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?
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...
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....