The Famly Interview: Alistair Bryce-Clegg

We talk child-led learning, continuous provision, and much much more.
Alistair famly interview
July 17, 2019
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Alistair Bryce-Clegg: The 5 key interview takeaways:
  • Intergenerational care has a huge benefit on key social skills for the children, partly because they just get so much one on one time with interested adults.
  • Before you start your own intergenerational journey, think about the activities, select the right adults, and consider how you’ll approach bereavement.
  • For Alistair, child-led learning is key. But you need to strongly self-reflect to find the right definition for your own practice.
  • Assess your continuous provision by asking yourself ‘What’s my expectation for play here?’. Open-ended resources are essential.
  • Play is the universal language of children. We cannot ignore that drive to play and our policy needs to reflect that better.

Alistair Bryce-Clegg is fast becoming one of the most important figures in the early years.

Consultant. Teacher. Author. Trainer. TV star. Educator. Play-Lover. Alistair lives and breathes early years. He’s written over 20 books, and loves nothing more than being back in a setting, helping staff get the most out of their provision.

That’s why we jumped at the chance to sit down for a chat with him at the latest Childcare Expo in Manchester. We talked about his recent TV escapades on Old People’s Home for 4-Year-Olds, child-led learning, continuous provision and so much more.

If you’re ready to settle in and watch the full interview, just click right here and you’ll be transported to the bottom of the page where you can find the full 22-minute video.

But if you like your Alistair Bryce-Clegg fix more bite-sized, here’s our breakdown of the key takeaways from the interview and a few of our favourite clips.

What is child-led learning?

We hear a lot about child-led learning these days, but do you really know what it means for your setting?

Alistair challenges you to really define what it means in your context, with your environment, your resources, your team and your children. We do that by taking the time to build a definition together with our staff, and then reflect on your day to day practice to see if you really embody it.

Continuous provision

Following on from our discussion about child-led learning we came to one of Alistair’s favourite topics – continuous provision.

Starting at around 10:00 in the full video below, you can hear what he has to say about building the perfect environment to support learning. He challenges you to ask ‘What’s your expectation of play?’ and to consider how an environment will support learning in the absence of an adult.

You’ll also hear him talking about the real-life example of a small world farm play area, and how a realistic understanding of how children actually play, mixed with some more open-ended materials, can help you provide a much more enabling environment.

Lessons from Old People’s Home for 4-Year-Olds

Last year, Alistair got the opportunity to work as the early years expert on the groundbreaking Channel 4 program Old People’s Home for 4-Year-Olds.

Other than learning to keep off Twitter when the programme was airing, Alistair told us he was fascinated with the way in which the quality one-on-one time impacted children’s resilience, empathy, vocabulary, and much more. There were certainly lots of opportunities for Sustained Shared Thinking.

He also gave some tips on how to get started yourself. The key point? Preparation. Whether it’s considering the activities, making sure you get the right adults involved, or thinking about how you might deal with bereavement, he explains how you can make sure you’re prepared for what an intergenerational care project will throw at you.

Plastic vs natural toys

There’s lots of debate about the advantages and disadvantages of plastic toys versus a more natural approach these days, but for Alistair, it’s just about getting a balance.

While open-ended resources are super important for extending learning and encouraging imagination, he also tells us that no-one has ever died from touching plastic, and that some children need a little more help when it comes to approaching those open-ended resources. As he puts it beautifully, “You need a good mixture of things that are things, and things that can be anything.”

Play is the universal language

In this inspiring clip, Alistair explains what he learnt from his recent travels to, among other plaes, China and Latvia.

The main takeaway? No matter the language, play is universal and we would be mad to ignore this innate drive to play within children. That’s something we hope we can all agree on.

The full Alistair Bryce-Clegg Interview

Sit back and enjoy the full interview, including:

  • Intergenerational care
  • One on one conversations
  • The timelessness of play
  • Child-led learning
  • Continuous Provision
  • Small world play
  • Plastic vs natural resources
  • Open-ended resources
  • Keeping up on research
  • Who inspires Alistair
  • Alistair’s Favourite activity
  • How policy should be made
  • Alistair’s new book, 365 days of play

The full transcript

If you’re more interested in reading the full interview with Alistair, well that’s OK too. Here’s the full transcript of our discussion.

So it’s been a busy few years. You’ve been on TV. You’re still doing a lot of training, writing. I guess my first question is, how do you find time for it all?

Alistair Bryce-Clegg: I don’t know, is the answer. I am really lucky that I get offered lots of projects that are really fascinating and interesting. Also, I can take the ones that are really interesting to do and I like to keep challenging myself, to keep myself fresh in terms of practice.

So my favourite thing probably to do is to work in settings, whether that be schools, preschools or nurseries, because you’re actually working alongside adults and children in the early years. And then you can use all the information you gather from that and then write about it and try and give people ideas to support them in their practice.

So yeah I’m really fortunate to be doing a job that I absolutely love and get offered loads of very interesting projects to do as part of that.

I think one of the big things, certainly over the last couple of years, has been the Channel 4 series Old People’s Home For Four-Year-Olds. What surprised you most about the experience?

Alistair Bryce-Clegg: I was most surprised that on Twitter somebody asked if I had earned my university fees by balloon modelling, given my outfit.

No, don’t go on Twitter that’s a bad idea!

Alistair Bryce-Clegg: Yeah! I learn not to go on Twitter. I loved doing the program, it came completely by chance. There had been a series beforehand which I watched with great interest and they wanted to look at the impact on the children rather than just on the adults.

So I think what surprised me most was the level of the impact on both the children and the adults in a really positive way. I knew from Series One that the adults had a positive outcome from the work with the children and that makes sense because it gives them a reason to get up and do stuff. They get interacting with children and get busy in terms of their learning and that improves their physicality, their brain cognition.

But for the children, they are developing anyway, so what was interesting for me was wondering whether being with old people for three months would actually aid or speed up development or whether actually, it would just be the development you’d expect from an average – if there is such a thing for a four-year-old.

And the results were conclusive that actually, the children made really unexpected, positive progress. Especially around things like language development, empathy, lots of imagination, independence, all sorts of things. The parents and the tests that we did with them showed that they’d made massive improvements.

So it was a lot on those social skills and softer skills? Why do you think it was that the kind of environment encouraged so much more development in that area?

Alistair Bryce-Clegg: I think that the one significant thing for me was you get 10 old people with nothing better to do than to listen to 10 children with nothing better to do than talk to old people. So they had long periods of sustained shared thinking, long periods of sustained shared talking, and that had a significant impact.

We saw the children’s vocabulary change. We saw the children take on the language of the older people. We saw just long periods of dialogue and just the ability to think and to pause and to talk and I think that’s what we find very difficult to do both as parents and as educators.

When you’ve got 30 children in your class and there are two of you you can’t sit for 40 minutes and have a sustained conversation with a child on a daily basis whereas if there are 10 children and 10 adults with nothing better to do, that’s all they did.

So they form very close bonds very quickly but they also really took an interest in each other’s lives. That allowed the old people to talk about what they did in their previous life and the children were able just to do that thing that children do, which is just articulate every moment with somebody who’s prepared to listen to that. So that made a big difference I think in terms of development.

So if anything else it’s more an argument for the power of one to one ratios? Like it’s not necessarily about the age or anything, it’s just about sustained conversations.

Alistair Bryce-Clegg Yeah: and we weren’t focusing on phonics and we weren’t focusing on maths, we were focusing on resilience, wellbeing, empathy, language, creativity, imagination – all of those really important skills that sometimes get squeezed out a little bit in the current education system. And so we found that the children made huge leaps forward just because there was time and not the pressure to do the other stuff.

That’s fab. And so I suppose that the next natural step if you’ve seen that it’s had such a great impact, is fo you have any advice for settings out there who are thinking about maybe setting up some sort of program themselves?

Alistair Bryce-Clegg: Well ultimately, the advice is to do it. And I think what the science also showed us was that occasional visits when you go for Harvest, Christmas, Easter, that kind of thing, it can have a positive impact on the older adults and children get something from it.

But when you do regular visits and the relationships are formed then there are really positive things that come out of that. And I think it’s being very clear about why you’re doing it and also do a bit of thinking around it.

Because it sounds great in theory – let’s take all our children to an old people’s home. But we need the right old people to be involved in the project. Not all of them would benefit from having four-year-olds or three-year-olds around them. Also the right number of children.

I think you’ve got to think about the sort of activities you’re going to do when you get there. Because sometimes you turn up and just expect things to happen and I think when we did structure, especially the arts and crafts activities, it gave them things to talk about, things to share.

So there’s lots of thinking to be done. I was talking in my seminar today as well about the idea of bereavement because it’s not something we tend to tackle a lot in the curriculum with children or in the framework for the EYFS. But if you’re involved in a sustained program with older adults there is a strong chance at some point one of those older adults might well die. It’s part of life. And so one of the things I think it’s important to do is to think about how you’re going to manage an approach to death before you engage in the project.

There are lots of organisations out there that can support with that. Lots of lovely literature, very child-centred literature around death and bereavement that you can use to prompt that kind of thinking and conversation.

Loads to think about but definitely something worth doing.

So you can make a start, but you do need to be really thinking a little bit more about it? You can’t just set up these days, go in and hope that it’s going to be magical because you’re not going to get the effect you need.

Alistair Bryce-Clegg: No, and there are organisations out there. United For All Ages is one in particular where there are lots of resources and research where they backup why you might want to do an intergenerational project but also really good advice on how you can put one of those in place. So it’s well worth doing research.

But when we did the experiment for the program, the children gained, the adults gained, the families gained, the parents talked about how much they had gained from the experiment and seeing that interaction too.

Also, the crew and all of us who took part as experts and television makers we all came away thinking it was an absolutely brilliant project, to see those relationships happen and it was just really lovely, positive, feel-good humanity, which I think we need reminding of more often.

Perfect, I think it sounds like a great idea and I think it’s something that people should definitely try and engage in if they feel that they have that time to prepare for it. I suppose leading on from that, I know that you’re a huge proponent of child-led learning. On child-led learning, what are some of the common mistakes that you see when people try to transition to more of a child-led learning approach?

Alistair Bryce-Clegg: The teams I work with a lot, we just try and define what we mean by child-led learning. I think that’s a really good place to start because it’s a phrase that we use a lot ‘child-centred learning’, ‘child-led learning’.

But sometimes when you sit down and say okay can you actually articulate what child-led learning is? Then you can say, right, well if that’s what we think it is then why do we think that? Whose other work and research are we looking at? Then also on our day to day practice, how child-led is our learning?

Often in schools, nurseries, reception particularly you’ll find it’s not very child-led because it tends to be topic-based and activity-based. So the adult is deciding on the focus and then it’s often an adult input followed by a focused activity, followed by another adult input, by another focused activity.

And sometimes some “play” in the afternoon – which will be almost the antithesis of child-led learning, where you’d be saying these are the next steps for our children, let’s try and wrap those next steps in the thing that motivates those children the most which is going to be play and also their interests. So whilst it can appear to be a very free approach it’s actually quite rigorous because you know what’s coming next. You just try and wrap that next step in the thing that’s going to motivate the child the most.

So I suppose in that sense you’re talking about people needing to find their own definition? Is that something that really depends on the setting or do you think that there’s a good place that people can start if they really want to transition to [more child led-learning]?

Alistair Bryce-Clegg: If you look at child-led learning, there are so many people or historical thinkers around education that you can look at.

I am writing a book at the moment around play and I revisited Susan Isaacs who I haven’t looked at for a long time, having looked at that a lot when I was training. I was just completely refreshed in my thinking around that and her thinking is from a long time ago, but she is a great advocate for that kind of child-led, play-based learning.

So even going back to reading people like Susan Isaacs, Montessori – there are lots of gems of thinking that you can use to reflect your own practice against. But also to shape your conversations around, right ‘What do we mean by child-led learning?’ and ‘How do we fit that into this space, with this team, these children and the current framework we’re working within?’.

I think particularly in the early years a key component of child-led learning is getting your continuous provision right. Because that’s how they can engage themselves and make the decisions themselves. So when you go into a setting and perhaps they want to look at improving their continuous provision, where should you start when it comes to reassessing what you’ve got out there?

Alistair Bryce-Clegg: So that thinking around continuous provision is the bit where children are in play, it’s the environment that supports learning both with an adult but also in the absence of an adult.

So does your continuous provision help adults to deliver their teaching but does it also continue the provision for learning when there isn’t an adult there?

So one of my phrases that I use way too much is ‘What’s your expectation of play?’. So you can’t guarantee what a child’s ever going to do in a play space but if you set up the environment before children get into it you ask yourself the question ‘What do I think they’re going to do when they get there.

So even down to things, if I’ve got a tuft spot in my small world area and I set up a farm area for farm play, I’ve got to ask myself, ‘If that’s all I’ve got for small world, when my three- or four-year-olds get to the farm, what do I think they’re going to play?’.

And I have often asked the question ‘How do you play farm?’. How would you play a farm if you’re an adult? How do you play farm when you are four?

So what you tend to get is not farm play. You tend to get either domestic role play – you get mummies and daddies, mummy sheep, daddy sheep – or you get kind of superhero, weapon power play which is ‘I am a killer cow and all the pigs will die’, that kind of thing. But rarely do you see children playing farm.

They’re not going out and milking the cows quietly!

Alistair Bryce-Clegg: Exactly, they’re not talking about their quotas, or whatever it may be.

So we’d have a conversation as a team saying, although your farm provision is lovely, it’s an enhancement to that small world play. Because you are encouraging or supporting children to visit something that you might be talking about or linked to your topic focus.

But we need to have provision that continues the provision for learning around small world, when an adult isn’t there to support that farm play. So what resources have you got that are open-ended, ambiguous? We talk about in small world the skills and experiences you want children to have through small world play. Sometimes I make lists of those with groups and then we look at the provision and say well how many of these skills can we teach through that provision and when it’s just the farm it’s probably not many but if it’s the farm and then a collection of other more open-ended resources you start to get lots of potential for more skill coverage.

So it’s about thinking once you’ve gone through that process, you’re then thinking about the resources on top of that. There might not be anything related to farm but it can bring in the intention of how those children are going to use those resources.

Alistair Bryce-Clegg: Yeah, if you think about the area of provision, linked to the area of learning and you think about what resources can I provide for children that support their learning around small world role play, sand, water rather than the topic or theme that you’re talking about at the time.

And on that issue I wonder, what’s your theory and what’s your stance on this scale between natural, very open-ended resources and then what might be called the more closed-off resources or the kind of traditional toys? How do you feel that that fits into a whole provision?

Alistair Bryce-Clegg: I think nobody ever died from touching something made of plastic. And so I think you’ve got to have balance. There are some amazing objects that are made out of plastic – and we all want to be sustainable so we also don’t want to just throw our plastic into landfill.

Having said that wooden toys or natural toys tend to be a little bit more ambiguous, they tend to be a little more open-ended and I think what you need is a good mix of things that are things and things that can be anything. Because if I give you something that’s a definite something, I’m inviting a particular sort of play from you.

So if I give you a car, even a wooden car, I’m inviting you to play around what you associate with the symbol of a car. If I give you an empty cardboard box that could be a car, but it could also be a million different things.

So the ambiguity of the box allows for more potential, if you’ve got the experience and the imagination to transform that box into a million different things. If you haven’t, then if I give you a box, it’s just a box. So it’s about the development of the children. It’s about balance and it’s about being realistic that you are using the resources that you’ve got and you’re using the budget you’ve got to provide the best resources you can for children.

I know another thing that you’ve been doing a lot this year is travelling – you’ve been to China and Latvia very recently. What would you say you’ve learned from going and being exposed to those different environments?

Alistair Bryce-Clegg: That children are children wherever they are in the world and even if their language is different and even if their culture is different, there is one universal language and that is the language of play.

So it doesn’t matter if you’re talking about phonics or maths or whatever it may be – children engage in play. Even when travelling in the UK, I work in lots of settings where there are multiple languages represented and multiple cultures. Often in early years you get children who start in a group where they can’t speak the language of the other children within the group, yet you see them communicate through play.

So it always takes me back to that kind of fundamental realisation that there is this currency that we should be dealing in and there is a huge power in children’s desire and drive to play. We are mad if we keep ignoring that and trying to get them to focus and sit around the table and write a sentence when actually we could take all of that learning and carry it into play where it’s going to have the greatest impact. So wherever you are in the world basically children are children and that’s a wonderfully leveling thing.

I know you’re a big fan of keeping up to date on the latest child development research and what’s going on. I think that’s something that a lot of practitioners struggle with sometimes. How do you bridge that gap between theory and practice in the setting – it can be quite difficult right?

Alistair Bryce-Clegg: It is and what I have now that I didn’t have when I was a practitioner is the luxury of time. Because I write a lot about early years I spend a lot of time reading about early years. So I appreciate that when you are managing a class or whatever it may be you haven’t always got the time to do that reading.

When I was a probationer as we were called – a newly qualified teacher – you would get Infant Magazine once a month and that was where you got your information. Now in the world of social media, we have a lot more access to things like blogs and websites.

I mean, when you look at it there is almost too much stuff out there and you can’t always guarantee the quality of what you’re going to read, but they do tend to give you bite-sized, very readable, accessible avenue into current thinking.

So even things like Facebook, Instagram, if you find people with a pedagogy that you share and you follow them, then I often get links to articles or ideas from just scrolling through and having a look.

So I think it’s worth bearing in mind that we need to keep ourselves up to date to do the best job that you can do. You need to try and keep up with current thinking but there are easier ways to do that, by following people on social media as well as when you’ve got the time, looking at things like the TES, reading the articles that are going around, trying to find some time to do that.

But if you haven’t got time, social media is great for accessing bite-sized nuggets around current thinking.

I think absolutely the best advice you can have is to make sure you’re always reading Alistair’s blog because there’s always great tips on there! We’re going to finish off with just a few quickfire questions that I have been asking everyone this weekend and the first one is, who inspires you most in the early years?

Alistair Bryce-Clegg: At the moment I’m back to Susan Isaacs again because it’s like finding a lost love when you come across something that you knew was ace but had forgotten just how ace it was. So there are lots of people out there with lots of really good messages around early years but go back sometimes to some of those big hitters that set the tone.

I know you’ve got loads of wonderful books yourself but if you were going to recommend one early years book that wasn’t yours, what would you recommend to read?

Alistair Bryce-Clegg: That is a really tough one because there are generic overviews around early years but then there’s some really lovely books out there around things like planning and observation and the power of play – I don’t know! Yeah I’m going to dodge that one – I don’t know if you’re going to pin me down to one!

What’s your favourite activity in the early years? I know that’s another pretty broad one, but is there one thing that you find whenever you bring it in it always works?

Alistair Bryce-Clegg: Well for me I am a huge advocate of the deconstructed role play. I love the idea of giving children maximum opportunities to visit a million different aspects of play by providing a really open-ended role play space.

In my days as a practitioner we would have been in the Chinese restaurant or the vet or the hairdressers or the garden centre. These days, I tend to work with settings where we open it right up and you just see the interaction, the language – it’s just fantastic. So deconstructed role play is a real favourite.

Okay. And then the last one for the quickfire round. If there was one big change that you wish could take place in early years education, what would it be?

Alistair Bryce-Clegg: It would be that the people who make the legislation actually understood early years.

Not just an opinion on early years, but the brain development, cognitive work. We know the science behind how children’s brains develop, what’s appropriate developmentally for learning all the information we have. We know and yet we have an early years framework that doesn’t reflect that. And we have an education system that isn’t investing in the early years, it’s actually squashing the play – the appropriate bit – out, and the more time goes on, the more we seem to get squeezed in the wrong direction. So more of a bottom-up than a top-down approach.

I suspect that’s going to be quite a popular answer over the rest of the week. So I know you’ve said you’re writing this book, 365 Days Of Play. Do you want to tell us a little bit more about that and the other projects you’ve got coming up over the next few months?

Alistair Bryce-Clegg: So 365 Days of Play is a different sort of book. For me it’s less theory and it’s more a page a day – a page a day is all about play.

So sometimes it’s just a quote about play. Sometimes it’s a little bit of an article about play. Sometimes it’s an opinion piece about play and literally, there will be one page for every single day of the year. So you can dip in and you can dip out but they all reference the importance of and the impact of play.

That should be out, well you can never quite tell with publishing, but it should be out in November this year That’s been an absolute joy to write because it’s allowed me to really indulge myself in something that I am passionate about but also collect images and quotes and all sorts of lovely aspects of this great thing that is play.

Sounds like it’s going to be a great resource. Where can people find out more about you, social media, on your blog?

Alistair Bryce-Clegg: Yes. So I’ve got abcdoes.com which is my website on which there is the blog and on that there are links to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest the usual.

The big ideas

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UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

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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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