August 7, 2014

I should have learnt from the experience described here, or from phonics denialists, that for a lot of tweeters and bloggers, the methods used in the teaching of younger children is not a subject open for debate or even the mildest form of questioning. I don’t really have any views on the details of early years teaching, and don’t really have much insight into what small children are like. I’ve so very little to say on the issue, and yet it’s really easy to lose a day on twitter just dealing with misrepresentations and attacks dealt towards anybody who is seen as questioning the orthodoxy. But I suppose I might as well state the grand sum of my views here; ask the questions that I am actually interested in, and then let it drop.

Let’s deal with my only real opinion on something to do with early years. Back in March of this year, Sir Michael Wilshaw wrote what seemed to be a fairly sensible letter pointing out that OFSTED did not require a particular method of teaching, even in early years, and instead said he expected “inspectors to apply common sense when observing how well children learn and how effectively adults teach children to develop skills, knowledge and understanding”. He made some pretty uncontentious (to an outsider) suggestions about looking into whether the early stages of maths and English were taught and whether children were being prepared for school. However, the response was intense.

A bunch of the usual suspects wrote a letter to the Telegraph describing this as a “Gradgrind for tiny tots”.

This utilitarian shift from experience to content betrays an abject (and even wilful) misunderstanding of the nature of early childhood experience. The determination to dragoon England’s young children into unconscionably early quasi-formal learning is catastrophic for their well-being, and is setting up many for failure at a very young age.

They even ended with what appeared to be a call for civil disobedience. Much of the comment I saw on Twitter considered it a threat to “play-based” learning. One NUT activist  who was a signatory complained:

We know exactly what Wilshaw means when he makes a pronouncement such as this- an erosion in children’s right to learn through play and exploration.

Another signatory made the following complaint:

This leads me to my one opinion on early years teaching methods: OFSTED are right to judge them by outcomes rather than acting as the “play police” and seeking to enforce play-based learning. I tend towards letting teachers choose their methods unless they are outright harmful or so dumb as to undermine the profession. While I don’t really get play-based learning or how it works, I know it hasn’t always been the in-thing and other countries (well, France) are rumoured to manage without it, so I don’t see why it needs to be compulsory here. I don’t have views on the the best ways to teach in early years. I don’t have views on how much play small children should have during the school day. I don’t even claim to really understand what play-based learning is. I just think that children should be expected to learn and that teachers should have freedom over methods.

Now, you’d think that might be the end of it. I don’t know much about it; I don’t have much to say about it; I don’t have a method to push.

But of course not. There have been multiple objections to what I said back then.

Firstly, there’s an ideology here:


To question the need for play-based learning was taken to be indicative of a whole attitude to children. No distinction was made between being against compulsory play-based learning in schools and nurseries and being against any play-based learning in schools and nurseries. Nor between that and being against children learning from play at all. Nor between that and being against play. Nor between that and being against children enjoying themselves. You either wanted compulsory play-based learning or 2 year olds behind desks being lectured in Latin and kept in cages. Nothing in-between was allowed as far as I could tell.

Away from the ad hominems, there were two main arguments. One was that play-based learning was unavoidable. Either there were no other teaching methods (which is odd as play-based learning seemed to have been in and out of fashion in my lifetime). Or alternatively, everything really small children did was a form of play. Not knowing anything about small children, I can’t reject this out of hand as a claim, but it seemed self-defeating as an argument. If play-based learning was unavoidable then there was even less reason for OFSTED to compel it. Another variation of this was to demand I define “play” and pick fault with that. This was interesting in as much as it turned out that I actually seemed to have more of a positive view of play, as something enjoyable and worth doing for its own sake, than many of the advocates of play who seemed to present it only as a means to an end. But again, this seemed a self-defeating argument. If play couldn’t be usefully defined then that was another argument against making play-based learning compulsory.

The other argument was about the benefits of play-based learning. Remarkably some of the people keenest to dismiss the masses of evidence about how best to teach reading, were far keener to accept the evidence on play-based learning. As I understand it, there are some positive studies, but nothing so overwhelming that it could justify making it compulsory. But, and this is where I drifted into controversy again, and this is why I was controversial today, there was considerable opinion that play was very, very necessary for learning and development. Not being against play I tended to accept this at first, but as time went on I started wondering. How does anyone actually know this? Are there case studies of children who were deprived of play and nothing else? Are there ethically dubious RCTs where children were stopped from playing and the effects measured? There might be correlations between play and development, but the obvious explanation for that would be that development drives play, not that play derives development. It’s not that I thought that depriving children of play wouldn’t harm their development, it seemed likely that it would, I just wondered how we knew that it would, and generally, how could we know how important it was.

And this is where I seemed to have caused most offence. A lot of advocacy of play-based learning seems to start from making assertions about the benefits of play, then jumping to the idea that, given these benefits, it only makes sense to use play in teaching. To actually ask about the empirical evidence for these benefits and their extent is to undermine the arguments. There were a few pointers towards the benefits of particular types of play, but these were often contested. There were a lot of theories from any number of disciplines to explain why play should, in theory, have benefits. There were any number of reports from advocacy groups which made claims about the benefits of play, but there was a distinct lack of empirical evidence. There were those who insisted there was huge amounts of evidence out there, but seemed unable to narrow it down in such a way that I  might actually find any of it. Mainly I had to deal with people who were outraged that, as far as they were concerned, I must have suggested that children don’t learn from play. Of course, children do learn from play, but that does not establish how necessary play is for learning. It is also, again, a self-defeating argument as far as the controversy over OFSTED goes, because the objection hinges on the idea that by looking for learning OFSTED are undermining play.

A few interesting things did come up, and I hope to find time to read some of them, but I think we are still as far away from as ever from having any real justification for so many of the claims made about play, let alone anything that would justify making play-based learning the only permissible method of teaching in the early years.


  1. Thanks for writing this post. It’s much easier to follow your thread of thinking here rather than trying to piece together conversations on twitter. In the fairness of balance though, I don’t think that your tweet that began the discussion was the ‘mildest form of questioning’. :)

    !) Read all these dramatic claims: suecowley.wordpress.com/2014/08/06/pla… 2) Read this tweet by the author: twitter.com/Sue_Cowley/sta… It's not just me is it?— Andrew Old (@oldandrewuk) August 06, 2014

  2. I have mixed feelings about all this, mostly because it’s a complicated subject. As you rightly note, properly controlled experiments are not easy to come by. Certainly it seems ridiculous to think that the best ways of teaching reading and maths and whatever else we actually want to teach are through play. No, you need structure, phonics, times tables, etc, etc. I was reading Terry Brooks at 5 & Lord of the Flies a year or so later – certainly wasn’t through play. It seems as though some people do actually think you can teach these things through play (c.f http://heatherfblog.wordpress.com/2014/03/28/why-i-became-radicalised-the-sequel-frying-pan-to-fire/), which is clearly a problem.
    On the other hand, it’s very much an open question as to whether or not we should or need to be teaching these things at all at a young age. I mean really, isn’t that what primary schools are for? In fact some people argue that much of Europe starts formal primary education later (around 6/7) and it all works out fine, so we should copy them. That seems reasonable – it almost certainly would do no harm, would save some money I guess (?) and might do some good (though I’m a bit sceptical). But I don’t know how formal the teaching in kindergarten or indeed at home is in these nations (that may mean that effectively a lot of what we do in primary at age 5/6 happens over there anyway).
    Certainly there is an excellent argument to be made (and this I do know a fair bit about) that a lot of the current focus on early years learning (by which I mean pre-primary) is completely wrongheaded. No, we cannot make people smarter by teaching them stuff younger. In America they have spent literally decades trying (Head Start) and completely failed. Now Obama appears intent on doubling down on that failure. I don’t know who is advising him, but they’ve got completely the wrong end of the stick. Yes, individual differences in cognitive ability & academic achievement do appear at very young ages and largely remain stable throughout the life course, but that is because they are primarily genetic in origin, as a brief inspection of the behaviour genetic literature will show. Not because of some vital experience in the earliest years that some people miss out on. Don’t be silly. If Wilshaw et al. think they can fix the problems of primary by pushing pre-school structured learning more heavily, they’ve got a nasty shock coming. I don’t think they can do much harm other than waste a lot of time and money, but it won’t do any good.
    Why do I think it all doesn’t matter much? Well, RCTs can’t be done, but natural experiments occasionally do arise. Jerome Kagan studied one in Guatemala in the 1960s, I believe it was. A local tradition meant that children from a remote village were, in the first year of life, highly isolated; kept in dark huts, never played with, and almost never spoken to. Kagan tracked these children over a considerable period of time. Initially they appeared highly mentally underdeveloped, but by age 11 and 12 they’d caught back up with their peers, who lived in more urban areas and did not undergo this treatment. Essentially, this shows that, contingent upon a reasonable level of usual environmental feedback, there’s a fundamental genetic stability to development; even very severe deprivation lasting for some quite considerable period of time doesn’t have much an effect in the end. This crops up in other areas as well – experiencing child sexual abuse isn’t strongly correlated with mental illness in adulthood (http://www.srmhp.org/0402/child-abuse.html). If even something as awful as sexual abuse quite often does not have permanent effects, what are the odds, really, that early years learning methods matter in the slightest?

    • With regards to other countries starting later, the examples always seem to be countries with much simpler writing systems. Perhaps ones that do need less structured teaching to master literacy. Also worth noting that some countries like Finland, who start formal education later, start “informal” education a lot earlier.

      With regard to genetics and cognitive ability, not really my area, but nothing you say on this ever seems to match what I’ve read or heard from James Flynn.

      With regard to early deprivation. As you say, it is less irreversible than is sometimes claimed. There are Romanian orphans adopted by parents in this country after considerable neglect who are now healthy, functioning individuals. Not sure where that leaves us though. The ability to catch up later hardly suggests that environment has no effect, just that it might be the totality of the environment, rather than the environment in certain crucial years, as is sometimes claimed.

    • It’s possible that the problem with Headstart is that it is too focused on socialisation. For an interesting alternative, you might want to google Project Follow Through.

  3. “There might be correlations between play and development, but the obvious explanation for that would be that development drives play, not that play derives development.”
    Not obvious at all. Development isn’t independent of play, but is the outcome of interactions with it. Biological development, interaction with the environment and behaviour drive each other.
    One obstacle to this debate reaching a satisfactory conclusion has been the lack of a clear definition of play – not because no one’s tried to provide one, but because ‘play’ doesn’t necessarily have clear-cut boundaries. For zoologists, play is a fairly tightly defined range of behaviours. In humans, the definition gets much looser because we can introspect about cognitive and emotional factors; what motivates us to play, how do we feel about it, what did we learn? There’s no doubt that people who we describe as playing are doing something – but whether it fits everybody’s definition of play is a moot point.
    Another problem with the debate is that development, learning and education have often been conflated. They are not the same, and play doesn’t have the same role in each. There is no question over the importance of play in development, nor, as you say, that children do learn from play, but I agree it doesn’t follow that children learn everything better through play nor that play should be an integral part of formal education. Given its importance in development, it’s safer to err on the side of including it rather than excluding it, but evidence for its efficacy would be interesting.
    Lastly, there’s another debate to be had about the role of work in education. What children do in schools is widely referred to as work. Not convinced that’s the most appropriate term, nor that a work/play dichotomy is a useful one.

    • “Not obvious at all. Development isn’t independent of play, but is the outcome of interactions with it.”

      This may be the case, but it is far from obvious. There are things that we know, from genuine cases of neglect, that slow or prevent development. As I argued above, I don’t think we know for certain that this is the case for lack of play.

      With regard to definitions, I think this is just one way the theorists get round the lack of evidence, but I don’t think “play” is particularly ambiguous when describing children’s behaviour. Most of the time we wouldn’t argue whether a child was playing or not.

      • So to you it *is* obvious that “development drives play, not that play derives development”, but it’s *not* obvious that development is an outcome of play. Why? What are you basing these conclusions on?

        • Statements about what is obvious are based on their obviousness. I don’t have a logical procedure for establishing obviousness. That would kind of defeat the concept of being obvious. It just seems obvious that as a child develops they might play more and in more sophisticated ways. It does not seem immediately obvious that play, rather than any other activity or experience, leads to their development, although I don’t mean to imply that this is unlikely, just not obvious.

      • Andrew said, “With regard to definitions, I think this is just one way the theorists get round the lack of evidence, but I don’t think “play” is particularly ambiguous when describing children’s behaviour. Most of the time we wouldn’t argue whether a child was playing or not.”

        It seems clear that there are differing definitions of play within the discussion. It would be very helpful if you could define what it is you see in a child’s behaviour which leads you to say that they are playing. I think there might be less consensus over that than you think. This could perhaps lead to a more helpful frame for a discussion which associates or disassociates play from learning.

        I appreciate that you are after evidence, but we need to know what ‘play’ means in the context of any studies that study it, and whether we (and they) are working with the same definition.

        • We use “play” to describe behaviour undertaken for the purpose of enjoyment or recreation rather than for a serious or practical purpose. Obviously that can cover quite a variety of behaviour on the part of children, and there will be borderline cases, but I’m not convinced it’s as difficult as you make out in most cases.

          Or at least it’s not that difficult unless you want to use what is usually seen as play to achieve another purpose. So I can see difficulties in the concept of “play-based learning”, (part of the reason I said earlier I wasn’t really sure what it is) but not really in the definition of “play”.

          • Ah, so you prescribe to the idea that play cannot have a serious purpose. If this is your definition of play it seems you do not recognise that play has serious outcomes for young children. Such as, for instance, being able to balance blocks, build a story through pretend play, or negotiate with a peer. Would you say children doing these activities were playing, learning, developing, or perhaps all three? As they have serious consequences can they really be said not to be entered into for a serious purpose? The same way an adult might enter into a twitter conversation, perhaps – undertaken for a serious purpose but nevertheless not quite definable as ‘work’.

    • Logicalincrementalism said “Another problem with the debate is that development, learning and education have often been conflated. They are not the same, and play doesn’t have the same role in each. There is no question over the importance of play in development, nor, as you say, that children do learn from play, but I agree it doesn’t follow that children learn everything better through play nor that play should be an integral part of formal education. Given its importance in development, it’s safer to err on the side of including it rather than excluding it, but evidence for its efficacy would be interesting.”

      I agree wholeheartedly that we are having problems with the definition of play here. Some replies seem to conflate play with running around outside (playtime?) while others, and I have been guilty of this in my comments, see it as any activity in which a person is absorbed, interested in and deriving enjoyment from, whether that enjoyment is the high of physical well- being or the satisfaction of facing intellectual challenges.

      When we think of ‘playful’ there is a connotation of lack of seriousness, but do we get the same connotation, necessarily, from the idea of play for young children. There seems to me to be a strong element of seriousness and purposefulness in some play. But I am aware that I am introducing the idea that play can differ in quality.

      Possibly we need this idea of the quality of play to differentiate the type of learning that might go on within play. It is extremely difficult, on observing young children, to label play according to the categories defined, for instance, by the EYFS. One scrambles from category to category to find everything that goes on within play, and sometimes it isn’t recognised within the categories. So independent, and even quietly guided, play is wide reaching and essentially a pretty blurred and fuzzy thing.

      Schooling, however, involves objectives. The quality of play within schooling (if we allow play in this context, or allow that play can even happen here) is that it has to be more directed and goal-driven by the teacher. The big question seems to be, for me, is how we fit young children’s developmental level to the demands of teacher-led objectives. Is there agreement here that these two things must match? Or is it felt that children’s developmental levels should be ignored in order for them to be schooled? Is it possible to provide experiences, through teaching, that are experienced as play by the children?

      If we consider play to be something chosen, absorbing, interesting and enjoyable on those terms (rather than playful/ non-serious), can we provide activities that fit this remit and which meet the objectives of an increasingly curriculum rather than development-led education? Why do we consider children’s play to be non-serious? Surely this is because we are past the level in which certain activities are deadly serious because they are part of a learning curve. Most adults don’t need to learn how to catch balls and some do it simply for fun (well, I don’t – still can’t catch, maybe too busy reading age 4), and call this ‘play’, while perhaps not recognising that what challenges and absorbs them has a quality that is more akin to children’s play.

  4. Hi,

    I’ve been following your posts having switched from a career in accountancy to primary teaching. This is the first time I am piping up with an opinion.

    My training has been pretty much a cult-like initiation process into progressive teaching, however, my academic background (scientific/mathematical) has led me to question everything I am expected to do/believe. In order to avoid a even longer post, I can simply state that I agree with everything described in the book ‘Progressively Worse’.

    As a rare logical-rational type in a primary school setting I have also come to question the orthodoxy ‘Children must (and can only) learn through play’. I firmly believe that the some of the behaviour issues that secondary teachers must endure have their roots in play-based primary education. That old adage ‘Bring me the boy of 7 and I will give you the man’ is so acutely true when I observe how increasingly difficult it is to teach year 5 and 6 children who have been left to do whatever they like, in the name of ‘play-based learning’.

    Essentially, I think two rather odd myths collide. The first is the myth ‘out there’ that all children are subjected to some kind of Gradgrindian school experience. This, coupled with the child-led parenting approach, has led to children being given free reign outside of school to do whatever they like. No controls, no structure, no discipline. Just do whatever you like and ‘Be free to discover yourself by having bad manners and playing violent video games until 1am’.

    The second myth, which exists in the world of state education, is that all ‘working class’ children are subjected to some kind of Gradgrindian home experience. This, coupled with the child-centred teaching approach, has led to children being given free reign inside of school to do whatever they like. No controls, no structure, no discipline. Just do whatever you like and ‘Be free to never discover long division, so long as your self-esteem is enormous and you really enjoy Art’.

    I fail to see how the answer to lack of parenting, that would otherwise install self-control in a child, is a play-based classroom that has no structure and no discipline. Surely this would re-inforce bad behaviour? Such bad behaviour in the infant classes tends to be excused as ‘They’re only cute and cheeky little children’ by teachers who have adopted a motherly approach. By the time they enter junior school, complete with an inability to read, it is too late and the bad behaviour is no longer cute, cheeky or indeed funny. This behaviour is annoying, tiring and increasingly dangerous at a time when you are trying to prepare them for SATs and being able to access secondary education. You can turn things around, by being strict, but this is not advised………

    By the time these badly behaved children enter secondary school, complete with their inability to read, write or add up, it is too late. When children enter puberty they cease to want to take advice from adults and instead follow their peers. That window for an honest message about the rewards of self-discipline and hard work, and how it is the single most important thing that can transform your life, closed back in Year 6, because primary teachers believe that children should live in a bubble of self-centred happiness.

    Apparently children miraculously grow-up in the 6 week holiday between junior school and the secondary school? No I don’t think so.

    I have begun to question why everyone thinks that the Victorian classroom was so inherently cruel (although we can all agree that The Cane was). These days I think that possibly those Victorian teachers steeled themselves in order to do the right thing, because they saw the home conditions of the children they taught, and knew that basic education was too important for children to fail.

    Children these days are just not being taught to sit still, listen and be quiet. That basic, numero-uno most important skill for learning either never installed, or, if the child is from a home where the skill has been taught by decent parents, driven out by play-based learning in the infant classes.

    The whole ‘Let children learn through play’ thing seems to come from a place of misplaced kindness, whereby adults just do not want children to experience any kind of struggle, or work, or inconvenience. It is a very emotional interpretation, and emotive types seem to dominate in primary education.

    When I look at a child, I see, from my previous experience, the young working-class woman in my office who is facing a bleak career because she hasn’t been taught the basics, including the self-discipline to turn up to work on time. There is no safety net for her: government benefits are severely restricted for young people, and her parents cannot afford to support her indefinitely. I am busy reporting to clients and management, so cannot teach her basic grammar! Where is the happiness when, at the age of 16 and at the end of her apprentice probation, we do not keep her on?

    • All stakeholders in primary education need to read this. Play-based learning may well in some cases be controlled but the damaging nature of discipline-free classrooms in early years that causes long term problems is tragically unrealised.

  5. […] Teaching in British schools « Play […]

  6. Throwing something into the pot. I’ve often wondered if the reason Chinese/other Asian children perform so well is because their systems aren’t based on play. There is more respect for teachers and behaviour is better managed.

  7. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  8. I have thought a little more….this is my view as a parent.

    Let’s take ‘Correct behaviour at the dinner table’ as an example. All parents know that, from the very beginning, you cannot allow any silly nonsense at the dinner table. There is no ‘play-based learning with broccolli’ thank you very much!

    Your average toddler will not miraculously stumble across how to hold a fork properly or ‘choose’ to adopt a policy of not throwing said vegetable on the floor. You’ve got to teach them. Nip this sort of thing in the bud.

    By teaching them the correct way, in a simple ‘This is how we eat broccolli’ fashion, the toddler learns how to behave at the dinner table. Toddler also learns that the dinner table is a place of mutual respect (please pass the salt), appreciation (thankyou for my food), and civilised conversation (how was your day).

    Surely, the classroom should be treated in a similar fashion? If my toddler was allowed to play his way to dining competence then he would not have respect for the hallowed space that is family dining and social bonding. If the very young child were allowed to play his way to basic academic competence then he would not have respect for the teacher, his classmates or the classroom?

    • But (and this is the crux of the argument from yesterday) how can you claim all these things about eating at the table, whether ‘true’ or not, without quoting your evidence?

      As an aside I agree with you!

      • Which claim do you think needs evidence? Discussion from yesterday was mainly about some very dramatic and very technical sounding claims about play which seemed to be the sort of thing that you could only ever really ascertain from proper study. Not sure that applies here.

        • “Your average toddler will not miraculously stumble across how to hold a fork properly or ‘choose’ to adopt a policy of not throwing said vegetable on the floor”

          “By teaching them the correct way, in a simple ‘This is how we eat broccolli’ fashion, the toddler learns how to behave at the dinner table.”

          “Toddler also learns that the dinner table is a place of mutual respect, appreciation, and civilised conversation.”

          “If my toddler was allowed to play his way to dining competence then he would not have respect for the hallowed space that is family dining and social bonding.”

          “If the very young child were allowed to play his way to basic academic competence then he would not have respect for the teacher, his classmates or the classroom”

          Evidence for any of these would be great. These are at least as ‘dramatic’ as @Sue_Cowley ‘s “(Play is) important for healthy physical development”.

          As you yourself said, “The precise claims and precise evidence for them” is the the issue. Just because these claims are seemingly self-evident and some people like the claims above but not the claims about play, it does not mean that evidence is any less valid or any less required.

          • The claim that “Play is important for healthy physical development” seems to suggest knowledge of what would happen to a child who was deprived of play, but not of anything else. I don’t have that knowledge. I’m not sure who does.

            The claim that “Your average toddler will not miraculously stumble across how to hold a fork properly or ‘choose’ to adopt a policy of not throwing said vegetable on the floor” seems to require only knowledge of the average toddler, something which the person making the claim probably does have.

            • This seems like semantics. If the first claim had “an average toddler’s” inserted before “healthy” then the person making the statement could claim exactly what you are claiming about the second statement. I thought the discussion was to do with evidence. Something which would be needed to prove either.

              I am also not sure that anyone has knowledge of an ‘average toddler’.

              And it is in these linguistic games that I find it difficult to have a discussion with you. You’ll pick out something I have written then I’ll pick out something you have written and so it continues…

              So I’d like to state that I agree with you that asking for evidence for claims is not a bad thing and that teaching with strategies that have an evidence base to prove themselves effective seems to be better than an ad-hoc, this-is-the-lastest-fad style of teaching.

              But also that I feel it is disingenuous of you to ask for evidence for one claim and say it is not needed for another or say that “only knowledge of the average toddler” is acceptable evidence for one claim but not for the other.

    • Play-based learning is being equated here with a lack of discipline. All children need boundaries and these are well managed in a play-based environment by teachers modelling and supporting good behaviour. Play-based practice does not involve neglect of children. Don’t imagine that an early years classroom where play ia respected is a ‘free-for-all’. Within play many opportunities come up to make good or bad choices, these can then be worked with and ground rules made explicit and understood. This exercise of social skills within a free choice environment, far from undermining good behaviour is its basis. There is no necessity in the ideal of play-based learning that teachers should be ‘motherly’ (not sure what that means) and tolerant of bad behaviour (part of being ‘motherly’?).

  9. “A few hours’ observation will provide empirical evidence for the first two. The third is a different matter.”

    I don’t see how. How can you see development in a few hours? How do you evaluate the learning without looking at other ways of learning similar things?

  10. Yes us education types love our binary oppositions. Whereas in almost all EY settings I’ve ever visited use a combination of child initiated play and adult directed ‘lessons’. The exact proportions vary from setting to setting, and also within settings. A young 3 year old is very different from a summer term reception child – some of whom are not far of 6 – so blanket assertions about ‘what early years practice must look like’ are meaningless. Our reception aged children do 30 mins phonics a day, 30 mins shared reading/writing and 30 mins maths – rest of the time its free flow play which obviously includes lots of cunning adult subversion along the lines of ‘you think you are playing in the sand but ah ha – I have tricked you into investigating which proportions of sand and water are most effective when building sandcastles’ variety. A handful of nursery children join in the more formal bits if they seem ready for it. How much time various nursery children spend doing formal stuff is very dependent on them. A maths or phonics ‘lesson’ for young 3 year olds may only last 5 minutes (our rule of thumb is…quit while you’re ahead – stop before you lose the will to live). An ‘old’ 4 year old may easily cope with a good 20 minutes. It works for us and our data is good and children love coming to school.
    But if other people do things differently and it works – good on them. Incidentally the one place I know about that centres all learning on the children’s interests and passions is a genuine beacon of excellence and the level of technical vocabulary used by these EAL and fsm children is gobsmacking. (eg talking about axles and chassis when making toy cars). The head would say it is all play based – but it’s play moulded by expert practitioners who push and push their children within a context that is playful. It’s a nursery school so not sure how it would work with reception children.But the point is, if you are teaching through play – you have to have sky high expectations of that play and adults have to be extremely highly skilled to put those expectations into practice. I think the problem is with low expectations of play – bung out some lego a sandpit and some bikes and supervise rather than interact with the children.
    It’s not unlike doing an NRich investigation with older children. It’s not enough to bung out some NRich problems and expect great learning to just happen – its how we question, reflect, probe and push these investigations along that makes all the difference.
    Training staff to be able to interact for greatest effect is really tricky though – some just get it but for those that don’t – it’s not something you can easily codify.

    • Wise words, Primary Prowess. Would you agree that the more formal work is only taken up by children who have are developmentally able to attend? I would argue that this work can remain within the domain of play and that play/work is a false dichotomy. But can see this is controversial. I very much agree that adults can enhance the quality of play to challenge children and support their intellectual, physical, creative and social growth, sometimes very surreptitiously.

  11. […] The ideology described was consistent with what I had been describing in my previous post; […]

  12. […] Andrew responded promptly. He comments “This leads me to my one opinion on early years teaching methods: OFSTED are […]

  13. This article might give food for thought:

    • I’ve not really had much in the way of difficulty finding non-academic materials where an expert gives their opinions. It’s finding the academic research that is meant to justify the opinions that’s been the problem. Still, I am getting there and gradually finding bits and pieces. It just doesn’t resemble the picture painted by the play lobby, let alone the learning-by-play enthusiasts.

  14. The odd thing about current early years play-based learning is how unnatural it is. In 99.9% of human societies throughout history, 3 and 4 year olds have played in mixed age groups with local older children, learning vocabulary, information and ideas from them. The notion that isolating a bunch of 3 and 4 year olds, and deliberately avoiding directly teaching them anything much, is developmentally sound is quite a strange one if viewed in this light.

    Read about the plight of 4 year old Terrell in this article, and imagine how different his experience and his learning might be if he were playing with older, more knowledgeable children (or with suitably primed adults). – or if someone had actually taught him the vocabulary and concepts he lacked.

    Click to access Neuman.pdf

    • I often think something similar. The ‘play based learning’ as generally advocated seems like such an artificial exercise. Many suggest that Reception aged children largely need to learn through play. They then justify the need for schools (after all most children play without schooling) by saying that play must be ‘developed by adults’ to ensure learning. So adults then hover about waiting for opportune moments to leap in and surreptitiously ‘extend children’s thinking’. Or they set up learning opportunities that they hope children will, unaware of the agenda, happen to engage with.
      I can’t get over the fact it is then suggested that this whole performance is somehow a ‘natural’ way of learning. One wonders how children managed to learn much in the days before skilled play based learning practitioners were around to set up ‘rich learning environments’ but they certainly aren’t natural!

  15. Does anyone know of any research about the impact of forest schools on learning? This seems to be the latest ‘craze’ in primary. While I can imagine all sorts of positive outcomes, are these worth losing the alternative positive outcomes from more traditional schooling? What are the opportunity costs on both ‘sides’ (although ‘ not forest school’ is not really a category!). Anyway if anyone can point me at some research, that would be grand.

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