Dr Karen Boardman and Hannah Farrell

In our field of early years education, we talk at length about meaningful, authentic context within the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) (DfE 2023). Enabling environments, warm relationships, and plenty of time for talking about our experiences are some of the key aspects in supporting very young children with their playful choices and engaging their interests.

Birth to Five Matters (Early Education 2021) states clearly that “context plays a crucial role in the development and communication of very young children” (p. 36). When we think about context, what we are usually referring to is not just the physical environment, spaces or settings.

Context includes a range of considerations for all young children:

  • Children feeling secure, happy, valued, and feeling heard (and listened to).
  • Responsive, warm, and nurturing interactions.
  • Children, families, and communities involved in co-construction of learning experiences.
  • Valuing individuals, their experiences in communities, beliefs, ‘funds of knowledge’ (Hedges et al 2010; Chesworth 2016).
  • Early learning experiences that are relevant and meaningful for all children (Wood 2014).
  • Spaces, places, and materials (Fairchild 2021), place is shaped by culture, identity and history (Tuck and McKenzie 2015).

As such, contexts are varied, powerful and largely dynamic in that the context can sometimes change for individual children and communities and, in addition, be influenced by the ecological world and events (war, poverty, wealth, construction, families, politics, health are some examples). Therefore space, place, geography, and history play an important role in very young children’s lives and the communities they live in.

Whilst visiting the British School of Kuwait, spending some quality time in classrooms, I met lots of really chatty, polite, and enthusiastic children (and staff). One particular day a nursery child, aged 3 years, touched my hair, and said, “Your hair is like snakes!” He then wriggled his body and arms to show me exactly how my curly hair was indeed like snakes – “snakes in the desert”. Over the years, I have had many comments about my curly hair, but this one was so powerful, given the context.

Kuwait is a country that embraces a culture centred around the importance of family responsibilities and relaxation, where weekends often include desert camping trips, known in Kuwait as ‘Kashtas’. As well as quality family time, these trips are an opportunity for the imagination to run wild as stories are spun with cousins, siblings and other extended family members and children revel in free sand-play. Animals that may be considered unknown, unfamiliar, or even intimidating to many children growing up in parts of the Western world, for example, are simply part of ordinary life for many children who have been raised in Kuwait. A deep understanding of how children’s varied backgrounds and cultures influence their interests is crucial and indeed, as educators, we should be aware of just how much there is to learn from children’s home countries, family environments and cultural contexts in order to gain valuable insight into their play choices and to be able to tune into the experiences that will capture their imaginations.

Context shapes all the processes in our brains – visual perception, social interactions, the world around us. For example, the specific meaning of an object, word or emotion is dependent upon that context. Context may also be perceived as real or imagined. What a powerful reminder of how important context and experiences are for very young children and how much we, as adults, need to be prepared to learn in order to access children’s knowledge and understanding.

As a teacher back in her first week in Kuwait, in an attempt to make connections with her first international class, Hannah drew on her previous experience and eagerly introduced a well-loved classic from the ‘Percy the Park Keeper’ collection by Nick Butterworth. Whilst sharing a story together, it became clear that many of the children had never come across animals like badgers or squirrels and the discussion around the story had a whole new purpose. The familiar and ‘comforting’ story book that Hannah was using to support the start-of-term settling-in period was completely alien to her class of six-year-olds! In that moment (and thankfully very early on in Hannah’s international teaching career) Hannah realised just how much she had to learn about children’s personal contexts – not only so that she could truly create meaningful experiences for all the children, but also so that the setting could connect and build a sense of security and belonging.

Fast forward eight years and Hannah can safely say that some of the children’s richest peer-to-peer language experiences at The Sunshine Kindergarten have emerged from cultural insights that practitioners gained from the children and their communities. From pouring pretend coffee from the traditional ‘dallah’ or bonding with their friends in camps they have made from materials or in their self-created salons, these experiences, which may have been previously unfamiliar to the educators, were second-nature to the children themselves.  In order to really understand and support their unique contexts, educators must be prepared to step beyond their comfort zones, stepping outside of the familiar and listening and learning actively to enable children to flourish.

Open-ended resources play a vital role in this journey, as they empower children to explore and interpret materials and objects in limitless ways. Without predetermined outcomes, children are free to use their imagination to create and innovate and, in observing this, educators can learn so much about each unique child’s model of the world and meet them there.

Above all, through learning about, listening to, and valuing a child’s unique context, we are able to develop their curiosity and wonder, as well as a sense of safety from which they can confidently explore, preparing all children to thrive in a world in which context is always evolving.

Karen Boardman is the Head of Department of Early Years Education in the Faculty of Education at Edge Hill University. Karen was visiting Kuwait as a consultant to support EYFS provision. There are approximately 13 species of snakes in Kuwait.

Hannah Farrell is the Headteacher of The Sunshine Kindergarten, British School of Kuwait