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Listening to learning: Agency in the early years

This article is based on an example of listening to learning within a pre-kindergarten classroom and how teachers tuning into student voices helped to shape the direction of our inquiry into the transdisciplinary theme of ‘How we express ourselves’.

Within our school in Suzhou, China, our pre-kindergarten learners shine brightly as leaders in their quest for understanding and experts in their play. As a co-teaching partnership, my colleague Anna and I understand that often our job is to listen to learning and to take our cues from what we hear.

As we began our inquiry into the central idea that “imagination extends our ability to think, create and express ourselves”, Anna and I were supervising outside morning play and talking about how to get started. What provocations might we set up? What stories might we share? As we were talking, a most extraordinary thing was taking place, not five feet from us. One of our students had bent down in concentration, another had joined, and another, until a little group huddled closely, and the buzz of their excitement was reaching us. As I approached, one of our students exclaimed: “Look! Look what we found! It is a blanket from a fairy!” The “blanket” was a golden sweet wrapper, cradled carefully in the hands of a 4-year-old child. As I examined this treasure, our students began to add to the fabric of the tale. “There must be a fairy house nearby! Where could it be?”, said one learner. “I hope the fairy is not cold without her blanket!”, add another one. Little voices erupted around Anna and I, brimming with excitement and ready to seek out magic.

Here are the children who found the fairy blanket initially. Many more children began to join in.

In The learner in the enhanced PYP communication, it is said that “agency is present when students partner with teachers and members of the learning community to take charge of what, where, why, with whom and when they learn” (IB, 2017). Student agency is supported when teachers marry the interests, talents and skills of the children to the inquiry. Samuellson (2008) notes that play, initiated by children, is often separate to learning, initiated by the adults around them. Within the early learning framework of the PYP, there is a strong case to be made for teachers leveraging students’ play and making it the foundation of inquiry, enhancing the status of play and celebrating the competency of children.

Immediately, we realized that the provocation we were seeking had come straight from the perspective and imagination of our learners. Immediately we sought books about fairies from the school library. Supporting our line of inquiry, which was to bring stories we read, share and know to life, we became consumers of fairy mythology. Designing clothes and homes, making beds and blankets, we gave life to our theory of fairies in our playground through shared belief. We naturally began to explore our second line of inquiry, imaginative use of everyday materials, as we played and built.

A portrait of the fairies by a student, using natural materials.

That evening, I painted a small fairy door and hung it on one of the trees. The next day at play, a shriek of excitement told Anna and I that it had been found. We began to sketch fairies, talk about who might live behind the door, and whether we could only see it now because the fairies knew we believed in them. When the fairies sent us a letter with ingredients for a magical potion, we mixed the ingredients and began to wonder if a small fairy school existed behind the door, where making potions and flying lessons were taught. Students talked, played, drew, sculpted and danced their ideas of what magic might exist around us. We effortlessly explored our final line of inquiry, which was different ways to express ideas.

The discovery of the fairy door outside.

It may be said that often times, we unpack our central ideas through looking at the words on a page or through a conversation without context. Had Anna and I ignored the voices beside us that fateful day in the playground, we could have had a very different inquiry. Our lesson that day was that the possibilities for magic and wonder that exist when we listen, trust and follow the leads of our students is simply phenomenal.


Pramling Samuelsson, I. & Asplund Carlsson, M. 2008. “The Playing Learning Child: Towards a Pedagogy of Early Childhood”. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research. Vol. 52, issue 6.

Primary Years Programme. The Learner in the enhanced PYP. December 2017.


Niamh Price is from Ireland and has been teaching for ten years. She has been a pre-kindergarten teacher at Suzhou-Singapore International School in Suzhou, China for 6 years. Prior to this, Niamh enjoyed 4 years of teaching and working with children and families in different areas of Dublin, Ireland. Niamh holds a Masters degree in Drama in Education, with a research specialization in play and creativity in the early years classroom. She believes in the importance of establishing relationships with every student who crosses the threshold of her classroom and is committed to finding out not just what each child can do, but who they are. Creating environments that invite beauty, curiosity and collaboration is an essential feature of her practice.