When I was young, there was a TV programme called 'Storybook International' and although it was actually an incredibly disappointing watch most of the time, I absolutely loved the animated title sequence with its cartoon fox and Robin Hood-esque storyteller playing his lute. It was truly, truly magical and for those two minutes, the world felt alive with endless possibility and something that lay beyond life on a housing estate with its copycat houses, middle England-ism and the illusion of Thatcherism's new world order. It was akin to watching the video for 'Rio' by Duran Duran, a doorway to a world far away burning bright with optimism's flame. If you've no idea what I'm talking about then here's the opening titles...
Rio by Duran Duran - though perhaps this video is more like a glorified Bounty bar advert, it's worth watching just to see John Taylor :)
Storytelling in the classroom however, can seem like anything other than a Bounty bar advert, with no yachts, white sand, or John Taylor in sight. Instead it frequently feels like a performance that at any moment might tip over the edge or descend into mumbling of forgotten lines that no matter how much you rehearsed the night before, just will not stick.
For all its potential for language development, high engagement, writing, collaboration, role play and above all, joy, the undoubted impact of storytelling relies on one thing to be effective: you.
Is music dying a death in Early Years? It certainly seems to have done so further up in school and often appears to be something only accessible through after school clubs and private lessons. It feels like music is slowly slipping out of Early Years too now that the agenda of ‘school readiness’ has taken its grip. There seems to be little time to pursue music and dance with all its joy and movement and song. Instead we find ourselves slogging reading, writing and mathematics. We succumb to the expectations of school-ification. Musicality gets pushed out to the fringes and I can say this because to my shame, its exactly what can sometime happen in my own setting in spite of good intentions.
It’s a huge shame because after all, with its inherent rhyme and rhythm, pattern and repetition, music has such a significant connection to literacy and communication skills. I keep coming back to the idea that all writing, reading and mathematics is about ‘message’ - the notion that it should be personal and purposeful with an intended audience who may respond - and this could also very easily be applied to music too.
I’ve never really been into ‘clubbing’ or dancing for that matter as I’ve little bodily coordination or self-rhythm, so I’ve tended to avoid clubs as best I can. Even more of a reason is that clubs are often full of people who probably should have gone home earlier than they chose to...
There’s a YouTube video doing the rounds currently comparing modern day clubbing to that of 1990. The difference is pretty clear! Arguably the 2018 video doesn’t really suggest it’s a club as such, it looks more like a upcycled house party but that’s by the by. The video is here:
What is so striking about the 2018 video is the interactions between the young people. If you look, the majority of them are on their phones either taking selfies or messaging. In the 1990s video there is a sense of collectivity and connectivity - it feels like there’s a union between people brought together by something outside themselves, an energy that is combining people in a common purpose in a specific moment. They are present.
Fast forward to 2018 and the people dancing are all seemingly at mixed purposes. There’s little unity, certainly no collective bond and there seems to be scant energy. Yes, I’m sure they were enjoying themselves but for me, what struck me most was how in the space of 28 years our concept of what creates connectivity has changed beyond recognition. The phone companies have brilliantly sold a dream about connection through mobiles - they’ve told us that we can be closer, more popular, more relevant, and more alive but in some ways the opposite is actually true. I’d say that the 2018 shots sum up how little we live in the present.
Have you ever been to a dinner party or a bar and got chatting to someone about the joy of spreadsheets? Me neither. Secretly, I actually quite enjoy a spreadsheet especially when it comes to functions in cells but I wouldn't necessarily admit to it in a social situation. No one wants to be a spreadsheet pariah after all.
Yet the collection of data is pretty integral to UK education because the adult world wants to measure and have its say over the child, to grade them and let them and their parents know exactly what their shortcomings are from an early age. No matter how it gets dressed, Emerging, Meeting and Exceeding are all labels that will transform with each child through their school life until Sats and their landscape of pressure and stress.
We seem to have no problem with the forthcoming Baseline assessments being proposed by the DFE - testing 4 year olds appears to have a level of normality about it that is quite shocking... The 1975's 'Love It If We Made It' (video here -it's first lyric is the f-word so parental advisory!) has the lyric "Modernity has failed us" and one might argue indeed it has. But while we sift through the debris of child mental ill-health and disconnection from learning, we have to provide information and show progress. That doesn't look like it will go away any time soon, the outcome of Neo-Liberalism, of measure above soul, profit above people. And yes, children are people.
So how to do so. How to do so in a way that is meaningful? In a way that enables us as practitioners to give the pound of flesh whilst at the same time have a process that is useful and actually enables children? It all comes down to Next Steps. Something so simple yet effective nonetheless.
Reading in Early Years very quickly seems to become a race through book bands. In fact the pursuit of the next colour code often becomes an obsession for parents, school leadership and even teachers.
The more I think about Early Years, the more I realise just how arbitrary it all is and how so quickly Education becomes more about a system rather than an individual. The system-heads accuse the child developmentalists of lacking expectation or rigour but the reality is that the benchmarking folder and the book band box are symbols of one-size-fits-all, top-down view of children, through which children become a standardised commodity all ensconced in the vague notion of ‘social mobility’.
‘Readiness’ has become something that the adult world believes can be engineered. Cue phonics interventions, 1:1 seasons, parental anxiety, despair and in amongst it all, the child shrinking before us under the weight of frustration and pressure.
Yes, reading is a vital skill in our culture but when we have a system that acts like a train departing at a certain time whether the passengers are ready or not, then children will inevitably ‘fail’.
There’s so much more to reading than a book from the book band box. Reading requires a huge amount of skill, confidence, past experience and vocabulary. Above all, it needs joy. Without this critical component then we are not shaping real readers - instead we’re creating children who are performing for adults for the sake of the adult world system.
So how to create joy?
If the above picture doesn’t sum up your school’s leadership then thank all the dieties in the world, all the lucky stars in the universe above and all the rabbit’s feet you can lay your hands on... For many, it typifies the reality: a data-based machine that needs feeding with numbers to satisfy its hunger for ‘progress’ and ‘attainment’.
How we came to this is a long and drawn-out tale, but we have arrived at a point in education where the data-heads and the school business manager are the arbiters of pedagogy or non-pedagogy as it should be called. We seem to have a system that is slowly pushing GCSE readiness further and further downwards, that is disconnecting itself from children in the pursuit of measurable outcome.
Whenever a spreadsheet appears, a child become invisible...
Yes, progress is important. Yes, attainment is important. But neither should be at the expense of child development. As soon as we make data more important than the child then we open the door to teaching that is done to, rather than with, children.
Learning should be cooperative. It should have an equal balance of ‘power’. It should be engaging and purposeful - not purposeful for the adult but for the child.
Children aren’t stupid. As they get older, they know when they are being asked to do something so the adult can tick it off. They become detached from the classroom practice rather than becoming integral to it. And this happens because as soon as data and progress become the be-all-and-end-all, adults decide that the only way to do this is control.
Sometimes there’s no better feeling than stumbling across something that makes you wish you’d discovered it sooner - it’s an eureka moment in which your brain goes electric and you can just sense that you’ve found a good, good thing.
I occasionally get this feeling when I listen to music on Spotify and a new song bursts out on my phone which makes me sit up and take note. I’ve had this recently with the band Wolf Alice who I came across while report writing (it needed a soundtrack!). Similarly the band Pale Waves came out of the blue and I’ve been hooked ever since, with the release of each new single being met with teen-type excitement and anticipation (it probably helps that the drummer wears a Cure t-shirt...)
I get the same type of sensation when I unearth new ways to tweak or develop my Early Years practice too. Though the idea of the 3Ms has remained consistent, its beauty is because they are so flexible, the 3Ms enable you to experiment and adapt your interactions and teaching of young children.
Sometimes these tweaks emerge from the constant discussion about our practice and children which my team engage in throughout each day. Because we’re not driven by written records, we can have dialogue that is responsive to what we see before us. Our team culture is one of contribution and idea-sharing so it’s natural to find us shaping our setting or approach to respond to need and next steps. We can only do this because we are not topic-led and staff time and energy can be spent on skills rather than activity, displays and Pinterest.
At other times the tweaks come directly from the children. When this happens, it’s definitely time to feel excited and it’s an even better feeling than hearing music no matter what tshirt the drummer might be wearing...
As I get older, the transience of life is increasingly becoming a stark reality. I’ve moved out of the ‘friends having children’ phase and am being invited to less and less weddings. Nowadays it’s the funeral phase and the lasting sense of grief and loss that marks it. A wedding or a birth are great but the hangover from these is gone within a day (or two depending if the wedding has the foresight of a free bar). The ‘hangover’ following a death is absolutely something else and beyond a hair of the dog.
Children on the whole live in a bubble away from this - their world isn’t the world of ‘passing on’, ‘resting in peace’ or ‘a good innings’. That’s not to say that there aren’t many, many children who don’t experience death or aren’t affected by it. It’s just that for the majority of children they are in the ‘pure bright living’ phase of life - the realm of magic, the world of ‘song’.
So it’s extraordinary when they do come across death especially in nature. Their response, their wonder even, is something that opens up a door into their realm and it’s this door that can only be opened when we let go of ‘planning’ and embrace faith in children, faith that enables discovery and in this instance the finding of a very small but very dead vole in the woods...
Increasingly, or so it would seem, we are becoming a nation of Indoor-ers. Our time is spent within the shelter of our homes, locked out from the world around us, living contented with merely seeing it through the lens of an phone screen or tablet.
Children live in a time of nature deficit, they are less connected to the natural world than previous generations, with words, pastimes and ways slowly eroding in the face of the immediacy and buzz of social media and the Now-ness that lies within the touch of a finger tip.
Much of this has been caused by fear. Fear of what might happen if we venture too far, fear of others, fear of a threat, one that is perpetuated by the press and heresay. Children are being shaped to feel safer indoors and to value online connection above the healing of interaction with the natural world.
Not all children are like this of course but it certainly feels like the majority are. And how did they end up this way? Because they watched the adults do it. Because the adult world suggested a new reality, a new way of living that could provide all without needing to leave the house.
The reality is that we have a generation of children who’s first instinct is not to look outside but to plug in. Children at an increasingly young age seem to be head down, transfixed by pixels and sound, oblivious of surroundings. And who hands these over? Who buys these devices to keep children quiet, entertain them, occupy them while the world goes about is business? The adults. They’ve evolved the TV’s role as an occasional nanny to become an ever-present, all-absorbing childminder.
Don’t get me wrong I love technology.
This is a screenshot from a game that I used to play on my brother’s ZX81 - we played it for hours and then when we upgraded to the Commodore 64 we’d play obsessively. So I understand the brilliance of gaming and of connecting to a device. But we had balance - warm afternoons spent playing football, long walks to woods where the trees offered climbing and den building, crab apple fights with the kids from the next street, endless games of cricket in which four or five of us would take turns to bat or bowl, all of us hunting for the ball if it was sent into the long grass of the apple orchard.
It’s time we enabled our children to be Outsiders once again. It’s time to reconnect and re-adventure. If technology is so embedded in society how can we change it? It is the adult world needs to change. We need to embrace something that over time has created the conditions for children’s nature disconnection: risk. And if we can’t change society over night then why not at least try to change our little corner of it in our setting?
Children want to take risk. It’s part of their growth, their inner learning curve. Risk is one of the many ways that they begin to make sense of the world, how they weigh it up and give value to their experiences. Yet as adults we’re often very quick to intervene. We either project our own fear into them with a hasty “Careful!” or we shut down the experience even before it’s begun.
We as adults need to take a risk. We need to find our faith in children, give them space to discover for themselves, to investigate, explore and test. We need to come away from experiences that have been pre-ordained and controlled so that they can throw themselves into their environment. The greatest risk we can take is to begin a journey of un-planning, of un-controlling. Our desire for outcome, our innate programmed idea of what school should be, the adult world demand for ‘school readiness’, school policies that are often devoid of child-centred pedagogy are all things that create fear within us as adults. We project this onto the children in our setting. We try to control because we perceive that control gives us ‘learning’.
But in reality it is giving us un-learning. This fear, the inability to let go and let children BE, results in the erosion of play, a classroom based climate, timetables that restrict, and if children do get to venture outside, a risk assessment process that puts fear right back at the heart of the experience.
It’s time to take a risk. It’s time to put children back at the centre. It time to truly embrace the magic of children. How can you take action to change your little corner of the world? How can you shape the children in your setting to be the Outsiders they can and ought to be? There’s no better time than now - un-plan, un-fear, un-risk...
I’ve always had a bit of a thing for Robert Downey Jnr. I don’t know if it’s his good looks or his bad boy image but there’s just something about him that makes me want to watch his movies. I liked Iron Man and the less well-known Through A Scanner Darkly but my favourite by far has to be his portayal of Sherlock Holmes; a madcap, other-worldly, flawed, yet brilliant genius.
It might be reading too much into the character of Sherlock Holmes but I’m often struck by how he always seems obsessively exploring ‘meaning’, an incessant search for something beyond the obvious or not-so-obvious that leads down a labyrinthian path until the truth rears its head - usually a truth that Sherlock has discovered long before the doting Watson or the bumbling police led by the well-meaning but ultimately blinkered Inspector Lestrade have even begun to put two and two together.
I can’t help but think that this search for meaning, this drive to interpret the evidence before our eyes is very reminiscent of working in Early Years. Unfortunately this isn’t always in a good way...
Can I Go Play Now..? is committed to widening the understanding of the magic of children's play as an educational tool. Child-centred, play-based learning is where it's truly at....