The Famly Interview
Alice Sharp on Future-Proofing the Early Years

What we can do to make sure children's first five years prepare them for the next 80.
July 22, 2020
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Alice Sharp: The 5 key interview takeaways
  • Alice sees the need for more research and reading by Early Years educators. When we have a deeper understanding of pedagogical principles, it’s easier to turn that into real-life practice.
  • Today’s educators need to understand that the way children learn, and the way young brains are wired, have changed a lot over the last 10 to 20 years. Current pedagogies need to reflect this.
  • STEM education is a particular focus for Alice, and she sees those roots beginning in the Early Years. Children’s core curiosity, and the desire to solve problems and explore, lays a foundation for STEM learning later in life.
  • While we need to understand how children’s learning is changing, we also need to think about the world they’ll grow up in — that is to say, to adapt today’s teachings to prepare children for how the world will be in 15 to 20 years.
  • Through 20 years training Early Years educators, Alice realised that one of the most important aspects of training is making it accessible on educators’ terms. Through her Adventures with Alice training series, she’s found that online lessons are a good bet.

What’s playing with mud got to do with becoming a neuroscientist?

You’d best ask Alice Sharp. She’s looking at the big picture of the Early Years — how the work we do in those first five years really follows and impacts children through their lives, right down to the careers they follow.

After 30 years in the Early Years sector, Alice has worked in just about every role you could think of. She’s delivered master classes, training days and workshops for practitioners for nearly 20 years, focusing on how educators can continue learning through their careers, and how we can best help prepare children for their futures.

I caught up with Alice Sharp at this year’s Nursery World Show to talk about what her Early Years training series is focused on these days — and how we need to rethink our teaching to make sure we’re laying the best foundations for children that we can.

You can get some of the interview’s biggest insights in the clips below, or scroll to the bottom of the page to watch the full 14-minute interview.

How do we turn Early Years policy into real-world practice?

Alice says she’s not an academic, but she certainly does her homework. She believes that more reading and research helps Early Years practitioners turn policy into real-world practice. Having a deeper understanding of early years policies and philosophies, she says, makes it easier for practitioners to figure out how to translate those ideas into real life, in a way that really resonates with children.

While seminars and workshops have their place, Alice believes they always need to be grounded in concrete, real-world action. Every lecturer has to ask themselves, “what would this actually look like in practice?” Children’s brains are wired differently than ours, so we need to be proactive in putting these philosophies into their world.

What does “Meeting children where they’re at” mean today?

Early Years is about meeting children wherever they’re at — but that practise is different than it was even ten years ago, Alice says. She sees a growing gap in language and vocabulary learning, which she attributes to children’s increased use of social media, and working parents having less time to spend with their children.
Alice believes the sector needs to be more proactive in combating these development gaps, which often fall along socioeconomic dividing lines. To do so, she says, we need to start by recognising that the way children grow and learn has changed a great deal, perhaps even since the years many of us finished our training.

Carrying childhood curiosity through our lives

Around the 4:40 mark, Alice talks about how good Early Years education follows children their whole lives. In her Early Years training series, Adventures with Alice, she’s particularly focused about how educators can boost children’s exposure and interest in STEM fields.

Even in advanced fields like microbiology or civil engineering, Alice sees a common thread with children’s fundamental ability for curiosity — to find out how things work, and to look for new solutions to a problem. It’s here, she says, that Continual Professional Development (CPD) is huge for the Early Years. Working to hone our understanding of how Early Years pedagogies connect to advanced skills and grown-up trades help us guide children along those paths.

How do we implement STEM in the Early Years?

Alice thinks we need a big rethinking of STEM in the Early Years. From her research, she says that younger brains are increasingly wired for more incremental learning — focusing on a broad selection of topics for a shorter time, rather than really digging into one single thing.

Especially as adults shift jobs and career paths more often, Alice says today’s Early Years educators can help children by making sure STEM skills are a part of their grown-up toolkit.
This isn’t so much about drilling them on maths assignments, but rather about showing them how their natural curiosity can translate into STEM focuses. “They need to be exposed to awe and wonder,” she says.

Making room for messy play across the globe

Just after the 8-minute mark, Alice talks about how messy play has a big role in early STEM learning. It’s an easy way to make science fun and accessible for children, and it can be as simple as mixing up a mug of hot cocoa, to understand how a basic chemical compound comes together.

Alice’s go-to messy play activities

So what are Alice’s go-to messy play activities? She gets into that around the 9:15 timestamp. One of her favourites is what she calls ‘clean mud’ — mixing up shredded paper, scented tissues, soap and water to create an indoor-safe mush. Outdoors, she favours the classic mud kitchen, providing utensils like potato mashers to help children interact with different materials and textures.

She says that involving children in rich, multisensory experiences opens up more brain pathways, and encourages the curiosity and experimentation that they carry through their lives.

Do we think enough about the world children will grow into?

It’s one thing to shape our Early Years approach based on the world today — but the big challenge, Alice says, is shaping it based on the world that will be. If our goal is to lay strong foundations for children’s futures, we need to think about what that future’s going to be, and what skills might be valuable in 15 or 20 years.

A lot of that hinges on Early Years educators doing more research and more reading, Alice says. And when we give lectures and seminars, we need to send people home with reference materials — they’ll learn more, and retain those lessons longer, if they have something to look back on.

Making EY training accessible for all

Around 12:30, Alice gets into how she’s training Early Years educators today. She says she’s not a huge enthusiast about technology, but she recognises its use for her training program, Adventures with Alice. She became a primary teacher 30 years ago, and has been doing Early Years training for about 20 years. Every course she does, she had feedback saying, “I wish my team could have been here too to learn this”.

She wanted to get the Adventures with Alice program online to make her course more shareable, and to let people access it when they have time. Improving training within the sector starts with making it as accessible as possible.

The full Alice Sharp interview

Here’s the full interview with Alice Sharp, where she and I discuss:

  • Why Early Years educators need to do more reading and research
  • The difference between understanding pedagogy and bringing it into meaningful classroom practice
  • How children’s learning has changed in recent years, and why Early Years educators need to respond to that
  • How children’s fundamental curiosity can translate to things like neuroscience and engineering later in life
  • What we can do to lay a learning foundation that includes STEM fields
  • The connection between messy play and STEM knowledge
  • Global and cultural attitudes toward messy play — it’s not the same across the board
  • Her go-to messy play activities
  • Whether or not we think enough about the world that today’s children are going to grow up in
  • How we can make continued Early Years education more accessible through the internet

The big ideas

download pdf
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Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.

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UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

The full recommendations from a working group of over 70 nursery chains in the UK.

Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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