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Everything to play for

In the first part of a series on early learning, Ruth Merttens shows how pre school children set their own scenes for play and how teachers can act as their expert partners

Early years is the most ideologically polarised stage of education - one is forced to vote either for "play" or for "teaching". This is a pity, not only because it means teachers who occupy a sensible middle ground will in fact appear to be on one side or the other according to the caste of their adviser or inspector, but also because it often prevents sensible debate.

For many years, I have been arguing for a middle ground: one can easily believe that children come to school to be taught and to learn some things they would not learn, or even encounter, left to their own agendas, and also believe that allowing children to play and to follow their own individual interests is a central part of their education.

As I talk to groups of teachers around the country, I sense increasing numbers of them growing impatient with this polarisation. They do not want to choose either a "play-directed" curriculum or a "teaching-focused" pedagogy. They wish to do both - an option that many successful nurseries have demonstrated for years.

The advisory and inspection service may be dominated by those on the extremes, but I suggest that practitioners sign up to a common-sense creed - a set of five basic principles... one for each finger on our writing hand.

Common-sense creed

Children come to school both to learn and to be taught. They need to follow their own enthusiasms and also to be introduced to new practices and taught new skills.

In the early years, we set the customs of school behaviour and practice.

In reception and nursery, children learn how to be taught and how to learn in a school (as opposed to a home) context. Even the most informal nursery cannot be a home, and the earlier children learn how to operate effectively in this new context the better. It is easier to learn to listen to a story or sing a song as part of a large group when you are three than when you are seven.

Rituals and routines are the patterns of school learning. They form the predictable, comforting and therefore safe structures within which discovery, play and experimentation take place. If we all come together every day to share our drink or snack at a certain time, it may disrupt play or other activity, but the benefit for children of knowing "what happens when", of feeling safe within a given, if flexible, structure, vastly outweighs the odd downside.

lNot all agendas at school should be child-driven, although it is crucial that some are. Some agendas are teacher-driven: we teach children nursery rhymes and songs, read them books, and learn to count together. Some children will have pursued these agendas in their homes from an early age.

Others will not. Only if some agendas in the nursery are teacher-driven do we stand any chance of ensuring equality of opportunity.

At school, children learn, play and are taught in three contexts:

"on-the-rug" in a large group; in small groups working on a teacher-led activity; and following a child-led activity playing together. Each context suits a different type of activity - it is far easier to teach a large group a nursery rhyme (those who know it "carry" those who do not), but essential to play a fantasy game with a small group of children.

This series of articles will consider each of these three contexts for learning, and discuss ways of teaching as well as suggesting ideas for the development of practice. This week we look at child-led play.

Developing children's play

There are many types of play, but I'd like to focus on two sorts: fantasy-role play and experimental-tactile play. Clearly these two overlap; children often begin by manipulating clay or dough and wind up making an object or creature as part of fantasy play.

Fantasy role play: Nearly all teachers recognise the importance of role and fantasy play at all stages of childhood, but especially in the early years.

However, many teachers observe that nowadays fewer children start nursery, or even primary school, with experiences in this type of play.

Although they will have engaged in some imaginative discussion and play, perhaps around the video game, computer console or DVD, they may very well not have played the sort of game where they themselves take on a different role or act an imaginary narrative.

They will not have had to create and sustain their own fantasy scenarios and negotiate them with others.

This absence of relevant play experience at home makes it all the more essential that we provide and develop it at school.

Encouraging, and indeed, engendering such play is not a simple task, and may not be left to chance - it requires positive and sensitive intervention. The adult is required to initiate roles, to move children on from parallel play and to suggest stimulating scenarios and narratives.

Therefore it is a mistake to see "play" as entirely child-engendered.

Frequently, the adult participation starts, or helps sustain, the play so as to include other children to expand its scope and extend its variety.

Adopting the role of "expert play partner", the teacher models various aspects:

The creation of a fantasy using either domestic or familiar scenarios (for example, hospitals, shops and journeys) or drawing upon popular films (Captain Nemo, Shrek or Toy Story).

Setting out the roles - "you be Buzz, Sam can be Woody and I'll be Andy," so that children get the hang of "being another person" - sometimes, excitingly, one with special powers.

Generating the story - demonstrating the ways in which dialogue is used to move the plot along, "Now you say, 'look out! It's behind you!'''

The use of suitable props or small figures with which to act out the plot.

Children really enjoy creating a suitable environment for their fantasy - using materials at hand such as polystyrene packing, paints, card or egg-boxes to make a setting for their figures, or using cloth draped over tables, upside-down chairs and big bricks for the larger context of themselves acting "in role".

In these ways, the initial adult participation may kick-start a fantasy play which is then developed into new and original directions by the children as they act out a film, embed a fairy-tale in "real life" or create their own superheroes.

Experimental-tactile play: This type of play is much easier to generate - you just have to provide materials such as clay, dough, sand and water mixed, or lentils - but can be harder to support. Children are far more likely to spend only a very short time on it, and miss the chance to go beyond a few initial manipulations into real experimentation. The adult role as "expert play partner" is crucial.

Provide a few models of what is possible - a couple of hedgehogs, mice, snakes or igloos made out of dough will stimulate children to start experimenting to make their own.

Make sure the materials are provided in a variety of states with several different tools - some wet clay, some dry, brushes, spatulas, moulds.

Play alongside the children, generating conversation as you play. Talk about the feel, describe how to do different things, give, and more importantly, request instructions. In all these ways, demonstrate the types of interaction you want to encourage during this type of play.

The teacher's role in all types of play is crucial. Children come to school having had a wide variety of differing experiences. Some children will, from birth, have been with adults who assumed the role of expert play partner almost instinctively. Others will not. It is surely the role of nurseries, playgroups and schools to even up the playing field. So we need to get in there, with wet and sandy hands, becoming all manner of characters and engaging in the real work of allowing children to try out different identities and to act in role: "OK, so I'll be Princess Fiona and you can be ..."

Ruth Merttens is co-director of the Hamilton Projects at

* Next week: Learning to learn "on-the-rug"

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