A play-based curriculum lets pupils lead their own learning

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It’s not ‘brave’ or ‘risky’ to have a play-based curriculum beyond the early years, writes primary assistant head Joanna Baxendale – by allowing children to follow their interests, you can enable a wide range of learning experiences

Play lets children lead their learning

On a drizzly day with howling winds, a group of children have made the decision to take their learning outside. Donning their waterproofs and wellies, they venture out.

Within minutes, the rain has inspired conversations about the weather and, as they busy themselves erecting a suitable den to keep out the elements, an adult recognises their interest. By lunchtime, the children have spent more than two hours transforming the den into a fully equipped weather station complete with rain catcher, cloud-spotting book, windsock and observation platform.

This is what education looks like when provision is set up for learning through play, when skilled staff spot a child’s fascination “in the moment”, and when the teacher is free to follow the children’s inquisitions and bring the learning to their playful context. To learn in this way is recognised, and expected, in early years settings, but the children described above are not 4 or 5. They are in Year 2.

When a child reaches the age of 5, the value of play ever-diminishes in their daily experiences. In its place, tables, whole-class teaching and the perceived expectations of the key stage 1 curriculum.

Every day is exciting

It does not have to be this way. Our current KS1 children have only ever experienced a play-based curriculum. Each day is new and exciting; their play can lead their learning in any number of directions, and their innate passion to investigate and explore is nurtured.

We have been developing our play-based provision in KS1 for more than six years. I began by searching for schools who were already working this way in Year 1 and 2; it quickly became apparent that we were one of the few who were considering this approach beyond the early years.

So we set about creating something from scratch. Time was one of our first considerations as we recognised that learning was embedded when children were in a state of “absorption” in their learning experience. In removing playtimes and preset stops/starts during the school day, we were able to provide the children with the gift of time. Time to work through the learning processes of planning, evaluating, problem-solving, re-evaluating, discussing and celebrating.

How often do children start a project during a “topic afternoon” only to be asked to pack it all away until next week? More flexibility reduces the frustration and pressure these set learning periods can often bring. Knowing they have time has developed the children’s awareness of and ability to manage it.

In terms of content, we took inspiration from Reggio Emilia and Montessori schools, because we loved their natural environments and simplistic approaches. What you provide should be led by the children. In KS1, if we engineered our provision purely according to the national curriculum or designed it to be heavily outcome-led, this would have resulted in low-level play and superficial learning experiences.

All too often, these provision areas would have a specified outcome that had been set by the adult. The children would visit, complete the challenge and leave; frequently, they would require the support of an adult, too. That’s not what we wanted.

We take the view that the majority of the provision areas should reflect the interests of the children and they should require little adult support to access the resources. Being able to follow their interests opens so many doors to new learning experiences and recognises the importance of making learning relevant to real-life contexts.

For example, a simple comment from a child about the effect that plastic has on our seas resulted in an incredible learning journey for all our children as they campaigned for change within their school. As a result, their letters, artwork, local environment visits and research had an immediate impact on the whole school: the kitchen stopped using plastic wrapping, we no longer use straws and their milk cartons have been replaced with reusable cups. We gave them a voice because it is important to teach children that they can make difference to the world they live in.

This is how learning happens in our school. Yes, we have an overarching topic but this does not define our curriculum. Children bring their passion to us and constantly lead their own learning. And the play-based approach allows us to maximise these learning opportunities.

Out with outcomes

As our children move into Year 1, they bring with them a wealth of knowledge and a passion for learning. We do not put the early years foundation stage profiles to one side. They inform our provision in those first weeks and provide the information teachers need to ensure that any gaps identified continue to be a focus and that children who exceeded in some of the early learning goals continue to be challenged.

Not all progress is measured, and by valuing the steps children make as they build their towers or make their models, we teach them that failing, evaluating, amending and starting over are all part and parcel of learning; they don’t define their success by the outcome.

Do we do any direct teaching? In Year 1 and Year 2, the children take part in two adult-led writing and maths sessions per week as part of a small group. Working closely with the children means we are able to give instant feedback and move them forward in their learning much more effectively. We have found that the children are now much more productive writers because they enjoy it.

As well as pedagogy, we also tackled the learning environment. We recognised that bright, busy displays were often overwhelming. We wanted the environment to reflect how we expected the children to access it: calmly and with purpose. In removing the bright, plastic containers and computer-generated printed sheets, and replacing these with handwritten displays and natural coloured baskets, we noticed a significant shift in how the children accessed these areas. Low-level lighting, rugs, smaller nooks and inspiring learning spaces created the homely feel we wanted.

So we knew where and how we wanted to work, but the key in this whole idea was the adults. The staff needed to believe in this way of learning in order for it to succeed. Employing a nursery nurse was a significant move as she provided the experience and knowledge of working through play, and ignited the same passion in others that she showed herself. She trained and assisted the teachers, and modelled the approach, and it soon became natural for all our staff.

Of course, we encountered challenges. Training took time, we needed to get the right environment, and we also had to be patient. We wanted to take this approach into Year 2 but the children were not accustomed to this style of learning because they had spent time in a more formal Year 1 setting; they had, in essence, lost their ability to self-regulate and motivate themselves as independent learners.

We experimented by allowing the children to access the provision in the afternoon, but this did not work so we made the decision to make sure Year 1 was secure in this approach for a whole year before taking this in to Year 2 as the children moved up.

Stepping back allowed us to train the staff and the children; they then took the skills they had developed into Year 2 where we hit the ground running in September.

‘How to be a learner’

It saddens me when I hear professionals speak of their children as “ready to sit down and learn” or saying they “don’t need to play any more”. We want our children to recognise the value of learning and how empowering it can be to take the lead.

The research that sits behind theories of metacognition highlights that the most important thing we can teach our children is “how to be a learner” – these are the transferable skills our children need to continue to be passionate and successful learners in the future.

Working this way is not easy; the amount of planning and time it takes to maintain the provision is substantial, and the pressure to “prove” its impact on paper is one that many schools feel. The impact of our curriculum has resulted in a year-on-year upward trend in data, but seeing our children flourish means much more to us than numbers on a page. All I hope is that our passion and success inspires others to consider the curriculum they provide for their children.

We are often called “brave” or commented on for “taking a risk”. This should not be how it is viewed. We are not brave, we are not pioneers. We are simply doing what is right for our children.

Joanna Baxendale is assistant headteacher of early years and key stage 1 lead at St John’s CE Primary School, Bradford

For more on using play to support learning in primary schools.

This article originally appeared in the 28 June 2019 issue under the headline “Play lets pupils take the lead with their learning”