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Don't make fun of play;Opinion

Serious misconceptions about nursery education are being promoted by two people who should know better. Esther Thomas takes issue with the early-years minister and the chief inspector.

It's bad enough having to deal with parents who think of nursery as a group child-minding facility, allowing them to go to work, do the decorating or just get on with their lives. Equally it's frustrating when children are taken from school to go shopping, visit friends or sleep in.

The problem is that for many parents, nursery has low status because it's just a place where their children go to play.

It's far worse when those who should know better such as Margaret Hodge, the education minister, and Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, promote public misunderstanding about the nature of nursery education and the press oversimplifies their views with headlines like "Play is out, early learning is in" (Guardian, June 23).

At last month's launch of the inspection report on nursery education, Chris Woodhead is reported as saying four-year-olds enjoyed and benefited from structured learning, but they also needed play and a choice of activities. Separating "structured learning" from "play" presents a false polarisation and encourages a confusion of thinking. Worse, it devalues play, which early-years educators know is a powerful medium of learning.

First, the confusion is about ends and means. Just because ends can be formalised as learning goals it does not follow that the means need be formal. For example, the children in my nursery are learning to count and write numbers to10. That is the formal learning goal.

One of the means by which I motivate them to achieve this goal is to provide survey sheets so that they can play at being important adults carrying out opinion surveys. Younger children learn to interact and use language; older ones learn one-to-one correspondence as they use marks to record the results and the oldest are helped to recognise and write numerals when their marks have been counted. In this way I have structured the play so that play and structured learning are the same.

Second, the separation of "play" and "structured learning" implies that play means the same to adults and children and that it is not the serious business of learning. But adults have clear intentions when providing play opportunities that children may experience as nothing other

than play.

Hence the divide between structured learning and play is artificial because the children are playing a planned role as learners when they think they are playing for its own sake. They are engaged in the serious business of learning without realising it.

The important point is it is necessary to motivate children to learn by enabling them to do something they feel is play. Take water play for example. The child's intention is to play at making magic potions or giving medicine.

What the adult wants, however, is to:

* develop the child's fine motor control that will help when using a pencil;

* to understand simple capacity; l to develop self-help skills when putting on an apron;

* to share equipment with others; l to learn some properties of water;

* to use language for describing and imagining...

Take another example: role play in a cafe which requires furniture, dressing up clothes, clipboards and pencils, menus, money, till, sandwich-making facilities and crockery, etc.

Here, the child's intention is to play with friends and dress up as, for example, a waitress.

The adult's intentions are:

* to develop conversational


* to know writing carries meaning;

* to practise emergent writing;

* to recognise coins;

* to know people do different jobs;

* to use a knife to spread;

* to imagine and empathise...

Third, when Margaret Hodge calls for an end to "endless cutting and pasting" it is easy for the public to infer that play is an undifferentiated way of behaving. This is far from true. There are stages of play through which children pass as they mature, each one more complex. Play has an internal hierarchical structure.

Tina Bruce has defined three stages - the exploratory stage, representation and then "free-flow play" in which skills and knowledge learnt at earlier stages combine and find expression in creative and purposeful use. Experience of all stages is essential for successful learning.

In backing a more formal pre-school curriculum, Margaret Hodge is right to denigrate "cutting and pasting" if it is merely cutting and pasting to pass the time. However she does inestimable damage when she allows the public to think cutting and pasting exemplify Bruce's first, necessary exploratory stage of play.

Put in the context of a range of exploratory activities such as hammering and sawing and supported by professionals who understand play structure and can structure play, children will be able to develop skills and mastery. They will be able to use a range of tools and materials and eventually they will learn to plan and implement a variety of technological projects, involving aesthetic, motor, compositional and practical skills.

Thus play can be structured (adult intentions) and is itself structured (internal hierarchical structure). To suggest, as Chris Woodhead does, that there is play and there is structured learning is a false division because he ignores the powerful way in which play itself enables learning to take place.

Play is the mode of activity. The role of the educator is to plan play that is purposeful and will develop skills and learning that lead to the goals laid down by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. It is also to support children in their passage through the stages of play.

We should not forget, however, that learning is gradual and that the developmental process is as important as the ends.

What is needed is a clearer understanding of play, which is admittedly a loosely used term. In our application of the term to educational practices, we need to shift from the unserious and denigratory connotations of the word, suggesting as it does to many people, pleasure, frivolity, leisure pursuits and found in the phrases such as "playing about," "playing up," or even "playboy".

What is needed is a reaffirmation of the positive uses of the word, seen, for example, in phrases such as "playing with an idea," "a play on words," "played by Laurence Olivier," "fair play".

Play in nurseries is not self-indulgent, trivial, unproductive, escapist as the public might be excused for believing. Professionals working in nurseries everywhere know that play is: purposeful role-taking; practising obligations; extending empathy; controlled exploration; project planning; social interaction; developmental communication; imaginative representation; copying adults...

What I find deeply worrying is that there appears to be a drive to rubbish play. While government interest in nursery education is welcome, those in high places should beware of offering a "genetically-modified" curriculum, which rejects the organic process that is necessary for nurturing children.

Zeal is understandable but we should urge caution against the headstrong drive for curriculum cleansing through the demonisation of play.

Esther Thomas is the teacher in charge of the nursery at Hall Road primary school, Hull.

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