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Blog: Interacting, intervening or interfering?

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Friday, 18 November, 2016

I love talking to others and learning about pedagogy and practice from them. I was with some colleagues yesterday and our conversation got onto the role of the adult: when to interact, when to intervene, when to stay silent and when to speak. It got me thinking about what is appropriate in adult-child interactions and what could be considered as interference in children's play?

The role of the adult

The adult is such a vital part of the enabling environment in the early years. Without the role of the adult, children may not have carefully thought out play environments in which to play, be safe, become involved, learn and thrive. However, within this environment it is often a dilemma to know

  • when, how and if to act in any given moment
  • when to stand back
  • when to watch
  • when to play
  • when to stay
  • when to leave
  • when to speak
  • when to be silent

In every moment we make these decisions and we might grapple and have dilemmas in our minds about the appropriateness of each interaction. We might reflect on what we got right or when we possibly acted too quickly. This is why the observation of practice is so subjective and challenging because what we see and do in that moment can be so different to what someone else would do and that will differ according to each child, in each moment, with each different practitioner.

Reflective practice

Reflection can help us think about decisions we make on our interactions and interventions. They can help us think about why we acted in the way we did and whether it was the best course of action in that moment. 

Outside a boy ran around the garden being chased by his friends. He went to hide in the den. He emerged later cupping his hands and ran up to me, exclaiming "An egg, an egg!" and ran off again. I watched and waited and he came back, "A dinosaur egg!" he shouted animatedly. His play developed into a game of hiding the eggs in the sand and running away and back to find them. 

When the boy ran up to me, I could have chosen several ways to respond, but what I did was look and then repeat back to him what he said, "You've got a dinosaur egg... wow!" which I felt affirmed him, celebrated his imaginative play and helped his words to be reiterated, supporting his language development. I only had that moment in which to respond, intervene, interact or interfere before he ran away. I often question at what point is my interaction or intervention constructive and when could it be interference for the child? This is something I grapple with because I do not know the answer and perhaps never will. In this moment, on reflection, I felt that my interaction was effective but everyone's response could be different.

It can be helpful to talk dilemmas like this over with peers or mentors, or reflect on the different option, or compare with another person's strategies for involvement. Some practitioners use video and peer observation to support this practice, for it is when we have a depth of understanding about how children learn, the value of play and developmental appropriateness, that each intervention or non-intervention we initiate makes that perfect difference.

Watch and wait

Watching a child deeply involved in their play before interacting can be invaluable. This is when I have an internal debate with myself about whether to do something or sit back and watch. If I choose to observe and stay silent for that moment then I learn may well learn much about the child including

  • their play themes
  • their likes
  • their language
  • their imagination
  • their peers and influences
  • their schemas
  • their wellbeing
  • their involvement
  • their day
  • their life
  • their self-confidence

In the conversation I had yesterday, my colleague said that we know when we have got it just right sometimes because it just feels like you hit the spot. I think that this is perhaps as close as we get to knowing. Perhaps there was a sense of serendipity in that moment when everything connected, flow was achieved and the child was fulfilled. Perhaps there was even self-actualisation reached in that moment for the adult too.

... a theory of optimal experience based on the concept of flow - the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great costs, for the sheer sake of doing it.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (FLOW, page 4)

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Cathy Gunning loves working to enhance and support children's wellbeing and early play in quality enriching learning environments. She works part time for Early Education as well as being a part time nursery teacher and stay-at-home mum. She has previously been a primary teacher, early years coordinator and day nursery manager. Her pedagogy was nurtured and inspired during her time as an early years advisory teacher and whilst studying for a masters degree in early years. Most recently she was a nursery school headteacher where she developed and led an integrated centre for over 10 years. As a reflective practitioner and leader, she enjoys continually learning about effective pedagogy in early education. 

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