In this episode of The Preschool Podcast, we chat with Stephanie Bennett, inspirer of all things curious and Co-Founder of The Curiosity Approach. Stephanie discusses the philosophy behind The Curiosity Approach and how educators can include elements of Montessori, Reggio, loose parts, and natural elements in their classroom to encourage a naturally curious child.
Stephanie explains that oftentimes children can become really overwhelmed with all of the stimulation that is constantly happening in their worlds. As adults we are able to tune some of the “noise” in our lives out, however, young children are often in bright, stimulating environments practicing rote memorization of letters, numbers, etc. Stephanie says that “all children need is time and space to naturally unfold”.
As parents and educators, we oftentimes over-provide our children with things to entertain them when in reality children are naturally curious about the world and do not need external tools and resources to stimulate them and help their development. Stephanie explains that by providing constant stimulation “we are removing that intrinsic desire to be curious, to lie back and look at the sun or to see the adults face and have room to roll and we’re feeding and entertaining the child and then we wonder why children want to watch tv screens or want everything in an instant.” Instead, we should allow children to get bored, to play, and to find out about this amazing natural world around them.
When you talk about Reggio or Montessori or Steiner many people may know the names but not really understand what that’s about. But when you talk about curiosity everybody knows what curiosity is.Stephanie Bennett, The Curiosity Approach
Considerations to Add to Your Classroom
Consider Your Toys. While your classroom may have a considerable amount of plastic and manufactured toys in them, adding open ended resources, loose parts, natural elements and recycled materials are a great and easy addition. These are all amazing resources to allow children to explore, be curious and not be tied down to closed ended materials.
You Don’t Need to Completely Ban Manufactured Toys. While it may be difficult (but not impossible!) for children to use their imagination to create a car for example, this may be an area where a manufactured car is okay to bring in. However, using an old shoe box is a great way to tie in open ended elements and recyclable materials together to align with The Curiosity Approach.
Allow Children to Become Pilot in Their Own Play. When you provide open ended material and loose parts to children the options for what each material can be is endless. What one child thinks a shoe box a garage, another child may see the same box as a airport. The options are endless and this preserves their natural curiosity.
Educators Are the Air Traffic Controllers. If children are the pilots determining where they fly and how, educators are the air traffic controllers to ensure the environment and materials are safe. Educators are not the ones to decide what is and isn’t an airport/garage, we are simply there to ensure a safe environment.
We encourage out listeners and readers to check out The Curiosity Approach’s website if they’re curious to learn more on this philosophy and how they can become certified in this philosophy and transform their classroom. For this month only The Curiosity Approach Crib and online subscription site is hosting a special offer of $1 for the month!
The Curiosity Approach has also provided our listeners with 6 Pocket sized trainings, that cover the elements such as Real, Glow, sand, etc from their website.
Episode 257 Transcripts:
And then they’re following their own intrinsic desires. “How can I stack this here? How can I put this there? Could this make a ramp? Could the car go down here?” And when children are interested and engaged and they have ownership, they will play for a huge amount of time.
Stephanie, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!
Hello and welcome. Hello and thank you for inviting me, it’s so very exciting!
We’re delighted to have you on the show. And for all our listeners, we have here Stephanie Bennett. She is the co-founder of the Curiosity Approach based out of the United Kingdom. And she’s also an inspirer of all things curious. So, if you haven’t gotten the theme yet, we’re here to talk about curiosity and being curious and how we use that in our early-childhood education environment.
So, great to have you, Stephanie. Let’s start off, as we do, learning a little bit about you, how you got into early-childhood education and got started with the Curiosity Approach.
Thanks, Ron. Well, I’ve been doing early education since straight out of school, which was [age] 16. I went into college and studied for what was called then an NNEB [National Nursery Examination Board]. As soon as I finished college, I think I’ve done every job going in early childhood. I’ve worked in a school; I’ve traveled the world as a nanny; I’ve been to Toronto, Australia, America.
And then when I finished my traveling, I went back home to the UK, to a town called Leicester. And there I got employment in what we call a day nursery. So full time, full daycare education. And I went there for a couple of years, worked my way up through the management. And then I became pregnant with my son.
And there wasn’t much out there at that time. So I became a child-minder – what you might call a home educator – and I looked after a number of children in my home. I then started at what we call in the UK preschools. Those are those half-day sessions. I started that with three children. And in about five years they ended up with six settings and having over a hundred children.
I gradually grew those from just morning sessions from 9:00 ‘til 12:00 and they became full-day nurseries. One was based in the grounds of a school, which was an area of deprivation. And another was in quite an affluent area in a beautiful Victorian three-story building. So, they were very different nurseries. But over my 30-something years career, I have done every job going and have led hundreds of staff and I don’t know how many children and families.
Lyndsey, who is the other half of the Curiosity Approach, the other co-founder, she trained as an early years teacher. And so we’ve got a real mix of early education.
Very cool. And hopefully we’ll get into a little bit of your learnings from all those different and varied experiences, both geographically in the different roles and organizations. But let’s start off learning a little bit more about the Curiosity Approach. What is it? Tell us more.
So, the Curiosity Approach. As I’ve said, I’ve every job going in early years and built up so much knowledge and information from pioneers, philosophies. And when I opened my last nursery in 2017, I knew I wanted it to be very different than traditional nurseries. I knew I was very much at that time inspired by Reggio Emelia. And so I knew that I didn’t want my nurseries to be full of plastic toys.
So, I set up my nursery with salvaged items: salvaged furniture, loose parts, open-ended resources. They were a very different nursery than anything in our locality and there were loads. It’s a long road and there must have been twenty in a two-mile radius. So, there’s loads.
Then I went to what was called a Day Nursery Owners Mastermind group where we collaborate and meet and other day nursery owners of the professionals who are in the same industry working on our business. And there I met a lady called Lyndsey Hellyn. And we realized we made a friendship and we realized that our nurseries were so similar. Lyndsey has four nurseries in Birmingham.
So, my nurseries were in Leicester and hers were in Birmingham, 40 miles away from each other. And I had my opening day for my nursery. And I invited all my friends along and Lyndsey and her family came. And it suddenly clicked that we were on the same page, that we knew that our ethos, our values were so similar. And the way that we presented our nurseries was so similar – the culture, everything about it. And then we just knew that we had to do something together.
So, we went away and we unpicked where our teachings have come from. And what were we inspired by? Because as I have said before, I was very much inspired by Reggio. And I know Lyndsey was, as well. She’d been four times in her career as a teacher.
But we weren’t true to Reggio. As you know, Reggio Emilia is a municipality. And you can’t really take what they’ve got and bring it out of there. It’s a culture in itself. So, we learned that we weren’t true to Reggio, but actually what were we true to?
So, we went away on our own little unpicking day of mind, a day to unravel things. And we realized that we were a mix, a beautiful recipe book of so many of the great pioneers of early years education. We stand on their shoulders.
And what really drives us and brings it all together is curiosity. Because when you talk about Reggio Emilia or Maria Montessori or Steiner, many people may know the names but not really understand what that’s about. But when you talk about curiosity, everybody knows what curiosity is.
So, when we were unraveling things, we knew we were highly influenced by Reggio Emilia; the capable, competent child; the environment as the third teacher. But we also knew that we were inspired by Maria Montessori, who uses real resources and has chores the children and everything has a place. We were also inspired heavily by Rudolf Steiner and the Waldorf education. Lyndsey has Steiner-trained practitioners at her nurseries.
Then I’d had experience with going to New Zealand and experiencing the curriculum of Te Whāriki. And if you haven’t come across this, I would highly recommend that you research this curriculum because it’s about the woven mats. It’s about the strands and the principles that all interweave together and that holistic approach.
And most recently, we’re hugely… oh my goodness, Emmi Pikler, who was a pediatrician and she did a lot of research on babies and children and their natural unfolding. So, what we did, we bought all this together and in this beautiful recipe and a mindful approach, this is about a modern day approach.
And it’s nothing new – curiosity is nothing new. And all the things we talk about is nothing new. But it’s all the bits that have synergy together, that come together, that are just so beautiful and interconnect together, just like that woven mat. And we created a modern day pedagogy for this modern-day time.
Because as we know, early-childhood education for our children is changing. Childhoods are changing. They’re so rushed and hurried; children are so stressed. And what we wanted to do was get back to play and to allow children to be naturally curious, to be inquisitive, to discover, to have that awe and wonder but also to create those play spaces that are calm and tranquil.
And move away from academic institutionalized field settings. Our babies are babies. They’re not school-ready children. They need to be nurtured in homely environments. And we talk about our settings at the Curiosity Approach being an extension of home and not a watered-down version of school.
So, we bought all of our knowledge together: my knowledge, Lyndsey’s knowledge, everything we’ve learned from pioneers. And what fitted best, because each one of those separately wasn’t how we were working. And they didn’t work for us and we didn’t do some things and we did others. So, we bought it together what it meant for us. But it’s very much a mindful approach and changing our mindsets in early years education.
Very cool. And I was saying before, it’d be great to learn more about how the diversity of your experiences applies to your work and [we] certainly heard a lot of that there. And can you just touch a little bit more on [how] you’ve kind of brought all these different aspects together and created this Curiosity Approach, which you say is sort of like a recipe book, which I think is a good way to explain it.
But you also mentioned sort of it’s like a modern-day pedagogy. Can you explain a little bit why you chose to use those words? And I guess what would be different, in terms of the Curiosity Approach versus how some of these other philosophies might have been applied earlier in time?
So, the Curiosity Approach – this modern day approach – as I said, it’s nothing new. But sadly, over time that thinking and learning has been pushed on the back burner. And academics has been the focus. As early years educators, as parents, we want our children to achieve. We want them to do the best they can. And by doing that, we give them apps or toys or academic toys.
And even from the very earliest age, if you look you will notice that toys and equipment for our youngest babies – let’s look at babies – even our youngest babies, we are providing them with resources and equipment that teach academics: building blocks with ABC and numbers on; we have baby gyms where a baby will lay on the floor and kick their feet and the mat has ABC or counting along the bottom; we have academic educational apps. We fill their days with going to activities and baby classes and all those things when actually all a baby needs is time and space to naturally unfold. And that’s part of Emmi Pikler, to allow babies to naturally unfold.
Let’s think about when a mom is pregnant and the baby is growing in their stomachs, we trust in nature. We trust in nature. And we know that in nine months, give or take, that a beautiful baby, God willing, will be born. And we trust; we don’t interfere. We know there are stages that during that development they have to go through to grow and develop and to come out at the end of the nine months.
But then once our baby arrives, we start to provide them, we set them up before they’re physically ready. Babies have to go through stages of development. They develop from the top down, their head down to their feet and their insides to their gross motor skills, down to their fine motor skills. They develop the strength in the neck before they develop their back.
But what we tend to do as parents – or carers, even – is that we want babies to sit up. And babies sit and they balance. Or we are encouraging babies to walk before they’re ready, so we provide them with baby walkers or baby bounces, what you call Bumbo seats. We sit babies in baby chairs and that’s all confinement.
What babies actually need is natural unfolding, the time and the space to stretch out, to be naturally curious about this crazy world that they’ve ended up in. We provide baby gyms and hang things over baby spaces. We start to entertain our babies.
And then when they get a little bit older, we provide those electronic toys that entertain them. What happens is from this very early stage, we’re taking away that intrinsic desire to be curious, to lie back and look at the sun cascading through the window; or to see the face, just your face, the adult’s face; or to have room to roll. When you have a baby gym, the triangles that go over a baby, there is no room for a baby to move or to roll. So, we’re taking away that natural desire to be curious and we’re feeding a child and entertaining them.
And then we wonder why a few years later, children want to watch TV screens or apps. They want everything in an instant, that instant gratification from an app as they get something right or match some colors, instead of allowing children sometimes to get bored, to play, to find out about this amazing natural world around them, to investigate, to be explorers and inquisitive and that intrinsic desire of lifelong learning skills.
Babies – and this goes throughout life – babies are little scientists. A baby’s first toy is their hands and then their feet. They’re finding out through their senses. And we need to… we’ve been bombarded by manufactured toys. And we feel that, as parents, we feel that we have to have the latest gadget or gizmo to get our children quicker and faster. We feel we have to teach them academics.
This isn’t about academics. There are so many stages of development children have to go through. We cannot leapfrog over the important things. We’re going to miss a whole load of stuff first. So, we just have to slow down and just watch in awe and wonder at these little little miracles before us.
Because let’s not forget, childhoods are becoming shorter and shorter and shorter. We only have to look – if you’re my age, 53 – if you look back to your own childhoods, the decrease in opportunity to play, not be entertained by a gadget or an electronic toy. Toys are getting more intelligent than the children. And the children are just sitting back and watching.
Yeah, so if I can kind of take away my thoughts on that, it’s almost like the part of modern day is like, we have to be very intentional about the play piece and the natural curiosity and the wonder because we’re almost combating a lot of these entertainment toys or apps or things that are in our environment that surely children will, in some way, shape or form, for better or for worse, be exposed to. So, it almost makes it that much more important that we are taking this approach in the early-childhood environment.
Yeah, so to go back several years when I started my nurseries, yes, we had plastic toys; yes, we had the Duplo [blocks] and the Stickle Bricks; we had those plastic toys. But then children were getting out, more children were playing more, children… life wasn’t so rushed. In the last 11 years since the iPad has been created, children’s brains are being rewired.
And so these scales have been tipped. So within… and we only have to look at, say, Christmas or birthdays, when children get mountains and mountains of presents. And they’re all plastic. They all feel the same, smell beside. They’re bright red, yellow, green. And children will play with them. Of course they will – they love these new toys. But because they are closed resources or they are things that have been designed in a certain way to be played with, after a while they get bored and then they get discarded and they move on.
Yeah, this has come up in the Preschool Podcast before. But personally, I’m still, as a father of young children, surprised by how many toys just fit in that category. I mean, most of them still do. It’s rare and difficult to find something that you might call a toy, but something more like that in early-childhood educator would actually recommend.
So, at the Curiosity Approach we don’t purchase from catalogs. We don’t buy toys. We use open-ended resources and loose parts, recycled materials. To give you an example, and I’ve spoken about this a number of times: at my setting, children had a huge interest in cars and garages and vehicles. And traditionally, yes, we have cars and nurseries. Play cars are an important part. So are dolls and small, wild animals.
But we don’t have that manufactured toy garage. We wouldn’t have a manufactured farm, plastic farm set or a dinosaur mountain. So, at my setting, instead of bringing out a plastic garage, what we would have is open-ended resources, loose parts, recycled materials to allow children to create and make their own garage.
And then they stack them up, hey put planks at different levels, they use guttering, drainpipes, cardboard boxes, all sorts of different things. The children become the designers of their own play, the pilots in their own play. And what we are doing as early years educators, we are the air traffic controllers. We’re just making sure that the environment is right. So, we’re providing a powerful learning environment with all the resources that children can use.
And then they’re following their own intrinsic desire: “How can I stack this here? How can I put this there? Could this make a ramp? Could the car go down here?” And children will follow their own ideas. And when children are interested and engaged and they have ownership, they will pay for a huge amount of time.
In fact, at my day nursery, they used laminate floor panels that were left over from when somebody was doing their house renovations. And they laid them, out all touching each other, and they went out the door, down the corridor, down the steps. You could never do that with a plastic garage, the one that came off the conveyor belt that looks exactly the same to every other one in every other early years setting.
We’ve got to give children the opportunity to be curious, to find out how they can use these loose parts and open-ended resources, how they can be creative and imaginative. We’re losing that skill when we’re sat in front of apps and screens and iPads. Children are becoming addicted to these and they’re becoming tunnel vision and losing their creativity and their imagination. And they’re going to need these skills in 10, 20, 30 years time when the world is more of an automated, artificial intelligence sort of place when we’re all gone to computers.
Yeah, absolutely. I really like your analogy of the air traffic controller, that’s the first time I heard that one. But a good way to kind of visualize your role as an early-childhood educator. Just spending just a couple more minutes on what you were starting to give some great pointers on there, which is like the practical side of the Curiosity Approach. So, any other tips or advice you might provide to our listeners, in terms of how you would apply these philosophies in the classroom?
It’s really important that we, as early educators, remain curious as well. As I said, curiosity is an innate drive in us as children. And it’s like our brains: it’s a muscle, it needs to be used. But over time, as early educators, we may get into practice that isn’t play-based, that’s academic-driven, that’s target-driven, that’s pushing children to achieve, that’s dripping information into the tops of their heads instead of sitting back and allowing natural play to unfold.
So, as early educators, it’s really hard sometimes to sit back, to not do those activities where we decide: “We decide what you’re going to draw and paint. We decide of the product you’re going to make. We decide what that card is going to look like. We decide that you’re going to do a hand print and we’re going to hold your hand and push your hand on that paper.”
We need to remove that, the things we’ve learned, and be curious educators. To unlearn and learn, to re-energize and re-spark our passion in why we got into this job in the first place. It’s not for tick charts and targets and school cards. It’s because we love being with children. We love getting on the ground and playing with them.
And so we need to regain our own curiosity; to start playing again; to be bringing joy and energy and the spark back into early years; to reframe our thinking and just push back on the academics. Something as simple as start to get outside, get outside and see the beauty of the natural world.
I talked about loose parts and open-ended resources. If you’ve got something as simple as play dough – every child loves play dough, don’t they? But instead of getting out those plastic cutters that tell us that the child’s going to cut a star or a heart, let’s remove those and provide the children with loose parts, nature: off-cuttings of leaves, of flowers, sticks, little elements. Take away all the plastic, take away all that predetermined stuff and just let them play. Just let them play and explore, investigate, be inquisitive.
And also, if I can add, look at your environment feels like to a child. Actually get on the ground. And is it stark? Is it bombarded with too much colour, overstimulation? Because that has a real impact on children’s overstimulation and their processing of information.
At the Curiosity Approach, as I’ve said, we create extensions of home and not watered-down versions of school. So, it’s very much soft cushions and lighting and a homely feel in. And we remove the bright boards and the rooms bombarded with ABC freezies or stuff hanging from the ceilings. And it would just be a kind of wash of red, yellow, green and blue. Our settings aren’t coloured at first, they’re quite neutral. But we’re very conscious of how not to overstimulate a child’s brain because when they’re trying to process so much information…
We need to get back to nurturing children. These children have been through such a difficult time with the pandemic that we need to connect, build relationships, cuddle. We need to have sofas and chairs and read stories, get on the ground and not worry about those tests and targets and next steps and how we’re going to teach our children to hold a pencil when they cannot even coordinate their gross motor skills and their limbs at the moment.
Yeah, those are some great tips. And with all of it coming back to our own curiosity as adults, and that certainly resonates with me and I’m sure it will with our listeners. Stephanie, before we wrap up, just a couple of final questions. First of all, we’re all about the growth mindset and learning and being curious on the Preschool Podcast, as well. Any recommendations from you, in terms of podcast, websites, books or things that folks can read or use to learn?
Well, I would highly recommend, before I say our two books, I’d highly recommend, as I said at the start, that people research Te Whāriki, the curriculum of New Zealand. I would highly recommend that people look into the work and research of Emmi Pikler and that natural unfolding of a child. The respect for caregiving. Instead of doing to a child, we do with, slowing everything down. Emmi Pikler, Te Whāriki. You can also read up on Maria Montessori and the other ingredients we have.
We ourselves have two books. The first book is called The A to Z of Curiosity Approach. It’s a really easy dip-in, dip-out book with loads of beautiful imagery to give you – I’m a visual learner – to give you the ideas and inspiration, how you can move away from plastic toys.
Our second book is called From Ordinary to Extraordinary. And we wrote this in conjunction with a number of early years educators who have adopted our approach and moved away from plastic toys and brightly colored environments. And it was their reflected journey on why they did it because Why is really important. And that’s part of being a curious educator, where we need to understand why we’re doing certain things. So this, the second book, is about their reflective journey and again gives you ideas and inspiration and actions that you could take.
We have on offer at the moment, it’s called Curiosity Crib. It’s a subscription site, but we’ve got an offer at the moment, just one dollar for the entire month. And it is jam packed with downloads, things that you can give to parents, so much stuff. And I’ll tell you how you can get all that in a minute.
So, what else? We have our signature piece of work. We help early educators to move away from a plastic, academic-driven approach to a more child-centered approach and those calm, tranquil environments. And that’s through a year-long program called the Curiosity Approach Accreditation. And it’s all virtual and it’s all online. And we’re currently working in 22 countries.
So, that’s on our website as well, which is www.TheCuriosityApproach.com. You’ll find our books on there; there’s resources on there that open out into posters. And in our lounge that’s on our website, there are six, really mini pocket-size courses that you can do that again are really reflective and start with Why. They’re on there as well.
What else can I tell you? Oh, and every single day, if you haven’t found us on Facebook or Instagram, on Facebook I post every single day and give everybody just an insight into what happens to our settings. And you can either take a little or you can take a lot. You can fit it into your own thinking because this isn’t going to happen overnight. You cannot just switch from plastic and bring in a whole load of loose parts and open-ended resources. Because we’ve got… children are losing their ability to be creative and have been entertained by toys. So, we need to get play back in there and be those champions for play.
So yeah, everything’s on the website www.TheCuriosityApproach.com. But on Facebook, The Curiosity Approach and Instagram, @CuriosityApproach, all there.
Stephanie, thank you so much for sharing all those wonderful resources. Sounds like some great things on the Curiosity Approach website. And also some other great references there, in terms of some of the philosophies that have inspired your recipe book of the Curiosity Approach. Thanks so much for joining us on the Preschool Podcast!
Thank you so much for inviting me. I’ve loved talking to everybody, so thank you!