“Don’t do that!”
“You stay here. I’ll go over there.”
“It’s her turn. Let her have a go!”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“Shall we do something else now?”
It being half term, our home has been filled with other people’s children. We’ve had solo friend, group of teenage friends on a rampage/film day, and tonight we have a best friends who’ve moved away but we still see them all the time over Skype anyway sleepover. There is very little more fascinating than watching children handle the tricky task of playing in a group, especially when it’s a mixed age one. It’s not an easy job, that’s for sure. Upset is never very far away, because when kids get over excited, someone is likely to get hurt. When you listen in, you see the subtle emotional and intellectual skills needed in having your friends over. You can hear the code switching and the negotiation, the ebb and flow of who gets their own way and who has to give in (and how often). All the time children play in a group, they are learning how to work alongside other people, how not to be too much of a dictator, how to build a world where everyone wants to join in. Yesterday the teens created a full scale Nerf War, with historically accurate details. Cardboard boxes got deployed as barriers, and many bullets were fired. Today is a more delicate affair. With an age span of seven years, everyone must be taken into account. This is tricky.
Group work gets a bad press in some parts of the education blogosphere. “They can’t learn if they’re distracted by their friends” seems to be the main criticism, with “it’s not the most efficient method for learning” coming in a close second. There is a suspicion of group work that seems at odds with its mostly benign and useful nature. When you work or play in a group, you’re not necessarily learning lots of facts or drilling lots of skills. You’re probably not memorising anything or focusing on specific bits of information. But you are learning something that you cannot learn in any other way, and it’s something really important. You are learning how to be a sociable human being. You are learning how to get on with other people. Whether or not you believe school is the place for this particular bit of learning depends on how you look at education. [Insert your favourite dichotomy here.] I don’t think we should make children learn in a group all the time. That’d be crazy. People need a bit of time and space to themselves. But if we never let children learn in groups, that’d be equally daft. It is possible to do both, although you might have to clean up afterwards. So if you need me, I’m down the bottom of the garden, picking Nerf bullets out of the hedge.