For the fourth time in the space of a week, I’ve taken a phone call from an Early Years teacher who is strongly considering resigning from their setting. One common theme has emerged in their reasoning - the lack of school leaders who understand child development and are insisting on Key Stage 1 practice and readiness to be at the heart of their day.
It’s a bleak picture. Experienced and newly qualified Early Years teachers, passionate about play and age appropriate experiences coming to the edge of their well-being and feeling deflated enough just to walk away either to another school or from the profession altogether.
Our school leaders, and yes there are many exceptions thankfully, are existing within a landscape that has turned the screw on them, creating cultures within our schools that demand outcome, progress, measure and evidence at an increasing rate earlier and earlier in a child’s school life. This can only lead to one thing: the erosion of play. It’s a bitter irony that the one thing, play, the purest form of learning is being tossed aside in favour of ‘the illusion of learning’.
Play has an incredible power. It presents itself to us each and every day, the moment the children walk through the gates, play’s potential walks alongside them. Unfortunately, it’s as though we’re play-blind, refusing to embrace its potential, we shut it down and talk and point and show and fill and talk and demand and talk and put ourselves at the centre. I’ve said it before in blogs but it’s as though play is forced to stand in the wings, quietly tapping its feet in resignation.
So what’s to do? Must we bring ourselves to ill health, mental strain and unhappiness, fighting within our very selves, always feeling like we’re entering a battle? Must we forever be frustrated that no matter how loud we sing the song of play, adults around us, the policy makers and the didacts, drown us out with demand and expectations.?
Sometimes as professionals we have to draw a line around ourselves. When family suffers, when you find yourself on the brink then perhaps a choice has to be made. I love children but no child is more important than my own for example. I have huge respect for those professionals that see life in this way. It’s not a defeat, it’s a self-revelation.
My concern is that for every play advocate, there are two less play-based practitioners waiting to step in. Teacher training seems to focus less and less on Early Years, school CPD pushes child development to one side, parents seem oblivious on the whole. accepting the diet that is set before them.
And yet, there is hope. There is a movement out there working hard to sing in unison, to raise the profile of play. Some of this movement is based around Keeping Early Years Unique, some of it is more quiet, more localised. However it happens, it’s important that it does happen.
Play offers schools an unparalleled richness, a way of transforming communities, of shaping children with skills and spark in equal measure. It’s time to join the ‘Family of Play’ - key to this is parents. We need parents to demand play in schools. We need play to shine.
As another half term approaches, it’s my wish that you can be the one in your school to help play do just that - to shine and to shine bright...
Go gentle, but go brave :)
Back in early 2018, myself and the fab Hannah O’Donnell from Empowering Early Years, sat round the kitchen table mulling over the idea of putting on a day that would celebrate play and give practitioners a real lift in the face of the multitude of challenges within their settings. With busy lives, we decided to press pause, clear the decks and return to the concept when we felt more able. Life being life. several months passed and the idea kind of got mothballed in the dark corners of our busy brains.
However, I was lucky enough to attend the Firm Foundations event at Early Excellence in London in the Summer, and whilst there, stumbled across what felt like the perfect format for a day’s CPD. On the train home to Devon, I sketched out a rough plan over the phone with Hannah. The time felt right, we felt right and now on November 17th 2018, Play2 will be a reality.
Out of those cobwebbed brain departments, a day that is jam-packed with energy and drive has emerged, with a line-up that offers a host of inspiration for the Early Years practitioner who is either in the full flow of play or the one who needs a boost in confidence to reignite their passion for play.
As a collective, we should be exploring how we can raise the profile of play and playfulness, how we can create a supportive network for one another that is open to debate and questioning, how we can try to change the direction of early education and further on, not as just one lonely voice but as a choir. Play2 feels like the beginning of this movement - something that brings together, celebrates, sparks us into life.
Play2 boasts an impressive line-up: from the passionate play advocacy of Ruth Swailes to the loose parts expertise of Topanga Smith, from the power of outdoor learning with the Muddly Puddles Teacher to the brilliance of woodworking with Pete Moorhouse amongst the speaker and workshops, we're convinced that the day will be something very special indeed.
The best thing is that Play2 isn't going to be a one-off, We want to 'roadshow' the concept around the UK if there are people out there who recognise the need in their own locality, who want to make a difference, no matter how small. Already we've been contacted by Early Years practitioners from Manchester, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Cambridge and Hampsire asking if Play2 can make its way to them. This just adds to our commitment to ensure that Play2 becomes something that puts play in its rightful place - at the heart of practice and from the heart of practitioners.
Why not join us in Devon in November? It's a beautiful county, is easily accessed, and is a little bit like Narnia. Play2 will make it even more magical, so it'll be worth every mile here and back again...
I think it’s fair to say that those of us who work in education seem to be naturally pre-determined to put the needs of others before our own. Whether it be children, parents or school leaders, they are often put at the front of the queue especially when it comes to well-being and mental health.
Education currently seems to be sandwiched between the forces of pressure and expectation, inexorably taking from us whilst rarely offering anything back. It’s like a one-way flow of energy, always outwards, outwards, outwards.
So it’s sometimes good to take stock and punctuate our busy brains with some self-reflection and me-time and this week, as it’s Early Years Well-Being Week, there’s no better opportunity than right now.
Looking after ourselves is vital, not only for us as ourselves, but also for all the people we do often put in front of us in the queue of importance. If we’re not functioning then we’re not the only ones to suffer. If we’re not feeling able to commit 100% to the young children and the team around us, then it’s they who feel the strain too.
When I wrote my Early Years book ‘Can I Go And Play Now?’ I did so because that particular phrase seemed to be said a lot by children. More recently, I’ve come to realise that perhaps it’s a phrase that EY educators should be asking too. Not just within their own practice but also outside of it. How often do we take work home with us inside our heads, rollercoasting and pin-balling about, leading to feelings of never switching off and self-doubt?
In this week of all weeks, take a breath and seek to put a slice of time aside just for you. Down time isn’t wasted time. It’s investment even if it doesn’t seem that way. And if you really can’t find the time to switch off then at least find a moment or two to talk to someone about challenges you’re facing.
We talk a lot about men in Early Years. Sometimes we’re seen as a holy grail because there’s less of us. I’m not sure about whether we bring anything extra particularly but I do know that our low numbers can feel quite isolating. Men do need the company of men along the way - we need open dialogue, honesty, connection and emotion, all the things that we might traditionally not see as being ‘Male-ness’. In a week, where a close friend got the news that a colleague, seemingly successful and family-happy, had taken his own life, now is certainly the right time for us to look after our mental health: male, female, adult or child - put your own brain first for a bit, chat if you need to but above take care of yourself because you’re the only one who truly, truly can...
Look for the #EYWellbeingWeek online :)
When I finally finished writing ‘Can I Go And Play Now?’ and all was done and dusted, the publishers said to be prepared for both positive and negative reviews. At the time, I was just happy with the idea of having a reader to even have a book review, so I didn’t really think about it.
And then, as word spread and as people started to feel the book spoke to them, the reviews began to come in on Amazon. It’s been amazing to see how ‘Can I Go And Play Now?’ has struck a chord with Early Years people, more so because I wrote it from the heart and a negative review might just break it into a million pieces if I allowed it to.
And then it happened. A three star review. Opening it up, I felt a bit sick. Had I offended someone? Had they read it looking for Bold Beginnings approval? Had I failed somehow to get my ideas across and been too critical of the adult world?
There before me, in the review headline were three words: Not for parents
This particular person had bought the book on the strength of other reviews which had mentioned its importance to parents but having read a short amount had decided otherwise and returned it. It’s at this point that my heart actually broke. Not because of the three stars, that’s fine, but it was more the fact that the reader felt like it wasn’t a book for parents.
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.
It's always good to talk and it's even better to talk to others who get 'you' and understand that play is such an important key to effective child development. So imagine my surprise when the fab Vanessa Dooley from Jigsaw Early Years Consultancy invited me to share my thoughts on the reasons behind my passion and my approach to Early Years.
The recording of our discussion is below and I hope it inspires you to reflect on your own personal 'why'. I also hope you enjoy the moment where we compare sheds and muse over the word 'mizzling'...
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?
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....