My dream Reception classroom

I often indulge in a little fantasy about how I would run things if I were in charge. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. My current fantasy revolves around how I would design the optimal Reception classroom – this is the setting I now work in. I hasten to add that my ideas have not had the opportunity to be road tested and they would undoubtedly run into several obstacles were they ever to be realised. Nevertheless, here goes.

First, a little preamble.

I believe Reception is the critical school year in setting our children on a positive path in education. Get things wrong at the start and it will reverberate down the years. That’s not to say that poor habits cannot be reversed in later years, but it is much more difficult to do so. It is therefore vital to get it right first time around, at the very beginning of the school journey.

Here are a few things that I think are essential to instil into children from an early age.

  1. Self-reliance and organisation.
  2. Following class and school routines.
  3. A sense of communal responsibility.
  4. Sitting quietly and focusing during learning time.
  5. To have common courtesy as standard – for example saying please, thank you, good morning and good afternoon.
  6. To understand how to share and take turns.
  7. To be kind and respectful to others.
  8. A sense of resilience – if something doesn’t work first time around, to try again and develop better strategies to succeed in a task.

I know this sounds like quite a wish list, but I believe most children can achieve these aspirations with explicit instruction, high expectations and practice. As well as the above, my ideal Reception classroom would be influenced by the following set of principles.

  • Teacher and TA workload must be reduced so that most of their energy and time is spent on where they will have the most impact: teaching.
  • Teaching spaces must be designed to reduce cognitive load on children and to maximise their focus during learning time.
  • The logistics of managing a classroom of 30 children must be meticulously thought through to avoid scrums and create an orderly environment so that class routines can be easily followed.
  • There should be a “separation of Church and State” in the sense that the space where the children sit quietly to receive teacher instruction should be separate from the space where they play (or do their ‘choosing’).

The morning scrum

Picture this. It’s 9.00 am and the children have just come into school. In the next few minutes, they must take their coats off, open their bags to get their reading folders out, and then hang both bag and coat on their peg. Seeing as all the pegs are set next to each other, this means in effect that a sort of scrum develops. Inevitably, the action of hanging a bag on a peg will upset the balance on the neighbouring peg and cause a coat or bag to fall to the ground. Trying to fit both bag and coat on the same peg is quite a challenge too. Bags can be bulky and young fingers not dexterous enough to get it all hanging nicely. Also, as we are dealing with young children, the hustle and bustle will quite often result in one or two bouts of tears.

How could we design the space for this morning routine to make it a far more orderly and seamless endeavour? Here’s my little idea. Let’s ditch the pegs in a row all next to each other. I propose we have a set space in the classroom for each child with a wooden box seat that can open to store bookbag, PE kit and an unwanted jumper they might take off if they get hot. Basically, this box is the repository for all their belongings. If they’ve made a pretty picture to take home or something in junk modelling, it can be stored in here too. They can also sit on it to get changed for PE. It is their own little personal bit of space in the classroom. They can even hang their coat on the back of the seat.

It might look something like this one from Argos, except a bit less wide, more of a square than a rectangle shape.

 

Giving the children their own storage space will minimise things going astray. It will also encourage greater self-reliance and organisation. And ultimately of course, it will avoid that morning scrum where everyone is vying for space. As they come in every morning, children can go straight to their own seat and proceed to get themselves ready. The challenge, of course, is to fit these within the space of the classroom. A 4.5 metre wall could fit ten of them, so you would need to use up three such walls.

Class displays

We’ve all seen the classrooms adorned with a variety of busy displays, showcasing the children’s work and what the class is currently learning. I know just how much time it takes to get the classrooms all jazzed up like this. Of course, this is a constantly changing display. Every few weeks or so, the teacher or TA will get on a ladder and start taking down pictures and decorations, only to replace them with others. For some reason, teachers get judged on the quality of their displays, which is barmy because these displays do very little to advance the learning of their pupils. On the contrary, they can have a very distracting effect, especially when they are within children’s sightlines during lesson time.

If it were up to me, those displays would be ditched. That’s not to mean that I want to see white, bare walls. Classrooms can be decorated during the summer with warm colour paints to make the rooms look friendly and inviting. There could be one working wall at the back of the classroom on which, for example, you could post up words the children build during their phonics sessions, or numbers or shapes they have learned. Placing resources on a single working wall is a different kettle of fish to having to decorate every single available wall space and hanging washing lines across the room. The teacher really ought to be spending minimal time on this.

Separate spaces

I am a firm believer in making it explicit to children which spaces they can play in, and which spaces are there for them to do their learning. Having a designated space where children go for their phonics, maths or other lessons, reinforces the idea that when they are in this space, it is learning time. They do not play with Lego or farm animals in this space. This is a space where they sit quietly, listen to the teacher and practise on their whiteboards. It could be a separate alcove within the classroom or a separate room altogether which can be shared with neighbouring classes on a rota. The important thing is to only use this space for learning, so that just by dint of going to sit there, the children have the right mental cues signalling to them that it is learning time. The teaching space can also be used for one-to-one reading, away from the hustle and bustle (as well as the distractions) of choosing time.

Building self-reliance and developing routines

It occurred to me the other day that many of the things I do as a TA are things the children could be taught to do themselves. Am I sending the right message when I do those things instead of them? Here are a few examples I can think of.

What I do What could be done instead
Every day I go to the nursery building across from ours to fetch the fruit and milk. I wash the fruit and put it in a bowl to hand out to the children. I pour the milk in plastic cups and then wash up all the cups and put them on the drainer. Have two children as fruit and milk monitors (changed every week or day). When prompted, they go fetch the fruit and milk. They can be shown how to wash the fruit (particularly if they have a low-level sink) and to hand it out to the other children. A grown up probably needs to pour the milk, but the monitors are then responsible for collecting cups and washing them.
During phonics lessons, I hand out whiteboards, pens and rubbers, then collect them at the end. Sometimes I get a child or two to help me, but it is not systemic. Also, the writing part of the lesson is regularly interrupted by children saying their pens are not working, which necessitates my handing out an alternative pen. Have 5 whiteboard monitors (changed every week or day). It is the responsibility of the monitors to collect all materials and make sure pens are tested/working. Each monitor passes out the materials to a row of six children, then collects them at the end. Some degree of training and practice will be needed initially to model how this should be done and get it working quickly and smoothly.
Each morning, I spend an inordinate amount of time checking the reading folder for each child. This entails a) checking the parent communication card, b) taking out ‘wow cards’ (where a parent records a child’s achievement at home), c) changing reading books. At the end of the day, if there is a letter being sent home, I have to insert a copy of the letter into each reading folder. Reading folders are the responsibility of the pupil. Every morning, sitting on their box seat, pupils take out the parent communication card and leave it on my tray for me to check. If they have a wow card, they can also leave it on my tray and collect a replacement blank card from my desk. Before home time, I can ask children to collect letters, forms and checked parent communication cards to put back into their folders. On book change days, I can call five pupils at a time to come change their books and show me their reading record card (which parents complete to record home reading). The onus here is on the children to take responsibility for the items in their reading folder.
Once a week, I stick a new rhyme into the children’s “Rhyme of the week” book – needless to say, I have to collect all these books and then hand them out at the end of the day. When prompted, children collect their own books and stick the rhyme of the week into them, before returning them to their bags.
During choosing time, children play indoors and outside. They have bikes, cars and scooters which they often use and then leave lying on the ground. In the little house, they have a basket of plastic food and cutlery, much of which ends up all over the floor. Building bricks and dress up clothes get strewn all over the place. On the tables inside, glue sticks and felt tips are abandoned without a lid. Scissors are used and then just left on the table rather than put back in the containers. At tidy-up time, the expectation is that the children pick up after themselves but in reality the lion’s share of the work is done by the grown ups and a handful of very diligent pupils. There should be explicit modelling and teaching that items need to be returned to their place immediately after use, rather than leaving it to someone else to do at tidy-up time. If a child uses a bike, they need to return it to the bike area after they use it (or hand it to another child), and not leave it on the ground. Similarly, children doing junk modelling or drawing need to be taught to put lids back on immediately after use and to return items to their place before getting up and going to play somewhere else. What you permit, you promote!

 

I’m sure there are other areas where children can take on more responsibility, but these are the main ones I can think of for now. Getting the children to do these things for themselves achieves two main objectives: it teaches children self-reliance and it also frees up teachers/TAs from unnecessary admin.

Reception boot camp

I’ve always been intrigued by Michaela School’s bootcamp at the start of every school year. During this week-long induction, pupils are taught school rules and practise routines to automacity (such as passing school books along each row as quickly as possible). I wonder if we could do something similar for Reception children. It doesn’t have to be called a boot camp – that would get too many hackles rising – but it could be a time for introducing children to school rules and teaching them the necessary routines, before getting started with the official curriculum. This could be done in a fun, competitive game kind of way, but with the ultimate aim of teaching them the choreography of their school day. This is when children can have expectations modelled explicitly, for example how to sit during learning time, how not to call out or talk over the teacher etc.

Ban iPads

In a previous school, children had access to iPads and computers during choosing time. In theory there were educational games to be played on them, but mostly I saw children playing Roblox or Minecraft. There was fierce competition (and arguments) for these computers and unsurprisingly, the low attaining pupils were the ones most often on them. I see very little educational value in having them in the classroom. Most children have access to technology at home; they don’t need it in school, particularly not at this age.

Get rid of the interactive whiteboard

The interactive whiteboard is of limited teaching use in Reception. For phonics and writing lessons, an ordinary whiteboard is so much more appropriate. Teachers can write more legibly with a whiteboard marker than on an interactive whiteboard. For videos or reading a story, a visualiser is sufficient for our needs.

Embrace more whole class activities

I have been troubled to see the amount of one-to-one or small group work that is done in Reception. My main two issues are these:

  • By its own nature, this involves doing work with one or a handful of children while the others are playing around them. It is incredibly difficult to get them to focus in such circumstances. Often all they want to do is finish up as quickly as possible so they can re-join the game with their friends that they have just been pulled out from.
  • It is immensely time consuming and not an efficient use of teacher time.

I believe much more can be achieved by having regular, scheduled, whole-class activities. I’d rather they learned in a quiet environment, without the distraction of hearing and seeing their peers playing around them. So if there is a writing task, better to get them all doing it together rather than in small groups. The only exception to this is the one-to-one reading, which needs to be done individually. I recognise that we can’t entirely eradicate the personalised learning culture, but it would be good to shift to more whole-class activities.

Conclusion

I’m sure many in the Early Years sector are shaking their heads if they are reading this and thinking I’m a poor deluded fool. Maybe so. If I were allowed to try out these ideas in practice, I might be faced with all sorts of unforeseen problems. Nevertheless, I do believe it’s important to try to think outside the box of what we are all used to doing in Reception, to take a step back and re-evaluate everything we do and why we do it. My hope is that this stimulates rather than shuts down debate.