After a period of self-chosen exile, I’ve recently re-discovered the joy of Facebook, returning to the fold of old school friends, recommendations for restaurants, and photographs of meals eaten, nights out and spa days away from the machinations of family. It’s been reassuring to see that little has changed during my absence from Facebook and has been a reminder that life goes on quite merrily with or without me.
One new element of Facebook I have discovered however is the existence of groups and in particular those dedicated to Early Years.
On these groups there’s a great deal of discussion covering a huge variety of subjects. One thread that comes up repeatedly is practitioners asking for ideas for activities and planning based around topics. “What can I do for this...?”, “Does anyone know a way to make...?” or “I need to do x topic...”
People have lots of ideas and helpful suggestions to offer in the groups, reflecting the ethos of community and support that typifies teachers in particular. This sense of togetherness is great and for those perhaps working in Early Years isolation it must be of solace to know that there are people out there willing to advise and lend a hand.
But what if all this advice and support was in fact not that helpful? Occasionally on such threads you come across a grenade of a comment that says something like “We don’t do topics, we’re child-led’. The thread goes quiet for a bit as though everyone collectively gasps and then with little ceremony the topic-based questions begin again. It’s the grenades that interest me. The suggestion is that perhaps topic-led curriculum delivery might have an alternative, that there might just be a way to lead children’s learning experiences in a different way.
Education seems to attract people who have a natural propensity to give themselves a hard time. We seem almost incapable of giving a pat on the back or saying “well done” to ourselves. There’s almost an at-birth inclination to see the negative above the positive. Often it’s because we’re being told by School leaders that we must do better or more, that somehow we’re not enough, we’re not doing things right. When you’re in this atmosphere then it’s easy to begin to believe it. We take it as read that our best isn’t good enough, that we’re incomplete, only living a half-life...
In these moments we want to throw our hands up in the air and despair at a world that seems beyond our control. Certainly that’s how it feels in Early Years currently. Pressure to conform, create ‘school readiness’, test and provide evidence, and adopt whole school thinking so that children are prepared for the next step along the treadmill is seeming to gain pace.
From Early Years to GCSE’s a child’s path is becoming more and more defined and constructed so that children cannot take in a wider world but most focus on a core set of skills to gain ‘value’ for themselves.
It’s an attack on the inherent magic of children, on their ability to lead their own learning, on their very beings and ‘souls’. A systematic wearing away of creativity and natural learning is bringing about a factory setting for children, where individuality, connection, emotion and joy are sacrificed at the altar of ‘performance’.
On EY forums on social media, I see post after post declaring that people have had enough, that they want to leave the profession, that it’s time to go. But really now is the time to stand firm. Now is the time to declare the right of each and every child to have an early years education based on play, on skills and on growth: growth of mind, body and soul. It’s an acceptance that children need to have environments and experiences that are rich with possibility and interpretation. Children are not robots so let’s do our utmost to keep it that way.
If just one of us walks away then that’s one less voice that sings the song of children. Instead flip the negatitivy on its head and use it as a tool.
Find your purpose. Discover how you can bring about change. Negativity doesn’t have to lead to an exit door. Identify what you can change, find peace with what you can’t but keep your voice heard as loud as you can. Walking away isn’t the answer. Passion and purpose has to one day overcome a system that’s based on outcome for outcome’s sake, on schools who have ‘a core business’ on data-driven leadership and being ‘inspection-ready’...
Change can happen but it needs you to bring it about. How? In early years answers lie in play, in knowledge of child development, in being vocal and knowing that there are thousands of people that stand beside you.
Colleagues and senior leaders will almost certainly have fear of children’s playfulness - at least don’t allow leadership teams to be blind to the value of play. Contribute to as much discussion as possible. Raise the need for child development above ‘education’ by sharing Early Years research that demonstrates effective practice, The common pursuit of scheme-based learning, data drops, quick fixes and ‘rapid progress’ is dragging children to the edge of mental ill-health, of disconnection and disengagement. Children become pushed to the side of their own lives - as an Early Years practioner you have the best opportunity to give your children richness and engagement that can be a model for the rest of their primary education - show the value again and again and again.
This very moment is the one for you to decide what it is you want for your children and begin the process of bringing about the change you want to see.
Don’t walk away.
Feel it, flip it and face it... :)
The highly brilliant 'The Lost Words' by Robert Macfarlane is promoted thus:
"All over the country, there are words disappearing from children's lives. Dandelion, Otter, Bramble and Acorn - all gone. The rich landscape of wild imagination and wild play is rapidly falling from our children's minds"
The book is a sumptuous love letter to the natural world that shifts attention away from the modern screen-based day-to-day and instead shines a light back on to the magic of nature. For many it's seen as a highly important book as there is a shared sense that children's experiences are becoming less and less engaged with wonder and dream.
It's a feeling that is arguably reflected in the landscape of Early Years too with the lexicon of formality and 'school-readiness' being increasingly seen as a positive for children aged 4 years old and the 'value' of play and playful learning appearing to be called in to question. Yet play is not only undeniably important for all children's development but is an unequalled tool for learning in itself.
The rise in pressure for Early Years to adopt formal strategies not only assumes that these strategies are effective even for Year 1 children but is also based on an educational model that sees children as product, outcome and of preparation for what comes next. The view that more formal learning should take place in Early Years is highly data and measurable outcomes driven since it tries to impose a ‘how to teach’ above a true ‘why to teach’.
These are not the constituents for a real vision for children or a 'why', a flag to follow. They are the by-product of education based on results above all else. We have to ask ourselves what we want for children. Do we want an increase of systematic learning that is 'done' to children that hugely reduces the learning experiences that put children at the heart? Do we want tick-box children or do we want a generation that has a growing emotional connection to their learning adventure that sings with imagination and joy?
Play cannot be turned into a 'dirty' word. It cannot be allowed to be diluted. It has to be embraced as the rich tool for language development, social skills, creativity and absolutely for reading, writing and maths. Yes, formal teaching of skills has a place in Early Years but only if play cannot have the necessary impact and it should not take dominance over play. Instead if anything we need to see formal teaching, writing at tables or in exercise books, Singapore maths and on and on as an extra layer that can be used to enhance play and play experiences not one that should.
Play must come first in Early Years and must keep the balance tipped in its favour because play and only play opens up the realm of children’s magic. “Because they do it in year one” shouldn’t be a louder argument than “because it is developmentally appropriate” and it shouldn’t be presented as having greater value for learning either.
So here's a challenge for this week: get talking about play to whoever will listen. Count the number of times this week that you communicate your passion for play to others and not just to those who share your commitment. Try and make time to spread the word about the power of play. Talk about how play is impacting on children’s development. Challenge, question and above all be a force that keeps 'play' at the centre of the lexicon of learning. It's critical it is there. Let’s not be the ones to let it fall out of use...
More than ever before, with the ripples of Ofsted's Bold Beginnings report still being felt in Early Years, the nature of effective learning, its definition and how to achieve it is being brought into sharp focus. On social media and in staff rooms alike there is a debate that seems to have taken a traditional vs progressive angle and has pitted the play purists against those who argue that children need to be made ready for the UK's National Curriculum. It feels as though play opportunities are being squeezed to accommodate the demands for children as young as four to comply to a 'system'.
The debate has also evolved into a discussion about whether formal or in-formal methods of teaching are the most effective, with the presence of tables and table-based writing/activity coming into question too. If you've read my previous blogs about the magic of children and the need to listen to their song then you'll know that I'm passionate about play and playfulness being used as the primary learning tool with young children. The rationale for play is simple: it embraces what comes natural for children; it plays an incredibly vital role in their physicality; it has a huge impact on language development and talk and ultimately it is what enables children to make an emotional connection to their environment, one another and ultimately to their learning.
In last week's blog post we began to explore the potential drawbacks of Pinterest Provision; the compulsion to search Pinterest and other 'lifestyle' sites to harvest attractive and often theme-based ideas for our continuous provision.
The main problem with making Pinterest boards your go-to, although great for adult world ideas of what looks engaging, is that this unwittingly imposes limits for the children who you are setting up the provision for. By introducing Pinterest Provision you not only steal the opportunity from children to openly interpret resources and bring their magic to them, but you are also setting yourself up to 'plan' their learning outcomes through a narrow focus, e.g. 'children will make CVC words from the magnetic letters in the sand tray.' No, they won't unless you are there on top of them! They will be more likely to remove the letters from the tray and then play what they want to play. By setting up Pinterest Provision you are investing valuable time in something that is arguably ineffective because it cannot sustain your 'learning' outcome.
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....