Topics and Themes

As with any part of our Early Years practice, it is important that we are continually reflecting on, critically analysing and developing our thoughts and practice – but are there some elements of our practice that we overlook?

In this blog, we will be taking a deeper and more critical look at the use of ‘Topics and Themes’ within Early Years practice; do we follow them? Are we following them in a productive and proactive manner? Are they limiting our practice or enhancing it? If we aren’t using them, why not? There are many avenues to explore within a topic that we previously may not have even thought to reflect upon.

Whether you are a practitioner working within home-based childcare, a preschool or a private day nursery, you would at some point have encountered ‘Topics and Themes’, different settings set out, plan and use topics and themes in different ways but essentially the principles are the same for whichever provision you work within. But the question we are asking is, do topics and themes still have a place in Early Years practice and planning?

As the sector as a whole moves further towards ‘in the moment planning’, are topics and themes a contradiction of this? If we are still following them, why? Do you find they hold benefits for both your staff team and children’s learning and development?

In our opinion, there is still a place for topics and themes within Early Years practice and planning, but in the same instance, they are only worth having if the children are interested and engaged and they are planned for effectively and creatively, with the children’s interests and learning and development in mind. Essentially, the process of following and incorporating topics and themes into your Early Years planning is only beneficial if your activities, ideas and experiences you plan as a result are done so thoughtfully and creatively.

As with any element of Early Years practice, it is way too easy for us as practitioners to get caught up in the process of following a plan and the ‘this is what we have always done’ mentality is one that can cause practitioners to become stagnant in their practice, which impacts the learning and development outcomes of their children as a result.

The process of following topics and themes has existed within Early Years practice for many years. There was a time when as a practitioner we would have to plan up to 6 weeks in advance, incorporate certain activities such as music and movement and cooking, and of course follow weekly (yes weekly!) themes and topics, that covered everything from ‘People Who Help Us’ to celebrating every religious festival.

So whilst there has always been an emphasis for topics and themes, it is still beneficial for our practice to challenge and evaluate the use of them in current practice.and so whilst there has always been a place for them, it is still beneficial for our practice to challenge and evaluate the use of them in current practice. There is nothing ‘wrong’ in following topics and themes and some settings choose to do so rigidly, with certain topics and themes planned for different times of the year to ensure that children are learning about various things; ‘colours’, ‘shapes’, ‘vehicles’, ‘people who help us’, ‘all about me’, ‘mini beasts’ etc… as well as ensuring that key festivals, events and celebrations are included too. Of course, topics and themes in relation to celebrations and festivals are important and can obviously only be taught at certain times of the year, but this doesn’t apply to the whole ‘topics and themes’ idea and planning element of practice.

How can we pre-plan when children will be interested in learning about vehicles or shapes? And are these not areas of children’s learning and development that can be incorporated into any theme throughout the year and still achieve the same learning and development opportunities and experiences?

As critical and reflective practitioners, we need to be asking ourselves, what is the point in following these topics and themes if the children aren’t interested in them? And do we have the strength, initiative and confidence in our practice to challenge this within our settings and planning and say ‘We aren’t going to do that right now.’?

Whilst we can appreciate that there is still a time and place for topics and themes, we believe these should be used loosely and we should be continually reflective and analytical about why we are following/introducing a new theme or topic into our planning. It’s important that we ask ourselves; who is it for? Is it relevant? Is there something else the children are more interested in that could be more beneficial? If we are just introducing a topic or theme because that’s what our long-term planning suggests we should be doing, then we are potentially following topics and themes for the wrong reasons.

‘In the moment planning’ is on the rise within the Early Years sector with huge emphasis being placed on spontaneity and creativity; this can be factored into using ‘topics and themes’ too. Perhaps one of the children noticed a bird on their way into the setting today and this has truly captured their interest, are we spontaneous enough in our practice to forget everything we had planned for the day and launch into a brand new theme? This is the type of topic and theme we should be following, not the rigid, pre-set ideas our managers, curriculum and calendars provide for us. Instead we should be following the children’s lead and developing and extending their interests as and when they occur; all of the opportunities, experiences and activities we provide as a result of child-led interests become significantly more beneficial for the child and as a result their learning experiences instantly become richer and more relevant.

When talking about topics and themes, it’s also important to be mindful of the ‘time-scales’ we place upon our planning, provision and topics and themes. There should be no set time scale in which to ‘complete’ a topic, if a topic or theme is relevant, stimulating and the children are interested, a theme can run for as long or as little as the children need to explore the various aspects of the theme, explore their interest and generally  topics and themes will come to a natural end as they develop and extend with the children.

Some practitioners can feel anxious about letting a new topic or theme ‘take over’ one that may already be in place but it is important for us as practitioners to be as spontaneous and excited by new interests as the children are and that our provision, planning and experiences reflect this. There is no reason why your current theme and the child-led interest can not be intertwined and the same learning and development opportunities achieved, and it is important not to lose sight of this.

For example, our recent ‘Autumn’ topic is a perfect example of how it is possible to follow set ‘topics and themes’ whilst also remaining spontaneous and allowing the children to take the lead. Autumn is not only our favourite time of the year, but also the children’s and of course we are limited to a pre-set timeframe for when we can introduce this, but even so we were able to wait and allow the changing season to spark the children’s interest rather than bringing it to the children’s attention, which would have had much less impact on their excitement.

We saw many colleagues and practitioners introducing the ‘Autumn’ topic into their settings as soon as the new school term started in early/mid-September and we questioned whether we were leaving it ‘too late’, but after some reflection we summarised that why would we introduce ‘Autumn’ when September’s weather and physical appearance in terms of the natural world, wasn’t reflecting the season we would be introducing, by starting the topic at the this point, just because that’s what other professionals were doing, would have lacked relevance for our children.

Instead, we waited, following the children’s interests and current areas of learning and development needs and allowed these to inform our planning, and for the past fortnight have since introduced and developed our Autumn topic – as a result of the children’s interest in the changes they were witnessing in their natural world.

This has enabled us to fully delve into the different aspects of the Autumn topic, adapting  our environments, experiences and opportunities, capture all of the children’s interests whilst also meeting all of the developmental needs of all of our children. For some of our older cohort, this is effectively the third time they have experienced the ‘Autumn’ topic and so it was of utmost importance to us to ensure that we kept our experiences, activities and environments, current, relevant and exciting and stimulating. We have of course repeated some outings and activities from previous years, but these have been adapted, extended and re-evaluated as a result of the children’s age and stage of development, current interests, developmental needs as well as factoring in and being mindful of the opportunities the natural world is presenting at this time too. When following topics and themes and re-visiting activities and experiences, it is important to analyse them first to ensure they are still relevant, exciting and suitable for your current children’s needs, interests and level of development, and if not, these need to be adapted, replaced with experiences that hold more relevance for learning, development and your current cohort of children and their interests.

We appreciate that had we peaked too soon and followed suit of other professionals that the topic would have lacked authenticity and relevance for the children and as a result could have been significantly less successful and beneficial to the children’s learning and development opportunities.

This in mind, we summarise that like everything in Early Years; the things we have ‘always done’ may still have a place in current practice, but as the sector, attitudes, ideas and provisions develop, as should our ideas and practice and we should never stop reflecting on,, analysing and being critical of our own practice in order to continually grow with the children, the sector and new pedagogies, because this is what keeps Early Years fresh; fluidity and spontaneity, and this can be done for all aspects of planning, provision and practice and for both our own professional practice, and the children’s learning and development needs and opportunities, this is something we should never lose sight of.

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