“What did you think of your dinner?” I asked a small group of children the other day, as part of an effort to hear their views at Kate Greenaway Nursery School and Children’s Centre. There wasn’t much response: one of the children said something like “umm” and some others started looking for things they would rather be doing: anything other than talking to me.
I was trying to get some of the older children involved in the development of our new Community Kitchen, which is about healthier, fresher meals, growing more vegetables in the nursery garden, and involving parents. I was not doing very well, but I remembered this episode whilst I was reading some old, but still telling, research about children and adults talking in the nursery. Writing in 1980, David Wood notes how often adults seem to float by children and either say nothing, or nothing of much help (“that’s lovely…”). On other occasions, adults set up groups and other situations to focus conversation on something, and it almost always falls absolutely flat, producing uninterested and passive children – just like the four-year-old who showed no enthusiasm for talking with me about their dinners.
Wood explains that the best way to start communication with young children is to attempt to “tune in”, spend time alongside them, and try to pitch conversation to match what they are doing and what they are interested in, building on shared experiences and knowledge if possible. The best conversation, in my experience, begins with companionship: being with a young child or a small group, joining in with what they are doing without taking over, and waiting. The current emphasis on consulting more with children is quite proper, but it seems to me that the dangers of innovative practice come when we focus on the fashionable and new, and forget what we have learnt from experience. This is the only explanation I can offer for Ofsted's decision to write letters to three and four-year-old children about the inspections of their nursery schools. This recently resulted in the children being given the following suggestion: "encourage your parents to help even more by developing your speaking skills and understanding of words through movement activities and play at home." (Read the full inspection report here.)
My attempts to get the children to express their opinions about their dinner would have worked much better if I had been less preoccupied with the idea of consultation and involvement. I should have thought more about successful ways to start and sustain conversation with young children. It was when I asked one of the most talkative of our four-year-olds “how did you find your dinner?” that I knew the game was up. She looked at me in a rather intense way before replying: “easy: it was on my plate.”
A shorter version of this article was published in Nursery World.