Waving My Arms Around: How Conducting Helped Me See the Value in Setting Challenges.

Conducting the windband last weekend brought to mind memories of when I first worked in early years; and didn’t really know what I was doing.

I stood at the front, waving my arms in the air, trying to get the attention of the flautists, clarinetists and trumpeters while they looked the other way and played their own thing. I moved around the stage and made myself bigger, making more exaggerated arm movements and still the cornet players and drummer did not look up. Each and every player was in their own world, following the music, counting the beat, tapping their feet to the rhythm and remembering how to make the next note with their instrument. I conducted the music, not the band and its many players.

They sounded amazing, by the way!

OK, so that’s not like early years, but hopefully it got you to read this far. The thing it reminded me of was that you can’t ‘conduct’ young children, they play in their own world; and I can’t (yet) conduct the windband.

The role the early years practitioner is not to conduct, or instruct, or to direct. In fact, a certain ‘office for standards in education’ tells us we teach. The definition of teaching is much broader than those outside of early years might imagine though and to conduct is more than waving your arms around (turns out, it’s much more!)

As I developed my skills within the early years I came to see my role more as a facilitator than a teacher, turns out that is a form of teaching. The skill of creating an enabling environment for the children takes some of us years to get right and lots of trial and error. Putting not enough or too many resources out, setting up invitations to play, or deconstructed role play areas, leaving doors open, closing doors, separating areas off, leaving everywhere open plan, the list goes on, but once we’ve tried out all of those the thing we know for certain is that some of these will work some of the time. And, this is just the beginning!!!

You’ve created the ‘ever changing’ enabling environment but now what? How else do we ‘teach’ in the early years?

One of the ways of teaching I particularly enjoyed is through setting challenges for the children. Across the EYFS children need and thrive on challenge.

Take a moment to think about the challenges you have set in the past week.

When I raised this point in a training recently the practitioners in the room instantly discussed physical challenges; for me they can be some of the least interesting (not least important) challenges that we set for children.

The ones I find most interesting and those which require creative and critical thinking; the how can we…the what might happen if…the what else. They are open-ended and focus on the process of the challenge. They allow a child to come up with their own ideas, make predictions and problem solve. Watching children work through this type of challenge is exciting and hugely rewarding. We sometimes work alongside them, modelling the process or providing a narrative, we demonstrate an element or suggestion and we certainly do lots of cheerleading. The importance through the challenge setting process of ‘praise for doing’ should not be underestimated; children need to know we’re on their side, supporting them and value them.

It has been said that playing a musical instrument is great for one’s cognition, memory and creative skill development so to improve my skill of conducting I need to tap into that and facilitate, set challenges and most of all praise and encourage the players in the band.


What challenges might help these children to think critically?

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