Sh – ee – p

J: Ssh … ssh … [he holds his finger to his lips]

N: Why do we have to be quiet?

Sue: Because we don’t want to wake the monster that lives under the ground. That’s our game. We’re playing together.

N: Can I join in? I love playing games.

J and Sue: Sure!

E: [coming over from the other side of the playground] Look! There are some sheep in the field over there! Can we go and play with them?

J & N: [fingers to lips] Ssh, you’ll wake the monster!

Sue: And you might scare the sheep away too.

[The early years setting is very rural. There are animals everywhere.]

A: [joining them] Shall we go and see them? The sheep?

Sue: That’s a great idea. Hey everyone, can you hear that ‘sh’ sound we keep making? Remember? That’s our sound this week. Shall we see how many times we can spot it? [everyone nods] We could count the sheep too, if you like?

E: That’s the best way to fall asleep. [they all laugh]

A: Then afterwards we can go inside and find lots of ‘sh’ toys. Sharks!

E: And shields!

N: And shells!

J: On the seashore!

Sue: Sure thing. [they all high five] We could write some of them down in our explorer’s notebooks, if you like?

A: Hey, that’s another ‘sh’ sound. Sure.

Sue: Let’s talk about that ‘sh’ another time …

[They head off to count the sheep.]

Posted in Children, Early Years, Play | 5 Comments

How (NOT) to Learn through Play

“Play: to engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose”

According to Ofsted, this is what learning through play looks like. In the first video, the teacher presents the children with ready made police hats, then she takes them outside to search for animal pictures on cards. When they find the animals, they must sound out the word: sh – ee – p. The teacher plans the direction the learning will take; the children do not have any input. The teacher takes all the decisions; the children do not make any choices of their own. The teacher has a predetermined outcome for the activity; the children cannot move laterally from this objective. The teacher speaks a great deal; the children hardly talk at all. The children, we are told, do this to please the teacher (rather than to please themselves.)

This, then, is not ‘play’ in any shape or form. This is what I would call ‘adult directed learning’. There is nothing inherently wrong with adult directed learning, as part of a balanced diet of early years provision. However, you can often get to the same end result in a much more playful and play based way, usually by following the children’s lead (see my blog here). There are a number of potential disadvantages of a heavy focus on adult directed learning:

* The children’s interests are sidelined in favour of the adult’s objectives. (It’s important to note that this is not a statutory phase of education – the children are not here to be made ‘school ready’, they are here to be cared for, to have fun and to learn.)

* The opportunities for building decision making skills and independence are limited. The children do what the adult tells them to, with less chance to make choices of their own.

* There is no element of personal creativity or imagination involved in the activity. (What a missed art opportunity those police hats represent!)

* There is often little talk involved when the adult directs a large group, and therefore less chance for the process of sustained shared thinking to take place.

I’m sorry, Ofsted, but you cannot just stick a police hat on a child, set all the rules of the game, tell the children exactly what to do, and then call it ‘play’. Play is messy, joyful, creative, child led, imaginative, risky. It is about defining yourself, your relationship to your peers, and to the world in which you live. It is a fundamental part of the way in which young children develop. And children tend to laugh a lot when they are doing it. Therefore, I conclude that these videos are not an example of ‘learning through play’. They are a demonstration of ‘direct instruction for tiny children’.

Posted in Children, Early Years, Play | 4 Comments

A Standardised Lesson Plan

Insert creative ideas here —>

(Base these on: your subject knowledge, your professional judgement, your knowledge of your children, their interests and their individual needs. Note: other teachers have lots of good ideas, you can also borrow and adapt these to suit.)

Posted in Teaching and learning | 1 Comment

Finding your Form

I’m writing a book at the moment. Or, to be more accurate, a book is writing me. I know what the book is about. I’ve had the experiences I needed to write it. I know exactly what I’m going to say. But the book just hasn’t found its form yet. This is partly a waiting game. The book will come when it wants to come. However, there are some things you can do to speed up the process of finding your form:

* Just write, even if it’s rubbish.

* Go sideways: explore some other art forms and think about how they could link to your project.

* Experiment – try writing what you want to say in different forms, in different styles, and for different audiences.

* Think about covers, and tag lines, and blurbs, and all that fun stuff.

Finding your form is a bit like shaking up a bottle of coke, then waiting for just the right moment to take off the lid. If you open it too soon, the danger is you get all sticky. If you open it too late, all the fizz is gone. But, at some point, you have to take the lid off. And, basically, see what happens. #amwriting

Posted in Writing | 5 Comments


“I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”

W.B. Yeats

It takes a lot of courage to share your writing. What will people think? What will they say? Will they like my ideas? Is my writing any good? Most people lack self confidence when they first start writing. 25 years and 25 books later I’m pretty confident that I can write well. The fact that my books sell helps me believe that people want to read what I write. But when I started out, you could have crushed my confidence in my writing with a single ill-judged comment. (Luckily, we did not have the Internet when I began.) Even now, when I write a new book, I still feel nervous about how it will be received.

One of the strangest things about being a writer is that you must care deeply about what your readers think about your writing, and yet at the same time you must not care at all.  You write for your readers, but you don’t write because you think your readers will like what you wrote. You write because you must. Sometimes people will take against what you write. They will dislike your ideas, or the way that you express them. The problem is, when it comes to writing, that the writer often conflates the two. An attack on your ideas can feel like an attack on your writing, even if the reader didn’t mean it in that way.

As educators, we understand that helping children learn and develop is about having high expectations, but that it is also about building self confidence and self esteem. If a child’s writing is riddled with errors, we don’t highlight everyone single one, because that would be counter productive. We look for parts we can praise, at the same time as giving targets for improvement. We practice the art of being subtle. People often ask me if they can send me samples of their writing, so that I can give them advice. I could send their writing back to them, spray painted with ‘don’t do THIS!’ and ‘what are you THINKING!?’ But that is about as much help to an emerging writer as a chocolate tea pot. It is far, far better for me to give general advice, constructive criticism and to highlight what is working well. Then allow the person to figure out where they want to go next – what kind of writer they want to become.

My blog is an experimental space, and it doesn’t bother me at all if commentators don’t like my ideas. I don’t even mind when other bloggers take my blog posts and use them to write ones of their own, in which they very kindly point out all my errors of thinking. (I’m looking at you, Mr Old.) But for those new to writing, I can see that this might be enough to crush the writer’s confidence and make them think twice about writing again. We don’t always have to say what we think. An awful lot of the time these days, I find myself biting my tongue. And if we do want to make our feelings known, we can do so in a way that is polite and that models the message we want to send. There is enough space in the world for people to share all different kinds of ideas. It is wonderful that different writers have different ways of expressing what they want to say. And we do not need to crush anyone else’s dreams to have dreams of our own.

Posted in Blogging, Writing | 8 Comments

It’s Not About the Money, Money, Money

This week my daughter finally earned her sticker from school for doing 25 nights of reading. She has been looking forward to getting the sticker. The sticker acts as a useful ‘marker’ of her achievement. But we would have read every night anyway, because we love reading. Yesterday my son came home from school and proudly announced that he had earned 3 green slips. He was delighted to receive them, even though the prize they earn him is irrelevant because he eats packed lunches (you get to go to the front of the school dinner queue). The slips act as a lovely way for the school to let us know how hard he is working. But he would have worked hard anyway, because he loves to learn.

Today brought news of a £1.6 million study into whether cash incentives and offers of trips would boost student attainment at GCSE level. (They didn’t. No, I’m not surprised either.) I find myself baffled as to why anyone would choose to spend so much money to research this particular question, not least because of the values that lurk behind it. Motivation is an incredibly complex subject; different people are motivated by different things. But the idea that we would think to use such a blatant extrinsic reward is astonishing to me. This is Parenting 101, for goodness sake. If you constantly say to your child ‘Do x and you get y’, after a while they respond to every request with ‘What do I get if I do it?’ Just because it’s hard to get children to be intrinsically motivated, doesn’t mean that it is not worth trying. My aim as a parent has always been to teach my children that learning is of value, and deeply rewarding, in its own right. How on earth can we even envisage an education system that tells them that no, actually, it’s all about the money?

Posted in Children, Motivation, Rewards | 3 Comments

An Open Letter

As parents and educators we find ourselves increasingly concerned at the pressure that is being placed on our children and young people. We worry about the long term impact that this pressure may have on our children’s emotional health, particularly on the most vulnerable in our society. We are concerned to hear of children crying on their way to school, upset that they will not be able to keep up; of parents worried that their four year olds are ‘falling behind’ or of six year olds scared that they ‘might not get a good job’. And we wonder what has happened to that short period in our lives known as ‘childhood’.

The pressure that is put on schools to achieve results, particularly in the tests that now form such a regular feature of a child’s life, has inevitably led to increased pressure on the children themselves. This is not to blame teachers, or schools. Rather, it is to say that with test results becoming such a high stakes feature of our education system, schools are put in a very difficult position. When test results are the key measure of whether a child’s school is ‘good’ or not, we believe that every child’s entitlement to a broad and balanced education is put at risk. We believe all children have the right to become fully rounded individuals, and that in order to help them achieve this, we must protect their emotional well-being, now and for the future. We believe all children have the right to be treated as individuals, and to be allowed to develop at a pace that is right for them, not to meet a Government target.

We call for all those who are equally concerned to speak out against the direction in which education in England, and in other countries around the world, is moving. We call for governments around the world to take into account children’s emotional well-being when they consider the ‘effectiveness’ of schools and other educational settings. If you would like to join us in sending this message to those in government, please add your name, and any title/location, to the comments thread below in order to ‘sign’.

Thank you,

Sue Cowley – Parent, author, educator and chair of preschool committee, Bristol, England

Laura Henry – Parent, independent early years consultant, trainer, writer and author, London, England

Debra Kidd – Parent, teacher and author, England

Hywel Roberts – Parent, author and travelling teacher, Yorkshire, England

Elizabeth Holmes – Parent, educator and author, England

Tim Taylor – Parent and teacher, England

Meraud Ferguson Hand – Parent, England

Chris Chivers - Grandparent, ex head teacher, consultant, ITT, tutor, blogger, England

Kate Evans - Parent, educator and head teacher, Scotland

Nancy Gedge - Parent, teacher and blogger, Gloucestershire, England

Emma Hardy – Parent, primary teacher, blogger and activist, England

Di Leedham - Parent and teacher, London, England

Mary Cooper - Parent and educator, Lancashire, England

Neil Leitch – chief executive, Pre-school Learning Alliance

Please support the Too Much Too Soon Campaign.

Posted in Children | 539 Comments