“We Are Not Playing Now We Are Learning”

I was recently observing in a classroom, having being alerted to a child who, at 5 years old, was struggling to complete the tasks expected of her by the teacher.  In fact, in the teacher’s eyes, she was being ‘non-compliant’.  As I observed, the child self-selected a task outside of what the teacher had asked her to do.  As the teacher moved to intervene, she stated to the child “No, we are not playing now, we are learning”.  I was absolutely stunned.  This teacher, in one sentence had managed to contradict the very nature of childhood.  That learning and play are two separate entities, and that one must certainly not engage in play (and presumably any frivolity that comes with it) when one is committed to the serious task of learning.


This seems to be the prevailing attitude of our current education system.  What stunned me the most with this teacher was that she was young and trained in a degree that covers a student age of 3-8 years of age.  I had assumed that this meant she would have a clear understanding of the work of children, and the literature and research around the importance of play and the subsequent learning that comes from this.  I am forever learning not to assume anything in my work.  There seems to be a belief by society in general that up to the age of 5 years, children can have a bit of a play – a bit of a lark about – but come time for school then that nonsense really has to cease in favour of the important stuff.  The real learning.  The ‘get-ready-for-NCEA’ attitude narrow-minded focus.  It does seem to feel like childhood is a very endangered species.

What is a shame even more than this, however, is that this focus is starting to seep into many early childhood facilities.  Daycare facilities are now re-branding themselves as ‘Educare’ companies, offering to ‘prepare your child’ for school.  While I am all in favour of having children school-ready, it is the definition of this that concerns me the most.  School ready should encompass a level of socialisation, independence, level of oral language and an understanding of the reasons why we go to school.   When a 3 year old is expected to be compliant in the ‘classroom’, this is displaying an ignorance about child development that is difficult to stomach.  Companies responsible for the provision of care to children under the age of 5 should take their responsibilities extremely seriously.  They are in the position of preserving childhood, not extinguishing it in favour of the pressure to have children learning the ‘important stuff’.  They should be advocates for the children they care for, teaching parents and the wider community about the important life-long learning that occurs in these early years, and how we, as families, can assist our children with their milestones.  And above all, they should work hard to correct society’s perception that earlier is better.  That if children are pushed harder, sooner, they will be achieving quicker and better.  And when they get to school at 5, they won’t bother with all this play stuff – they will be busy doing actual learning.


What 5 year olds need, particularly when they have come through a system such as an Educare facilities, is time to explore, discover, create and connect with the world around them.  To inquire.  To question.  To delight and to consider.  Of all the ‘subjects’ of childhood – play encompasses all these skills.  And so much more.  At 5, students should be in classrooms that have the flexibility to encourage students in their play, not to stop them at the first step.  That are resourced enough to allow children to explore their ideas and create from their imaginations.  This is not in conflict with the need to have children learning to read, write and develop their numeracy skills.  But if in an environment where children are engaged in true play, these tools will be used in context and with purpose.  Children will have real reason to draw on and develop these skills.  They will be learning through their play, not separately from their play.

Play 2

2 thoughts on ““We Are Not Playing Now We Are Learning”

  1. Great piece Sarah, we are at Lucknow School and although as with everywhere I don’t love everything about the way they educate (at this stage it’s only the technology and screen time I dislike, I am an advocate of saving this till beyond primary at least) they are the most caring individual focused nurturing group of teachers, they have actively integrated themselves with Lucknow Kindy (another fantastic place we are lucky to have/had our kids go to) and ensure that the transition from kindy is almost seamless and don’t rush kids from new entrants. From all observation play and imitation is how they learn everything, they model fantastic behaviour – probably sounds like an odd thing to say but due to our desire to encourage and embrace childhood, embrace individual achievement, foster an old fashioned love of learning by observation and experimentation rather than google and youtube, delay the introduction of technology and the swamping of media/advertising to children and to seek a like minded community we had a brief time at the local Steiner School (we were actually still in their kindy for year 1 as they move onto their class one/year two at 6-7) only to find that all the theory is only lip service if the teachers are not caring and all the wood and wool in the world shoved into a classroom don’t make it a warm place if they teachers are cold and unapproachable, quite ironic I though for an institute which so frequently goes on about the young child learning all from imitation. I have read a lot on the failing American Education system and the ‘no child left behind’ program, which one person had nicknamed ‘no child left in tack’ and fear that it would seem our MPs/educators are choosing the same fate for our children.

    For us the move to school has been areal wake up call, finding that so much that lies ahead in the mainstream education system that goes against what we had imagined for our children and knowing that there is no suitable alternative. It has really brought the onus back on us to ensure our kids know in their home life the things we value and the expectations we have. Would be nice to have support in our journey from the education system and I am sure there will be plenty of places we will on the way, but we all as parents will have to be on our toes to pick up the slack.

    • Great to hear from you Peggy, and your experiences to date with the school system. Lucknow are certainly paving the way in Hawkes Bay with their junior school program implementing discovery learning. I am well familiar with their practises as I am closely related to one of the implementers 🙂 Much of what they began in there happened before the advent of national standards and other government policies now in place. It is a continual battle for the teacher to stay true to effective pedagogy while meeting the unreasonable demands of the current government. You are absolutely right in countering the school effect on our children with input and modelling from home. Unfortunately our very at risk students get neither….and these students will go on to cost our society in. The long run. Education has a responsibility to the future well-being of NZ……so it just has to be got right first time!

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