a universe of learning

Sara Stanley with the wild things

Here we were in Norwich, two grandmothers sitting on the floor opening match boxes holding miniatures – small stimuli that expand into big questions, discussions and ‘a universe of learning’. That quote came from Charlie (4) when he was describing his ‘school for dragons’.

And what a universe of learning is happening at this nursery school in Norwich. Sara Stanley pioneered the Storytelling Curriculum for the Early Years which evolved into Philosophical Play.  Her work is based on 25 years of listening to children. She has scribed hundreds of conversations overheard when children play and noted the philosophic world that children live in.

Children use abstract concepts naturally  – good/bad, right/wrong, sharing/ownership, rights, proof, possibilities, revenge/love/hate, gender, rights/rules/justice/fairness/power,  friendship, trickery and possibilities from the time they have language. And from this Sara developed Concept Cards where children identity the philosophic concepts within their (and other) stories. It’s my turn (fairness) You’re not friend any more (friendship) Not now (time) No that toy is mine (ownership) You’re the baddy and I’ll be the goodie (good/bad). You’re not sharing (sharing).  Don’t scream at me. That’s not what friend do friendship). The fairy is here but she’s invisible (proof). That’s going to be impossible (possibilities). The dragon is going to get you back (revenge). Only girls can play this game (gender).  Sara then connects the children’s imagination and love of storytelling with philosophical inquiry. Her practice is continually evolving and I not only observed Sara in action but had time to theorise with her about her practice and ways to effectively train early childhood teachers. Her method, detailed in her two publications, is replicable.

Sara reading a story written by two year olds
Sara reading a story written by two year olds

On the day of my visit, Sara was giving a two hour session at a disadvantaged Nursery school in Norwich. She started by reading The Fire Monster written and illustrated by a group of two year olds from Reflections Nursery School in Worthing. The children spontaneously started discussing the book until a child suggested he’d seen a monster in the outdoor playground. Here Sara understood this was a philosophic move. She suggested we might go outside to see if we could find clues or proof that a monster was in the garden.

finding evidence of dragons
finding evidence of monsters

The high level of energy, engagement, collaboration and imaginative play went on for more than than an hour. Sara and her assistant scribed what they heard and what stories the children were telling them.  She always acknowledged the author of the story and some children double checked that she did this.

Sara recording Tegan's story
Sara recording Tegan’s story

The children returned inside and Sarah read the children’s stories back to the children.  New discussions started from these children’s texts. Would a monster rather be a monster or a human? Could you be a monster? Are all monsters bad monsters?

… we were fire monsters  too

I followed Tegan (4) who was highly active when it came to finding clues that a monster did live in the garden.  After a while she took chalk and drew her story and then later retold it to Sara who scribed it.   This is transcript of that story by Tegan (4) Tegan:  The monster had a lot of fire. I’m in the story. Ellie May and me. The fire monster killed us because we touched him  and we died. And when we woke up we were fire monsters too. But we blew out blue smoke.  Judy you can be in our story. Judy: No I’m making up my own story. I could go on and on about her methods but they are well described in her two books which I would highly recommend. Stanley, Sara, But Why – Teacher’s manual  – developing philosophical thinking in the classroom. Stanley, Sara, Why Think – Philosophical Play from 3-11  

4 thoughts on “a universe of learning

  1. Very inspiring! Thank you for posting about this insightful practise. I’ve just purchased her book can’t wait to start reading more about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I too have had the pleasure of observing Sara in action with my own class. She’s an inspiration to watch and it was amazing to see how she moved their play to philosophical discussion. My class have had a fantastic philosophy journey this year, due to Sara modeling just how much you can get from a 4 year old’s play and by inspiring me to draw out the philosophical in all that is the Early Years curriculum. I highly recommended seeing her in action.


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