Squiggle thinkers of the early years world unite!

This is another long-meandering blog and again, I apologise. At the start of my blogging plan, I fully intended it to be logical, chronological and planned but instead it will be the stuff of squiggles and scattering; a positioners nightmare. If this spikes your curiosity read on, but hold onto your hats as my squiggling brain is let loose…

When I grasped ahold of the idea of writing a blog, it was in order to find a way of trying to retain some power whilst feeling powerless, and provide a medium for the little voices that keep me awake at night. Those little voices often try to unravel the threads that make up a situation, to reflect as I habitually reflect, in order to better understand the ‘possibilities’. Instead of falling silent, what happened when I pressed ‘publish’ was that those little voices went into overdrive! 

I remember sitting in a conference somewhere, moons ago, and the speaker* drew a square on the board. She suggested that many adults have thoughts and ideas which are square in nature – quite restrained, fixed and logical; more often than not ‘inside the box’.

She drew a circle. She suggested that teachers often want children to think in this way; quite contained, but flexible enough to move in and out in order to take in new learning (I often think that the current government education agenda would perhaps have one straight line rather than a circle; have children in on that conveyor belt, lift the lid, fill the head, ship them out). More flexible adults, who seek new learning, demonstrate this circle thinking.

She drew some messy squiggles with lines coming out. She suggested this demonstrated the thoughts of a pre-schoolers and those with creative brains – the thoughts of endless possibilities; following one idea for a while before another comes along to move the first in another direction. Unfettered and unrestrained this is the foundation of experimentation, of new learning and of new theories about the world. 

I am sure like me EY peeps can make links here between what that speaker proposed and neuroscience – brains under construction, seeking to make new connections and form theories through schematic investigation. The assimilation and accommodation of new understandings as proposed by Piaget. The later pruning of those unused pathways, as the brain becomes more mature and specialised, results in different ways of thinking. However perhaps if we as the ‘more knowledgeable other’, using Vgotsky’s ideas, scaffold children’s explorations and squiggle thinking during the early years, we can support them in the discomfort of not knowing in preparation for learning later on. We can support them to understand that we do not always have the answers, and trying to find a solution is tough (Piaget’s ideas of disequilibrium before new knowledge can be accommodated), but that this is ok. Disequilibrium is healthy and is the stuff of squiggle-thinking possibilities – this is where beautiful creations happen; new ideas, new understandings, new worlds. 

I think that my brain is often constrained to be square when I am in my work role, but at night, or when I am a play partner with a child, my brain turns to squiggles. I am put in mind of when I used to carry a big bag of toys when I went to work in the homes of Pre-school children with complex needs. I remember one particular day, whilst sitting on the floor with a 3 year old boy, his parent saying from her seat on the sofa, with whispering voice, that she found it difficult to play with her child. As if on cue, her child upended the bag and began to set up tea for three, mixing up the colours of saucers and cups and put a car up to his ear to telephone and invite me. My hand had already reached for my own car to reply, when her exasperated voice said “ I mean, look, it is messy, and so illogical!” Needless to say I reassured her that not every adult finds it easy to play, and over time we worked together to help her find playful activities that she was more comfortable in when interacting with her child. Her square-type thinking, could not comprehend the squiggle thinking of her child. For me, I revelled in the squiggle-thinking and loved to follow the invitations and play cues from a child – joining them as they led me on their convoluted journey of possibilities. We sparked off each other and learning happened for us both along the way.

So I asked myself late into the night why the squiggle thinker only appears when it is quiet and dark, or during play. I have learned to be a square thinker. After all, the grown-up world is perhaps largely a square thinking world where people are placed in boxes. It seems to be what is most acceptable to most of society particularly in my ‘grown-up’ based jobs – square thinkers are predictable and easily managed. I had naively hoped that university – with its ‘free thinking’ would be different. However, squiggle thinkers are unpredictable, and messy. They question, they dream and imagine, they are never quite content with ‘more of the same’ or accepting of being delivered just one choice. Quite often they believe there is more that could be offered and their squiggling makes them jump forward to see other possibilities which square thinkers may not even imagine. From a personal perspective, in our current austerity driven but consumerist society, perhaps the squiggle thinkers in a workplace who are rights-driven and ethics-driven are a pain in the behind. They can imagine a different world. 

In being the square thinker part of me is lost I think. I conform but my spark is dulled. Again, I can make links to schema here for EY folks (and particularly my previous desk-share colleague) – I have learned through work experiences that a positioning schema keeps things neat and tidy (and perhaps keeps friends happy), but my true style is a scattering schema, despite all good intentions. Anyone who has taught with me can see this: I set up my materials in an ordered way, but before we are 10 minutes in I have scattered everything into an unruly mess. It helps me think, and sets my mind free in a strange way, to create and weave.

I feel that more and more our current education system encourages square thinking when we need more circles and squiggles! The fixed-answer curriculum, easily measurable, overrides active learning, and creativity (in its broadest sense). I am not saying that there isn’t room for helping children understand how to be circle thinkers – that may be their natural bent and if it is not, they will likely enter a world of work which demands that. 

We also need to proceed with observation and caution in order to be supportive of our squiggle-thinkers too. I discussed my ideas with a family member recently. She is also a squiggle-thinker, and we considered the risky aspects of squiggle thinking too. Squiggle thinking as an adult can bring with it anxiety, sleeplessness, stress and agitation if unfocused and sometimes needs the gentle “Stop. Enough” grounding by trusted others. Squiggle thinking children with meerkat brains ( See Jane Evans https://www.savechildhood.net/teach-children-meerkat-brain/) on high alert looking for danger may with their possibility thinking be fearful of the myriad of possible outcomes in an unpredictable situation. The expression of this anxiety and panic may be ‘fight or flight’ and they will need a safe-base to help them regulate their squiggling thoughts. They will need reassurance about what will happen next in their world, and over time be given a tool box of tools to rein in the squiggles when they get out of hand.

Bringing my squiggling thoughts back to a conclusion, we do need to provide more opportunities for messy, creative minds to flourish and for young children to have the freedom and courage to explore possibilities whilst being supported by nurturing, observant adults. Those children will grow into society’s scientists and inventors, artists and hopefully EY practitioners and teachers…with opportunities the possibilities are endless!

I witness the squiggle thinking of many EY colleagues, and the squiggling opportunities they offer, however currently I also see the constraints from above forcing them to provide square-thinking activities and experiences. We need to resist – squiggle thinkers of the world unite lest the sparks of children be dulled.

*Early Years colleagues please let me know if you recognise this speaker and I will gratefully attribute these ideas. If not I thank her for letting free my squiggles.

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