The Famly Interview
Cambridge's Sara Baker

Hear her explain the importance of play and science in the early years.
sara baker interview
February 20, 2019
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At the Nursery World Show we sat down with Sara Baker, a senior lecturer at the University of Cambridge’s psychology department and a principle investigator at PEDAL (Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development & Learning). We discussed a range of topics relating to the connection between academia and the early years, problem solving and science.

Watch the full interview or read the transcript below and let us know what you think!

I’m here at Nursery World and we’ve just had a great conversation with Sara Baker. She’s a senior lecturer at the University of Cambridge in the field of psychology, and she’s also a principal investigator at PEDAL which is the Centre of Research for Play Development Education and Learning. We talked about all sorts of things: about how we can bridge the gap between academics and the early years, we talked about early science development, we talked about problem-solving. A great discussion, really hope you enjoy it.

First of all, thank you for being here and taking the time. As we already talked about earlier, you’re a principal investigator for PEDAL the Centre for Research of Play, Education, Development and Learning. I’ve written that one down to make sure I get it right! What does that role actually involve at the moment for you?

So, I’m a senior lecturer in the education faculty which means that I spend about 40% of my time teaching and supervising undergraduates and postgraduate students, and then the rest of my time is split between my research on early years play and learning, but also then other things like running different courses and helping with the administrative side of the job.

Great, that’s interesting, and what is your research on historically, and then also at the moment around play and everything?

I’m a developmental psychologist, so I have training in child development and also in brain development and what I’ve done in my career has moved from pure psychology (I was always in psychology departments before), into education and looking at how we can use the evidence on the brain and learning in classroom environments, or nursery environments, or even how parents can use that at home to educate and support their children.

That’s great, bridging that gap between neuroscience, and papers, and then on the ground teaching is difficult. What do you see is the best path for us to be able to bridge that, and kind of for neuroscientists and psychologists to work with practitioners to help get that knowledge to the people that really matter, the children.

Yeah, well it’s interesting because I think until until recently people thought a lot about just the dissemination of research, and actually, that implies that it’s just going in one direction and we’re just going to tell people about the research and then that’s it, they just need to know about it. It’s not that simple it’s much more about translation and I think now, there’s an awareness that what we need are more opportunities for that dialogue, because the translation happens in between the two. It’s not just for me to say what it means, or for a teacher to say what it means, it’s actually through a conversation that they can better understand what the research means, but also so that we can better understand what that would look like in a real classroom. So more opportunities for dialogue really.

Makes a lot of sense, if you’re talking to each other then you’re learning from each other. I guess on play specifically, it gets talked about a lot the importance of play and particularly in increasingly classroom style environments. Why do you think that play is so important to development in the early years?

I think play is important for learning because it’s reflective of the way that we know the brain develops and children learn naturally which is to say that they have an active role in that process. If you don’t give children some kind of agency and activeness in what they’re doing, then you’re just treating them as if they’re an empty vessel that you can pour knowledge into, and then all is well and that’s not how it works – we know that’s not how it works from a neuroscience and a psychology perspective. Developmental psychologists have been saying that for years and I think teachers are also aware of that. But there is that tension with policy and accountability and people wanting to just get something done which isn’t always easy to fit with the idea that actually children will move at a certain pace, there’s things that are developmentally appropriate that can happen at a certain time. So, trying to fit those two things together is important, and play represents that process of learning and the active role which children play in their own learning.

One of the things that I noticed, and you mentioned to me earlier that you focus on, is early science and helping children to have an understanding of science. I think it’s a topic that’s quite difficult for a lot of early years practitioners, because they can’t start getting Bunsen burners out yet. Where do we get those key concepts that help build young scientists that early years need to get going.

Well what’s really funny actually is that once again, looking to what we know about child development, kids actually have a very strong interest in the world around them, they have actually already some ideas about how the world might work. For example, they have intuitions about things like gravity. Nobody needs to teach them about that, they understand that from before they can even talk. So again, it’s one of those things, like if you actually look at the way children are learning about the world around them, you could harness that and use that to teach science. It’s not like it has to be separate, like a school subject, it’s actually a natural thing to want to know how the world works because you’re living in it, you’re breathing it you’re feeling it, you’re interacting with it.

So it should be part of the regular interactions they’re having, and it’s about building that understanding of the world into that?

That’s right and I think it is part of all of those interactions, people don’t always recognise it as science. You may not look at it and go “oh that’s science there.” Science can sometimes give the impression of something a little bit scary or, “I don’t know that much about science and I’m not going to go there” but actually it’s very straightforward, like what happens when I drop this? What happens if I put something in this water to make it thicker, will this float? Just very simple questions like that.

Great, and what about problem-solving and learning problem-solving, how does that have the role to play in this kind of early scientific learning as well?

Problem-solving we know is really important. I’m gonna go all the way to the other end of the spectrum for employers. Employers are looking for people who take initiative, who are independent and are problem solvers, who are collaborative team workers, etc. Now that we know that that’s really important going right back to the early years actually, if you give children the opportunity to be hands-on and active they will have to practice their problem-solving skills, because you’re not sitting there telling them: “first you do this, and then you do this, and then you do this.” If you give them, a worksheet to follow, they’re not problem solving they’re just following instructions. So again, it’s the same thing, it comes back to the hands-on learning that’s how we develop problem-solving?

That’s great, I think what a lot of practitioners feel, they believe in the power of play. So to see it also manifesting into these really key skills is also I think really important. This morning I know you were talking about something called cognitive flexibility, do you maybe want to explain just a little bit about what that is, and the role that has to play as well.

Yeah, cognitive flexibility is the idea that you don’t always do the same thing in the same way and that you’re able to adapt to your environment or to the current things that are going on around you, so that for example, if you’re on a diet you need some cognitive flexibility. You don’t just grab the brownie because you want it, you have to stop and think about it first. For a child, it’s the idea that you know you may be playing and get really excited about something, but it’s also important to share the resources. What if we don’t have enough scissors for everybody? You have to be able to adapt, and take into account what’s going on around you. This is not always easy for little kids, but the more they develop that skill, the better they’re going to be at things like creativity, things like you know working in teams further down the line.

What do you think it is that if they are with you on that, and they really think it’s important, then what can they do to kind of improve cognitive flexibility in their cohort of children?

Some of the things that we like to think about are giving children meaningful choices and by that I don’t mean letting them choose between the red and the green marker. That’s a choice, but it actually has no bearing on their learning really. It doesn’t really help them develop any skills, that’s more like just picking between a few options. If they think about involving the children in their learning back to this theme of active hands-on giving the child a role, a meaningful choice would be something more like, if we’re going to see how these things are floating and sinking, talking to the kids how will we know that this one worked better than that one? Let’s decide together how we’re going to do this activity, that’s a choice you know involvement, that sort of thing. That will help the kids develop their cognitive flexibility because they’re not just going to be doing what they’re told they’re gonna have to not only come up with their own ideas but also listen to other people’s ideas and realize there’s different ways of doing things.

Okay, so it’s really in that adult-child interaction more than anything else? I think finally the other thing I wanted to just have a quick talk about was, I know from your talk earlier and from what I’ve read online that you’re also quite focussed on beliefs and how children have to form beliefs in the early years and through their childhood. It’s obviously difficult when you’re a child right, because everything’s changing all the time you have a belief, it changes, you have a belief, it changes. How do you think children cope with this change in beliefs and how can we help them to make that an easier progression?

Well that’s an interesting one, I think in some cases yes, their beliefs change a lot. In other cases, in what I would call core beliefs, they may not change as much as we think. Coming back to this idea about gravity, kids believe that when you drop something it will fall down, that’s a core belief that they hold and that doesn’t change actually, that’s something they have to learn to almost overcome. If I drop something into a tube it’s not gonna fall straight down, it’s gonna go somewhere else, and that’s cognitive flexibility again. Anyway,

there’s these core beliefs about the world, about how people behave you know you can kind of predict somebody else’s behaviour based on what you know about people in general, and I think those don’t change a whole lot. Then there’s other beliefs such as, well we all hold beliefs that may change all the time about what’s going on in politics for example. But I would see those as being a separate kind of area. As a psychologist, we look a lot more at the development of those core beliefs that really help you get around in the world and find your way through the day.

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