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Footprints tell the real story

A research project on children's play turned out to be an Alice-in-Wonderland experience for Karen James. The Hertfordshire nursery teacher decided to study the fantasy games that her pupils were creating and was soon sucked into a world that she had only glimpsed before.

Aspects of the children's play, such as their jubilant responses to murder, were initially shocking and destroyed any notions of sentimentality she might have harboured. But she was also struck by how children taking part in role-play created and abided by their own sets of rules.

"I've been privileged to enter a magical world of children's play," she writes in a paper to be published in a forthcoming issue of Teacher Development that will be devoted to teachers' research.

"Young children interact in astonishing ways as they seek to solve the endless problems that surround them."

She quickly noticed how different boys' and girls' "performances" were.

Boys were generally louder and tended to shout out short, dramatic sentences ("It's not a trap") while girls spoke more ("You're my big sister; I'm your big sister: we're both big sisters.") But she gained her greatest insight when she turned down the sound on her video-recording of the children's games. "Scenes that confused me became clearer when I looked closely. I realised that young children often express themselves through physical means with greater eloquence than through their verbal interactions.

"I saw the footprints on the floor become the text of children's play and the hand movements become the dialogue in a joint forum of novice and master players." The special issue of the journal, featuring papers written by teachers, is being edited by Sue Brindley of Cambridge University, who has been working closely with Lesley Saunders, the General Teaching Council's policy adviser for research.

"We want to begin a process of encouraging teachers to be both producers and users of journal papers," says Sue Brindley. "And we particularly want to produce a journal that is accessible, lively, engaging and relevant to teachers' needs and interests."

The special issue of Teacher Development will be available in September, price pound;12, from Triangle Journals, PO Box 65, Wallingford, Oxford OX10 0YG

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