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.
If you allow children to play then the 'trick' is to use it as a tool. As adults we have a perception that play is not learning, that it is somehow detached from it yet nothing could be further from the truth. It doesn't need a billion hours of research. It doesn't need a Masters to understand. Play is absolutely critical to children and it has the ability to be harnessed so that they can make progress and achieve all that the adult world requires of them and more. What we need to do is firstly accept that play is irreplaceable and that a child's need for play shouldn't stop just because there is a curriculum to teach. If we can see that play is so utterly vital then that can at least be a platform to move forward from.
This brings us then to considering how much play and how we can use it as a tool. I come back to the concept of the 'play sandwich' and it's an approach that year after year has enabled the children I teach to immerse themselves in play whilst at the same time acquiring the more 'formal' skills that they need to move on through school. Essentially I decide which experiences are best suited to the development of a certain skill.
The word 'skill' is central to the concept. All the time my team and I are focusing our discussions and continuous provision on skills, not themes, not what looks nice, not what a traditional idea of Reception should be like. What I'm trying to achieve is a clever balance of experiences for my children that are underpinned by one thought: why am I doing this? If the answer to this question every time is 'because this is the most effective way for children to learn' then I incorporate it in my practice. If this answer is anything different then it acts as a reality check and an opportunity to question myself and my children's daily routine or interactions with me.
To help me do this I break my own practice down into two separate strands: Play and Not-Play. I'm not concerned with the semantics when I do this. I'm more focused on whether children are going to be playing and exploring (Play) or whether they are going to be experiencing adult-led skills-focused teaching (Not-Play). The simplicity behind it enables me to lead a team effectively too because everyone can have a clear understanding of the 'why' behind everything the children are doing day in day out. It also enables me to get a tangible handle on the balance I'm giving my children and on how their progress is moving forward based on the 'what-ness' of their experiences. I'm therefore looking for a balance of Play and Not-Play and one that is pivoting on the 'point of progress' (or development if you prefer).
All the while I'm not bogged down with 'I should do this because it's play' or 'I have to do this because I need to sit them at a table' - sitting at a table and writing in my setting comes second nature to most children because I have them scattered about the provision and they know that they are just one place of many that they can write on (the beauty of not having a dedicated writing zone, another blog in the future I feel!). I'm attempting to do everything I can to achieve the healthiest balance which brings us back to the play sandwich: starting a session with a slice of Not-Play and then moving on to a big slab of Play which is then bookended by another slice of Not-Play. Drops of Not-Play are then run within the big slab of Play if I feel that the particular skill for a particular child is most effectively delivered in this way. I only incorporate Not-Play if I feel that Play cannot meet the skill need.
So, why not give some brain space to considering your own view on the importance of play. Take some time to mentally divide up your day into Play and Not-Play, is there a healthy balance? Are you using Not-Play effectively with a clear child-based justification behind using it? Please feel free to get in touch with me about your experiences and views.
I'll leave you with one final question to consider: What of the people in our education system who think that play is replaceable or would stop a child's need for play because there's a curriculum to teach? Have they discovered a way to truly create emotional connection to learning that is stronger than what play can achieve? Does their approach give young children the physical development opportunities that are so critical? Does it truly give children the space to develop their language skills and be immersed in talk?
I think I know what the answer is but do they??
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....