Children have imaginative ideas and individual ways of seeing the world. Conversations with children help us to see the world through their eyes. Conversations also help us to understand what children know already, and what they are exploring. As educators we try to gain insight into what children are learning so that we can provide interesting, playful activities to scaffold their learning. We aim to have meaningful conversations with children that encourage them to think more deeply, come up with new ideas and explain their thinking.
Research is very clear about the importance of high quality interactions between educators and children. High quality interactions help children to feel comfortable in an early childhood setting. Extended conversations encourage children’s deep thinking and problem solving skills. From an educator’s perspective, conversations with children give us an insight into what children already know. This is important for effective program planning.
Early childhood theorists talk about ‘responsive engagement’ and ‘high quality interactions’. But what does this mean? How do we ‘do’ responsive engagement? To answer these questions, I watched many hours of video-recordings collected in five different early childhood rooms.
There are some characteristics of high quality conversations that stand out. They are warm and calm, and children and educators both take turns to contribute to the talk. Conversations about a topic are focussed and sustained. Some children speak confidently and volunteer lots of ideas, whilst others speak softly or communicate by gesture or with their eyes. Educators introduce new words into the conversation. The pace of the conversation enables everybody to have a turn to speak and to be heard.
There is a simple technique that helps to achieve responsive engagement. It may take some practice, but it costs nothing and it really works. The trick is to pause. Pause before you respond to a child’s remark and pause after you ask a question. When educators pause in a purposeful way, we tend to focus more clearly on the child’s comment and so our response is more thoughtful. When we pause after we speak, we create ‘space’ for children to think. Their answers give us a clearer picture of their thoughts. When we pause, we give children an opportunity to volunteer their own ideas and to lead the direction of the conversation. When children volunteer their own ideas, educators are able to assess their understanding and then to plan activities that are based on children’s interests and tailored to extend their learning.
When educators pause, we hear what children have to say. When we listen to what children say, we have a clearer understanding of what they know. When we understand what they know, then we can respond in a way that genuinely scaffolds their learning. Purposeful pauses help to build a platform of child-centred practice.