Theory and practice

Time For A Natural Environment? The Curiosity Approach Interview

Are bright colours and plastic to blame for overstimulated children?
Children in a natural environment
July 25, 2018
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Are you ready for a rethink of the provision at your setting? Sit tight, because this one’s a goodie.

The debate over using bright colours and plastic toys versus a more neutral, natural approach is a pretty hot topic right now.

That’s why we sat down with Lyndsey and Stephanie from The Curiosity Approach. With a combined 50+ years in early years between them, they now run six settings and a successful consultancy business based on their Curiosity Approach pedagogy, not to mention a Facebook account with members running into the tens of thousands.

They explained to us a little bit about what matters in their pedagogy, why bright colours and plastic everywhere are not the answer, and what you can do to improve your environment today.

The power of curiosity

The Curiosity Approach has its basis in a whole host of pedagogies, including Reggio, Steiner, a bit of Montessori and the Te Whāriki approach in New Zealand. But when it comes to the very core of what the team want to inspire within children, it really is all in the name.

“We just want to keep it simple – it’s about curiosity,” Stephanie explains. “Curiosity is innate within every single one of us and to be a learner in anything, you need to be curious.”

Curiosity is key because it is the very foundation of learning. It is what drives children in the early years to explore, do, and think for themselves. And the key to fostering that curiosity? Well, that lies in the way you set out your environment.

The overstimulation situation

If you step into a Curiosity Approach setting, you won’t find bright coloured walls and hundreds of shiny plastic toys. Instead, you’ll see wooden materials, natural resources, and neutral backgrounds that allow the colour to shine. But why?

“Some people want to offer the busy bright walls, but there is a lot of research out there to show the effect on children and how it can feel,” says Lyndsey. The problem is that too many bright colours and not enough care over where they’re placed can overstimulate children. This can cause things like:

  • Crankiness
  • Tiredness
  • Upset
  • Anger
  • Miscommunication

Of course, stimulation is key to developing little brains and building those connections that help them learn. But bright, busy and plastic provisions aren’t doing it in the right way.

“Plastic all smells the same, feels the same and often comes in bright colours that overstimulate children,” Lyndsey says. “On the other hand, if you’re recycling and sourcing open-ended resources and natural materials, you’re bringing different elements, textures, feels and smells. That sense of curiosity and wonder will come with it.”

What do we want for our children?

Another important part of the curiosity approach is about being mindful of what you want for the children in your care. Overstimulation and behaviour management issues are one thing, but you need to think about the skills you’re trying to teach children too.

In particular, The Curiosity Approach is about developing:

  • Independent thinking
  • Stronger non-verbal communication
  • Language and verbal communication
  • Problem-solving
  • Lifelong learners

According to the team, it is these skills that will be relevant to kids growing up in an ever-changing world.

“In 30 years time, half the jobs we have now will not be in existence,” Stephanie explains. “The best thing that we can do for our children is to create thinkers and doers. To manage and take risks. To be curious. Because curiosity is the spark that ignites everything else.”

What can you do about it?

All that theory is well and good, but how do you put this theory into practice? If you do find yourself with an overstimulating environment, what can you do to improve it?

The Curiosity Approach team do have an accredited toolkit that might help you if you’re inspired by what you’ve read. But for the time being, here are 9 ideas to get you started.

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1. Start with ‘why’

According to Stephanie and Lyndsey, it’s not just about throwing some crates into your setting and heading off to a car boot. “It’s about understanding why you’re putting those things in, how you’re presenting them, and why you’re presenting them in a certain way,” Lyndsey explains.

You need to start with ‘why’. Try taking 30 minutes to go round your setting and ask why everything is there. Try things like:

  • What learning opportunity does it create?
  • Is it limited, or is it open-ended?
  • Is it exciting?
  • Will it ignite curiosity?

In other words, does it have a purpose, or is it just there because it’s always been there? “If you have a purpose and a why then that’s absolutely fine. But don’t do it just because that’s what you think you have to do.” Stephanie says.

2. How much stuff?!

Once you’ve really thought about the purpose of everything in your setting, it’s time to cut down on the clutter.

Too much choice and not enough thought over those options can be a huge contributor to the overstimulation that many children face at nursery. If you can’t find the ‘why’ then maybe it’s time to take some resources out.

It’s about giving children more quality options, rather than a load of limited, single-application toys.

"Take a plastic garage for example. It’s pre-designed, manufactured and the designer has it in mind what they want you to do.

You’ve got a little lift that you put your car in, you wind it and up it goes to the first floor, second floor and back down the ramp. The next time you play with it it goes up the lift and down the ramp.

From the first day you play with it until the 20th, nothing changes. The ramp is set, still the same trajectory. But when you have open-ended resources and loose parts – drain pipes, guttering, cable reels, even bits of cardboard – children create their own garage.

They are designers in their own play. They are the thinkers."

- Lyndsey Hellyn & Stephanie Bennett, The Curiosity Approach

The big ideas

3. Get down to the child’s level

It’s no good evaluating your environment from up there! Get down on the floor and look at it from a child’s point of view. “It’s not just about looking at your environment, but seeing it, and feeling it,” Stephanie says.

What does it look like from down there? How do things smell, look, sound and feel? Is it inviting or are things a little bland and boring from down there? Is that display really bright and cheerful or is it overbearing and stressful for little eyes?

4. Use fresh eyes

Struggling to see what needs to be changed? Don’t worry, it can be difficult to look at changing your provision when you’re so used to seeing it every day

“We all get tunnel vision with our environment,” admits Lyndsey, “but we have to look at it with fresh eyes, and really reflect on what it feels like to be a child in the setting.”

If your own eyes aren’t feeling so fresh, why not get a helping hand? You could:

  • Visit other settings in the area to see what they do.
  • Get other managers and practitioners in to take a look.
  • Have a fun staff event and include some brainstorming on what needs changing.
  • Challenge your practitioners to spend a week considering what is used and what isn’t.
  • Check out The Curiosity Approach on Facebook for daily inspiration.
  • Make it your first priority after you come back from some time off with a fresh mind.

5. Change your walls and displays

So you’ve got a good idea of what is and isn’t working at the setting. But where to start?

“A good place to start would be to look at the overstimulation of your environment,” Lyndsey says. “Our settings are not colourless, but our backgrounds still remain neutral. Any colour that is in there means that it comes through. That’s where I would start.”

Consider going over any lurid, bright walls with cream or white instead of primary colours. Try out hessian or plain card for the backings of your displays, allowing the children’s work to truly stand out.

6. Make it homely

“Is your environment an extension of home or a watered down version of a school?” Stephanie says to ask yourself.

And it’s a good point. When children are transitioning from a home environment into your setting, they’re not ready to be institutionalised. Instead you should be asking yourself how homely your environment it. “Is there soft rugs? Is there a space that you can share with an adult or another child to read a story? Is there a place to retreat?” asks Lyndsey.

7. Don’t just throw out the old

Binning every single plastic toy you can find is not the answer. That’s no way to teach children the importance of sustainability.

Some ideas for recycling the things you don’t need anymore include:

  • Making your own car boot and sell them on.
  • Popping bigger items on eBay.
  • Donating to charity settings who might have a different ethos.
  • Giving to charity shops.
  • Donating to charities who help rehouse refugees or domestic abuse victims who have to start again.
  • Re-using toys by dismantling them to create loose parts, or finding a new application for it.
"There’s a use for everything – it’s just about finding the ‘why’. But when you’re an educational establishment that is presenting the same resources day in and day out that are doing the same thing, how are we then teaching our children to think?

If it’s a one-off thing when you go to your grandparents then it will spark imagination, but that same resource day in day out at nursery is not going to have the same impact or outcome."

- Lyndsey Hellyn & Stephanie Bennett, The Curiosity Approach

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8. Grow the right team

Creating an environment of curiosity isn’t just about the children. You need to have curious practitioners too. “As a practitioner, you must be mindful,” explains Stephanie. “ You need to make sure that in every single element of the day, the children are at the centre of everything.”

For the team at the curiosity approach, this is as much about passion as it is about education. “You can teach knowledge, but you can’t teach passion,” says Stephanie.

This is why it’s so important to seek out practitioners who have the right passion. They might be a level 6, or they might be an apprentice, but unless they can get down on the floor and play with the children, having fun along the way, then they won’t find a way to inspire curiosity.

9. Teach risks and consequences

There’s one final part to The Curiosity Approach view that we haven’t really touched on yet. According to Stephanie and Lyndsey, one of the biggest problems with plastic resources is that they don’t teach children any consequences.

“Plastic toys are pretty indestructible,” points out Stephanie, “and a child might just throw it on the floor and never consider picking it up. The staff don’t consider it either, so generally, there are no consequences.” With a china or ceramic cup though, it’s not going to survive that same drop. So there’s a consequence – it’s gone.

This is important to The Curiosity Approach because it teaches a respect for materials and resources. “We live in a throwaway society, and what are we teaching our children when you can just throw a teapot down and it doesn’t really matter?” asks Lyndsey. “These children will be the caretakers of this planet and if we’re not teaching them these lessons at a young age then what hope have we got?”

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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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