One of Britain’s trademarks has been the number of explorers it has produced. From Mary Kingsley who travelled to Sierra Leone and Angola in the 1900s to study local customs and examine flora and fauna to Sir Ranulph Fiennes who is credited by The Guinness Book of Records as being the world’s greatest living explorer, the country has seen a steady stream of characters venturing into the unknown to investigate the world around them and learn more in a week than many of us do in a lifetime.
It’s not entirely surprising then, that King’s Infant School Chamartín – a small British enclave in Madrid for young learners – is focused on nurturing the exploratory instinct in its students. And, despite the current Covid restrictions, it is forging ahead on this particular expedition with an exemplary show of grit and resilience.
“We are a British school and follow the British curriculum but the way we deliver that is inspired by the Reggio Emilia approach,” says the school’s Head teacher, Rachel Davies, referring to the Italian method devised after World War II which is driven by investigation, relationships and the children’s own curiosity. “It’s something all the King’s schools are leaning towards, but Chamartín is spearheading it. We’re quite far down that path.”
Taking them several steps further is a complete renovation of the school building which has opened up a myriad of possibilities for children and staff alike and has made getting back to school this autumn that bit easier and safer in these challenging times.
“It looks like a completely different school,” says Rachel. “We’ve knocked down a lot of the walls and replaced them with big glass panels, so there’s far more light and it’s much more social for the children as they can see each other learning. It’s a perfect design because we can still be very connected, even with the social distancing.”
One of the Reggio Emilia core concepts is that the environment should act as the child’s third teacher – the first being the parent and the second being the actual teacher. “It needs to be well- planned, inspiring, creative and open-ended,” says Rachel who adds that they have created “a calm and very beautiful environment. The floors are all wood and the walls are totally white and beautiful lighting has been added. The idea is that children also have a right to learn in a beautiful space.”
Aside from being visually appealing, the new premises are also carefully laid out to meet the children’s exploratory needs. “We had Marianne Valentine [Early Years Advisor for the Inspired Global Education Group to which King’s Colleges belong] working very closely with me and the architect to make sure that the spaces were developed for the pedagogy we are trying to deliver here,” says Rachel. “So it was a case of, let’s have a standing table because children need to move and let’s take furniture away so they have more floor space and let’s put in a light panel here so they can explore things in more detail. Everything that was done was pedagogically motivated.”
The renovations have also provided the children with two ateliers, which are specialized workshop rooms. One of these is an art space and the other, a green space where planting and cultivation can take place. “These ateliers are designed specifically to allow the children to really explore,” says Rachel. “They have access to all the resources and creative material. It’s no longer a case of the teacher saying ‘I’ve got the paints out today!’ The children can use what they need.”
The other classrooms have also been designed with child-directed learning in mind. “We’ve made sure that each room has something slightly different so that when we’re out of Covid, the children can use the spaces because they want to use the light table or the light panel in the floor, and not just because it’s their classroom,” says Rachel.
These light panels allow the children to study things in more detail while other technological props, such as projectors, allow them to experiment with light and shadows.
Technology like this is woven into the foundation of the children’s day-to-day, which largely revolves around the use of natural resources. “We use technology but in a way that enhances the learning rather than making it the focus,” says Rachel. “We’re trying to add breadth to the technology that we do use and be more savvy and creative about how we use it.”
The changes within the school will, according to Rachel, have the most impact on Year 2 – the last year at King’s Infant School Chamartín before the children graduate to a more traditional educational setting. “Of course, with the younger children, it’s all very play-based. That’s common in lots of schools because it should be that way,” says Rachel. “Then that usually starts to filter out as the children get older. But our vision is that play is vital to children’s learning because they’re following their interests and it’s where they’re most engaged; they’re learning because they want to learn and that’s what we want to harness.”
The aim was to ensure that the central role of play in learning was entirely homogenous throughout the different year groups. “Most schools switch to a more formal style of learning at that age [six], but as we’re an infant school, we don’t want the last class to be completely different,” says Rachel.
This has meant Year 2’s classroom getting the biggest overhaul. “The changes give them a different energy; if the children are allowed to move around, it keeps them engaged,” says Rachel.
So what happens when these Year 2s move on to be integrated into the more traditional Primary system? Will they have a lot of catching up to do?
On the contrary, Rachel she thinks they are likely to be ahead of their peers.
“The children here gain different skills that I think help them to be resilient learners when they move over,” says Rachel. “When they get to Year 3, they are more ready for a more formal kind of learning, but in Year 2, some of the children are still very young. In any case, they have a really high level in all the core subjects while still being very engaged with that love of learning that the younger children have.”
According to Rachel, the progress rates at the school are extremely rapid, which she attributes to the fact that while the basics of the curriculum are adhered to the children’s curiosity takes them further into terrain that might otherwise remain a mystery. “When a topic is introduced, there’s lots of opportunity for them to say, ‘Yes, but what about this? Can we look at that? Can we investigate the other?’ When the children are really engaged, it’s very easy to meet the requirements of the basic curriculum and go deeper.”
An additional aspect of the Chamartín school’s exploratory approach is encourage the little ones to teach each other through initiatives such as the Rainbow Challenge.
The challenge is to collect each colour of the rainbow by completing tasks in whatever order they choose, which means the children often ask their peers who have completed a different colour how they did the corresponding task, instead of asking the teacher. The result is to open up teaching so that the collective community becomes the source of the learning.
“If they’re teaching each other, that is the best way to learn. The children feel empowered and their confidence increases and because they feel a sense of achievement, they’re more engaged in their learning,” says Rachel. “If you can get engagement and enjoyment right, learning comes so much more easily and the progress they make is phenomenal. We don’t have to work hard to get them to remember things because what they learn is memorable.”