited by the prospect of boys choosing to write (rather than being made to) and of our teaching and planning being more child led rather than activity driven. Argh! I know it’s best practice but it’s nerve wracking too, fortunately we have a very supportive senior management team!
Well done Annie! so great to hear of practitioners having the courage of their convictions.
It will be fantastic. You know it’s the right thing to do, so your practice and the experiences for the children in your care will be richer for that. Lucky children in your class.
Thank you Dinah! That was just what I needed to read right now, Sunday night dread is kicking in!
It will be soooooo great 🙂
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Hi, I’m being told that my expectations in reception are not high enough and have been given a target which is to show evidence that my children are writing smaller with writing on the line. to me this doesn’t seem important, I’m happy that they area choosing and attempting to write. what do you think of this? Is it that I have low expectations?
We have very high expectations at our school but I’ve never been given a target like this. From past moderations I’ve been through they seem to expect a certain level of neatness from children we have awarded exceeding to (It links to the physical development statement apparently). This is however at the end of the year (when results go in) and I wouldn’t expect many of my children to be doing this at this level right now. Perhaps this is what they are after?
I promote an ethos of do your best (it’s one of our school rules) and if a child’s writing was messy when they could do it neater I would grumble at them so they know they can’t get away with being lazy!
For most the fact that they are independently writing is far more important than how neat it is. Neatness should in my opinion be tackled once they are more secure and confident with their writing – too much value on it could demoralise them.
These expectations do seem more year 1 but if you can slot in some fun ‘handwriting’ activities or sessions that tackle these targets it would be working towards what they want without the same pressure on the children.
I hope that makes sense and helps…
It sounds like your administration is trying to satisfy parental or governmental demands rather than good practice with young children. Maybe they should take a look at the preschools in Finland or Sweden where children learn to write formally later. As Alistair’s article says, writing should be happening everywhere rather than in a writing or handwriting area. I like what Piaget said, “Children have real understanding only of that they invent themselves.” You certainly don’t have low expectations. You have expectations that focus more than the measurement and evidence of learning. You give value to learning rather than evidence of learning. It’s a different way of how you see the children. Politicians want evidence so that they can promote themselves and remain in power. Early years should be non-political!
This is a great article. Thanks Alistair! My friend, who was working in the Reggio Emilia preschools in Italy also talked about avoiding designated areas. She said that mark-making, writing and drawing were visible in all areas of the preschool. In fact the only designed areas were the atelier, a dress up and kitchen area, a construction area, the lunch room and the sleeping area. The real world integrates language, math, art, science, humanities, I.T. and physical education. The preschool should mirror society and be a safe, comfortable space for children and adults to research how the world works, who we are, how we express ourselves, how we organize ourselves, where we are in time and place and how we share the planet.
Well put Stuart! I am with you all the way…
I read this at the weekend and it screamed out to me, we have those children who were glued to the writing area and others who went nowhere near. I thought about the demands from on high to have such areas and decided to give it a go, deciding if I suggested it I would probably be met with resistance but if I tried it and proved it worked they might see the rational better. I spoke to my team this morning and they were very supportive so we started straight away. It will be gradual and there are more things to do but the quality and enthusiasm for writing has been amazing today from a whole range of children, the usual suspect and some of the most reluctant writers. Any tips on how to do the same with maths?
Glad it made sense Hannah! Good luck with the implementation. I will be posting more about some things I have done with settings and integrating Mathematics into provision so keep a look out.
Looking forward to it. I have started by changing area to a cafe promoting lots of aspects of numeracy at different levels and spreading the counting resources around. it was amazing to see them actually use them for some counting when they were somewhere else! I went to a meeting after school and was sharing this with other eyfs colleagues so expect a few more followers!
Maths will be everywhere. It’s not about the provision, it’s about you as a practiser identifying the mathematical thinking and experiences children are participating in and providing appropriate input and support.
Early years is full of brilliant mathematicians who have their mathematical thinking undermined, by school maths.
Look at what is going on in your classroom and develop the maths from there. The most obvious places are construction and role play especially for shape and measures as well as the more obvious counting and calculation.
Yes to everything that’s gone before. Why do we do most of what we do? To tick a box to please someone else? As for me, last week I saw the most ‘self chosen’ writing from boys in play for I don’t know how long week in our café. We have real food and they have to order it from the ‘staff’. No order no food, quite simple. Lots of writing, lots of happy children eating jam (or whatever they wanted to pretend it was) sandwiches. Oh yes and fine motor skills spreading butter, pouring the drinks and washing up. I like this site, its really useful. Thank you
Sounds great Alison – makes sense! Glad you enjoy the blog and that it has been of some use…
Wonderful blog! I agree with your ideas whole-heartedly. Over the past several years I have embedded literacy within my more traditional centers and I must say the amount of children participating in literacy-based activities has increased overall. It makes os much more sense and is the way little ones learn. Adults need to step back and stop trying to take so much control. Our job is to fill the environment with wonderful tools and opportunities and be their to guide and nudge, but allow the children to make the discoveries. Thank you for a refreshing post:) Be well!
Wise words Gina! Thanks for the comment.
I totally agree on bringing writing all around the setting, especially with the boys.. I have experienced model writing with some boys while they were building in the construction area and they were very excited about it and asked to share with the others too. I am cannot get rid of the mark making area though because it is still useful for good writers, but thank you for pointing out to the importance of observing if they are doing the same thing over and over again or not, this would be my next planned observation.
Thanks for your comment Mona. What I have found is that even without a designated ‘writing area’ more able writers find plenty of spots to write. The only thing you have to be careful of is that by saying this is ‘the writing area’ you are giving children the message that this is the designated place to write – even if there are mark making resources elsewhere. Good luck with the observation!
I love the ideas in this post. I think I’m am going to try out the writing bags and hunt for where the tool belts have got too! I do love the idea of a tea trolley too!!
BUT I can’t do away with my writing area (complete with elf door). In the past this has been the space where my (exceeding) able writers have sat for sustained periods of time and written whole pages of stories!
However, I can now see how threatening that area is for my less confident writers! So I’m going to enhance writing in my other areas as suggested above… Thank you for the inspiration!
Hi Rachel – your elf door sounds exciting! much the same as my reply to Mona, you just need to be sure what those more able mark makers are doing and also that you are not discouraging them from mark making/extended writing elsewhere, where they can be a great inspiration for other children who wouldn’t normally go near the mark making area! Keep your eyes peeled for a tea trolley – you will never look back!
As a leader of a pre-school toddler group, I wholey agree with not having a designated writing area.
If crayons and paper are left in the each area of role play, children are more inclined to pick up the crayons and use them, wheras, in a designated area, children who prefer other activities may be less inclined to use tools leading to effective writing skills.
So YES get rid of the writing area.
Yes, my experience supports this view too. However, We do maintain a writing area just to support children who love to sit and mark-make whilst also encouraging them to venture into other areas of learning as often as possible. The area based environment has almost become a way of storing resources in a logical and discoverable way.
Oh Alistair, you’ve done it again…
I’ve read this at work on a Saturday morning and now want to rush into our Pre-school Room and change everything! Even more tempting as it’s much more exciting than doing what I came in to do!
I know the feeling! There is always something more exciting than the job you have to do! Hold back till Monday!
We were talking about this just this week in our setting …… Well not get rid of the wring area, what would our early advisor say ! ( there a good idea) but having more mark making resources everywhere! Guess I’ll be observing our areas over the coming weeks and be quoting you Alistair ( even if the staff do think you are my best friend) . I’m off to donate to Mcmillian cancer care.
Fingers crossed with your Macmillan bid! I am sure any Early Years Advisor worth their salt would understand if you had no Writing area and if they didn’t you could explain to them what you have done!
After attending your conference on narrowing the gap in November I went back and got rid of the areas mentioned and really looked at embedding literacy and numeracy across all areas of provision in nursery and reception. We have had our ofsted inspection this week and the inspector commented on how he could see literacy and numeracy were prominent everywhere. Not only that but the children are making progress. So yes it works – we haven’t looked back.
Great news Catherine. Glad Ofsted recognised the great stuff that you are doing.
I have never understood the need for designated ‘areas’ like this as children never use them how the adult intended. In my experience they are there as ‘evidence’ that these areas of the curriculum are being planned for. I work in a preschool with 2 and 3 year olds and we encourage mark making with paint, playdough, chalk, pens, pencils in every activity. Our children make lists, write down phone numbers, write birthday cards, draw patterns, write on walls, the floor. By the time they move to our 3 and 4 year building, they are beginning to form letters and make tallies on chalkboards in the garden, they have the fine motor skills required to hold a pencil as they have played with, pipettes, tweezers, lego, puzzles, threading. So, yes, I agree. Get rid of your writing area!