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!