Fun to be taken seriously

Learning through Play Sand. Water By Avril Harpley and Anne Roberts. Clay and Dough By Lynne Burgess. The Home Corner By Su Garnett Scholastic Pounds 7.99 each

Shafts of insight into the needs of young children illuminate this series of activities for three to five-year-olds. It is good to see sand, water, clay and the home corner still promoted as natural starting points for learning. But why stop at five?

The introductory chapter to each book sets out practical advice and educational principles, keeping jargon to a minimum. Follow-up questions and further extensions for older or more able children take the ideas beyond mere activities. Advice such as being non-judgmental and accepting children's answers to questions, even if they are incorrect, is to be applauded.

The even more important points that "incorrect" answers should be seen as a valuable source of information for assessment and that young children think differently rather than "incorrectly" from adults are, however, overlooked.

It is for this reason that I would advise caution when making use of these books, despite some admirable and imaginative ideas and the evident care with which they have been written. For example, the audience of young teachers and classroom assistants for whom these books were presumably planned, might skip the introductions and go straight into the activities, where the suggested practice has a way of leaving the theory behind.

Much is rightly made of young children's need to explore and play freely with the various materials and the opportunities this presents for assessment. But children need time for this. It may be a good thing that the adult's intervention at this stage is restricted to asking questions about what is happening, what the children have found out, and so on. The children's language and thinking are developing, but so is their self-confidence. To recommend, as one activity does, that the free play stage is restricted to 10 minutes seriously undermines the authors' credibility.

The activities themselves also pose a dilemma. Whatever the fun factor, there is always the danger that children will come to expect entertainment. So, ideas should be used judiciously, rather than as a ready-made curriculum, which tugs the forelock to the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's six areas of learning.

Experienced teachers will ignore such recommendations as mixing black paint and oil in the water trolley to simulate an environmental disaster at sea. They will know that an environmental disaster for most four-year-olds does not encompass oil tankers, but the possibility of ruining a clean shirt. Indeed, it is when the authors extend their material into these areas that they are least convincing; when, for example, they admit that "Younger children may find it difficult to empathise with young turtles". Quite so.

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