Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Play Is a Vital Building Block of Early Learning

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Play Is a Vital Building Block of Early Learning

Article excerpt

Showing progress doesn't have to mean a narrow focus on reading and writing - let inspectors see pupils' imaginations running wild

We've all read about the Scandinavian education systems where children don't start school until they are 6 or 7, yet perform better than most other children in the world by the time they are 11. There is more than a hint of envy from educators in this country. But what do the Scandinavians do differently in those early years?

They allow their young children to be just that. These children play, dress up, help around the nursery, get out and about and are encouraged to be independent. Mollycoddling? Pah. Babies and toddlers are left to have their naps outside in pretty much all weathers.

Contrast that with the early age our children start formal schooling, the learning goals they have to meet and the expectation that they should be metaphorically running before they can walk. Which system provides a better start? To play, or not to play? That is the question for early years and it is a question for Ofsted, too. At our school, the answer is definitely "to play".

A few years ago, I visited Prague with nine headteacher colleagues and we saw a wide variety of settings from nursery to secondary. What we found was very interesting. As with the UK, education in the Czech Republic becomes increasingly formal as children get older, but the early years environment is delightful. What I brought back from that trip was a conviction that children should be allowed to play and explore when practitioners feel it is right to do so. It was music to the ears of my early years leader - big bikes and trikes were at the top of the order list.

Of course, learning through play doesn't just mean going off and messing about. There are times every day when the children will be doing phonics, maths, reading and writing, as well as learning through structured (and unstructured) play. It doesn't just happen either. It involves considerable input from early years practitioners; my staff are not afraid of making a spectacle of themselves.

Skills for life

But how does this approach square with Ofsted's view of what children in early years settings should be doing? And how do you "sell" a creative, child-based learning experience to inspectors who will be looking to measure progress against national benchmarks?

There is obviously tension between formal and informal learning, but the key is to provide evidence that pupils can achieve while playing and exploring. …

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