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Creativity and Sustained Shared Thinking – Building Social and Emotional Skills

by James on June 6th, 2012

A couple of weeks ago I completed a residency for 5x5x5=creativity at St Saviours Infants in Bath, where I had been working with a group of twelve Reception children. These children were chosen to take part by their teachers, because it was felt that they would most benefit from time spent in a smaller group, working outside with a creative, child-initiated approach.

(See here for the post ‘New Year, New Space, New Children’ introducing the project back in January, and here for ‘Making Links and Building Relationships’ – an example of a session in action).

The school wanted to research what benefit a residency such as this would have for these specific children, who would be working with myself and a rotating group of staff over 12 weekly sessions. We were also supported by parent, artist and arts therapist, Gillian McFarland.

Our research focus itself evolved through discussions between staff, and reflection on the needs of the children, to look at the value of creative, child-initiated, outdoor learning, for children’s social and emotional skills, and more specifically for sustained shared thinking.

‘An episode in which two or more individuals “work together” in an
intellectual way to solve a problem, clarify a concept, evaluate activities, extend a narrative etc.  Both parties must contribute to the thinking and it must develop and extend…’  (DFES 2002)

We had seen in our previous year’s research, the benefits of creative outdoor learning for children’s ability to resolve conflicts, to empathise, and to share ideas, all leading to more effective group-work. For individual children this year, staff were hoping for improved language skills, greater resilience when faced with social situations that they might find challenging, and for them to be able to share and express their ideas and make their needs known in appropriate ways.

Although we knew that’s what we were aiming for, it wasn’t about ‘teaching’ it as such, but enabling such skills to develop by supporting each child within the group to access the space and the resources available, in ways that meant sense for them. We were working in a child-initiated way, providing resources based on our observations of the children’s investigations, and working alongside them to enable them to take those investigations further.

Naturally in a new group, where some children are more confident than others, and with different adults present to those that they are used to, it takes a while for each child to find their feet, to appreciate that their ideas will be listened to with genuine interest, and acted upon.

With each member of staff joining the sessions every 4 or 5 weeks, it was challenging for them to be able to appreciate the small steps of progress that individual children made from week to week. It did however mean that every member of staff was able to get a taste of the project, and to carry on working with the children between each session, picking up on observed interests and providing new materials/resources in response.

As I say, the residency came to an end recently, and it was wonderful to hear from the class teachers themselves what a difference they had observed in ‘their’ children. Children who found it challenging to sit quietly, and learn in a more traditional classroom setting, were showing improvement in terms of being able to make their needs known in less challenging ways. Some children’s social skills had developed sufficiently for them to be able to make new friends within their classes, whilst others had become much more confident in sharing their ideas vocally within groups.

It’s always hard to pin down exactly where such improvements come from but we believe that our work together has played a significant part. By enabling a child to explore their environment in ways that make sense to them, within the context of a group, and with the support of attentive and supportive adults, we can positively impact on children’s self-awareness and their communication skills; secure in the knowledge that they are being equally valued, and their needs provided for.

(I’m continuing to work at St Saviours Infants on a new residency, this time  with whole Year 1 classes, exploring the relationship between the Forest School approach, and creative outdoor learning. Please see here for more information)

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