• Becca, Learning Wayfinder

Songs and Stories: getting your Early Years' programming right

Updated: Apr 21, 2018

Top 10 Takeaways from the Scottish Learning Group's meet up


Sue Palmer is a literacy specialist who has spent the last several years focusing on education for the early years and learning through play. Sue is an incredible speaker (even if you’re just chatting together over a quick cuppa), has written several best-selling books on education and is the Chair of Upstart Scotland (and find them Facebook and

Twitter @UpstartScot ), a movement for a play-based, kindergarten stage for children up to age 7 in Scotland. As per usual at a Scottish Learning Group meet up, we all learned from each other about working with groups of Early Years (children under the age of 7):


1. Understand how Early Years learn. It's a huge subject, so here's a great starter: Sue pointed out that there is a cultural/evolutionary path to how we learn: first comes song, then rhythm, then rhyme, and finally the oral tradition of storytelling.


2. Understand how Early Years see the world: they don't distinguish between fact and fiction. In order to create atmosphere/start the spark, you need to create a feeling of awe and wonder through songs and stories.


3. First, find your song. Make it as raucous as possible - exaggerated expressions help kids learn, as they learn to communicate by imitating adults.

  • learning practice: change up a familiar tune (picture it: we had a roaring sing-along in Starbucks with each suggestion!):

  • 1. 'have you ever seen a lassie' works well if you substitute an object (time machine, bear...)

  • 2. 'my bonny lies over the ocean' has a pace that makes it is an easy to substitute different words in

  • 3. 'head shoulders knees and toes' is great for anatomy (insects = 'head thorax abdomen abdomen...and eyes and mouth and pincers and antennae') or parts of e.g. a tree ('roots, trunks, branches and leaves branches and leaves')!

4. Next, find your story:

calm the group with fairy tales, traditional tales from Scotland or around the world, stories that link to what is going on now, such as the change in seasons, and/or stories with a key message that matches your organisation's aims.

  • learning practice: find a way of doing the stories in a way that is helping the children to:listen to the story and say the words and not need a picture necessarily: light a candle in the middle if you can, or encourage them to find their own space away from each other by finding a place to lie down, close their eyes, and just listen

5. When initially telling the story, use anything that will help have them joining in the story, such as props. Repetition is important: once they’ve got it, then they’ll calm.

  • learning practice: try the Pie Corbett method is 'listen - join in - re-tell'. He teaches a story in sections with hand movements - and once it has been internalised, he starts changing the ending. When children discover that the words or ending can be changed, they have a lightbulb moment (and at first will often get upset at this change in the rules!). He also addresses use of props and other ideas in this resource: Pie Corbett, 'Storytelling' (the National Framework: Primary, 2008 via Torbay Primary School) PDF and do search for him on YouTube (note some people misspell his working name as 'Pi Corbett'.

6. Good literacy means providing a platform for parents/carers and child(ren) to naturally learn together and - if there is any illiteracy - this takes the stigma away because no on is being singled out. At the meet up we heard about administrators of some Early Years groups (such as English as a Second Language organisations and some nurseries) who really make a point of getting entire classes to come to venues accompanied by at least one parent or carer for each child.

  • learning practice: make it clear in your engagement strategy that you will reach out to get the parents and carers in for the Early Years groups, for example by adopting a policy of 'if you come with a child - adults get in for free as parent/carer helper' or do as Science Ceilidh do and invite parents to all your kids' shows.

7. Worried about how to provide valuable experiences for a group when you only see them for an hour or less?

Don't worry. Kids are already engaged by seeing a new person (if you've come to do a session at e.g. their nursery) or by going somewhere different. Even if an individual child is only able to listen to 5 minutes of your 20 minute story - they've absorbed the magic. An amazing example of this is Read for Good, which provide new books and storyteller sessions at major Sick Kids hospitals in the UK.


8. You can still provide programming for Early Years in an informal setting -where there is no one not facilitating it - by making it all about parent/carer-child interaction.

  • learning practice: arrange the space with interesting things to look at, lots of flow, room to move around and not crowded...Also, lots of venues create stand-alone resources for families such as leaflets with discovery trails, hunts (e.g. Gruffalo hunt in Dunfermline) quizzes or mysteries to solve together and/or visual visual cues, such as sets of characters in spaces and/or printed materials.

9. You need any resource for Early Years programming to do two things: 1. make sure it can stand alone and 2. include pre-and-post resource/session options.

  • learning practice: create the main session/activity first, such as a themed storytelling session. Once you've tried that out a few times, add in pre-session/visit options, such as teachers' packs with related story ideas, and handling kits that are sent to the school/homeschooling group; and post-session resources, such as crafty cut outs or a list of 'take it further' activities for the carer/teacher.

10. These documents by the Care Inspectorate are for nurseries but should be applicable to P1-2 also: 1. My World Outdoors: sharing good practice in how early years services can provide play and learning wholly or partially outdoors and 2. Our Creative Journey: Expressive arts within early learning and childcare and other children’s service.


-Becca Boyde, Learning Wayfinder, the Scottish Learning Group


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