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Why children need to have familiar toys and stories when they start school. With help from Dire Straits and James Brown!

Date posted: Friday 9th September 2016

A few years ago I wrote a post about how young children benefit from having objects and books around the setting that remind them of home. I called it The Power of Sameness for Very Young Children. Someone commented, quite rightly, that what I was really writing about was children’s need for familiarity.

Around this time I was sitting in a hotel restaurant in Dubai, feeling shattered. I had just led two days of training for teachers working with young children in international schools. The course had gone really well and the next day I was flying out to lead the same course in the Far East. But I was a long way from home and already feeling totally exhausted. The jet lag was taking its toll and I hadn’t slept properly for three nights. When I go on these trips I’m very focused on the work, so don’t go sightseeing or anything like that. So I hadn’t left the hotel for three days and nights. My hotel seemed to be full of people like me: providing ‘consultancy’ and leading training, (though I’m certain I was the only one who involved their delegates in playing with play dough, wooden blocks and twigs).

I had just ordered a glass of water when one of the course delegates, Jenny, entered the restaurant and approached me. “I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed the course and that you remind me of my dad.”

When someone says something like that, you instantly wake up and have to invite them to join you for dinner. (Unfortunately, believing I was going to be dining alone, I had just ordered spaghetti. If, like me, you have a beard, you will know that it is pretty much verboten to eat spaghetti in company.)

“It’s not that you look anything like my dad,” Jenny explained, “but your approach to children and education, the jokes you tell  and especially the music you played in the breaks, reminded me so much of him that I just had to tell you.”

The music that had really got her going was Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits. Jenny’s dad was a head teacher and worked very hard. But every summer holiday mum and dad and Jenny and her sister would load up the family car and head off to Italy or Northern Spain.

“As soon as we got to France, Dad would start playing exactly the same tape we’d been listening to for years. He called it Keith and Pam Go Wild. Pam is my mum, and these were all the songs she and Dad used to dance to when they first met at university. The first track was Sultans of Swing and we’d all sing along as best we could. Dad would always sing, ‘We are the consultants of swing’. It was his plan to retire from being a head and become an educational consultant. His first course was going to be called How to Have a Happy School and Still be Judged to be ‘Outstanding’.

We are the consultants…. the consultants of swing

“Next off would be James Brown. Without fail mum would say, ‘Keith, that’s really not a suitable song for a Roman Catholic primary school head to be singing. And it’s not suitable for the girls to be listening to it either.’ To which he’d always reply, ‘But it’s the first song you and I ever danced to!’ The tape finished with Another Brick in the Wall, and we’d all roar the chorus, ‘Hey, teacher, leave us kids alone!’

“Dad was very proud of me becoming a teacher. In my second term at university I got a call from my mum to say that he’d had a heart attack. By the time I got to the hospital he’d had a stroke and I never got to say goodbye to him. I’m a long way from home now, and whenever I come back here after I’ve been visiting home I like to listen to the songs from Keith and Pam Go Wild.  It’s always very comforting to hear those familiar songs.”

After both crying a bit, we finished our meal (my spaghetti was all over the place).

On the course we had discussed how little children, as well as adults, benefit from familiarity. This is particularly true when they change rooms in nursery, or move from preschool to school, or from nursery class to reception class. Or in the case of children of immigrant families or those in international schools, when they move from one country to another.

So at the beginning of your new school year, or when children join your group for the first time, find out what songs and stories they like at home, or what was popular in their previous setting. Share them with the children individually and then with the whole group. What better way to help children relax and feel, quite literally, ‘at home’?

I often think of Jenny and her father. I imagine what a great consultant he would have been, sharing his experience with other teachers and inspiring them to make children’s lives better. He surely would have been a swinging consultant.

To see and hear more early years consultants (including me) join the Early Years Summit.

Take care out there.


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6 responses to “Why children need to have familiar toys and stories when they start school. With help from Dire Straits and James Brown!”

  1. simon marley says:

    Thanks Michael. More food (in this case Spaghetti) for thought. We should all join James Brown and ‘get involved’in the Early Years summit.

  2. Maggie Johnson says:

    Oh so true! This is why I always head to McDonald’s for a McFlurry when lecturing abroad – imagine my delight to discover a Dime bar McFlurry in Helsinki… Change can be good too – underpinned by familiarity!

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Maggie!!
      For me it’s having some music that I really like. It feels very comforting, somehow, to listen to ‘Sister Golden Hair’ and ‘Don’t Cross the River (if you can’t swim the tide)’ by America.
      Each to their own, I guess….
      It’s great to hear from you!

  3. Gill says:

    So I wonder how much our own personal rituals we have is to meet our personal need for familiarity .
    so many times we follow same pattern if behaviours often called routine but is this because we still need familiarity to feel composed as we go about our day. For children they notice things they are familiar with ie story they had in a different class but as adults do we just feel sameness without really noticing ?

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Gill!
      Yes, I wonder about that too. There are loads of automatic routines that we build up every day, like cleaning our teeth in exactly the same way and putting the toothbrush back in the same place. If we didn’t have these routines, like where we put our car keys when we walk in the door as soon as we get home, then we would spend hours dealing with small details in our lives. (So when we don’t follow our car keys routine, suddenly our whole world is turned upside down!!)
      This is not quite what I’m writing about, though related. What I’m thinking about is how we become emotionally attached to objects, and these help us to feel calm in new situations (for children this is teddy, or a rag that they have been carrying around since babyhood etc.). But it can also be someone singing a favourite song or telling a familiar story that helps the child to feel secure in a new situation.
      Thanks for getting in touch!

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