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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“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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What is the Point?

Ask any junior school teacher what subject causes them the most grief when it comes to engaged students and they will invariably answer ‘writing’. Pair that with disengaged boys and teachers reply with a sigh and sometimes an eye roll as they recollect many incidents of trying to have boys write a daily story. The parallels between making young children write and pulling teeth are numerous. It is at writing time that teachers find the incidents of misbehaviour increase and the focus shifts from teaching the writing process to managing engagement of children in the room.

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Why is this? Why has writing become such a chore for children and teachers alike? Why is it that teachers are having to resort to individual incentive systems or heavily scaffolded strategies in order to get a piece of writing from their students in their writing books on an almost daily basis? The answer perhaps is in the relevance of it to today’s children. Generation Z and now Generation Alpha children arriving in our schools have at their disposal a plethora of technology from which they can choose to communicate with others. And this is the key…..when they choose to communicate. As adults we use written text when we choose to connect with others. There would be a small percentage of the population who engage in writing for their own personal satisfaction. For the most part, the average human being will write when there is a purpose. If we, as adults, do not sit down daily to write a story about our weekend……why do we expect our students to?  It is well known as children progress through school they tend to deviate towards their interests and passions.  These strengths are often already noted in junior classrooms.  So why is it that teachers continue to pursue story-writing with students that communicate through their behaviour an absolute lack of interest in the activity?  Instead teachers should adopt a view of providing these students with the skills they need to use writing as a tool to communicate with others, while supporting the development of their strengths and interests.

Some would argue that, with the exponential growth of technology available to our children, learning to write is not as important as it once was. This is not the case. What is more important is the way in which we expose our children to the various audiences that they may engage with using the technology available. Now, more than ever, children have the potential to access a global audience. To have the power of their message communicated worldwide. To be heard. So, of course, they must be exposed to appropriate learning opportunities on which they can build a solid foundation  about written language.

But it is the purpose that is most relevant, rather than the argument about learning written language itself. Let’s face it, in general in junior classrooms, it is the boys at writing time who will become the most disruptive and disengaged in the lesson. Some will sit and stare at the ceiling, others will sharpen their pencil ten times over and many will annoy their neighbor. In the most extreme, these students will be prepared to upend a classroom in order to avoid the writing task. All because they do not see the relevance of the task to them. It is simply not important to them. Couple this with their experiences of teachers standing over them, or keeping them back until the writing is completed……and writing has become their most disliked subject at school.

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So how can children engage and build on their writing knowledge without the unnecessary battle with their teacher? Perhaps consideration to the variety of writing tasks available to students in the classroom is the answer. Many teachers run a writing program that is whole-class, story writing or the traditional processed-writing model. Students do not have a choice in the task, other than what they might choose to write about. Why not provide students with a variety of writing tasks, mirroring those that adults use to communicate in reality? Letter writing, emails, shopping lists, birthday cards, journals and for those most adventurous…blogging! Students can learn that they write for an audience, rather than to write in a book for their teacher’s satisfaction. By using a variety of tasks, students may receive replies from those they engage with, either through email, letter or blogs and therefore take on an understanding of the point of writing.  Of course, the story writers in classrooms must also have their needs met. But these students are often writers anyway, without the need for teachers to creatively motivate them. By providing those less-likely to engage in the writing process with highly motivating activities, inevitably the teacher will be released to consider extending our future Shakespearean authors as well.  In short, all the students will see the point to the task required of them, because it will be relevant to their own interests and needs.

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Another consideration as to why children don’t engage in prolonged writing activity is from a developmental perspective.  Children require a variety of skills in order to be able to think of, structure and recall ideas to begin a story.  When writing this in an exercise book or with pen and paper, add another layer of skills on top.  Holding a pen/pencil is one such challenge for our modern students.  It may be that the availability of pens and pencils has been scant at home and the child simply has not had sufficient practice in holding a pencil, let alone correctly.   For some children, holding a pencil during a prolonged writing task simply hurts.  On top of holding the pencil is then the recalling of ideas while forming letters into unknown words/spellings.  An enormous amount of thinking involved in what is often seen as a basic task by educators.  If teachers offer a varied menu of writing tasks, some of these skills can be addressed, while those with deficits in some areas can be supported to engage in the writing process.  It would be unrealistic to expect all children to happily and successfully engaged in a task of this magnitude on a daily basis without support.  And yet many teachers do have this expectation, and frustrate when it is not met.  By having a varied menu, some pen and paper activities, some technology activities, children will be able to write without realising it.  Because their learning focus will be to communicate with others, not in how to construct a story or recall an event.  After all, that’s the point of writing isn’t it?

Students, as all people do, need to see the point to their learning.  If they don’t, they simply will look for other activities that will be more interesting or relevant.  These might just be activities that teachers fear the most in their classroom environment.

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For the Love of Boys (In Our Classrooms)

My 3 year old son is a source of daily entertainment. So much so that he continually provides me with an array of inspiration for the Cheeky Kids blog. And yesterday was certainly no different.

Donning his bike helmet, he informed me to ‘watch out’ as he was about to ‘do something dangerous’. Initially I didn’t understand what he meant by ‘dangerous’ being that the word is actually quite difficult to decipher when exiting the mouth of a 3 year old. So I carried about my business, not too concerned. It was when his head (helmet still attached) appeared at the kitchen window, asking for the ladder, that I then worked out what he had meant by ‘dangerous’.

As I inquired further, he explained to me that he really wanted to use the ladder to climb up into the window on the second floor. When I looked alarmed, he reassured me that it was ‘ok Mum, I can do it, I will be brave’. As I managed to convince him that was a little ahead of his time, he then moved focus to requesting the ladder be placed next to his brother’s sleep out, again in a bid to reach the roof.

Imagine the image of this little boy, bike helmet firmly clipped on, looking up at me promising me he would be ‘brave’ insisting on following through with the plan he had to be ‘dangerous’ that afternoon. The teacher in me flashes forward to considering how on earth any future teachers would contain him within the four walls of a classroom. 18 months away from turning 5, I find it terribly difficult, and somewhat heartbreaking to think that he will be required to enter into a classroom to sit still on a mat, listen to instructions by a teacher, be required to read books and write stories about things that barely interest him. Moreover he will then be measured against his peers, and against a scale that determines what is expected of him in relation to one day attaining NCEA qualifications.

Generally speaking the school starting age of 5 years does not suit boys. Of course, there are always exceptions to any broad statement, and in making this assertion I don’t wish to deny those boys ready at 5 their unique start to formal education. But from my experience and observation of new entrant/reception/kindergarten classes, it is the boys that teachers are finding the most difficult to engage in the ‘formal stuff’. These boys find it difficult to sit still, engage in any written activities and at times socially interact with their peers appropriately. From observation, the boys I see in these rooms, given toy cars, cardboard boxes, blocks, play dough, or toy dinosaurs (the list is infinite), will choose to engage for far longer periods of time than in anything structured. In short, they want to explore, create, imagine, play (and blow things up) with their mates all day.

There is growing evidence supporting the claims that boys are making up the numbers of students underachieving and disengaging from school. There are a variety of reasons the evidence points to as to the reasons for this disengagement. Kathleen Palmer Cleveland in her book Teaching Boys Who Struggle At School explores these reasons, and offers some solutions. One area she outlines are the four ‘styles’ of learning and their correlating risks associated with academic underachievement. These styles are:

1. The Practical Doer:
Motivated through mastery, by getting it right and the joy of collecting and sorting information
2. Thinker-Knower:
Motivated by mastering knowledge and the joy of intellectual challenge
3. Interpersonal:
Motivated by connecting, interacting with others, providing practical service and using resources to be helpful
4. Self-Expressive:
Motivated by imagining, making a difference in people’s lives and the joy of growth through empowerment and artistic self-expression

Each of these styles has been attributed with a percentage of risk associated with underachievement at school. A boy with an interpersonal style of learning has a 63% risk of underachieving, those who are self-expressive 24% and the practical-doers have a 12% risk of underachievement. Thinker-knower boys have a 1% risk of failing in school (Cleveland, 2011).

So what are the implications of this evidence for the classroom teacher our boys encounter when beginning school? Perhaps the first task is simply observation. Providing activities for the boys to engage with of a transition-to-school-nature in order to allow the teacher to simply sit and watch. To get to know the boy as an individual learner and person rather than another child to ‘get started’ at school. Observing their developmental readiness and the way in which they engage with activities. In other words, what lights their fire?. For then, teachers can be most responsive to their boys needs in the classroom. And if, through observation, it is clear teachers have boys with an interpersonal style of learning in their group, then activities that encourage this must be available. If we as teachers expect quiet, ordered, compliant and studious classroom environments we may be in fact limiting the potential of boys with these interpersonal learning styles. Self-expressive and practical-doers also need avenues to explore new learning. Imagining and creativity should not be squeezed out of our classrooms because of the need to fit within a set of standards. Opportunities to ‘do’ and ‘practice’ practical activities should also be available to our boys in order to satisfy those who learn through experience and inventing, rather than simply reading or writing.

In summary, boys are arriving at school simply not ready for the way in which our current education system works. They need a considerable amount of time exploring, playing, creating, inventing, breaking, making, shouting, yelling, running and jumping before any of the sit-down, read-and-write stuff. The key for teachers is in their understanding of the boys they have before them and how best to mitigate these implications within the first year (or sometimes more) of a boy’s schooling. By understanding the way in which boys engage may help determine the sorts of activities, and therefore expectations we have of our boys in the junior school classrooms. I would hope that when my 3 year old begins his school journey, he will still be allowed plenty of opportunity to be the interpersonal, self-expressive, practical-doer learner that he is! I can hear junior-school teachers battening down the hatches around the country as I write! But never fear, bike-helmet compulsory!

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Growing Great Readers

Please take a look at my latest article published today on Parenting Informer “Growing Great Readers”. A must read for teachers and parents of young children.

http://www.parentinginformer.com/growing-great-readers-early-childhood-literacy.html

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