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 :)
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....