1. Why is child-led play so important to connect children with their innate talents?
Child-Led Play gives children opportunities to be the sole authors of their learning experiences, take their play into any direction that is the most inspiring at the current moment and the most suitable for children’s current educational and developmental needs and preferences. This gives children plenty of space to creatively experiment with environments using their body, existing skills and ideas, test new ideas out in the world and discover how they feel about certain experiences, which they enjoy the most, which they feel most empowered by and the most confident about. By experimenting with the world through their own self-directed play, children discover what they are truly capable of, what boundaries they would like to cross, and when they feel ready to do so. And because in child-led play children are the sole authors of their experiences, there is no external pressure related to time, results, learning outcomes, etc. This makes the entire process very intuitive, natural and personalised. The more personalised the experiences, the bigger the chances are to discover one’s natural gifts, inner strengths and leadership styles.
2. How does the concept work?
Child-Led Play is a very advanced approach, even though it may seem simple. But I’m saying from the perspective of an educator. For a child it’s a very intuitive, obvious and straight forward thing. Actually, it’s their only preferred choice. Child-Led Play is not the same as play-based learning where the adult is still in charge of shaping the learning experiences using play as a tool.
In Child-Led Play the educator, or another adult interacting with the child, becomes a facilitator - a person who observes, reflects on their observations, and offers the most enabling environments for the children to engage in. This refers to making sure the space and context is safe and inspiring for the children to experiment with. Safety factor is very important because children’s creativity is limitless, so whether it’s a nursery, a play centre, child’s own room or a public playground, we need to make sure the environment does not limit the children but inspires them to experiment and bring their gifts to the world. The same applies to resources, toys, equipment, tools, and the pedagogy style used. We trust that the child knows how they need to experience certain environments and what they need to learn at a given moment, and our role as an adult-educator is to make sure they can do it in a safe, relaxed and exciting way.
3. What have been the key noticeable outcomes of such a style? (offering case studies where applicable)
Child-Led Play unlocks child’s full potential faster than any other approach because the learning process is fully personalised. This alone means the child can work mostly through their strengths, which is a much faster and much more effective way to learn and to achieve mastery. There is little point in making the way longer and asking the child to learn things they are not naturally geared for and drawn to, or learn in the manner they do not enjoy. And this seems particularly important nowadays when the world needs conscious leaders who truly understand their gifts and know how to use them to make positive and long lasting changes in all areas of our life. The world accelerates and the speed is faster than ever. We need to make sure we don’t waste time by taking unnecessary detours while the most direct and at the same time the most enjoyable way is easily available. Taking the faster route means we are able to help those who might benefit from our gifts now and not some time in the future.
We’ve observed child-led play working wonders in our own nursery in the UK where we applied this approach, and that was 12 years ago. Since that time, we’ve inspected dozens of early years settings, play centres, after-school clubs, and parents clubs where this approach has been adopted - in every single case we have seen children flourishing, and in every single case their progress has been fully documented and approved. For us as educators, the most important outcome is seeing children connected with their natural gifts and talents, children expressing themselves fully and confidently so while measurable results are important and there is no doubt they will be there, the question will always be “what results” are we looking for, and who these results are important for and why. In the Child-Led Approach to learning and development the educator’s personal ambitions are not the priority, nor is the curriculum - even though the tangible results will be easily observable. The perspective here is completely different because the role of the education is different. In Child-Led Approach, the main goal is to empower the child to unlock their natural potential - rather than to cover the curriculum in a specific way or by a certain time because this does not support the child to demonstrate their true gifts and talents. It doesn’t mean we ignore the curriculum. We simply link all the observable evidence that the child shows us with curriculum requirements, and if the curriculum is reasonably designed it will be very easy to meet these requirements.
Child-Led Play boosts children’s self-confidence to the point they are able to consciously create and shape their learning environments, establish positive and meaningful relationships with others, partner with adults, co-create with other children and adults, predict possible outcomes, plan short-term and long-term goals considering their current situation, and understand how they can best learn what they want and need to learn in the most effective and enjoyable way. These are all very advanced skills which most of us often do not expect children to demonstrate. Yet, children from their early years are fully capable of demonstrating these skills when adequately supported.
But most of all, Child-Led Self-Directed Play helps nurture children’s Leadership Mindset We’ve been using this approach with our son, who is now 12, and he’s been home-schooled and world-schooled his entire life. He’s never received any structured or formal teaching, all has always been fully child-led and self-directed. To give you more tangible examples, he has learned to read and write in two languages completely on his own - with us only facilitating the process by offering him the most enabling environments possible and helping to expose him to written and spoken word in both languages. Now he is fully bilingual, and because he could explore his literacy skills in his own time and manner, and he coupled this with his observation and reflection skills - he’s developed a great interest in writing his own novels, script writing, scene setting and movie directing.
4. Do you feel early child-hood education practitioners are implementing this style of learning enough?
As we mentioned earlier, Child-Led Self-Directed Play and Personalised Learning are one of the most advanced approaches and, because they seem simple, the most misunderstood ones. Many educators still confuse them with play-based learning and child-centred learning which are not the same. Play has recently received more interest than ever before, but since the world of education is still very much oriented towards academic achievements, many educators fear that Child-Led Play will not bring expected (measurable) learning outcomes. From our own professional experience, we can honestly say that a very small percentage of early years educators globally are able to effectively implement Child-Led Play in their early years settings. We estimate that the interest in this approach will grow significantly as we enter a Global Paradigm Shift in education, and more and more ambitious educators, business people, thought leaders and parents will see the need for change and bringing forward approaches that would more effectively and holistically support the children and generations to come.
5. What are your impressions of early childhood development in the UAE and wider Middle East?
This is our first visit in the region and we are yet to develop a deeper first-hand understanding of the situation here. Since we travel extensively, we’ve developed quite a deep understanding of educational advancement on a global and local scale. When travelling as both professionals and a family, we like to develop our understanding of a region or a country by seeing what this country or this region offers to their children citizens. This reveals the condition of a general educational thought and mindset. The more the given country cherishes children as citizens and understands their importance for the future well-being of the country, the more it is evident in everyday life even if you are a visitor. It’s very easy to notice - one visit to a playground, a public library or even a museum is enough. The more high quality and interactive play spaces available for children publicly and child-friendly infrastructure, the more the children are supported to grow to their full potential. Introducing unified and highest standards in early years education that go far beyond health, safety, safeguarding and care reflects country’s ambitions and deep understanding of children’s role in shaping our future world.
We are happy to see that the UAE, and hopefully other countries in the MENA region take steps towards offering opportunities and child-friendly facilities for children to creatively express themselves and explore their unique gifts and talents.
This hopefully will soon be more evident in the quality of the infrastructure offered to children and families - the way the modern technology is used to support learning, and the way the environment in general creates safe and very inspiring contexts for children to engage in. We’d love to see, and this is regardless of the geographical region, that children are celebrated and that play is not only a reward or an addition to life, but a very important aspect of everyday life that children are entitled to.
The region seems to ambitiously go beyond just good early years care while making sure the highest and rigorous standards are in place. And this is generally where approaches such as Child-Led Self-Directed Play, Personalised Learning and Nurturing Children’s Leadership Mindset can be effectively introduced. Without solid foundations and clearly outlined standards it is impossible to successfully offer these innovative approaches.
6. What more can the education sector do in this region to nurture children’s leadership skills?
As I already mentioned, strong foundations have to be in place and they need to be rigorously maintained because they offer a platform for children to develop their leadership skills in a child-friendly, fast and joyful manner. The effective implementation of high quality Child Care Learning and Development standards is one example of standardising education and care, and this has to happen on a systemic basis in order to achieve desirable outcomes. Safe, inspiring, enabling environments and positive pedagogy that help children unlock their potential are the pre-requisites. In general, this should be carried out in collaboration with various sectors, not only between early years providers. The advancement of educational thought requires thorough understanding of the new approaches, the successful implementation of Child-Led Self-Directed Play in general, and the engagement of all people involved including play spaces and toy designers, policy makers, teachers, parents, event organisers, learning spaces planners, teacher trainers, quality control and inspection bodies, etc. Most of all, it requires passion and trust in our children’s immense gifts and talents, as well as the understanding of our role in helping them grow and use these gifts in every day life for the benefit of all. The region seems to go beyond the necessary foundations and this makes it so much easier to expand people’s awareness and offer specific solutions.
When it comes to Early Years Education sector, then definitely robust teacher training must always be in place - because Child-Led Play and Personalised Learning put teachers in a completely different role than the traditional understanding. They require changing one’s perspective and habits, and call for knowing how to facilitate learning where the child is the guide, and at the same time how to align these approaches with national standards and local requirements without adding extra hassle on the teachers’ side.
International conferences and shows such as Playworld Middle East offer delegates access not only to innovative products and solutions in the industry, but also to subject matter experts and CPD training. This in turn allows various sectors to collaborate, exchange expertise, get inspired and co-create. This seems like a natural next-level step to take - bring different industries together to work for the greater good.
Another thing is offering people tangible solutions and allowing them to experience the new quality, and this is what the region seems to be doing really well. Using innovative solutions and technology as a tool to creating high quality learning experiences and play spaces is an art in itself and a display of mastery that every educator should aspire to achieve. When this is evident and can be experienced in an every day life of the citizens and the people visiting the country or the region, this is indeed a great achievement and a way to set exemplary standards for other countries to follow.
7. How does one go about nurturing a child’s leadership skills in early years education?
Personalising learning experiences is the key tool to making sure child’s individual and natural leadership skills have a chance to emerge. To start offering a personalised learning path it is necessary to enable environments for all children under our care so that they can explore the world safely using all their senses and discover what kind of contexts best support them and help them express themselves in a natural way. Enabling environments refers not only to physical contexts, but most importantly to the pedagogy style we offer as parents, educators, and learning and play spaces designers. Whether the learning environments are safe, child-friendly and inspiring, and to what extent we allow for safe risk-taking, experimenting with tools, toys, resources and various contexts. When we allow children to explore the environments in the way they need and prefer, and not the way we adults want them to, this helps them discover their true gifts, lets them know themselves well, and promotes positive self-image. This approach is not about letting children do whatever they want without caring what is happening. Rather, it’s more about facilitating the journey for them, making sure they have a chance to discover safe boundaries, naturally adjust their behaviour to the environments and consider their own and that of other people’s needs and, when necessary, the limitations of contexts. This all helps children naturally develop sensitivity and consideration for other people. It nurtures the ability to best adjust their behaviour to a given context and honour their individual needs and preferences. Again, to Enable Environments effectively educators not only need to have a deep understanding of child’s learning and development, but they also need to become masters of Child-Centred Unbiased Observation which opens the door to offering truly personalised learning paths for individual children.
8. Why are you so passionate about this particular topic?
We both grew up under a very conservative educational system where an individual, in this case a child, had and still has little space not only to explore who they really are, but also to decide about their preferred ways of learning. We experienced first-hand how constant comparisons to others, testing and the necessity to prove oneself worthy took a toll on us as adults. It took us years to go beyond the conditioning that we received as children and how this blueprint affected our life choices, our confidence and readiness to share our natural gifts with the world. We always felt a strong sense of wanting to make a change, and this is why we became teachers and then teacher trainers. It’s much easier to facilitate the change when the society and the country has strong appreciation for children and understands how important it is to support them from their very early years, and how doing so will eventually positively affect our future generations. Running our own early years provision in the UK and aligning it with very high and rigorous industry standards, and then working as assessors, inspecting other early years providers, training teachers in the UK and beyond, and home schooling our own son - we’ve collected more than enough evidence of how Positive Pedagogy and Personalised Child-Led Learning and Play can make a massive change in children’s life, and how they can nurture their Leadership Mindset.
Finally, travelling the world extensively and collaborating with educational institutions worldwide we’ve developed deep insights into the condition of early years education in general, and now we understand why certain approaches don’t work and will never work, while other approaches will empower children regardless of their cultural background. We consider ourselves citizens of the world, and we feel it’s our duty to support children and ambitious educators around the world to facilitate the Global Paradigm Shift in Education - because every child deserves to be offered the most nurturing environments to grow to their fullest potential.
9. Tell us about both of your backgrounds?
We both are fully UK-qualified Teacher Trainers and Early Childhood Professionals with over 20 years of experience. UK-certified Assessors-Evaluators in Early Years Professional Status, National Vocational Qualifications in Child Care Learning and Development, and National Vocational Qualifications in Playwork. We were responsible for assessing the quality of Early Childhood Education and Care provisions in the UK. Now acting as Independent Consultants we are in charge of training other Early Years Professionals and Parents.
We both specialise in Intuitive Parenting, Positive Pedagogy, Child-Led and Self-Directed Play, Personalised Learning, Multi-Sensory Learning, Cross-Curricular Education, Multicultural Learning, Entrepreneurial Education and Multilingualism. We have worked hands-on with hundreds of children of all ages all over the world, taught at universities and colleges (Kingston University, The Tribal Education Group, The JGA Group), managed own schools and early years provision in the UK, designed curricula and teaching resources for many international educational institutions.
Approved by the European Commission to evaluate educational initiatives and projects funded by the EU. Collaborated on various international educational projects with clients from the USA, Australia, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, China and South East Asia.
In private life, we are world schooling parents (for over 12 years now) adopting the Child-Led and Natural Learning approaches to plan our son’s learning and development.
10. Is there anything else you’d like to add that helps spread your key messages ahead of speaking at Paperworld Middle East?
The most important message for us all to understand is that what we offer our children right now will in turn shape what they will able and ready to offer their children and generations to come. The world needs positive, self-confident and compassionate leaders and that the education absolutely needs to go beyond academic skills, technical tools and solutions, and even so called “soft skills”. The education needs to go from offering the same and uniform knowledge to everyone, towards celebrating individuality and helping every child reach their full potential. The goal of modern education is no longer to prepare our children for jobs, but rather to help them create new work culture, new business models, and introduce innovations. The main goal is to help children unlock their natural gifts and talents, nurture their leadership mindset, and empower them so that they are able live happy and fulfilling lives and inspire others to do the same.
11. Finally, you’re both speaking at Paperworld Middle East next month – what is the significance of speaking at the show for you?
We all need to understand that Nurturing Children’s Natural Leadership Mindset is a collective responsibility and is not only parents’ or educators’ role. More than that, it’s in the interest of all of us as this applies not only to the education sector but equally to businesses, policy makers, wider society, culture influencers, etc. This is why the collaboration between various sectors is necessary, and this is why we are here. We need play spaces designers, policy makers, educators, trainers, business people, thought leaders, and parents to share their expertise and experience. We need start working together to facilitate the change and go beyond discussion towards massive action. We are here to share our ideas as well as tangible systematic solutions that have been tested and proven to be successful.