I was really lucky when I was 17, because I was taught A-Level English by Mr Pike. He was one of those uniquely brilliant teachers who seemed to be more intent on bringing us alive to the joy of story and poetry than he was on us actually passing our exams. There was always some film to be engrossed in or non-syllabus book to pour over, and his lessons were peppered with philosophy and psychology, Jung and Nietzsche, opening our late teenage thinking to see the wider world and our own place within it.
Afternoons with Mr Pike were spent watching films like Ingmar Bergman's imperious 'The Seventh Seal' and gritty Harold Pinter screenplays, or debating and questioning the erosion of the surrounding mining communities under the thumb of Thatcherism, the destruction of the ozone layer and the collapse of Communism across Eastern Europe. And in amongst all the turmoil and the unfolding chaos that we explored we kept the company of music and film and books all colliding with politics and unrequited love for unattainable girls, shaping an all-consuming camaraderie as though we were Billy Bragg, Joan of Arc and Robespierre all rolled into one. It was us against the world, with The Go-Betweens and The Lilac Time, The Smiths and Teardrop Explodes, The Cure and Lloyd Cole and the Commotions as our soundtrack, and all the while, our brains boiled with ideas, lyrics and dreams of a new future somehow.
And in amongst all of this, Mr Pike dropped in the syllabus - Hardy's The Return of the Native, Ballard's Empire of the Sun, Pinter's The Caretaker, the poetry of Larkin and William Blake - a magician sprinkling core texts into a world he'd help create so that each text shone so brightly simply because they now meant something - it was as though Blake was speaking to us in our time about a new Albion that was equally shaped around Hardy's deeply emotive and painful explorations of the inevitably of lost love and existential crisis. There was no 'curriculum' because we were the curriculum. We weren't learning texts for an exam - we were learning them because it felt as though our very lives depended on it.
In Mr Pike's classroom, week after week, a Small World grew, a world in which learning meant something bigger than itself. As the pale Friday afternoon Sun found its way through the willow trees outside and cast flickering shadows through the windows to dance upon the tables and the classroom walls, it was as though its light was leaning in to illuminate the small corners of life as well as the bigger ones, Subtly, Mr Pike was showing us that learning was not defined for us by a curriculum, but instead we first needed the conditions of joy and immersion, of connection, and ultimately of 'play'. He was showing us how authentic education begins with being within it, not outside of it.
And it's my growing belief that this very immersion and joy are equally as critical within the days of early childhood so that they are seen as the Prime Movers, shaping a landscape for adventure before the actual 'curriculum'..
By doing so, we can begin to think of 'play' as beyond its physical, observable state, such as running, jumping, climbing, building, creating or pretending, and see that 'play' is equally to do with language, ideas and emotional connections. We show children that words are a glorious playground, we delight in physical play and we reveal the joy of thinking and noticing and looking - a World of Good Things where everything and anything contains learning-for-itself and has a plasticity for us to imagine and re-imagine.
Because it is in this World of Good Things where authenticity can be found. Here, we no longer teach 'alien words' so that children can pass a Phonic Screening Check, they are no longer taught because of 'curriculum', but because of connection, the adults showing children how to play with language because to do so leads to joy, and reveals its true nature, its poetry and its own Hidden Soul.
We reveal the possibility of liberating learning from potential curriculum claustrophobia and in its place we can forge a space where joy and immersion come first. Environmental sound walks no longer 'get done' so that we can tick them off, or because they are part of 'Phase One' phonics - instead we listen to the world simply because it is trying to tell us something, because we are connected to it, the birdsong, the breeze stirring the Autumn leaves, the traffic rumbling, the scissors cutting through paper, even the sound of our own breathing. We don't go on an environmental walk because we already live inside one.
We no longer sing nursery rhymes because a document says that this is developmentally appropriate for children, we sing them because the rhymes are echoing from the past and to sing them is to bring them and their characters to life so that children's imaginations can play with them. And in the same way 'completing a rhyming string' becomes a natural part of daily linguistic play, not because a document tells us to do it, but because there is play in poetry, there is freedom, there is a new way for words to be toyed with and tossed around in whatever part of the day they come to mind. Ultimately, there is joy to be found.
Yes, we are teaching skills and yes, we need knowledge and understanding of 'curriculum' or stages and developmentally appropriate practice but first must come an understanding of joy. First must come days in which children feel that the learning they are experiencing is within them, not outside of them. It is under these conditions that an adventure into learning can truly happen in a World of Good Things to explore, create, invent and dream beyond.
And it is my belief that this world is possible. When we 'zoom out' from our documentation and begin to see learning as being more open ended, less linear, less checklist, then we begin to show children the joy of 'just maths' and how it lives in the world, the joy of 'just words' and how we can bend them to our will, the joy of 'just mark making' and of 'just reading' by wrestling them both from worksheet and book band books and instead showing how the Message Centre can breathe life into both.
When we do this, we give ourselves the chance to share 'just joy'... Perhaps this is our greatest responsibility to early childhood, something that goes beyond ensuring children have the right to play. Perhaps the right to joy should be the underpinning philosophy of practice?
And this then sets us a challenge, especially in light of the recent reforms to England's Development Matters and the ELGs. How can we ensure the joy when it comes to the ELG of automatic recall of number bonds for example?
Much debate has sprung up online about this particular ELG with argument and counter-argument around its appropriateness. However, I've yet to hear or read anything that has suggested how this goal might have joy at its heart or how it lends itself to creating a culture of joy in maths or of children feeling like maths is inside themselves.
I hope I'm wrong but last time I looked the children who 'don't know' will almost certainly face the Berlin Wall of interventions which might just 'get' them to know, but can more often than not keep them from finding the joy of maths or being part of it.
I would love to know how you might go about this particular ELG. Is joy possible? If not, then what questions does it raise? If you draw a blank perhaps it's time we all give Mr Pike a call...
It's Mental Health Well-Being Week this week, and it brings the importance of finding time within our squeezed days to take care of ourselves into sharp focus. Taking care is something that many of us find hard to do however - often we put ourselves at the end of the queue...
If you look back over the past month and you count the times you did something that helped you relax, switch off and temporarily 'step outside of life', you'd probably count no more than three or four if that. Modern Life was already condensed into a rush and push, and Covid-19 seems to have only exacerbated the pressures both physical and mental. It can begin to feel that what we see around us is the only possibility, stretching out to the horizon - we want to see hope, to feel that the present challenges will come to an end, but the path to this seems remote and dim.
Uncertainty and stress seem ever-present companions in each day nowadays. Not only do we need to meet the practicalities of coping in the face of the ongoing pandemic, many of us will also find ourselves in environments that feel 'different' and untypical of Early Years spaces that we might hold as being effective. We want play but it feels, just like the path out of Covid, far-off and distant. Relationships with parents may feel less personal. Rules and updates on the use of playdough, water, sand, Lego, books all seem to have sprung up and impacted on our provision. We may feel at a loss, unable to spring the richness of play to life. Some of us may also be under pressure to ensure 'catch-up' especially if we work in schools and settings that are driven by the spreadsheet and micro-management. It's as though we feel leaned on from all sides.
All of this can have a significant toll on our mental health, and it's certainly true that if we are not at our best, then we can fall short of giving our best to our children. Do we ever feel like we have somehow been pushed to the side of our own lives, as though we are a bystander watching on, an observer in a maelstrom not knowing which way to turn? We want to feel joy. even a glimpse of it, but the days seem bloated with external forces pressing down on our ability to do something, to act. We can quickly discover ourselves in a state of mind that has its finger permanently on the 'react' button, pinballing from one thing to next. Pinball Brain can lead us to another state if we are not careful: Unravelled Brain. In this state our good intentions for children, our playful pedagogy, our self-perception as the 'teacher-who-is-me', the Controller of our little world, can often represent a chicken coop when a fox gets in...
Can we find a way in which the joy we and our children need to feel so desperately can be taken by the hand, especially if we currently feel unable to bring play into the room for the majority of the day? Well, yes, perhaps we can...
I would suggest that we take some time to look at our week. Look to see what moments there might be for co-play, that rich and immersive phase of a day when we can become embedded in children's play and its magic. It might only be an hour a week, it may be an hour a day. One hour of co-play a week is better than none. And why is it better than none? Because it is here, in co-play, that the magic of children will bring us to life - the starlight that children have within them, that they have in their souls, that light that just wants to burst forth and show us how to live once more, with wonder, curiosity, creativity and collaboration will sweep into the room.
It is here that the mystery of childhood will reveal itself - that Great Unknown of play that will embrace you and pull you in. The choices children make, their re-imagining and inventions, their ability to cross-pollinate language and ideas, and their delight of being valued and listened to. of being seen because we let go and stepped into their world. And like them we can become 'play-full' even for that hour. For it is there that the joy of life awaits us. It can fill us - we'll feel its warmth in our limbs, even when we anticipate it - that Golden Hour(s) - we will have something to look forward to. It will be the hope...
Because there is hope. There is a way forward. We may not be able to fully sense it yet, but the moments of co-play might just be the lens that we can put to our weary eye and see the possibility of joy once more. And this hope that is co-play is not just for the adult alone. It is for our children too - for play is buzzing and humming inside of them 24/7 and the moments in our week where we make space for co-play, very subtly but critically, will be showing them that they can change the world around them. It will show them that they are protagonists in their own adventure, an adventure on which we are by their side, there for them, with our own skills and and magic and curiosity to lend them when they need it.
If we can feel joy deep in our soul as we read these words, then we are halfway there. If we can't play for the majority of our week, then at least that hour or two can enable the one thing that will bring us and children well-being from here to the moon and back - play.
Play IS our hope - it's our Excalibur, let's pull it out of the stone that life has become and step into the fray. The children will be right there with us as we hold it x
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....