My Lightbulb Moment – A Journey to Spotting The Teachable Moments

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I started my Early Years career whilst in my last year at University; I had changed my degree path from Primary QTS and had a lot of spare time whilst writing my dissertation, so I got a part time job in a nursery. Who knew that it would go on to be my chosen career and passion?

In the very early days (and I’m talking early 2000s) we used to merrily call the children over to the ‘work table’ to draw along a straight, wavy or zigzag line, trace over a number or cut along a line. We would draw three sides of a triangle to demonstrate their competence and then they would move onto the next line or number. I know, it sounds awful – but it was the way that things were done and who was I to challenge this in my first position?

What I call ‘fluffy duck’ syndrome was also very evident in those early days too – we all know the activities where pre-cut shapes are presented to children with the right colour of paint, the correct shaped body parts and even the practitioners helping the children to stick them in the right place.

Text Box: Fluffy Duck Syndrome “Aah, what a lovely creative time we’ve had this morning!” says the practitioner The little girl takes home her duck, thinking “I liked it better when it had three black circles where those orange triangles are, and I would much rather have painted it because I hate scrunching up tissue paper”






Who is this for? And for what purpose? Ultimately, what does the child learn from this experience? If I ask you to draw a duck, I’m sure it won’t look the same as mine and the ducks that I see at the pond are certainly not yellow and fluffy either!

My ‘Quality’ journey started in 2003 after I moved to Yorkshire. This is where I found out what quality really looked like in practice through working with skilled and passionate practitioners, trainers, mentors and assessors. I learned quickly that it was centred around enabling environments and the interactions between children and practitioners. On training courses, I used this story to demonstrate how we should value and acknowledge each child’s experience:

Text Box: The snowman It is winter. The painting table is set up with white paint, cotton wool balls, silver glitter, snowflake-shaped sequins, cut out orange triangles and black circles. S wants to paint a snowman. “Where is the red paint?” he asks “Snowmen are white” kindly replies the practitioner “My snowman is red” “Don’t be silly, snowmen aren’t red. They are white. Snow is white” “My snowman is red. He gets hot and melts…”








Being present with children and having interactions about their experiences and valuing what they are saying could so easily be missed in these moments.

So, how does all this lead on to my ‘lightbulb moment’ – the day that I responded spontaneously to a child’s interest and had an amazing response with regards to the children’s engagement, motivation and learning.

I was doing my Early Years Teacher Status at University and working at a playgroup; at this point, we were long, medium and short-term planning using festivals and celebrations, all about me, shapes, colours and numbers and books as the half termly basis for activities. You get the gist. Then I attended training with Anna Ephgrave at Early Excellence in Huddersfield.

In her book Interacting or Interfering, Julie Fisher says, “Many of the richest conversations come out of nothing and out of nowhere. They are topics that come into a child’s head as they remember something or see something that triggers a memory or a connection. The topics can sometimes seem random, but the attentive adult usually finds a thread to their thinking which shows what they are saying is a result of a memory some previous experience or a current concern.” (p62)

Text Box: Bear Hunt It was lunchtime. We ate our lunch with the children to allow for key person time, conversations and promoting language and personal development. When asked about the weekend, M said that she went on a bear hunt with her Auntie and cousins. We talked about the bear hunt and I suggested that we could go on a bear hunt after lunch. Instinctively, I grabbed a white board and we started to think of things to take (see photo) - Luckily for us, we had a large soft toy bear in our setting and a large open space behind our building. I went out to do the risk assessment and left the staff setting up some activities for drawing maps, junk modelling telescopes and binoculars and finding the right clothes to wear on our trip. With maps drawn, binoculars and telescopes at the ready and sausages all packed, we set off. The children spontaneously started to chant and retell the story as we walked to the park. It was slightly overgrown at the edges, so the swishy swashy grass was a natural starting point. Some of the children ran straight to the play equipment, and that was fine. Others saw the bear and ran over to it. B had the camera and quickly assumed the role of ‘expedition photographer’ J suggested that the bear might like to go on the slide, and quickly realised that it was too heavy. Some collaboration and working together (with a little bit of adult support) got the bear to the top of the slide. K sat on the edge of the play area with the first aid kit and the bear and pretended to share her sausages – see, I told you they were an important part of the story!



This is exactly what happened.

Could I have planned this activity? Well, I could have planned something around Bear Hunt, as it is such a familiar story in every early years setting. Would I have made maps and telescopes with the children? Possibly. Would I ever have dreamed of putting a giant bear on the slide at the park? Absolutely not!

The underpinning philosophy of Anna Ephgrave’s Planning in the Moment is that “We do not plan ahead rather we remain ‘in the moment’ with the children as they explore and learn. We observe carefully and enhance the learning whenever we spot a ‘teachable moment’”

Have a look at the photos to see how many teachable moments you can spot. How would you have responded to that child’s comment? What interactions could you have had with those children to extend their learning and show that you valued what they were saying? How could you extend the interest in Bear Hunt further?

Here’s what I did….

In the EYFS Statutory Framework, it states that, “There is an ongoing judgement to be made by practitioners about the balance between activities led by children, and activities led or guided by adults. Practitioners must respond to each child’s emerging needs and interest, guiding their development through warm, positive interaction.” DfE, 2017.

Our children loved messy play, so the next day I set up a sensory tray with the help of the children. We looked at the book to recall all the different places that the family went through on the hunt and the children came up with suggestions on what to include. We found rocks, grass, mud and water. The children spent a long time exploring all the different components; some were just fascinated with the mud and played with it as a malleable material, others tried to stack the rocks, some made patterns in the mud with sticks.

A member of staff used a spoon and made a catapult which the children soon copied. They watched intently as the member of staff made the small world toys jump and fly. The children had to work out the engineering behind making the catapult, and with some support and guidance from the staff, they were able to do it on their own. Even the youngest of the children demonstrated Characteristics of Effective Learning by having a go and demonstrating a ‘can do’ attitude by not giving in. The joy when all the elements come together is one of the best parts of the job!

Children were free to access the tray and use it as they wished. The book was nearby and became a focus for M, who was the original instigator of the play experience. She went back to what was familiar- retelling the story, turning the pages of the book and using her finger to trace along the words.

As a result of this, children then had the confidence to suggest other ideas – we went on to have an alien space ship, designed new underpants, found sticks and made our own stick men and even had a 2 hour orange gloop session with a massive pumpkin in the tuff tray making Pumpkin Soup – on the day of our Ofsted inspection!

My reflection at the time for my University piece was “It’s not easy as the comfort blanket of a topic is reassuring to have and the thought of no plans is quite daunting, but equally it’s very exciting too!” Did I ever go back to writing weekly or half termly plans? No. This really was the moment the lightbulb switched on, and I haven’t looked back.

Further reading

Anna Ephgrave, The Nursery Year in Action, 2015

Statutory Guidance, DfE, 2017

Julie Fisher, Interacting or Interfering, 2016



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