Sometimes being an academic is quite a good job

In this post Jonathan Rix reflects upon his recent visit to the University of Debrecen to present on a project exploring the development of an early years, rights respecting pedagogy with OU colleagues Eleonora Teszenyi and Natalie Canning and John Parry.

You may not share this feeling, but it always amazes me when colleagues show an interest in my research. It is even more amazing when they ask me to share it with an international audience. You can imagine the state of my amazement then when Eleonora Teszenyi and Natalie Canning invited myself and John Parry to go and present at a conference they were organising in Debrecen, Hungary. The conference was focussing upon their fantastic project exploring the development of an early years, rights respecting pedagogy with Hungarian practitioners. During this project the University of Debrecen with whom Eleonora and Natalie had been collaborating had shown an interest in In-the-Picture, an observational method which John and I have been working with for over a decade. As a result the Dean of the Faculty of Education for Children and Special Educational Needs, expressed an in interest in meeting with us, and so we were invited to join the Conference as keynote speakers.


What an inspiring few days it was. It began with visits to a kindergarten and a nursery. As ever, exploring practice in another country reveals so much about your own presumptions and priorities as well as those of the place you are visiting. It was fascinating, for example, to see how immaculate the spaces were. I have never been to such neat and tidy, spotlessly clean early years settings. It was also fascinating to explore with the academics, centre managers and practitioners the issue of outdoor activity. We were told by some that there was lots of outdoor play, by others that there was very little and by others that it depended on the weather and time of year. It was evident though that the children are not trusted outside the walls of the building in the way I have experienced in Scandinavian countries, perhaps even a little less than in the UK.


We were then fortunate enough to spend an hour talking to the University academics about In-the-Picture and then to hear about their own research interests. This enabled us to have a fascinating discussion about the nature of academic careers, the experiences of the local Roma community, the nature of young people’s experiences in football academies, and whether we need to reconceptualise the nature of play. This last point seemed to revolve around a need for practitioners to accept that the established theoretical models of play miss the point and a child at play is only understandable to the child itself within that moment. I say ‘seemed’ because as is so often the case when visiting another country, we were reliant upon the skills and generosity of a volunteer translator. Ours was a gem.


The conference was the next day. At its core were practitioners. Each was introduced by an academic from the core research team and then went on to unpack one of the central themes from the rights respecting pedagogy model. People talked about children’s autonomy and self-expression; the importance of the social, emotional and material environment and of people who matter to the children. They then talked about their experiences of meeting the basic needs of life along with adult dominance in most contexts, finishing with a discussion of the play of freedom. This was entirely suited to what followed; a puppet show re-presenting the findings from the research. This show had been created by Vojtina Puppet Theatre. The theatre, which was also the venue for the conference had been established in 1975 and become Debrecen’s official puppet theatre in 1993. The show which this incredibly skilled company put on drew directly upon the data from the research in ways that were uplifting, provocative and highly entertaining. The full show should be ready in a years time, but John and I both felt certain that it will not only brilliantly represent the work of the researchers but also engage a great many children, families and practitioners over the coming years. It was and is a splendid, innovative and creative approach to the sharing of findings.


So then it came to John and me. We did our best. Our translator was there once more, so maybe we were improved in translation? After the puppet show and all those practitioners, two old bearded blokes must have felt like a bit of a come down. BUT the audience joined in with our activities. They did not leave. They seemed to enjoy themselves. Perhaps more reassuringly, the Dean subsequently raised the possibility of working with us on developing In-the-Picture in a Hungarian context.


What an honour and privilege it had been.

There is more information about the project available here: “It’s so good just to be”: Understanding Children’s Rights Through Pedagogic Practice in Hungary | Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies (

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Kindness- and why it matters.

In this article Marina Postlethwaite Bowler ECYS staff tutor and AL explores kindness and its importance.

“Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.” Henry James.

Sometimes the worst day can be totally changed by a stranger’s smile. The “small, tiny moments” really matter the most. We should all try a little harder to live each day, remembering to spread a little kindness around to others, family, friends, or total strangers.

Unfortunately, this works both ways. It’s never a nice feeling if someone is rude or mean, however much we try to distance ourselves from such things, they always impact our day. When we feel open and spacious it’s easier to be kind to others, but when unsure, tired, frustrated we tend to move away from social contact and connection. So, how about spreading kindness through your day? Treating others as you yourself would like to be treated. If more people tried to live this way, the world would just be that little bit better.

“How do we change the world? One random act of kindness at a time” Morgan Freeman.

So how can we be kinder to ourselves and others?

  • It starts with us! –most of us would like to think we are kind to others, but can we be kind to another if we are not able to be kind to ourselves?
  • How often do we treat ourselves differently from how we would a friend/loved one?
  • Show compassion to yourself and others-research has shown a decrease in bullying, increased feelings of well-being and a rise in the practice of compassionate behaviour to all living beings.
  • Say kind things to yourself and others- You might think being kind is soft, it’s maybe even weak, but being kind doesn’t have to be soft, it can be fierce too.
  • Small acts of kindness can really affect not only our own mood, but other people’s mood as well- They don’t have to be massive things, maybe you share your snack with someone, help someone to lift something heavy or buy someone a coffee let a mum and her hungry impatient children skip to the front of the queue. The person receiving the kindness feels good, and you feel good too when that person thanks you or smiles back. You have a moment of connection,
  • We can show kindness in different ways Loving-kindness meditation (sometimes called “metta” meditation) is a great way to cultivate our propensity for kindness. It involves mentally sending goodwill, kindness, and warmth towards others by silently repeating kind words and thoughts in our mind.
  • Be there to listen to others when they need you to.
  • Read and research “kindness” For example “The Happy Newspaper” celebrates all that is good in the world:
  • Practise gratitude-people who practise gratitude and notice the things they are thankful for are happier and have a greater sense of wellbeing. Try and think of a few things in the morning or before you got to bed. You could tell someone in your household or write them down. Actively focus on the positives of your day.
  • Self-care-keeping healthy routines and rituals are an important way to look after yourself.
  • Practise mindfulness- a way of thinking – focusing on the here and now. You can mindfully do almost anything – eat a meal, brush your teeth, or choosing to go for a walk mindfully.
  • Taking a breath and distracting yourself-can give you a short break from negative thoughts and a chance to reduce anxiety.
  • Become your own coach or cheerleader will help you quiet your inner critic, try to have compassion for yourself like you would for anybody you care about.
  • Create community- build a social circle with people who have positive energy. Spending time with positive people encourages you to focus on the good as well.
  • Finding your passion-consider giving yourself time to do things that bring YOU joy.


The more we practice kindness and compassion, the easier and more natural it becomes, until that energy expands like the tide rising- it’s like a good habit. We feel willing to open the gift of kindness to other people, animals, plants, and our planet.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”. Maya Angelou”



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Bilingualism – The key to another world? / Dwyieithrwydd – allwedd i fyd arall?

In this post Carys Jennings, an OU Primary Curriculum Tutor on the PGCE Wales course, outlines how the Welsh language is supported by the education system and curriculum in Wales and discusses the benefits of bilingualism. It would be great to hear your experiences and views about these issues- please leave a comment.


Celebrating diversity, culture and heritage is such an important aspect of education. To educate is to open minds, to see possibilities and participate in new experiences. When peeking through the door of another world, the environment, rituals and customs that are part of cultural traditions can be sampled and appreciated. However, when we add to that mix the language that is spoken, it often opens up a whole host of new opportunities that couldn’t have been imagined previously.

‘One language sets you on a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way’



Educating learners in Wales means affording our youngest citizens with the ability to learn two languages. Welsh and English are given equal legal status within education and beyond, with the Welsh Government’s pledge to reach a million Welsh speakers by 2050 being testimony to its commitment to ensure thriving Welsh communities (Welsh Government, 2020). With this in mind, ensuring schools encourage and produce ethically informed citizens who can, with increased confidence speak Welsh is imperative.

Our youngest children usually start full time education in reception classes at the age of 4 years with many having attended preschool and nursery classes prior to that. One such example is the Welsh medium preschool provisions in Wales run by Mudiad meithrin that ( has long held the view that growing up bilingual is to be celebrated – two languages mean two options.

The national education reform currently underway sees the roll out of Curriculum for Wales (2022) across all primary and Year 7 in secondary schools. The content of the curriculum is delivered as a balance of bespoke areas and a blend of the areas brought together by purposeful contexts with the ‘four purposes’ and ‘6 areas of learning and experience’ guiding the way ( ). One of these areas of learning and experience is Languages, literacy and communication which aims to support learning across the whole curriculum and to enable learners to gain knowledge and skills in Welsh, English and international languages as well as in literature ( ). Note that the word ‘languages’ is highlighted to promote the diversity of speakers here in Wales and to demonstrate an acknowledgement of their background. Literacy is also given additional attention along with numeracy and digital competency as being one of the cross-curricular responsibilities that all teachers should promote and develop across all areas of the curriculum.

From a cognitive perspective learning additional languages during infancy and early childhood is thought to be easier as it will probably happen within an experiential context making more sense for the developing child to understand meaning as it occurs.

Singing songs, reciting rhymes, playing games and engaging in language rich environments are the bedrock of language learning in classes across the nation. Creating experiences where talk is encouraged, interaction is planned for and developing opportunities to share are constants on a practitioner’s planning for learning. Activities that begin as a whole class or group directed task is then broadened within the learning environment so that the children can use, practise and consolidate their understanding of this newfound treasure trove of words. Each element of learning a language requires time, space and resources to promote effective engagement and enjoyment. A significant part of the planning involves knowing where each child is at as regards his or her ability to speak the languages and prepare accordingly to support progression.

As a former classroom teacher and early years lead it was essential that children heard high quality use of language, were exposed to print on a regular basis throughout the indoor & outdoor environment and were encouraged to communicate in a plethora of ways.

Many of the children came from an English-speaking background to our Welsh medium school, one method to aid the learning would be the sandwich method where a word would be said in Welsh – English – Welsh so that the learner was exposed to and able to understand in her own language also maintaining wellbeing. This can be used for any language and is an effective way to encourage participation.

Talk time was a daily activity when each child had 10 minutes exclusively with an adult to discuss whatever they deemed important to them – a story, a song, an experience they’d had or getting their personal items shoebox and talking about an item that was special to them. This allowed the child to be the lead or more able other and the adult to listen, support and prompt in a sensitive manner.

Letter fun involved creating a collection of objects that matched the letter of the week – these all started with the letter. HOWEVER children also need to recognise letters in the middle and at the end of words so we would sing or recite:

B is the letter of the week

Bin begins with b.

B in rubber at the end of web

Our letter of the week is B.


C yw llythyren yr wythnos hon

C am cot, cap, ci.

C yn bwced ar ddiwedd tanc.

C yw’n llythyren ni.


We would search for hidden letters during letter hunts and using coloured pens highlight letters in old newspapers or magazines.

Pointing, modelling and intonation was another strategy that gave the children cue and clues when learning new vocabulary and phrases. We would point to objects or show what we meant by doing or modelling the activity so that the words had meaning in the first instance. Changing the tone of speech along with body language are effective ways of supporting acquisition.

Interestingly during the pandemic in 2020, Welsh became the fastest growing language in the UK with many turning to popular apps to support their language journey. Potentially this could be an additional means of supporting language learning in settings and schools especially with parents. Utilising resources that further support individuals in an engaging way could enhance the learner experience.

Marian & Shook (2012) highlight that the neurological benefits of bilingualism extend from early childhood to old age as the brain more efficiently processes information and staves off cognitive decline. There are also social benefits of being able to engage in different pastimes and employability benefits of being bilingual.

We are now a globalized people with opportunities that are far reaching, since the late decades of 1900’s bilingualism has become a popular discussion point and it is now recognised as beneficial not only to the individual but to society as whole. Bilingualism can open doors to new possibilities and to a new understanding from differing perspectives. Unlock that hidden world – start today!



Some words & phrases

Shwmae! – Hi there!

Sut wyt ti? – How are you?

Croeso – Welcome / your welcome

Diolch yn fawr – Thank you very much

Llongyfarchiadau! – Congratulations


Further reading:

Daily Welsh on Pinterest

Hamman-Ortiz, L. (2020) Identity and two-way bilingual education: considering student perspectives: introduction to the special issue. Available at:

Smith, F (1992) To think: in language, learning and education. London: Routledge

Welsh Government (2022) Welsh medium and bilingual education. Available at:

Welsh Government (2017) Cymraeg 2050: A million Welsh speakers. Available at:



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Do you know a Martian?

Two children in astronaut costumes

[Image courtesy of No permissions required ]

It’s World Space Week- and did you know that NASA have said that the first people who will set foot on Mars are already alive, which means they are the children we are working with right now (NASA’s Next Giant Leap | NASA ) We know that our youngest children are creative, curious and ready to be inspired and Space Week gives us an opportunity to focus on providing the STEM activities that will inspire them to reach for the stars. In 2018 the European Journal of STEM Education published a special issue dedicated to STEM in early childhood education and the editorial highlighted the issue that often practitioners are wary of venturing into the field of STEM because ‘explorations quickly become messy and unpredictable, and children can ask questions that are difficult to answer’ (van Keulen, 2018, p. 2).  For some people not knowing the ‘right’ answer cuts across well-established ideas of what being an educator is,  but in early childhood education and care settings child-led learning approaches underpin all elements of best practice so we should embrace the opportunity to get all the children we work with seeing themselves as scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians.

An illustration of a planet and a spacecraft

An illustration from Dr Joanna Barstow’s Alien Story

If you are looking for ideas about how to develop more STEM activities in your work there are plenty of free resources available. Dr Joanna Barstow, Lecturer in Astronomy in the School of Physics Sciences at the Open University wrote and illustrated a story about an alien looking for the perfect planet which is available to watch here Alien story – YouTube and the free OU course ‘Living on the Moon’ has lots of experiments and activities to help children find out what they need to know in order to be that first Martian (OLCreate: PUB_3578_1.0 S.T.A.R.S Project Teacher CPD : Living on the Moon ( ). English LE Landing page | Early years STEM (  has a wide range of free resources that outline activities and show how they relate to different aspects of STEM and identifies children’s books that can help develop learning.

This Space Week why not take a moment to think about what STEM learning you are doing- talking about the weather, using building blocks, videoing activities, looking at autumn leaves and see how you could build on that to get your children closer to getting on that rocket. Let us know your ideas and share your tips and resources in the comments below.


Van Keulen, H. (2018) STEM in Early Childhood Education European Journal of STEM Education (PDF) STEM in Early Childhood Education (

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Why we need to get children moving

This month’s post is written by Dr Jackie Musgrave, Associate Head of School (ECYS) for Learning and Teaching

A recent tweet from EdPsychEd (@EdPsychEd) has really made me wonder if we are losing sight of the importance of physical activity for very young children? The tweet reminds us that if a child appears to not be listening during lessons, it doesn’t mean that they are being disrespectful.  The tweet goes on to say that children are often sensitive to internal and external influences that can impact on their ability to listen.  Such influences include the possibility that a child may need a toilet break, or something to eat, or their clothes may be itchy, or they may need to get outside and move around.  However, children are increasingly finding themselves in environments that constrict and/or restrict their opportunities and ability to move their bodies. For example, babies can spend a great deal of time in ‘containers’, in buggies, car seats, slings and highchairs.

Every September, many children are starting school for the first time, and in England some children will only just have celebrated their 4th birthday.  If they have attended a pre-school nursery setting, they will go from an environment where they have relative freedom to move between activities, and in many nurseries, children are given the choice to move freely between the indoor and outdoor areas.  As an Ofsted report stated, ‘We know that in the early years, a crucial part of preparing children for school is developing their muscular strength and dexterity. The best nurseries recognise this and encourage children to be busy and active’.(Ofsted 2018, p 270)

But once they are in ‘big’ school they are expected to sit for prolonged periods of time, either at tables or often for school assemblies, sitting on the floor with their legs crossed.  This experience can be made even more uncomfortable by having to wear an unfamiliar school uniform; in addition, playtime and outdoor access is often limited and regimented.

So how do the changes in children’s lives and these restrictions affect their physical health?  We are all aware of the ‘obesity epidemic’ and in part, this is attributed to reports and concerns about the overall reduction in children’s physical activity.  However, physical activity is important for all areas of babies’ and children’s development and critically, it is also vital for children’s mental health.

The restrictions caused by the pandemic have had an impact on children’s physical activity and their development.  For children who live in housing and within communities that are not conducive to supporting children to move freely, the restrictions have had a negative impact.   Findings from another Ofsted report highlights that the impact has been more profound on children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

It is imperative that we recognise that all adults have a shared responsibility to create environments that facilitate and enable children’s physical movement.

As a response to concerns about the need to support children’s physical development, the Open University, Public Health England and ActiveMatters have produced a free online course aimed at professionals and parents, here is the link



Ofsted (2018) The Annual Report of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills 2017/18. Available from

Ofsted (October 2020) COVID-19 series: briefing on early years, October 2020 Evidence from research interviews with 208 registered early years providers and maintained nursery schools between 5 and 16 October. Available from COVID-19 series – briefing on early years – October 2020 ( accessed 7 January 2021


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Innovating children’s stories: from concrete to abstract talk and back to our senses

Happy New Year everyone! This month the post is written by Professor Natalia Kucirkova of The Open University

Good books enable us to better understand others as well as ourselves. Children’s books are the first encounter young readers have in establishing this understanding. Authors use various techniques to engage children in the story-plot and draw them into a fictional story world. Unlike in fiction books for adults, in children’s books, it is both the illustrations and text that influence children’s learning and enjoyment of a story. A technique that engages children in the story but that is not yet fully researched for its learning potential, is personalization. In my projects, I have been exploring the learning value of children’s personalized stories.

Personalized stories and parent-child difference

 In our recent study (Bruheim Jensen, Studsrød & Kucirkova, 2021) with eleven Norwegian families reading personalized books at home, we noticed some differences between children’s and parents’ focus during reading of personalized books. The books the families read together were customized to the individual children with the main story character carrying the child’s name and looking similar to the child in terms of hair and eye colour. The story plot was about the key story character travelling to Alaska and meeting a bear, who later became the children’s best friend and experienced an adventure with them in the mountains. The parents reported that their children were very enthusiastic about seeing themselves in the book and excited to have an unusual character (a bear) as their friend. The adults, on the other hand, were most interested in the learning quality of the story – were the words and story plot good enough to expand their children’s language? While they liked their child being reflected in the story, they commented on the unlikelihood of their child travelling to Alaska. The parents seemed to have preferred to have the story placed in Norway. The findings made us wonder how many elements would need to be personalized and made specifically about the child for parents to engage with a story as much as the children. The study made us think about the importance of parents in bridging children’s understanding of self and others in personalized stories through abstraction.

The importance of abstract talk in reading

Parents play a crucial role in bridging children’s understanding of self and others. Young children tend to think in concrete terms focusing on the immediate images and text of the book, but adults can engage them in abstract thinking. When children share a book together with their parents, the parents can lift the conversation to an abstract level. Indeed, one of the most beneficial features of parents’ talk during reading is the level of abstractness in their speech. Researchers therefore often explore whether the parents ask the child concrete questions like ‘what is happening in the story’, or more abstract questions like ‘why is this happening in the story’? The more parents engage the child’s thinking on an abstract level, the more likely they are to help with the child’s language learning. In research we call it ‘inferencing’ and it occurs when adults connect the book’s content to the world outside the world. Parents can boost children’s understanding of self and others by making a reference to “possible worlds” or imagined places. Such abstract talk takes the child out of their current thinking about what is on the page to what could be on the page. For example parents can ask, ‘why is this character unhappy?’ or ‘do you think bathing in the lake is a good idea, why do you think so?’

Exploring abstract talk in personalized books

In a project funded by ESRC and focused on digital personalized books, we explored the extent to which parents needed to to draw children out to get them to talk more abstractly. In a study with twenty-six British mothers and their three-to-four-year-old children, we analysed both mothers’ and children’s speech that they produced during the reading of the digital books personalized to the child. We found that the children engaged mostly in concrete, self-focused talk using first-person pronouns such as me, I and my. Their mothers, on the other hand, talked mostly about other story characters. Their talk was characterised by some abstraction (inference), but this occurred only as often as talk focused on immediate identification of key characters and happenings in the book. These insights show that personalized books, where the child is the main story character, might not be the best way to support abstract speech during children’s reading, neither for the child nor for the parent reading with them.

Abstraction through interactivity

Another technique that is popular in children’s contemporary reading and that I explored in my follow-up studies, is interactivity. In children’s digital books, interactivity can be a place in a book that the child needs to touch for a story to progress or interactive music. In fictional interactive books, children are provided with the information about the unknown story characters and clues about the characters’ experiences and the world they inhabit. Readers have to imagine the world in their own minds, using their imagination and actively engaging their existing knowledge and schema. In visual representation of stories, such as films, video games and virtual reality, there is less of this active imagination happening than with pure text. This is because multimedia representations do not give clues but directly provide images and sounds. The trend in multimedia development is to increase the input from the producer and reduce the imagination work of the spectator. In the so-called hyper-reality and 5D experiences, which engage all five senses, including smell and touch, spectators have minimal space to bring in their own imagination. They become owned by the story representation that is served to them and are positioned as a more passive than active meaning-maker. This is not beneficial for children’s abstract thinking.

In my current project, I therefore explore how stories that engage children’s visual, haptic and olfactory senses, connect to their abstract thinking. Together with colleagues at the University of Stavanger, we are currently prototyping books that are easy to touch and that emit various scents to engage children at specific points in the story. Whether the presence of scents and getting a concrete sensory clue prompts more or less of abstract talk among the children, is an open question we will explore in the next three years.


Bruheim Jensen, I. B., Studsrød, I.m & Kucirkova, N. (2021) Høytlesning av personaliserte bøker for førskolebarn: Foreldres barneperspektiver og opplevelser. Barn.

Kucirkova, N., Gattis, M., Spargo, T. P., de Vega, B. S., & Flewitt, R. (2021). An empirical investigation of parent-child shared reading of digital personalized books. International Journal of Educational Research, 105, 101710.


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Playful engagements to investigate children’s conceptions

By Dr Sarah Jane Mukherjee (The Open University) and Dr Lucía Bugallo (CONICET-Universidad del Comahue, Argentina)

Research into how children conceive of significant aspects of their lives offers insights into their understanding of the world and importantly the way in which childhoods are experienced.  It has implications for design of pedagogy and how pedagogies are able to engage and expand those experiences.

Research by the Play and Learning Scholars (PALS) aims to understand how young children of 5 and 7 years old conceive of play and its relation to learning in five sites across different countries (Argentina, Denmark, Hong Kong, the UK and US). Understanding young children’s conceptions of their worlds is a challenge: How can we capture the process of constructing and communicating a worldview? What are the ways in which children best express themselves? What kind of tasks can we offer to maintain engagement? What cultural considerations should be made? Sensitive to the aims of the research and our young participants, a playful engagement was developed for the study and employed across the five different sites. This blog outlines the features of the engagement highlighting the decisions made that were intended to offer a social and enjoyable encounter in which the children could be deeply involved and in which they would feel comfortable to think and express themselves.

Card design: Building on previous work by members of the project team, we developed a card sorting activity as the foundation of the first part of the participant engagement. We designed a set of 36 cards with line drawings depicting children (alone and with peers) and adults engaged in different activities, some of which were ‘playful’, such as swinging or hula hooping, and some  ‘everyday’ activities such as laying the table or tying shoelaces.  The team members all agreed the activities represented to ensure that they would be familiar for the children in the different cultural contexts.

Card sorting activity: In the engagement itself we started by explaining to the children that we, as adults, needed their expert help to understand how they think about play, and each child was invited to spread the cards out on a table. Then, the child was asked to sort cards that they thought represented play and not play and separately learning and not learning. Placing the cards in two separate baskets each time, the child sorted the cards four times. The children delighted in this activity, sometimes selecting cards in silence and sometimes articulating their thoughts about the activity depicted on the card and their decision, sometimes changing their minds. After the first sort, excited utterances such as ‘I know what to do’ showed that the children were actively involved in the task, and the familiarity of the task seems to increase their enjoyment of the activity.

Card selecting activity and an invitation to reflect on play: Having enjoyed the card sorting activity, the children were relaxed and engaged, and this was a perfect moment to pose some guided questions. This part of the engagement aimed to probe for details around affective and social factors that may have influenced their choices of activities that were play/ not-play and learning/ not-learning. To do this, the child was invited again to spread out the cards and select the one they thought was most representative taking play, not-play, learning and not-learning in turn. For each we asked the child to justify their selection with an open question and prompts to encourage her/ him to explain the reasons for their choices. Some children offered quite detailed explanations, such as this five-year-old girl from Argentina:

‘Because I love playing with play dough, I want to learn to make the dough, and I love playing with dough at kindergarten. I always play and I have some to make gnocchi, to make a sausage and then cut the gnocchi. Then we make a ball, I press it like this and I put little olives and make a pizza to give to the teacher’.


The children reflected on their own and other’ preferences and experiences, like this seven-year-old boy from the UK: ‘Because you can dress-up anything in your imagination and you can pretend you are a monster or a bear or a superhero, and it makes me feel really happy, really, and sets my imagination free’.

Teaching a puppet: Then the fun really started. A complete shift in the engagement surprised the children as they were invited to play teacher. The researcher told the child that they had a friend they’d like them to meet – the puppets Zim and Rikko. As the puppet came from a planet on which they didn’t play/learn, the children were asked to ‘teach’ Zim to play and Rikko to learn. Some children offered instructions of a game, like this 5-year-old from Denmark: ‘Soap bubbles: You just have to blow with force but you have to do it slowly with force’. Some children focused on the attitudes that best favour playing or learning, like this 5-year old boy from US: ‘If you wanna play you have to be nice’, or focused on the affective state that emerges during play: ‘Playing will make you laugh. If you laugh, then it shows that you are happy. When you are happy, you will know that you are playing’ (7-year-old girl, Hong Kong). A 7-year-old from the UK explained to Zim what is play through these words: ‘Playing is where you have to be with somebody else and it’s like a board game or something, or cards, and you can take turns on doing it, and you can get frustrated sometimes, maybe, when people take you over’.

This playful engagement offered the children a way of expressing their own voices allowing them to reflect on their ideas of play and its relation to learning and in so doing, the research team were rewarded with a rich data set.

Sarah Jane Mukherjee and Lucía Bugallo

This project was funded by the LEGO Foundation.

PALS Project Team members [in alphabetical order of RA]: Lucía Bugallo & Nora Scheuer (IPEHCS-CONICET-Universidad del Comahue), Doris Cheng (Tung Wah College),        Sarah Jane Mukherjee & Teresa Cremin (The Open University), Jill Popp (The LEGO Foundation), Marcia Preston & Roberta Golinkoff (University of Delaware).

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Sharing Recipes for a Modern Childhood

This month our post is written by Karen Horsley (lecturer, Early Childhood) and Jill Robertson (Associate lecturer, Early Childhood)


Picture this, what if your challenge was to create an original recipe for modern childhood. What ingredients would you choose from the modern childhood pantry? Will the mixture be much like your own childhood? Or can you imagine new flavours and ways of mixing things up?

The recipes our students produced:

Like cooking or baking, childhood is so diverse, and there are so many recipes! We asked our students to reflect on their views of modern childhood in our Show & Tell ‘modern childhood’ induction activity. Here’s what they produced, and below are some ‘quotes and common phrases’ they used in their own recipes! As you can see it was full of different fantastic FLAVOURS

  • Fruitful discussions: There was a refreshing look at some super examples of the wide range of materials to ‘spark imagination’ and ‘learning’ including the use of ‘loose parts’, and ‘tuff trays’, all current hot topics and flavours!
  • Lovely passionfruit: A real passion for children, came across in the recipes including ‘I love’ and a ‘respect for play’ which many recognised as ‘an important way to learn’. This was coupled with the ‘importance of rights, voice and choice.’ All were combined with a ‘belief in the child’ and a commitment to ensuring their ‘health and wellbeing are protected’ and that they ‘reach their potential’.
  • Array of exotic tastes: Many were not afraid to bring something unusual to the table. And felt ‘relief’ in the knowledge they could be ‘not afraid to tackle areas such as mental health’ coupled with a keenness to ‘overcome the fear of risky play’.
  • Varying blends: Perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea! But there were some super variations. For example, ‘a fair bit of worry around too much screen time’ was ‘balanced’ nicely with ‘how important technology can be’ and a clear taste for the ‘many benefits of children using technology’.
  • Organic produce: We saw much flavour for ensuring ‘children’s experiences and opinions are at the forefront of their learning environments’. Particularly in reference to the importance of ‘free experiences’ such as “’messy play’ and ‘outdoor experience’ which many recipes included.
  • Unbelievable taste: There was an unbelievable taste and ‘excitement for learning’ that came from swapping recipes! Many ‘rethought ideas or reconsidered topics.
  • Refreshing palate: There were some new fresh and interesting ingredients this year, including ‘the impact of the pandemic’ and the ‘value of discussing mental health’! Each brought their own exciting new flavours and added depth to the existing range of topics considered with a recognition that ‘ today’s society may be quite challenging for our children’.

You will recognise some of your own ingredients here, we have used your thoughts and voices! As you can see, having viewed these recipes we were delighted with the results. All deserved a mention! And collectively they are just incredible.

The next step: 

If you did not have a chance to join in or want to continue your discussions here is your chance, we would love to hear from you. Please remember that following this recipe will produce your own unique results, and these might differ every time!

With that in mind:

  1. What could you produce from this recipe? The end results might amaze you and enhance your skills.
  2. Do you have the key ingredients – a little time, bravery, reflection, and an open mind?
  3. Remember, sharing your own thoughts, not only ignites your passion for learning it brings a lot to the learning of others too!
  4. Can you keep the discussion alive and strive to improve your understanding of childhood?

An Invitation

Most importantly, remember to keep your fire for learning about childhood. Keep exploring innovative ideas and using these super ingredients, we are sure you will continue to surprise yourself. You can start by thinking about:

Who or what has inspired you?

Who would you invite to the conversation and why?

(This could include key people, thinkers, writers, practitioners. What have you read in the media, academic literature?)

Please use the comment box below to tell us more and keep the conversation going!

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Meet the team: part 3

Sarah Jane Mukherjee, Research Associate

I’ve been at the OU since 2009 as a distance student, doctoral student, research assistant and tutor, and now I am a postdoctoral research associate.  Alongside working on OU modules, my current research revolves around reading for pleasure (RfP) and children’s dialogue.  In particular, I’m interested in investigating children’s language to understand their playful interactions and the opportunities for learning in play.  I have worked on a cross-cultural study into children’s and mothers’ conceptions of play and learning in five different countries, and my PhD explored children’s meaning making and learning in classroom role-play.

My ideal holiday destination is La Réunion, a French island in the Indian Ocean.  I studied there many years ago, and as a family we go back as often as we can to visit friends, hike in the sunny mountains, enjoy the beautiful waterfalls, relax on the beaches and eat ‘cari’, which is one of the typical dishes.

I have a number of books on the go at any one time.  I recently finished The Midnight Library by Matt Haig (as an audio book), Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones (kindle), Malamander by Thomas Taylor (children’s short novel) and far too many picture books to list, but my recent favourites include Jabari Jumps by Gaia Cornwall; Jerome by Heart by Thomas Scotto and Olivier Tallec; It’s a no money day by Kate Milner.

In my spare time I love to spend time with my husband and our daughter and the rest of my family including my two young nephews and niece.  We have an allotment, on which we have mainly grown weeds this year, but there’s always next year….

 Carolyn Cooke, Academic Staff Tutor (Education, Childhood, Youth and Sport)

I am a Staff Tutor based in the North of Scotland. I have worked in education as a teacher and teacher educator, with my specialism being music education. I am passionate about what the whole education system can learn from Early Years, particularly the role of play in learning and in educational research. This is something I have  explored in my PhD. I have two children who I play and learn with every day.

 Thanks Carolyn. Can you tell us….

  • The last book you read: The 91 Storey Treehouse with my son.
  • Your ideal holiday destination: Somewhere with a view where I can watch the clouds and light change.
  • What you do in your spare time: Growing as much veg as I can without the creepy crawls eating it first!

Dr Claire Saunders, Education Staff Tutor

I am director of PRAXIS (the Scholarship and Innovation Centre in WELS Faculty) and an Education Staff Tutor in the School of Education, Childhood, Youth and Sport. I started my career as a primary school teacher, moving into higher education in 2006. I work with Associate Lecturers on two Early Childhood modules, working closely with other members of the module teams to try to ensure students have the best possible learning experience. My teaching and research interests lie mainly in the area of the academic writing practices of both lecturers and students, fuelled by the firm belief that writing is a powerful and creative tool for communicating ideas.

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Meet the team: part 2

Mrs Eleonora Teszenyi, Lecturer in Early Childhood

I joined The Open University in September 2019 and previously taught on both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees including the Masters programme in Early Years. Before entering Higher Education, I had worked in the early years sector for 19 years as an early years practitioner, early years teacher, Local Authority advisor and children centre teacher in one of the most disadvantaged areas of Leicestershire. Although working in Higher Education, I have remained close to practice: I am still involved with supporting early years practitioners, and my PhD study focuses on early childhood pedagogy and practice.

Thanks Eleonora. Can you tell us….

The last book you read: I always have at least two books on my bedside cabinet (often more), one of which is fiction. A novel I long to read to switch my brain off at the end of the day. But I must admit, at the write-up stage in my PhD, this feels rather like a luxury so often I pour over research books in preparation for the following day’s writing. Before you condemn me to be rather ‘sad’, let me confess to reading an easy-going novel during my summer leave. Nothing high-brow or particularly sophisticated (without wanting to offend the author), just ‘nice’.  It was by Delia Owens and the title is ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ and offered a bit of escapism.

Your ideal holiday destination: I would very much like to hike on the Inca Trail in Peru, starting from Chillca, up to the lost city of Machu Picchu. I am fascinated by ancient civilisations, although I cannot claim to know too much about them. It is more like an enthusiastic interest of a novice. Once I am in that part of the world, I’d like to travel around in South-America.

What you do in your spare time: Anything that is outdoors. Our family holidays are always about adventure and I love it all: sea kayaking, canoeing on white water, hiking, rock climbing, caving or skiing, they are all fun. I must admit, I am not too keen on biking, particularly not mountain biking.  I also love pottering in the garden, growing our food on our allotment, cooking it all in a cauldron on open fire… you get the picture. Wind in my hair, sun on my face, soaked by rain… I don’t mind but love the snow the most!

Dr Joanne Josephidou, Lecturer in Early Childhood

I joined the Open University in September 2019 but before this, I was a primary school teacher for many years before entering Higher Education, as a teaching fellow, in 2009. I taught on Initial Teacher Education programmes at the University of Cumbria before joining the Early Childhood Studies team at Canterbury Christ Church in September 2014.  I have taught on a variety of modules and have a particular interest in supporting students to develop early research skills. My PhD focused on appropriate pedagogies with young children and how practitioner gender may impact on these.  Currently, I am working collaboratively on a piece of research which focuses on babies’ and toddlers’ opportunities to engage with the outdoor environment and nature.

Thanks Jo. Now tell us…

The last book you read: I discovered Helen Dunmore recently and read lots of her books over the summer; I have really enjoyed them all.

Your ideal holiday destination: France or France or France – I just love it!

What you do in your spare time: I love spending time with my family; I have three sons who make me laugh, wind me up and help me to see the world in a different way.

Dr Lucy Rodriguez-Leon




I joined the Early Childhood Team in 2019 and I work on module E109, Exploring perspectives on young children’s lives and learning. As a former OU student at both undergraduate and postgraduate level, I feel particularly connected to The Open University. Before teaching in Higher Education, I worked at a state-maintained nursery school for 16 years. I still miss working with children, so I really enjoy hearing about our students’ experiences in their early childhood settings.

My PhD focused on early childhood literacies; more specifically, the research explored young children’s everyday encounters with written and multimodal texts, and how their experiences shape their understandings of themselves as readers and writers. I’m a member of the UK Literacy Association and co-convener of the Early Years Special Interest Group, where we advocate for broad and balanced approaches to early literacy education.  I am currently co-writing an online course on promoting reading for pleasure in the primary and EY classroom, which will be freely available on Open Learn in the Autumn.

What do you like to do in your time off?

One of my favourite places to visit is Northumberland, where I like to walk in the Cheviot hills and explore the ruins of Roman forts. It can be a bit wet and windy at times, but the wilderness and spectacular views are simply stunning.

What’s the last book you read? 

I’m currently reading ‘How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America’ by Clint Smith. It’s a hard hitting read, telling of the author’s experiences as he travels to plantations, memorials, cemeteries, museums and prisons connected with slavery in the USA.

What do you do in your spare time?

During lockdown, I discovered a love of gardening and now appreciate the phrase, ‘enjoying the garden’! However, I am a complete novice and have a lot to learn. I also enjoy cooking and dining out!







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