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Balancing the curriculum with being child-led

Our intentions in practice

To help the children explore how to keep their body safe – which is part of the South African Life Skills curriculum – we looked at a book together. 

Whenever we look at a book together, we begin by examining the pictures, encouraging the children to share what they notice and what this makes them think or wonder.   Through an open question, “What do you notice?” the children can take the discussion in a particular direction; areas emerge which they relate to their current experience and understanding.

In using this particular book as a provocation, the children considered how a girl’s parents and grandparents communicated their love through touch, i.e. a hug, a hand on the top of the head. The children were each able to share – verbally and in their writing – what they like about how their own parent/s show them love.

The book also enabled the children to think about how to relate to others.  It included a story of how the girl didn’t like being pushed, poked or hit by other children, and what she did because of this.  The children talked about how others were hurting the girl, and related this to how they are sometimes hurt physically. 

To help the children reflect on the text, they were asked:

“What have you learnt from the book?”

As a group, the children developed their thinking into a series of sentences.  The facilitator acted as scribe and wrote the children’s ideas down. 

The children explained how they had learnt to be kind, and how to stand up for themselves; saying no to someone when they touch them in a way they don’t like. 

I (Rachel) had hoped thinking and talking about being physically hurt would lead to exploring feelings – one of my intentions for the term – how the girl felt when she was poked, how they feel if someone pokes them, but at this stage the children purely focused on the physical aspect.  I tried to ask the question in different ways, but it seemed that the children weren’t ready to think about feelings. 

In being child-led, you have to carefully listen to the children; to what they are trying to communicate and learn to recognise how far to take a conversation.  The children for some reason weren’t ready to explore feelings, and in respecting the children I needed to let this area go for the time being.

A couple of weeks later I decided to use a different book to try and help the children to explore emotions.  As the book was introduced, the children were encouraged to share what they noticed and what this made them think or wonder.   Interestingly, just from looking at the front cover of the book, the children noticed the people’s facial expressions and shared how they thought the characters were feeling.  The children were now ready to move on from thinking about the physical nature of being hurt.

This book led to conversations between the children in which they have explored a variety of emotions; happy, sad, frightened, angry.   Music, art, drama and English were all woven in to the theme.  The children have developed vocabulary to express a mirage of emotions, they have mimed different emotions – thinking about their facial expression and body posture – and their peers have worked out what they are trying to communicate. 

The children listened to music and shared the feeling it evokes, they have created colours to express happiness and sadness, they have used play dough and created different shapes for an array of emotions. 

As a group the children began to consider what they can do when they feel a particular emotion. In exploring the book they recognised how the characters “calmed down” after being frightened of the unknown, so I decided to ask the children, “What can you do if you are afraid?”  This led to an amazing conversation between the children on how they could pray to God.  As the children had bought this in to the conversation I wanted to draw out from them what they actually understood by this, and through a serious of questions it emerged that prayer for them was (i) telling God what they were afraid of and (ii) waiting for a response.  In pushing this a bit further, I inquired how God would communicate His response.  The children shared how God speaks to them in dreams, some hear an audible voice, others see pictures or word, some feel God physically and we related this to our senses.  It was a beautiful time.

Being child-led doesn’t mean abandoning a curriculum.  Far from it, being child-led means you can move with the pace of the children, you can support the children to oscillate between what they know and don’t know, whilst using the curriculum as a guide.  Being child-led means you can go deeper in to certain areas where the children show particular interest.  This term we have had fascinating conversations on how the children thought their heart worked.  This led to them asking if they could carry out some ‘research’.  Seven and eight year olds wanting to discover more about how their hearts work and learning how to use the internet to find answers to their questions.  Being child-led enables the curriculum to come alive.


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