St Anthony’s Primary School in Renfrewshire, UKLA’s Literacy School of the Year 2018, situated in an area of economic deprivation, puts the children right at the centre of the curriculum, serving a diet rich in literacy experiences.
There are books everywhere, including a haphazard (and unnervingly tall) stack of children’s books in the head’s office.
Picture books are evident in every class from Reception to Year 6. The school teems with displays of children’s writing and drawings which have evidently been inspired by literature, and the children engage in easy discussions about the books that have been read to them or that they have enjoyed reading.
The school’s book buzz is highly infectious and a real sense of playfulness emanates from both the teaching team and children. The curriculum has high-quality texts at its core, makes relevant links to the children’s interests and is purposefully designed so as to promote the development of critical and creative thinking through play.
The Scottish Curriculum for Excellence encourages teachers to support and develop children’s creative responses and is built around experiences, interdisciplinary learning and making links. Sometimes, these links are made through what might be considered to be play-based activities, not just in the early years, but throughout the primary age phases. Here there is the understanding that play can encourage creative responses, and play, coupled with experiences aimed at developing children’s skills and abilities to problem-solve, has the potential to be beneficial to educational progress. It is through play that we experiment, take risks, generate meanings and negotiate our relationships with others and the world around us.
Fundamental to development
Play in the early years is recognised as being a fundamental aspect of children’s development. Piaget, a Swiss psychologist known for his work on child development, believed that play allows children to expand their thinking and helps them to make sense of social experiences.
Play is an intrinsic element of the EYFS curriculum, which recognises early childhood as a distinct phase in life where children are given time to engage in child-initiated activities and in elaborate role play, while practitioners are encouraged to observe them doing so and to plan for first-hand experiences that allow the children to explore the world around them.
However, in England it seems as if play is perceived as the domain of only the very young, and as children move through and out of the EYFS they are potentially confronted by a more tightly prescribed curriculum.
While in some European countries children’s access to a more formal schooling is delayed until they are seven, the curriculum in England emphasises an ‘earlier the better’ approach where literacy and numeracy skills are introduced at the earliest possible stage.
It is not just the Key Stage 1 curriculum which has an impact on children’s school experiences, it is the formalised testing of phonic decoding skills in Year 1 and the Key Stage 1 SATs in Year 2. The pressures of accountability placed on teachers due to the testing regime have been well documented and current educational discussions in England are now focused on baseline testing, which is due to be introduced in the autumn. What are we doing to our children?
Children’s futures are in our hands and, despite accountability, it is possible for a play-based curriculum to support intellectual achievement and well-being. Whitebread et al (2012) point out that research and policy communities increasingly recognise that ‘one vital ingredient in supporting healthy intellectual, emotional and social development in young children is the provision of opportunities and the support for play’.
No limits to play
Playful opportunities should not be limited to very young children but should be offered to older children, too. For instance, children’s literacy development can be supported by drama and role play, where they are encouraged to explore characters’ experiences or story development.
Drama offers opportunities for collaborative learning experiences where children explore and analyse developing ideas. It is also a powerful medium for exploring narrative structures and character, thus offering rich contributions to children’s reading and writing development.
This is just one small example of how teachers of older children might draw on play and inventiveness to support engagement with literacy learning.
More examples, including the importance of young learners’ experience of playing with digital technology, will be explored at the UKLA International Conference in Sheffield on 12-14 July, called Literacy and Play for All.
Researchers and practitioners will consider and debate the importance of play and playfulness in education in the hope that one day, children will have school experiences that develop imagination, creativity and inventiveness as well as critical and questioning minds. An education that permits children to grow as individuals, to explore, to think and to develop a critical understanding of the world in which they live.
From a personal perspective, I hope that one day, young children will be able to learn meaningfully through carefully structured and unstructured play. That one day, young children will be… well…children.
The UKLA International Conference, Literacy and Play for All: Improvisation, possibility and imagination, takes place on 12-14 July in Sheffield. See https://bit.ly/2IVphZN
Whitebread Det al(2012)The importance of play: A report on the value of children’s play with a series of policy recommendations, www.importanceofplay.eu/IMG/pdf/dr_david_whitebread_-_the_importance_of_play.pdf