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...
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....