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Themes and topics have a place in the early years

As most of my blog posts start, I was scrolling through social media and came across a post about ditching themes/topics. When scrolling the comments someone said ‘how do you allow for the fact v young children don’t know what they don’t know. Do you not do themes at all?’, the original poster replied ‘we follow the children’s interests. No we don’t do themes at all.’ Now this is a very generalised reply and needs some unpacking, I feel the need to do this because I think many people blindly follow ideas without thorough enough thought and consideration.

Firstly, a theme/topic can be interpreted differently. If we are talking about setting a pre-planned monthly topic then I don’t think this is useful but there is definitely space for a theme or a topic in the early years. Following the children’s interests and ideas is a huge part of learning for young children, when their play is valued we know that their learning peaks but there is also value in learning about things they might not be interested in were they not introduced to them by practitioners.

There was a time when we were told, due to following children’s interests, that we only needed to celebrate holidays relevant to children in our settings. My cohort will get excited about Christmas and talk about Santa which creates an opening, through their interests, for me to talk about the holiday and why we celebrate it but in my all white setting never has a child come in and talked about Lunar New Year or Diwali. Does that mean I rely on the idea of following children’s interests as a way to avoid learning about and introducing these festivals? Of course not, during these holidays we create themed invitations and introduce children to themed books, creating themes in this case is important.*

There are other times when a theme can be important, for example, when we think about transitions and children settling in. A parent might explain to us that their child loves playing with cars at home and as a skilled practitioner you might decide to set up a small car area in your provision so that the child has something familiar to engage with. Having a small themed area in this case is going to do more good than harm. Instead of using cancel culture to justify things we do in the early years, let’s try to think more openly and with common sense. Just because themes/topics have been used badly in the past doesn’t mean we can’t use them usefully in the future.

Another example of when a theme/topic might be useful is when we think about wider societal issues such as discrimination. Discrimination because of someone’s skin colour, religion, sexual orientation, gender, disability, differences and more is rife. How will we raise children to celebrate differences if we rely on only following their interests. Richly diverse settings may well be able to achieve this through children’s interests but there are a wealth of settings that are not serving richly diverse communities and rely on themes/topics to diversify children’s interests and ideas.

There are many more examples of themes/topics being useful but I think you get the idea of what I am trying to say. Next time you see a wishy washy statement please think about it in more depth, don’t feel like you have to do something just because that’s what someone else does.

*when using themes/topics to introduce festivals/cultures please be mindful that this is done appropriately. Liz @theblacknurserymanager has training and tips around this.


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