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.

play-as-a-learning-process

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’.

img_2660

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.

IMG_2511.JPG

Advertisements

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.

Curiosity

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.

Busy teacher

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.

IMG_2248

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?

IMG_2185

Burst Bubbles

We are extremely fortunate where we live in that our children have free reign of cross-country exploration. At the bottom of a very steep paddock owned by a neighbour lies the remains of a once large cattle beast. Long since cleaned by the rubbish collectors and recyclers of the insect world, the bones lie just prominent enough to create a sense of wonderment in little eyes exploring and seeking adventure. These bones have now earned the title of ‘Dinosaur Bones’ and they live ‘Over the Back’ when referred to as part of a proposed expedition plan when heading out the door for the day. Much hypothesising has occurred as to the species of dinosaur these bones may belong to, and great imaginings have happened as to how these bones came to rest at their final spot at the bottom of a paddock in little old Napier, New Zealand.

So naturally, when friends of my children come over the play, a visit to the ‘Dinosaur Bones’ ‘Over the Back’ is on the list. My 7 year old and her friend, with 4 year old in tow headed down the paddock returning with rather a great many bones that they announced would be perfect for their science table at school. The current unit of study …. of all things …. Dinosaurs.

20140804-145653.jpg

And suddenly there were palaeontologists invading my lounge. I had bones on the rug and classification, hypothesising and labelling occurring just after afternoon tea had been consumed. The language was rich, the enthusiasm was unmeasurable and the focus for the next hour and a half on these bones was extremely intense. At the end of the play date, the bones were packaged up ready for school and the science table the next day.

When I checked in with my 7 year old after the bones were taken to school as to her teachers comments about their arrival, I was truly saddened and shocked by the response she was given. My child said that her teacher had allowed them to put them on the science table, but that they were probably not real dinosaur bones. That it was highly unlikely that they were authentic, but she would concede and have the bones on the table as artefacts nevertheless.

I felt saddened for my daughter at this response. My wide-eyed, enthusiastic, focused future palaeontologist in one statement was brought rapidly back to ‘the real world’. The world where we work by facts and real-stuff……and that if a child is incorrect, we must correct them…..never mind the learning occurring along the way. Her bubble was well and truly burst.

My 7 year old is a very intelligent child. I suspect underneath it all, she probably had cottoned on to the idea these bones may very well not have been authentic…..but the joy of the pretend and the resultant imaginative role-play, creative thought and blooming language development, in my mind, was far more important than her immediate knowledge of whether or not the bones were actually real.

Why is it that we, as teachers, are somewhat uncomfortable with the magic of make believe and pretend? How do some find it so difficult to see the learning that children engage in by exploring their interests and passions? Why do we think that learning only occurs when someone (usually an adult) is in control of teaching explicit facts and figures? Why is learning seen as a separate activity to life? Children are learning constantly in every moment of the day. For many adults we are continuing to learn at least something new frequently. If not, we should be, for this is how our brain is wired. It has a ‘use it or lose it’ programming code…..and for us to keep the grey matter, we should be challenging ourselves as adult learners often.

20140804-145029.jpg

What made me sad with regards to this teachers response is that she missed a moment. She just missed it completely. Instead of taking my child and her friend’s enthusiasm and stoking it’s fire, she dampened it down and suffocated it. Imagine the kind of activities that could have stemmed that day in class with the arrival of these large bones. Maybe they are dinosaur bones…..maybe they’re not? If not, what else……if they are….what kind? How could we find out? Where could we look? The skills to develop in the inquiry are right there…….The possibilities are endless. And yet…..she missed it.

20140804-144900.jpg

If we, as teachers, go with our children’s passions and interests……allow them free reign to explore, the learning that unfolds is so much more meaningful to the child than content we may have thought they would have engaged in for the day. Because, after all, it isn’t work when it’s fun right?

20140804-144811.jpg

“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.

Play

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.

561103_411531748895029_273508687_n

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

How playing with your child will help them at school

If parents have ever wondered what more they could be doing to either prepare or support their children while at school follow the link at Kiwi Families for the latest article contributed by Cheeky Kids. This is a great website for families and the latest edition focuses on all aspects of Active Families. Be sure to check it out!

20130810-173840.jpg

Throw Away the Instructions

I am known for purchasing ‘educational’ toys, games and resources as an alternative to the endless (and often mindless) stuff available to children these days. I actively try to avoid games that provide little challenge to my children, offer violence as a form of attraction or sexualised concepts such as boyfriends, inappropriate clothes and makeup. I figure my 3 and 6 year old have all the time in the world to become familiar with these adult concepts, so in the meantime I will give them as much opportunity as I can to be kids. To use their ‘kid power’ to grow their creativity, imagination and intelligence all the while preserving their wonderful innocence of youth.

20130803-222227.jpg

So despite feeling like I’m pretty aware when purchasing toys, I have still made an interesting discovery about two well-loved toys, known for their ability to encourage creative and deeper-level thinking. Lego, historically, I am sure, has been responsible for the stimulation of creative thought processes in young inventors for many decades. More recently, Marble Run has blossomed onto the market, appearing nationwide in classrooms as students test the many laws of physics in order to have the marble race down the track to the finish line. Despite having these two sets of toys in our house for the past few years, it was only this morning that my children truly used them in an unadulterated, purely creative manner. And why, after all this time of having them in our house? Because I threw out the instructions for their use.

Marble Run comes with a variety of pieces that, when joined together can create mind-boggling towers and paths with which to run a marble from top to bottom. It is about deciding the most creative ways with which the marble can wind, spin, rotate and speed down to the end of the run. In the same game is a brochure demonstrating the sorts of structures the manufacturer suggests children could make with the pieces. When my children were given this game, they initially explored how to use the pieces and familiarised themselves with the concept. And then my son found the instructions along with the visual examples of structures he could make. The focus drastically changed. Instead of spewing forth with ideas and trials in creating his own structure, he held up the instructions and said ‘Mummy I want to make that one’. Suddenly his ‘kid power’ was switched off and he desired the easiest option available – that of imitation. He no longer was hypothesising, problem solving, imagining and creating. He simply wanted a copy of someone else’s idea.

So the instructions magically disappeared from the package one day in our house, never to be found again. Their absence has not been missed. And this morning we saw the benefits of this in my son and his sisters play. Not only did they both create unique structures, but when his top-heavy creation did not balance by itself, he was able to problem solve a solution. He learned the technique of counter balancing. He also learned the art of trial and error, as well as the skills of patience, turn-taking and compromise. All because he was working toward the picture in his head, rather than the picture on the paper. When both he and his sister had created their own structure, they then found a way to combine them both into a super structure, from which the marble could travel through extensively. The sense of achievement as the marble raced through its first successful run was immeasurable. The excitement and enthusiasm to better each run was infectious and the engagement by both children was high. Far more than I had observed in any previous play with the same equipment.

20130803-221334.jpg

So engaged in the creative process that he remembered the Lego packed away in the wardrobe. The big container was pushed out and the lid opened. As he dug through the box he unearthed a pamphlet showing once again a variety of suggestions of use that had once been attached to a Lego package. ‘Mum, I want to make a fire engine’. Back to square one. Now to have those instructions magically disappear………

20130803-221955.jpg

Piggy-In-The-Middle

As a mother, I am most likely not alone in feeling there are never enough hours in the day to give my children the individual attention they need. In having three children, I find the juggling act at times can be a little uneven. Furthermore having the types of personalities innate in my children makes it inevitable that I spend my days and weeks constantly feeling guilty that I am not doing the perfect job of connecting with my children as individuals in every moment that they ask of me. I have recently struggled in particular with my daughter and my ability to spend time and connect with her the most for all of these reasons.

My daughter is my middle child. She, in many ways is a lot like me. And in as just as many ways (as I am learning) she is the opposite of me. In trying to connect with her and understand her individual needs I often make the mistake of applying my experiences as the sister in the family to her own experiences. I see her world through my eyes and what I saw growing up. However I was the first born, of only two children. I was the more dominant personality and was not necessarily comfortable with my own company. In attributing my childhood experience of being the eldest sister I am assuming this is a childhood she is also experiencing. An ongoing error that I am forever correcting, as she quickly teaches me that she is absolutely her own person in her own right and that she is so very different to me. But because of her nature, and because she has on either side of her two boys who have their own set of needs, she is often misred and misunderstood.

She has inherited her creative flair from her father, an artist by occupation. She enjoys sitting quietly, drawing and coloring and entering into her own world of fantasy and imagination. She withdraws to her room and unless we go looking we often will not engage with her for a length of time. Given the rather loud and boisterous nature of her younger brother, her withdrawal can be met with some relief as we are freed up to get other things done as a result of having one-child entertaining herself. But this is perhaps our biggest mistake. Reading her withdrawal, or happiness in her own company as her not having a need for our attention. While she is happy in her own company, she still very much needs our attention, cuddles, laughter and care in those quiet moments. Where her brother is literally all over us demanding our undivided attention, his sister requests our time through sitting alongside her, drawing or coloring, dressing her dolls or painting her toe nails.

Because of her differing personality, my husband and I have had to become much more conscious of the time we spend with her. We have also had to be very reflective around how we manage any rivalry or conflict between her and her brothers. It is too easy to jump to the defense of the youngest child when body language tells us our daughter has wound him up or has been ignoring his incessant badgering to get her attention. At other times, we are drawn into reprimand when her words get too loud out of sheer frustration with her brother’s actions. It has taken a great deal of reflection and distance at times in order for us to look for other ways to connect with our daughter in order to give her the attention she truly deserves. ‘Dates’ with Mum and Dad are a regular fixture now. Toe-nail painting sessions are booked with Mum in the bedroom behind a closed door and away from little brothers. Holding hands in the front seat when out and about in the car. Sitting down alongside a coloring activity and accepting the invitation to join in. Most importantly, erring on the side of caution when it comes to addressing conflict between siblings. Looking to empower her, rather than reprimand, in turn elevating her status in the eyes of her brother. Complimenting her for her maturity, responsibility and specific skills in those moments when we are caught up with managing her younger brother. Telling her every night before the lights go out how much she is loved, how proud we are to be her parents and most importantly how just wonderful we think she is.

Its difficult being a middle child. My husband attests to this having been one himself. It is yet another challenge for parents to reflect upon when being responsive to the individual needs of each of their children. There is a number of schools of research around the impact family placement has on personality and temperament development. Whatever this development is, parents owe it to all their children to recognise their unique qualities and do their very best to connect with their children on an individual level. But, perhaps for those parents who have ‘middle’ children in their families – consider how this placement impacts on a parent’s ability to be able to connect in these ways with their middle child. It may require more considerate and careful planning in order to have that special and important time so as to mitigate the ongoing and life-long side-effects of being ‘Piggy-In-The-Middle’.

20130524-172049.jpg