The Pear-Shaped Hill
Thinking back on my teaching career, I've been reflecting on my interactions with parents, how I created positive relationships with them and how I 'sold' them the idea that co-play was the best thing for their child. Many parents ruefully said that they wished their experience of school had been that way, some even said that they'd gladly go back to school if it could be based on the principles that they saw their children so richly benefitting from, and a small number even volunteered their spare time to come and in and play and chat within the setting.
I talk about the importance of parents in my first book 'Can I Go And Play Now?' because I'm convinced that they are the people who have most potential to change educational practice. What the Adult World has skilfully done, especially in England, is transform education into a consumer marketplace. It created the idea that children were products and that schools were accountable for the product that came out of it and could therefore be graded against one another.
It built a story that children were also accountable within the structures of schools, accountable to behave and conform and become the product that schools could then claim to have got to a certain level, percentages, progress, monitoring, scrutinies, rigour, action plans, strategies all pouring into a model that now has CEOs and school business managers in abundance, with corporate companies waiting in the wings with test papers, reading books, maths schemes, all of them playing on the fear that education finds itself in... Fear of falling behind, of judgement, of visits, of takeover...
Yes, there are many great schools out there and many, many hardworking teachers under immense pressure who are achieving fantastic things, but there is a greater proportion that have been swept into the meta-narrative of child-as-product... When this happens we discover that children have had their childhood pushed to one side. We end up with adults teaching phonics so that children can pass a test, so that children can progress through book band colours, instead of focusing on the joyful gift that reading and writing can be, teaching mathematics in blocks because teaching schemes tell us to rather than focusing on the children's unique mathematical understanding.
None of this is a criticism of teachers, most have to do as they are told. What results however is both teacher and children are alienated from their true selves. Neither are robots after all. Most teachers enter the profession because they are creative and interested in children - how they leave on the other side is probably summarised in the teacher Facebook groups discussing burn out, workload, overwhelming expectations etc....
Can the tide be turned? I would argue it can. I only need point to Scotland, Wales and New Zealand as nations who have woken up to the price children have paid for far too long: the price of an eroded childhood. The concept of childhood is something that needs real exploration within our schools. ‘Play’ is possibly too easy to dismiss, but I believe that childhood is less so. When does childhood end and what defines it? I would say at 18 and that its definition lies within creativity, confidence, active learning, collaboration, curiosity, independence and choice. These are just some of the key components of childhood and you may want to comment on others.
So it therefore begs the question what are our schools doing with it? Are they immersing children in childhood or are they eroding it? Does a school value childhood? If so, how? It's one reason why I speak less about 'Early Years' or use the hashtag, because I believe it allows the Adult World to shrug its shoulders and turn its back on it - it belittles it "Well that's Early Years..." it says whilst leaning a heavy finger on the photocopier spewing out worksheet upon worksheet and creating ways that 4 year olds can be absorbed in the drudgery of wholeschoolism.
Yet, is it easy to dismiss 'childhood'? I don’t believe it is. If you don't value childhood, I'd want to know why the Adult World is in education. I can understand that the Adult World doesn't understand play. I get it. It has forgotten to remember, It can't make it fit neatly into its systems so instead comes up with ways of fitting children into the systems. But what about childhood? How does it value it?
And it's this question that i believe we need to put in the hands of our parents. Thinking back, my parents at school were very concerned if their child’s lunch box was missing, or they had the wrong jumper or bag of wet clothes, or their jumper had paint on, or they hadn't drunk out of their drinks bottle.
They very rarely complained about ‘missing childhood’ because they could see that skills were flowing through our practice and they were filled with the one thing that disappears if childhood is let go of: joy.
Yet, in schools and settings that erode childhood, do those parents notice? Is it within their prism of attention? Arguably not because they haven’t been woken up to looking for joy and childhood, to demanding it...
So if parents are quick to spot the missing things at the end of the day, might they be equally as active if they were made more aware of childhood? Where at the end of each day, they look to see that childhood remains strong and intact and in that book bag along with the next reading book and secret messages and junk model robots there's also creativity, confidence, curiosity, collaboration and choice in there too.
The Adult World created a marketplace. It created the ideas of Outstanding Schools and league tables and systems and reports and school values pinned up in lobbies and on websites. It made a culture of conformity, of curriculum-ism and it has done so at a heavy price.
So if this market exists, then let's use it. Maybe it's now time to bring a new product to it. Maybe it's time to present 'childhood' as the New Improved object to desire. Maybe that's what needs to be advertised. Maybe that the question that parents need to ask of schools: "what are you doing with my child's childhood...?" Maybe this pear-shaped hill that the Adult World created can be altered? After all, children only have one childhood and once it's gone it's gone,..
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....