Nurturing awe and wonder: The Curiosity Approach

Published on Tuesday, 11 August 2020
Last updated on Wednesday, 21 October 2020

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Children are curious by nature, everything is new and the desire to explore, discover and understand their world is a powerful motivator for learning. So, it’s no surprise there’s a new pedagogy gaining momentum in early years education that builds on inquisitive behaviour and is aptly named, the Curiosity Approach.

Drawing on play-based learning, the Curiosity Approach is the brainchild of UK nursery owners and educators, Lyndsay Hellyn and Stephanie Bennett. Their ethos focuses on elevating curiosity, awe and wonder in the early years.

“We describe it as a beautiful recipe made from ingredients that have inspired us, shaped by great educational pioneers, delivered by thoughtful and mindful practitioners to bring magic back to childhood,” says Lyndsay Hellyn.

“Providing a sense of awe and wonder in educational environments, we lay the foundations for future learning. To nurture and instil a love of curiosity, helping to create those ‘thinkers and doers’ of the future.”

Aiming to draw together elements promoting inquisitive moments for young children the program’s pedagogy is inspired by Reggio Emilia, Montessori and Steiner plus the curriculum of New Zealand, Te Whāriki and more recently Emmi Pikler.

The Curiosity Approach encourages children to be active learners by providing space and time for them to think, tinker and potter. It is designed to provide opportunities for children to follow their own interests and ideas. This is achieved by providing an environment that invites exploration and engagement.

The program poses the following questions to assist educators to reflect on their environment, to think outside the box and view the play space through the eyes of the children within:

  1. What does it feel like to be at your nursery, what can they see from their own low-level vantage point? Are the displays purposeful, do they celebrate children’s own work or do they document learning? How does it feel to be a child within your play space?

  2. Does your play space provide opportunities for quiet time, rest or communication friendly spaces? Space for quieter children to retreat and watch from a secure vantage point? Is it a calm tranquil place or loud and chaotic?

  3. Does your environment offer opportunities for light and shadow and natural light within each room?

  4. Does your play space feel homely, inviting and not institutionalised?

  5. Do you have elements of nature within, plants, flowers, nature, water etc?

  6. Are resources thoughtfully presented – inviting children with subliminal messages to come explore, investigate and play? Inspiring curiosity in the early years.

  7. Are resources easily assessible, allowing opportunities for self-selection, promoting independence and opportunities for free choice?

  8. Do you offer children the opportunity to access authentic resources, loose parts and recycled materials? Resources that allow children an opportunity to learn how to think, not what to think.

Key elements of the Curiosity Approach include:

Moving away from a bright traditional environment

Part of The Curiosity Approach’s pedagogy is about providing beautiful and calm environments in which children feel safe and secure. Based on how visual surroundings can have a profound effect on the way children think, feel and act, both consciously and subconsciously, a curious space is a calm setting with neutral natural tones rather than the traditional explosion of intense colour. This means ditching the overstimulation of brightly coloured posters, furniture and plastic toys.

There is still a celebration of colour but it’s applied mindfully by educators to bring in thoughtful and purposeful pockets of colour – striving for a positive impact rather than an overpowering one. The Curiosity Approach provisions strive to create beautiful inspirational play spaces for children, to feed their curiosity, creativity and to spark awe and wonder. Fuelling their imaginations with provocations and invitations to learning.

Extension of home

The Curiosity Approach suggests that settings “should feel like an extension of home and not a watered-down version of school”. For young children, the best environment to inspire curiosity is a homely one that makes them feel comfortable, secure and at ease. It’s about cutting down on clutter and including soft furnishings, reading nooks and cosy, quiet spaces.

The program advocates displays to honour a child’s family and home life, communicating a powerful message of being and belonging. The heavy influence of Te Whāriki, supports understanding and connection between educational settings and the familiar wider world, through smells, sounds, objects. It’s about ensuring children grow up as capable confident learners, healthy in mind, body and spirit.

Early education without toys

The Curiosity Approach moves away from plastic toys and electronic gadgets, instead opting for the use of loose parts, recycled and authentic resources.

Open ended resources offer unlimited learning as children simply follow their imagination to allow the play to go in any direction their creativity takes them. As there are no set outcomes, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ with open-ended play.

According to the program’s creators, providing play objects that aren’t plastic offers different tactile sensations, promotes sustainability, fires up a child’s imagination and moves away from the overstimulation of artificially bright colours. Spaces that focus on wonder allow children to learn in their own unique way, setting them up to enjoy the process of discovery. With the Curiosity Approach, how one child plays will be completely different to another child – and that’s exactly the point.

Use real objects

Moving away from plastic toys means introducing real objects such as ceramics. According to Stephanie and Lyndsey, one of the biggest problems with plastic resources is that they don’t teach children any consequences. The intent is to give children responsibility to handle and play breakable items that can teach consequences.

A big part of understanding the world is discovering cause and effect. Drop a ceramic cup, it breaks – indestructible plastic toys don’t. The aim is to use natural resources to instil care and respect for belongings. With the support of educators children can be empowered to take risks, to practice new skills and to learn to handle breakables.

While a risk assessment is required, play takes on a whole new meaning as it slows down and children engage in a calmer, more meaningful interaction with these resources.

Embrace nature and the outdoors

Outdoors, no two days are the same and this dynamic environment gives children a constant stream of things to explore and investigate. No matter what the weather, getting outside in the fresh air and nature is important. The Curiosity Approach embraces outdoor play and the learning opportunities of the natural environment.

Creating an environment of curiosity isn’t just about the children. You need to have curious practitioners too.

“As a practitioner, you must be mindful,” explains Stephanie. “You need to make sure that in every single element of the day, the children are at the centre of everything.”

Curiosity is the desire to know more, to learn, to pursue knowledge and to understand. The beauty of curiosity is that there is no single book, toy or game needed to find it. Instead, it’s about creating an environment that allows each child time and space to learn their own way, pursue their interests and ignite their imagination.

Created in 2017, The Curiosity Approach is now in 21 countries with a social media following totalling more than 200,000. Locally, New Zealand’s, New Shoots Children Centre, in Papamoa, was announced as the first Curiosity Approach accredited early education setting in October 2019.

Resources and further reading:

Famly: Time For A Natural Environment? The Curiosity Approach Interview

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