Thursday, 20 April 2017

To Play Or Not To Play?

I'm a huge advocate of child-led play-based learning. Obviously - it's kinda the whole point of the blog!

I'm also very fortunate to have found (very large) groups of like minded people online who help indulge my passion for this approach.

I'm even more fortunate to work with colleagues who share this passion and a joint vision for our foundation stage setting. 

And lastly, and equally (if not more) importantly, I am extra fortunate to have a Senior Leadership Team who support and advocate this way of learning. So much so that the Headteacher is encouraging more play-based learning into Year One and beyond.

I say I'm fortunate because there are many people who misunderstand what 'child-led' and 'learning through play' actually means. In fact there are (very large) groups of practitioners who sit at the opposite end of the spectrum to me (and thousands - millions the world over - of others). 

These practitioners believe young children should sit in rows. Who believe very young children should be tested to ascertain what they know. Who follow the "don't speak unless spoken to" train of thought and who pride academic attainment and strict discipline above everything else - including holistic well being of children.

I'm not saying this approach doesn't get good academic results. I'm just saying I know what kind of setting I would prefer my own children to attend.

The problem with having practitioners working at opposite ends of the spectrum ('informal' versus 'formal' if you want to really over-simplify it), is that there will always be debate.

And there has been - with more traditional, formal advocates calling those in my camp 'progressive' as if children playing to learn is some new, weird, hippie movement. And with the child-led advocates calling the traditional approach 'archaic' as if it has no place in today's society. I personally have my own view on this and my view is that it doesn't. But there are parents who obviously want this strict discipline-led education for their children so, no matter how much I dislike it, it unfortunately does have a place.

The problem is that, given our defining principles of education differ so entirely, we are completely ignorant of each other. We would not work in a setting completely at odds with our principles and so we just don't really know how the opposite settings work.

We are also unwaveringly passionate about our stance. And so we will not change each other's minds in an 140 word tweet or a rant on Facebook no matter how much we try. And believe me - we have tried!

All I can do is explain why I advocate child-led, play-based learning. My list is not exhaustive by any means, but in the interests of not keeping you here for a week, I've narrowed it down to three key reasons.

1. It Works!

The reason my management team are also passionate about this approach is because they've watched their Good Levels of Development at the end of the Foundation Stage rise from 23% in 2014 to 61% last year. Their GLD has almost tripled in just two years and that is because our team has slowly introduced more and more child-led learning and less and less structured group/whole class work. There are some misconceptions that 'child-led' means 'let children do whatever they want' which of course is ridiculous and any good practitioner knows that. I read (on Twitter) the other day that someone was questioning child-led practice because, and I'm paraphrasing here, "what if that child wants to hit another child?" I hope they were being intentionally facetious. If not and they genuinely think that's what child-led means then I'm a little astounded by their ignorance. Child-led simply means knowing the children in your class. Knowing what motivates them, interests them, inspires them. Knowing their strengths across the curriculum and ways in which you can challenge them to suceed. This approach can only work with very skilled practitioners who know their children, and the curriculum, thoroughly and it really does take a huge amount of professional skill and pedagogy. For this reason, it is often hard for people without experience of it to fully comprehend its magic.

2. I believe children are individuals.

I went into teaching to raise levels of literacy and numeracy in young people. But I also went into teaching because I care about children. And I want to raise levels of self confidence. Of curiosity. Of engagement. Of enjoyment and of well being.

Because being a child isn't just about academic scores. Being a person isn't just about academic scores. Being a human being means more than being an empty vacuum to be filled with knowledge. It means more than being a robot and reciting facts you've learned by sitting in rows and being subjected to tests when they were five.

I am genuinely astounded that there might be people teaching who don't want to get to know the children in their class as people. Who don't have time for having conversations with them about their interests and their experiences. How can we teach effectively with a strictly limited understanding of who we are teaching? Not to mention the fact that teaching without really knowing your children must be a pretty hollow experience? I'm obviously wrong because I know there are teachers driven entirely by standardised scores and results. I've met some. It makes me pretty sad, especially now that I have children of my own. Which links quite nicely to my final point...

3. It is developmentally appropriate.

I am not against testing of any kind thoughout the entire school life of a child. I am not against children learning in more formal conditions. But this should be when it is developmentally appropriate for these children to do so (secondary school and beyond). I have studied early childhood development and have taught young children for years. I have two children of my own and I have watched in awe of how they discover things for themselves. Young children (I'm talking infant, even junior age here) do not naturally sit still. They do not naturally let the world come to them. They go out and get it for themselves. Because at four or five years old, children are still naturally curious. They still want to run around and climb trees.

There are those that think play-based learning means letting them run off and play whilst practitioners sit in the corner and just watch. This is, again, ludicrous and once again it highlights the ignorance of people who haven't taught in this way. Like I said before, it takes extremely skilled practitioners to effectively deliver play-based learning. There's a simple analogy below:

When my children were learning to walk, I didn't instruct them every day to practise. But I set up an enabling environment which meant there was sufficient challenge and support for them to pull themselves up and coast around the furniture. I ensured I had positive relationships with them so that they knew I was there to encourage them if they tried and catch them if they fell. I made sure that I observed closely, letting them move independently and then, at the pivotal moment when they needed support to take their next step (literally), I intervened with praise and challenge appropriate to each of my unique children.

There will be people who say "well that's fine because they were very young". And actually someone asked the Twittersphere the other day whether play was the best way to learn. Yes. Because it capitalises on children's natural motivations and instincts. They don't lose those the moment they become school age. And I don't want to discipline it out of them.

I want them to understand that sometimes we sit quietly on the carpet for developmentally appropriate amounts of time (age in minutes plus one or two if you're really optimistic). I want them to understand that we listen when people are talking to us. That we can't just go off and climb trees whenever we feel like it because sometimes we need to do other things. But I also want them to understand that I will listen to them. That I know they love climbing trees and once phonics is over, they can go outside and do so. I want them to know that I understand how much they like painting or writing stories; that I know they love Peppa Pig; that I understand they are nervous on the monkey bars. I want them to understand that I know them and I care about them. Not just how well they can read, or calculate or draw a diagram of an electric circuit.

I want them to know that they can still go out and get the world.

I want them to know they can 'fly'.

See what I did there Mr Gibb?

I'd write links to all the curriculum areas my son covered on this walk but I haven't got all day :)

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