Does play have to take a back seat, in order to prepare children for school?
At Eskay Kids, our beliefs, philosophies and values centre on children, play, nature and authentic childhood experiences. We stand by play as the absolute best medium by which children learn about themselves, each other and the world around them. At each of our services, children are respected and have a huge amount of autonomy. They can choose whether to play indoors or outdoors. They can choose whether to play with children older or younger than themselves. They can choose to enter and play in any of the spaces in the service. They can choose to eat when they’re hungry, and to rest or sleep when they’re tired. There is no formal “morning tea” time, no formal “lunch time” and no formal “sleep time” as is usually customary in traditional early childhood settings. The programming and planning done within the services is all based around children’s interests. There are no ”formal learning times” or “structured activity times” where it’s compulsory for every child to attend.
Children can pretty much spend their days as they choose. In saying that, there is a beautiful flow to the routines of the day. Children know that morning tea, lunch and group gatherings will be on offer, so they know what to expect, however it is very fluid and flexible, and based around children’s individual needs and requirements.
The environments are created in such a way that children can have free and open access to materials they may need to assist in their play. There is free access to paper, paint, pens, pencils, boxes, glue, sticky tape, cardboard etc. There is free access to blocks, sticks, rocks, fabric, books, magnifying glasses etc. There are hammers, saws, wood, nails, twine, tyres, crates, and lots of loose parts. Children have everything at their fingertips they may need, and they are free to ask for anything that’s not there, and we will try to source it (on the spot if possible). There are environments that are conducive to quieter, restful play, environments that are more suited to exploring, and environments for running and playing games.
How are you preparing children for school?
One of the biggest questions we get asked in running such a child-centred, play-driven program is “how will children be prepared for school if you just let them play all day?” We often have questions about children needing more structure to prepare them for school. We often hear questions about learning to read and write before they go to school.
Before thinking about “how do we prepare children for school”, we need to consider – what do parents actually mean by “preparing for school?” Is it about learning to “sit and listen to a teacher?” Is it being able to write their name? Being able to read? Knowing phonics? Counting to 5, 10, or even 100? Knowing shapes? Many of these things we don’t even need to teach children – they learn them through playing in their world, by talking to their peers, teachers and parents. Much of this learning happen as if by osmosis, just by children being engaged and happy in their playful lives. Before children turn 5, they learn more than at any other time in their lives. They learn to roll over, sit, stand, walk, run, throw, kick, talk, question, tantrum and more.
We don’t actually teach them any of this, they learn it on their own, because they are biologically designed to do so. It’s as if children are pre-programmed to naturally learn all the things of their culture and community, just by virtue of them living, playing and interacting with the adults and children around them.
When we look at the developmental progress of children, the charts, the ages and stages milestones – by the age of 5 in relation to cognitive development, children should be able to understand opposites, count 5-10 things may write some numbers and letters, count by rote and start to understand the relationships between numbers and objects. To see the full list, click here: http://files.acecqa.gov.au/files/QualityInformationSheets/QualityArea1/DevelopmentalMilestonesEYLFandNQS.pdf Most of this development and these milestones “just happen”, because children are developmentally ready for those things to happen, and many of them don’t need to be “taught”.
Children are naturally curious beings. They play with their friends and they practice and emulate adult scenarios witnessed in their everyday lives. They are learning, make no mistake about it. Even though it looks like frivolous play, the children are learning.
What does learning look like while playing
When children are playing they are creating play scenarios, creating rules, using their minds, negotiating social situations, learning to communicate, to compromise. They are problem solving, communicating, asking questions. They are learning about words, feelings, and emotions. They are consulting with books, YouTube or Google. They are representing through building, creating, painting, and drawing. They are using the sense of sight, touch, taste, smell, and sound. They learn about weight, length, speed, colour, sound, cause/effect, rhythm etc. They learn words, language, linguistics, and mathematical and scientific concepts. In a nutshell, children are learning. They may not have a teacher standing out the front dictating what they “need” to learn, or sitting them down at a desk forcing worksheets upon them, but they are learning.
Learning through play. Why? Because it’s fun, it’s interesting to them, and it’s playful, and lets keep in mind, these children are four and five year olds, and they are biologically designed to learn through play.
What skills do children need before school?
What are the skills that will set children up for the best possible experience for school? As a teacher, the most important things you want children to bring to school with them are well developed social and emotional skills as well as confidence and independence. You want children to be able to interact and get along with others, solve problems, take some risks and get back up again if they fail. We want them to be adventurous and curious about the world in which we live. All of these competencies are developed through long periods of uninterrupted play. It’s not a requirement of school, for children to be reading and writing. That will come in time, when the children are ready.
Dr Peter Gray – Sudbury Valley School
We are big fans of Dr Peter Gray who has written a book called “Free to Learn”. In this book, he studied the graduates of the Sudbury Valley School. The Sudbury Valley School is one where there is no curriculum, no classes, no subjects, no tests, no grading. Children from the age of 4 through to the age of 18 are together and are not segregated by age in any way. The younger children learn from the older children, and the older children learn how to nurture and how to teach and lead. There are no “teachers”, just staff members who are the adults in the space. All day, everyday, the children can do whatever they want. If they want to read, play on the computer, play cards, climb trees they can. The school is a democratic school and is run by the school meeting. Each person has 1 vote and all the rules, and all the hiring and firing is done by a voting system, so the students (approximately 140) have a much larger vote than the staff (approximately 10).
The students basically run the school. Dr Gray’s son went to the school from age 10, so he wanted to know what sort of opportunities might (or might not) be available at the end of such a free school? Would he be restricted in any way? What if he wanted to go to University – could that still happen when there had been no classes, no curriculum, no tests and no grades? The results of the study were very pleasing to Dr Gray and he found it to be a great success. Many students went on to university – one even became a maths professor. There were doctors, teachers, lawyers, many were entrepreneurs and most were successful in whatever field they chose. It would seem a big driver in their success, was the freedom to learn about what interested them, and the ability to be self-directed learners.
Children learn quickly
If your children are going to a traditional school, it won’t take them very long to learn how to sit and listen to the teacher. They’ll learn that very quickly. When they are developmentally ready, it won’t take them long to learn to read or write – they key is to take it at the child’s pace. There is no rush. Almost all children will eventually learn to read and write. Some will learn it at age 4; some will learn it at age 10. It will happen when the child is ready. Most children learn everything when they’re ready and interested to do so. In Finland, they don’t even start learning to read until they’re 7, as there is recognition that there are far more important things, such as play, to be doing before the age of 7, and at 7, children are more developmentally ready. I guess it’s a little bit like saying I’ll need to use a walking stick one day. Does that mean I need to practice today? No, I’ll learn that pretty quickly when the time comes.
What is age-appropriate pedagogy?
We often talk about “preparing children for school”, but in recent times there has been a recognition that “schools need to prepare for the children they are receiving”. There has been realisation that some of the rigorous curriculum expectations are not developmentally appropriate for young children, so there has been a turn around and a recognition that play is still necessary, even when children are at school. The word “play” is not being used, because people seem to be afraid of the word, instead the term “age appropriate pedagogy” is being used. What does pedagogy mean? Basically it means the method and practice or “the art” of teaching”. So age appropriate pedagogy essentially means PLAY and child-led inquiry – because that is what is age-appropriate for children!