After a break from blogging and what felt like a very long winter, Spring it seems, is finally here. Typically a time for new beginnings and a dose of spring cleaning, changes are certainly a foot in the British education system. However, the proposals being mooted for early years could not be described as a metaphorical lick of paint or sprucing up, but something fundamentally different – a wholesale demolition of the cornerstones of early learning. It seems that no amount of evidence will convince Whitehall of the value of play, and by that I mean unashamedly free, child-initiated play. Fundamental to young children’s social, emotional and physical development, play is often described as children’s work. It lies at the heart of every aspect of a child’s healthy growth and development and if not given adequate opportunities to vent this innate drive, children’s physical and emotional development will quite literally be stunted. If we want children to grow up sheepish, blindly following commands or conversely so disengaged from learning that they already feel labelled as failures, then the sort of system envisaged by Truss, with increased ratios, may be exactly what the Doctor ordered. If on the other hand we aspire for children to develop into free thinking innovators, able to solve the challenges of the world and deal with the problems that the excesses of previous generations have left behind, then this is not the best approach. We cannot miraculously expect to ignite children’s creativity and problem solving simply by the flick of a switch if they have been bought up expecting to be spoon-fed knowledge and to think inside the box.
In fact as these latest ill-conceived proposals demonstrate adults do not have a monopoly on good ideas, often failing to see what’s before their eyes. Children in contrast are technically geniuses before they enter the education system! Whilst walking through a flower speckled field at the weekend, my 7 year old son stopped to pick three buttercups. A little further on he paused to look up at a tree before selecting a small heart-shaped leaf to pick. Turning to me he asked how he could make a small hole in the leaf. I helped him (purposely not asking him why) and having threaded the flowers through the hole, was rewarded with a beautiful miniature bouquet, fit for a fairy princess. No amount of guesses as to what he was going to do with the leaf would have yielded this exquisitely proportioned bouquet and he rather than I would have excelled in a creativity test. He had a vision and spent time selecting the tools, in this case flowers and a leaf that were fit for purpose.
Returning to the current political debate it is dangerous to look at the experience of other cultures and pick the bits that best fit with our agenda. The Government may see the appeal of orderly French early years settings but not be so drawn to the strongly unionised (dare I say rebellious) culture that predominates French adult life. Of course we want children to grow up having manners and respect and in some households no doubt this is lacking and needs redressing, but Elizabeth Truss is in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. To control play is to destroy the very essence of childhood. Any good early years practitioner knows only too well that subservient robotic children is all too often the sign of something sinister at work. It is as absurd as assuming that the lack of crying in pre 1990 Romanian orphanages was a sign of happy children. We know at all too costly a price what social and emotional deprivation looks like because we can see it from these neglected children’s brain scans. We can also surmise that the reason these babies didn’t cry was not because they were happy but because they knew it wouldn’t make any difference, having learnt all too soon that they would not receive affection or comfort. If you’ve ever seen children lacklusterly following adult commands, (because they have no interest or ideas of their own); not asking those all important ‘why’ questions, (because they know they won’t be answered, or worse still these will get them into trouble); or trying to please adults by carefully not making any mess during play (because they can read adult’s emotional cues), you will know how stilted and unnatural these ‘play episodes’ are. Yet if we are to listen to Whitehall this should be what we aspire to!
In a literacy lesson last week my 10 year old daughter was considering Government proposals to lengthen the school working day and reduce holidays. The task was to consider the pros and cons of these changes and write a letter to Michael Gove in response to the consultation. After discussing the relative advantages and disadvantages she drafted a well-considered consultation response where she proposed that the school day could be lengthened in the summer term if the extra time was dedicated to outdoor activities – what a great idea! Not only are physical education and outdoor experiences vital to children’s physical, social and emotional well being, providing a buffer to the stresses of everyday life, but if you’ve ever managed to crack a challenging problem after taking the dog for a walk or gardening, you’ll have experienced for yourself its benefits to critical thinking and problem solving. The last line of her letter delivered a decisive blow as she reminded Mr Gove that ‘more time at school does not necessarily mean more learning’. It was this final line that made me bristle with pride and dare I say it encapsulated the fruits of a playful mind nurtured by a playful childhood. Roll on National Children’s Day and our chance to put children back at the heart of the early years.