Early Years Play is …

It would be hard to overstate the importance of brilliant early years practitioners when using play to support children’s learning and development. Early years play is …

* carefully structured to ensure conceptual development in all areas of the curriculum;

* imaginatively resourced to ensure that learning opportunities are maximised (you should see our cupboard!);

* timed to perfection (this really matters with small children), so that there is group time, free time, busy time, quiet time and, of course, story time;

* focused on language and conceptual development through the use of talk and sustained shared thinking;

* guided and structured through the use of routines, timings and patterns;

* child initiated, adult initiated and adult directed as appropriate;

* focused on social and emotional development, and independent skills such as toileting, dressing and sharing;

* highly personalised, with the use of key workers, next steps, learning journeys and home visits (we use a ratio of at least one adult to five children);

* a way of identifying any special needs at an early point, and intervening as needed;

* often done outdoors, so that children learn about the natural world, use all their senses, build strength and find out how to calm themselves;

* intensely creative, with the use of provocations, pretending and masses of glitter;

* a thing of beauty, wonder, love and sensitivity.

I’ve got to get back to playing with my family now. But I just wanted to say that, thanks to some brilliant early years practitioners, this is what learning through play actually looks like, at our modest, local and resolutely child centred preschool.

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Play is …

It would be hard to overstate the importance of play in children’s learning and development. Play is …

* the way that children interact with and consequently learn about their world;

* vital for developing language and acquiring new vocabulary;

* crucial for building both fine and gross motor skills;

* essential for learning how to share, socialise and build relationships with others;

* a brilliant way for children to express their emotions and develop their confidence;

* critical for helping children learn how to assess and manage risk;

* the way in which children come to understand the concept of symbolic representation;

* important for healthy physical development;

* vital for building creativity and imagination;

* the perfect way to explore new ideas and make new connections (as an adult, too).

It strikes me that the gap between what we call ‘advantaged’ and ‘disadvantaged’ children is at least partly about a deficit in opportunities to play. Today is National Play Day: the perfect opportunity to play with those you love (a child, a pet, a friend, yourself). I’m keen to go and play with my family on the beach, so I’ll stop there and wish a happy play day to one and all!

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At first glance it is hard to question. A policy that all children should be in school during all of term time. Very well done, Mr Gove. Back up your policy with a fine, have a focus on attendance in inspections, and Bob’s your uncle, as my mum used to say. It even brings money into depleted LA coffers. In the spirit of autonomy, ask governing bodies and head teachers to decide who qualifies for ‘exceptional circumstances’ (a.k.a.’passing the buck’). What could go wrong? Let me introduce you to … The Law of Unintended Consequences.

* Head teachers and governing bodies find themselves being asked to play judge and jury on what constitutes ‘exceptional circumstances’.

* This puts a strain on school/parent relationships, with parents upset about their reasons for absence being turned down.

* Families with less money are less able to afford holidays.

* Children with families overseas are disproportionately affected.

* Parents are given a bizarre financial incentive to lie to their child’s school and ‘do a sickie’. Children are asked to join in with the lie.

* Schools bring in competitions to reward 100% attendance. This happens.

* A challenge is made under Human Rights’ Legislation.

* Parents in public service jobs wonder what they should do if their holidays are limited to certain times of the year.

I would never argue that parents should be allowed to take holidays whenever they like. But what I would ask for is a bit of ‘flexible consistency’. Have a standard in mind, and support people in different ways to achieve it. You can smash every single walnut with a sledgehammer. Or you can pick up the one you need to open, place it in some nutcrackers, and give it a gentle squeeze. That’d be my recommended approach.

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Back to the Future

I went to school in the 1970’s. Some people say this was the time when it all went wrong. When state schools became all fluffy and child centred, when they renounced the traditional methods. Perhaps I just went to the wrong kind of state school, but this is not my memory at all. I remember it as a time when we kept our mouths shut and did as we were told. A time when those of us who refused to comply would be screamed at, humiliated, or beaten with a cane. Our lessons were traditional, we learned by rote, and we did an awful lot of copying from the board. Children were streamed by their perceived ability, with those at the ‘top’ given extra attention, while those at the ‘bottom’ were shunted to one side.

This is not a time to which I would want us to return. Despite all the difficulties it can cause us as educators, I am delighted that children now have a voice, and know their rights. Even though it makes a teacher’s job harder, I think it is wonderful that we are asked to engage children, rather than simply insisting that they comply. I have a theory that our view of how education should be is based (at least partly) on our own experiences as a school child. The terror I felt as a child, at the hand of adults, has coloured my entire vision of what education can and should look like. Corporal punishment was outlawed in state schools in the United Kingdom in 1987. Some of the people reading this blog post may not even have been born when this change was made. So please let us not forget, when we hark back to the ‘good old days’ that for some of us they didn’t feel that ‘good’ at all.

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Masters of the Universe

Yesterday it was announced that a Labour Government would create a new designation of ‘Master Teacher’, as part of a ‘drive to raise standards’. Setting aside any questions about whether this is a good idea or not, when I run the word ‘Master’ through my brain, here’s how the ticker tape comes out:

… man … boy … strong … powerful … master plan … public school master … master race … slave … masterpiece … masterful … cane … dominate …

At this point the ticker tape gets visual, so I’ll spare you the details. But when the tape runs out, I’m left wondering: ‘Hey, where were all the women?’

Words do not exist in a vacuum: they come with connotations. They have historical and cultural associations. The term you choose defines what your idea is. So what I’d like to know is this: does Mr Hunt visualise squads of Master Teachers, grasping their subjects by the neck and squashing their weaker colleagues into shape? Or does he actually mean a group of subject and pedagogy specialists, both women and men, who work alongside their colleagues to model and build good practice? And, if it is the latter, might I respectfully suggest that he picks an alternative* (and preferably a more inclusive) term instead.

* e.g. ‘expert teacher’, ‘consultant teacher’, ‘mentor teacher’ or perhaps even (gasps) ‘advanced skills teacher’.

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Stop Making Sense

Inside every word is a tiny capsule of sense. You can sound words out, you can name their parts, but meaning only comes out when you get them into the right context. Suddenly, the sense goes POP! Let me tell you a story …

Shanghai, China. We have just bought a wooden frog. It makes a croaking sound when you rub its back.

A: [excited] I didn’t know Assassia was real!

S: Assassia?

A: Yeah. I thought Assassia was only in Minecraft. I didn’t realise it was a real tree.

S: [puzzled] Assassia? What’s that?

A: It’s the wood that this frog is made from. See. It says so on the bag.

S: Ah. [smiling] You mean Acacia.

It was a perfectly plausible attempt at saying the word. It might even have passed muster in a phonics screening. If you’re not aware of its Greek etymology, then Assassia is as good a pronunciation as any. But I was only able to understand what my son was saying once I could place what he said in context. Meaning is language in context. English has a tricksy nature; a rich historical background all of its very own. Frequently it does strange things, like making the same sound for two different words (hole and whole), or different sounds for the same one (Reading and reading). And let’s not even go near rough, through, bough and cough.

The Year One phonics screening test is not a test of reading, it is a test of a child’s skill at decoding words out of context. It is a test designed to ensure teacher compliance with a government mandate. And it is a test in which children as young as five learn the lesson that, in school, they can pass or they can fail. I don’t know about you, but I am bewildered by these thoughts. Like Winston Smith in 1984, I cannot get them to make sense – the act of doublethink is beyond me. If I was going to name some imaginary monsters, I would not name them pog or queeb or strom. I would call them the Grumblegrowlerator, or the Slimyblobificon, or maybe even the Tssktsskpurrificalt. But then I’m engaged in the creative process of trying to make sense, because that’s what I always thought language was for. How on erath could I be so datf?

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Informed Consent

Teacher: You’re going to do your baseline test now, Charlie.

Charlie: Why?

Teacher: Because we need data.

Charlie: What’s data?

Teacher: It’s something we can use to measure systems. To see if they are efficient.

[There is a pause.]

Teacher: Think of it as a game, rather than a test.

Charlie: What’s the prize?

Teacher: There isn’t one. It says in the manual: ‘Any offer of a reward may skew the data and is not permitted.’

Charlie: Will you play the game with me, Miss?

Teacher: I’m not allowed to.

Charlie: Why not, Miss?

Teacher: Because … well, because they think I might help you.

Charlie: But you’re meant to help me.

[There is a long pause.]

Teacher: Will you do the test now, Charlie?

Charlie: [starting to wriggle] I don’t want to play this game. I want to do Lego with Ben.

Teacher: Later. But not as a reward for doing the test.

Charlie: Can I go out to play yet?

Teacher: Do the test. And then you can. But not as a reward for …

Charlie: [urgently] I need a poo.

Teacher: Off you go, then.


This post is for the June #blogsync hosted by Chris Waugh @Edutronic_Net. This month’s topic is testing in schools. You can sign up here.

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