Play: The Four Letter Word in Primary School

As a researcher, facilitator and advocate of teaching and learning through play in the primary school sector, I am continually asked “it all sounds great, and we know the benefits – but what do we call it….because it can’t just be called play”.

Decades of research provides evidence that play is the most valuable and successful way in which children engage in learning.  Through play, children can build all the necessary skills and knowledge required of them in readiness for adulthood.  Social-learning theory, constructivism, cognitive development theories, socio-emotional theories and physical development theories all uphold the power play has in the holistic development of children.

More recently, neuroscience has also identified the important link between learning through play, physical movement and the successful development of key executive functioning skills now viewed as paramount for the adult workforce.

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Yet in the face of the mountain of research, primary school educators still avoid at all cost the use of the word play to describe the teaching and learning pedagogy within their school setting.  In primary-school based literature itself, play is not a useful search term to input.  It simply brings up very little with regards to the play – by researched definition- that equates to powerful learning opportunities for children.

Instead, educators look for ways to camouflage play pedagogy in a myriad of other packaged-type terms.  ‘Enriched curriculum’, ‘discovery’, ‘developmental’, ‘powerful learning activities’, ‘active learning’, ‘student ownership’ – all terms used by schools to justify the use of play pedagogy in their learning environment.

The need to package and market play suggests that educators are yet to truly understand and value the importance and validity of play as a powerful tool to support children’s learning.  It demonstrates an almost embarrassment at something that seems so trivial as being so vital within the school environment.  It also indicates a wariness of image and appearance – that play does not look like ‘real learning’, hence the need to make it sound as important as it is with a more academic title.  Parents, who vote with their feet, may not accept a school’s competency to provide maximal learning opportunities for their children because by all appearances children are ‘just playing’.

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A further paradox in calling play by its name exists in the mere fact that the light-heartedness of play is key to its very success.  In needing to call play something else – a more formalised label for example – educators contradict the very essence of what makes play so effective.

Children do not see play as difficult.  Play may be a challenge, but often it is the challenge itself that makes play even more enticing.  At no time, however, should true play be rigorous and laborious (as often much of formal schooling tends to be).  The fact that play is light-hearted and fun contributes to its profundity.  By renaming play we extinguish this very characteristic, and in turn reduce its effectiveness.

If we continue to be embarrassed by a term such as play it will never be used as a valid form of teaching and learning.  In avoiding the use of the word play it can only be assumed that educators are embarrassed that something that appears so trivial can in fact have such an impact on students’ learning.

Would this be the case if the terms were ‘reading’ and ‘writing’.  Why are these terms so readily accepted, and play is not?  Reading is not marketed as an ‘Accessing Visual Information for Purpose (AVIP)’ program.  Writing is not validated as an ‘Effective Communication Skill Development (ECSD)’ program.  Yet both reading and writing have a depth of skill and knowledge within their ‘label’ that is not fully understood by those untrained in the teaching of these areas.

Play is the same.  Play, as a teaching and learning tool, cannot be easily defined or explained in a single term.  The teaching skills and learning outcomes associated with authentic play are multi-layered, as is with the teaching skills and learning outcomes associated with reading and writing.  And yet, the terms themselves are widely accepted by all within the greater school community.  Play as a term still struggles to join this party.

How does play become accepted as a valid and powerful teaching and learning tool? By starting with being called what it is.  Play.  Educators need to stop trying to camouflage the pedagogy by calling it something other than what it is.  It should not be embarrassing to say that the way in which children learn best and in a meaningful way is through play.

Teachers know what works for children.  Teachers understand what is developmentally appropriate for their students.  Parents and the wider school community need to be supported to understand this also.  By using the word play as part of an evidence-based, carefully considered and professionally implemented pedagogy, teachers can ensure play gets the recognition it deserves and is accepted as the valid and powerful learning tool it is designed to be.

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Authentic Adventurer or Keeper of All Knowledge?

Today was a culmination of some pretty intense work by our daughter in her home-learning for Term 3.  Following her passion for New Zealand’s native birds, in particular the Karearea (New Zealand Falcon), she completed a 45 page reference book documenting all the local birds living in our immediate neighborhood.  Her reward for the focus and perseverance shown in this was a visit to the Wingspan Birds of Prey Trust in Rotorua.  Here, she was able to appreciate up close and personal the amazing prowess and beauty of these endangered native birds.

Because we are time-limited these school holidays, we chose to do the trip in one day.  300 kilometres each way, it was always going to be a long day.  The car was packed with a variety of entertainment, including an on-tap supply of Lucky Luke magazines (our son’s current favourite) along with notebooks, colouring books, and toys we were off on our next home learning adventure.  As we drove north, the conversation was rich with enthusiasm, curiosity and passion.  In fact, we didn’t put the stereo on for music until well after we passed Taupo (approximately two hours worth of driving).  The topics we covered in that time included the weather patterns observed (we drove through a significant amount of fog); a variety of creature habitats, comparisons regarding various species of animals; observations regarding the different types of plant life we noticed and the change from native bush to human-created pine forests; sustainable farming (why we farm cattle and sheep); fire prevention methods in forests and so on.  One topic led to another and throughout the entire conversation, myself and my husband simply posed ‘I wonder’ questions and interjected with either a fact to compliment the direction of the conversation, or to correct a misunderstood or misquoted fact by the children.  The conversation was rich and centered entirely around the children and their curiosities and wonderings.

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We are extremely fortunate to be able to enable these opportunities for our children within our home-learning environment.  And while I am very mindful that being responsible for two children’s education is entirely different to that of 30 children in a classroom, I do wonder how the same principles of wondering and curiosity can be encouraged in a classroom setting.  Many working in such a busy learning environment will find it very difficult to have rich conversations with their students particularly directed at an individual’s interests and passions.  Why is this?  Why do the sheer number of children make this a barrier to being able to scaffold our children’s learning desires?

For many teachers it comes down to the programming.  Focused on teaching to a specific subject in a compartmentalised way, or ensuring that children are working to an arbitrary timetable, teachers are constantly engaged in ‘busy’ work.  ‘Busy’ with groups, ‘busy’ with whole-class, ‘busy’ with those highly challenging individuals,  But simply ‘busy’.  Teachers do not allow themselves time to simply ‘be’ with their learners in the classroom.  When a teacher is the main Traffic Management Controller and Keeper of all Knowledge, they simply do not have the time to listen, observe and most importantly, converse with their students in an authentic manner.

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And authentic is the key concept.  Sure, teachers will engage in an ‘oral language’ activity with their students.  They will facilitate a discussion regarding the lesson focus.  But how many teachers can say with any conviction that they sat alongside their students while they were engaged in topics they were very passionate about, and simply conversed with them?  That they were able to talk about an enormous array of topics and authentically allow the conversation to go where the students directed it?  For many teachers, while the desire to do this is very real, the reality is that the pressures of school timetables and external policies means that time is far too precious to engage in authentic activities.

So how can teachers create these more authentic learning opportunities and rich conversations with children?  How can they pose ‘wonderings’ and ‘curiosities’ that enable them to learn more about the students they are responsible for and their passions?  How can they even spark a passion or an interest?

By changing the classroom program.

Rather than being in control  – the Keeper of all Knowledge, or Traffic Management Control – that the reins are handed over to the students to do their own ‘wonderings’.  The role of the teacher then becomes a much more active and equal one within the authentic learning the children engage in.  Rather than directing the learning, the teacher becomes an observer of the learning, judging when it is appropriate to provide a scaffold to new ideas and knowledge, when to be a resource provider, when to be a commentator and when to be a silent partner in the process.

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It is a far trickier role to have, as the students’ ‘guide’ than the traditional role teachers have held since the establishment of the western schooling system.  In fact, it can be absolutely and utterly exhausting.  I find, with the intensity of our children’s learning passions, my brain is somewhat of a quagmire as I have had to keep one step ahead of the children’s learning throughout the day! I have to be able to recall where to find interesting facts and figures that might extend the curiosity of our children’s areas of learning.  I have to be able to quickly think of possible suggestions, terminology and resources to point my children towards in order to further their learning experiences.  And this is exhausting.  So times by 30 and this is a potentially very intimidating concept for even the most adventurous of teachers.

And yet, it can be done.  And the more children are supported to take control of their learning passions, the more enjoyable teaching becomes for the teacher.  The role changes, but if it is to be anything like what we experience as home learners, it is so much more rewarding to see how far children will extend themselves when truly passionate and engaged in their own self-chosen learning.  The possibilities are endless.

So look for authentic learning opportunities and reconsider your role as a teacher…….Keeper of All Knowledge……Traffic Management Controller……or Authentic Adventurer alongside the students themselves?

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Learning In Chunks

In the four months since we have become a home-schooling family, the depth and breadth of topics and content we have covered has truly astounded me.  Our first few weeks centered around Greek mythology, with Greek shields and mythological fact cards being researched and made.  As this interest began to wane, a new interest began around endangered animals, exotic creatures and conservation, which has most recently morphed into a fascination around New Zealand’s native bird species.  Significant research has been undertaken on habitat and conservation issues.  Persuasive arguments have been written as to the importance of Zoo organisations.  Flyers have been constructed and books made.  Within numeracy, geometric concepts, basic facts, multiplication, division and fractions have been adequately covered as we move on towards basic percentage knowledge.  Within greater exploratory play, measurement has been a big focus, with the children exploring their urges to mix and concoct a variety of potions, mixtures and recipes.

The rate of learning and the way in which the children move quickly through their various interests has made me reflect on the way in which I planned as a classroom teacher with my own students.  At the beginning of the year the long-term plan would be set out, with term plans, unit plans, weekly and daily plans whittled away to ensure I was well and truly covered for every event possible.  The curriculum would be divided up and topics would be assigned blocks of time for coverage.

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From what I have since observed, the way these blocks of topics, themes or ‘unit foci’ were planned does not do justice to the way in which children learn.  Children, when ‘hooked’ learn with such enthusiasm and veracity they cannot be interrupted or stopped to think about another unrelated topic.  To truly be engaged in the learning, they appear to almost need to live ‘in’ the material, breathing it, tasting it, touching and listening to it.  And then it is done.  Without warning, the interest is over and a new one takes its place.  How long this process takes is entirely up to the child, but certainly does not appear to be a long and drawn out commitment.  It is short but intense and if well-supported, deeply engaging.

When my daughter was 5 years of age, her entire junior syndicate initiated an inquiry of ‘maps’.  She spent over a term investigating maps, drawing maps, learning about atlases and so forth.  A term of over 10 weeks.  While I like to consider my child to be of above average ability, even I know that at age 5 maps did not rock her world.  At age 5, fairies did. Fairies who wrote to her at home and who visited her in the garden.  And yet, for over 10 weeks, she plodded away at ‘maps’ at school.  She, like many above average girls, quietly and obediently followed the classroom program.  But her levels of motivation and enthusiasm for what she was learning were far from high.  In fact, it grew dangerously close to her not ever wanting to pick up an atlas again.

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Why, as teachers, do we feel the need to ‘chunk’ big blocks of time on one set topic, when children simply don’t learn in this way?  By ensuring we cover the curriculum, we are in fact, not truly responsive to the learning needs of our children.  We are not offering a flexible learning environment.  For the child that is not at all interested in maps, what options have they got to explore what truly interests them – when we are locked in to the structure of long term planning and unit/theme plans?  What do we do with that child that says ‘no thanks’ to maps but ‘yes please’ to the wild west, native flora and fauna, or princesses?

It is time to reconsider the way we plan for and teach the students we have, and the interests they hold about the world around them.  Rather than asking yourself as a teacher ‘what will interest my students’, ‘what kind of activity can I plan for today’ or ‘what are some different ways I can teach ….’ – ask them.  Get them thinking about what matters to them.  Get them wondering and noticing and observing and then connecting, investigating and exploring these wonderings and noticings with others.  This is where true learning happens at its best.  Connecting with what matters to the individual, making sense of it, and then sharing that knowledge with others.

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This process does not happen in 10 week blocks, nor in a nice and neatly structured framework whereby there is a tidy beginning, middle and end.  The process at times is chaotic but calm and tidy but messy.  Students drive their learning and are actively engaged in seeking out understanding to their own knowledge, that is meaningful and relevant to them.  This process cannot be ‘chunked’ into allocated time blocks, but allowed to happen until the end of the process naturally occurs.

In adopting this method of student-directed learning, very often the ceiling and walls come down around a child and what they are capable of knowing.  Passion for learning is ignited and the child becomes the driver of their own inquiry.  ‘Learning’ then becomes a truly intrinsic and motivating event.

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Learning Misunderstood

What learning is and what it looks like.  The apparent endless debate between all those with a vested interest in any kind of education system around the world.  The search for the ideal approach to learning provision by governments intent on raising educational outcomes for their young and future workforce.  And yet, with education having existed for so very long now, why is the search continuing?  Surely we’ve had enough time to define learning and in turn know how to ensure it happens?

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As I continue to explore literature surrounding teaching practice and learning needs of students, one key factor is becoming abundantly clear.  Practitioners and policy makers cannot reach agreement on what ‘learning’ actually is, and what it looks like.  Simplistically put, it would appear there are two major camps of thought with a significant chasm between them.

In the first camp are those who view ‘learning’ as the serious business of the three ‘rs’ (and other such significant and important subject areas).  That children who are actually doing the business of learning are heads down, bums on seats and pencil firmly gripped as they plod away on the task set for them by the highly knowledgeable and expert teacher.  That learning is measured on the output of the student, and on the final product – usually in some manner of written format.  Reading levels, writing production, aptitude in solving equations all indicate a child’s progress in their learning and if a child cannot demonstrate these under test conditions, then they clearly have not consolidated the lessons they have been exposed to in their classroom setting.  Heaven forbid if a child is not kept busy with a focused task (again, usually written) and any time is wasted in opportunities for ‘learning’.  They will not seek out any learning independently and as such need to be corralled into lessons in order to fill them up with the knowledge those in this camp feel necessary for a successful working life ahead.

The second camp advocates for a more developmental approach to a child’s learning progression.  It argues that children are natural learners, and that, if left to their own devices (but not on their own completely) they will begin to inquire and adopt a curiosity to the world around them.  They will seek to understand phenomena, concepts, events and issues that will require them to learn tools and skills in order to find answers to their own questions.  They will learn to research, they will consider ways to communicate their learning or messages (this might actually include some writing) and they will endeavor to solve mathematical problems, when required, to address real-life problems they themselves have posed.  And through all of this, they will only consider themselves ‘playing’.  Their learning will be a haphazard approach sometimes, and at other times fiercely intensive and passionate.  It will be messy and loud, and other times quiet and calm.  It will be big and fast and active, and other times small, slow and passive.  Those in this camp of thought advocate for children to be supported to explore and engage with their interests and passions and to drive their own learning, often through play, drawing from the skills of adults around them that can help scaffold their knowledge and learning further.

“Their learning will be a haphazard approach sometimes and at other times fiercely intensive and passionate”

As both a teacher and a new Mum to homeschooling, I continue to be amazed at the insidious nature the first camp of thought has had on my expectations of learners……most recently my own children.  I firmly sit in the second camp – trusting that my children will have enough gumption to explore their passions, if I create the right conditions for them to do so.  I do not sit them down from 9am – 3pm with worksheets, text books and pens and paper and have them do their ‘schoolwork’.  Instead, we make learning relevant, active, purposeful and meaningful – at all hours of the day and night.  We cover a variety of topics and have no time frame as to when these begin and end.  I do not run a formal reading time or maths lesson.  We use the tools of reading, writing and mathematics to access information required to continue driving forward with the interests and passions the children have.  Accurate measurement, for example, is required when making anything involving food.  Inaccuracy in measurement results in very different baking as we have discovered.  Key skills such as how to compose a letter are important to get right when advocating the need for conservation measures for the Bobcat, for example.

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It is a hard ask to have those firmly ensconced in the first camp to consider that the traditional methods of teaching and learning are now facing considerable and significant research that contradicts their foundation.  Those that are beginning to move in their philosophy and pedagogy from this camp qualify this decision as recognising the learners of today learn differently to those of yesteryear.  And yet, put simply, it is that we in fact now have the knowledge, backed by significant evidence, to understand how children actually learn.  That they are not empty vessels ready for the filling – but unique and curious and inquiring minds eager to make connections with their world around them.

If we know how children learn, and have access to clear research around the effect play-based child-centred learning has on the motivation and engagement of our learners, then what makes it so hard to shake those from their well-established camp of traditional education delivery?  Government policy doesn’t help.  Reporting to arbitrary standards and comparing progress of students to teacher competency are such policies that do not allow teachers the opportunity to bravely pack up their gear and embark across the chasm to the opposing camp.  The fear of failure in either of these areas reflects directly on the personal capability of the teacher.

A lack of control as well as a lack of trust also limit teachers in taking chances to allow children to take control and trust their own abilities with their learning.  And let’s face it – if you’re a clean freak, the idea of mess and chaos within the four walls of the classroom with 30+ children is nothing sort of coronary-inducing.  It takes a significantly brave control-freak to let go of the brakes and start the process of becoming a facilitator to the learning needs of each individual student in their large and loud class.

“And let’s face it – if you’re a clean freak, the idea of mess and chaos within the four walls of the classroom with 30+ children is nothing sort of coronary-inducing.”

Children learn.  In all interaction and in all situations there is learning to be had.  With the right conditions and support, learning can be joyous and meaningful.  It can build foundations for further learning, or it can provide pathways to entirely new learning areas.  Educators need to decamp and work together to respond to the individual and valid needs of the learners they have in front of them.  Motivation and enjoyment need to be at the core of any classroom program.  Not outcomes, not levels or standards.  If a child is happy and can be given the opportunity to inquire and explore, learning will occur in its most natural and meaningful state.  Reading, writing and ‘rithmatic will be accessed as tools to further knowledge and understanding, skills will develop with meaning and purpose.  With appropriate scaffolding from adults around them, students have the potential to make significant progress – if it interests them and if they see meaning in their learning.  And throughout their entire experience they will be engaged in the very purpose of childhood – play.

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Why I left the Classroom And Wont Go Back (Yet)

I left the classroom after deciding I simply couldn’t be the teacher I wanted to be. In front of 32 Year 2 students (5 and 6 year olds) in a school in South Auckland I became more and more frustrated at the lack of time I had to connect with my students on an individual basis. Despite the enormous hours I was putting in, I was not satisfied in any way with the quality of my instruction I was able to deliver.

Hekia and her gang will argue that it is quality of teacher instruction not quantity of students in the room that lifts student achievement. As a quality teacher (or so I’ve been told) I am incredibly offended by this moot. My last classroom consisted of 32 Year 2 students from some of the most challenging socio-economic backgrounds. Over 3/4 of my class arrived in front of me operating at a pre-emergent literacy and numeracy level (operating below 5years of age). As a quality teacher, my programme adapted swiftly and often to meet the needs of my students. I taught to their level and at the time (fortunately) I did not have today’s pressure of meeting a national standard of achievement. I used my data gathered to address learning gaps and to respond to student interest all the while meeting the national curriculum objectives. I worked on weekends, holidays and late nights in order to be very prepared, thus freeing me up to spend time building relationships with my students. I had children with significant learning and behaviour needs, supported by RTLB. I had children regularly involved with counselling services. I had children reintegrating from withdrawn programmes and residential schools.

I made sandwiches for my kids who regularly didn’t have lunch. (This became more covert when the Principal banned staff from doing this). I also worked as an associate teacher, guiding a provisionally registered teacher in her first year of service. I ran before-school alphabet groups and basic word revision.

In summary, I worked my butt off. And yet I felt a sense of dissatisfaction at my ability to reach those children in my class that needed even just a little more of my time. I found there were days in my classroom where it felt like I was directing traffic. I had to work hard consciously to connect with every child every day. If I didn’t, I could easily have passed over an ‘invisible’ child in the day. There could have been children in my class, who, apart from roll call, could have not had a single individual conversation with their teacher that day.

And yet Hekia says the amount of students in a classroom has no bearing on lifting achievement. Clearly I was misguided and misinformed. I was obviously not of the quality Hekia wants in her classrooms, as I couldn’t ‘fix’ all the issues before me. While I chipped away at learning levels, lifting my students from pre-emergent through to 6 months below, I settled for providing my students with a fun and safe environment from 9am to 3pm. For many of these students that took precedent.

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My level of dissatisfaction grew to the point where I decided I couldn’t work in these classrooms any longer. For me to work in a smaller classroom setting, I would need to look up the decile rankings and even into the private providers to achieve this. But this was not attractive in the sense that I enjoyed working with children in the lower decile schools. So I left the classroom altogether. For me to be the quality teacher I wanted to be I needed the quantity of students in front of me to be less. It really was that simple. Less students gave me the ability to do my job even better.

So I left the classroom. Every year I feel the pull back. I long to have ‘my kids’ again. To enjoy being in front of children, exploring, investigating and imparting knowledge as a year-long journey. And every year I decide I simply could not teach the way I would enjoy in the current education environment. I would rage against a system instead of working happily within it.

Perhaps next year?

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The Big Picture

Ten years ago I was in the midst of teaching a class of ‘behaviour’ students.  This was a special project working in a classroom of a school in the heart of South Auckland.  The need for this classroom arose out of my Deputy Principal’s desire to work with children who were finding themselves excluded from other neighbourhood schools.  The more students we accepted from schools no longer tolerant of their behaviour, the more students we attracted into the school.  Within six months, we had enough to form a small classroom of students focused in addressing the social and emotional needs of these students and in turn addressing their behaviour. In my work roles I hold now, I often tell the varying stories of the experiences I had in working with these students.  They taught me an enormous amount about myself as a person and as a teacher.  Having grown up in a very different environment to that of my students, I had to quickly come up to speed on their extensive needs.  I no longer was working with children whom developmentally matched their chronological age level. For the most part, these children, cognitively had the ability to achieve and succeed in school. But because of their home circumstances and what life had taught them about adults and their safety, socially and emotionally they were simply not ready for the rigours of the school system.

While this classroom set up – having at anyone time 10-11 students with severe aggressive and destructive behaviour in the one room – was unique, it was ideal in terms of meeting their developmental needs. We had a mandate to focus on addressing social and emotional competence, putting the academic curriculum to the background. Sure, I ‘taught’ curriculum lessons, these areas provided a foci for the day’s timetable. But what we ultimately did was provide a structure in the classroom that gave the children many opportunities to learn to manage their social interactions while learning compliance, resiliency, independence and emotional competence. We had many a rough day. There were more days than not when I questioned life as my children shared heartbreaking stories about life at home. I quickly developed an understanding that these kids had so much more going on in their lives that when I needed them to write a story they really struggled. In that struggle all their other (and quite frankly more important) struggles came to the fore and we usually ended with an upended classroom.

My job was to provide these kids with security from 9am – 3pm every day. I was to be consistent and predictable, as they had been taught adults in their life were not. I was to demonstrate love to them that was unwavering, no matter the names they called me, nor the attempts to physically hurt me. And above all, I was to know when today was a day to be flexible in my expectations of their work output. That they had other worries and for me to expect a piece of writing, or a completed maths activity was simply unrealistic and,quite frankly, disrespectful to their bigger problems.

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While this classroom structure was unique and challenging, I, as stated above, had the mandate to be that flexible in my approach to managing behaviour while delivering the curriculum. Today, in current classrooms, teachers do not have the luxury of this. Policy pressures, time constraints, school management pressures are significant and noticeably causing teacher stress and overload. Add to the mix the increased number of children demonstrating similar emotional and social needs to bulging classrooms, and teacher stress goes through the roof. Teachers appear to be caught in the cross fire between two paradigms – teaching to meet a standard which is set against a chronological measure of what is thought to constitute ‘success’ or teaching to a child’s individual developmental needs. In the many conversations I have with teachers, almost all are struggling with matching their expectations with developmental readiness and individual ability to learn. Couple our understanding of developmental theory with the latest in brain research, teachers are becoming increasingly disadvantaged in their practice as they attempt to meet the requirements of teaching to the standards. Disadvantaged in the sense that they are simply pushing the proverbial up hill. There are children sitting in classrooms, due to varying circumstances occurring outside of the school setting, who cognitively, socially and emotionally will always be ‘below’ the expected levels for their chronological level. These are children who have experienced a lack of attachment in their early years, or trauma. These are children who have had delayed language acquisition, or been late in reaching developmental milestones such as balancing, sitting or crawling. Children who are living in homes where there are adults arguing, or adults there sometimes and other times not. Children who spend long hours (and I’m talking really long) in daycare settings where they have limited one-to-one time with adults. Children who are not talked to enough. Children who are not read to enough. Children who are living in homes where Mum and Dad work long hours out of necessity and, due to guilt, buckle to every whimsical demand their child has as a result. The list could go on. In other words, the classroom is filled with children who have ‘bigger stuff’ going on than being there ready to work towards expectations that for the most part, are unrealistic for them to achieve.

While we, as teachers, appear to have little option now in reporting to the Standards, we can continue to make a lot of noise about the Big Picture. We can get those not working with these children to understand that we are responsible for shaping future adults, not just the 6 year olds we have for the one year in front of us. We need to remember human development is not a linear progression. We don’t skip happily through each year, building on our skill set from one level to the next. We respond in more ways than one to our environment, and children are no exception to this. We need to use all the tools we have to ensure these children feel safe and secure at school and do not feel the increasing pressure we feel as educators to push them to the next learning progression. And we need to be prepared to stand up and say why. When a child has spent the night sleeping in their wardrobe out of fear that their big brother will hurt them as he trashes the house, it is unrealistic to expect them to be focused and ready to learn at school. Their brain will simply not allow this, as it has more pressing matters…..like simply survival.

We need to keep addressing the Big Picture. We cannot fuel the thoughts that children will always meet our expectations when faced with environmental or developmental challenges. We need to keep making noise and advocating for these kids who, will otherwise, be always in the ‘tail’ our government so eagerly wants to address.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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