No soft spot for creative play

Author of Jolly Phonics stirs the debate over how to introduce nursery children to learning

MORE FORMAL teaching and less play-based learning for pre-school children could help them settle in better when they start Year 1, says the creator of a popular approach to literacy teaching.

The comments by Sara Wernham, co-author of Jolly Phonics, will intensify the debate about how to teach four-year-olds. While many teachers and parents have complained that British schools hurry children into formal education, inspectors and academics warn that play-based learning in some schools is becoming simply play.

Ms Wernham said: "At the moment, we put four-year-olds in the middle of a very busy area with hundreds of things going on around them and expect them to concentrate on one thing. If you had enough adults it might work, but most schools don't have enough to have one adult working with every group of children.

"If reception year children are doing something that needs quiet and concentration, why can't they have it?"

Ms Wernham said that the popular approach to the foundation stage curriculum, in which children choose from many different activities on offer, is not to every teacher's taste. "Not everybody likes an all singing, all dancing classroom," she said. "It doesn't mean they are a bad teacher."

She said that where no formal teaching was done in the reception year, children found it difficult to cope in Year 1 as they felt disconcerted by having to do work set by their teacher and no longer being able to choose activities.

The influential Effective Provision of Pre-School Education project has found that the best nurseries spend almost twice as much time (14 per cent) on literacy activities, and less time on creative play, than satisfactory nurseries.

An Ofsted survey earlier this year found standards in communication, language and literacy were low in one in three nurseries. But it found this was the case both where children played with little adult support and where lessons were too formal, with four-year-olds expected to sit and listen - in one case for up to 45 minutes - or complete worksheets.

Other early years specialists say the push to have formal teaching in reception should be resisted.

Gail Bedford, a former primary headteacher who is an early years advisor for Guernsey, said: "Children in reception have the right to that foundation stage curriculum that early years practioners have fought so hard for. It is based on research and hard evidence about structured play activities. It changed the thinking that you can just dilute the national curriculum and put it in reception.

"Children who have less play and more desk activities won't be getting sound foundations to learning.

"You can tell a child that three and two makes five and they will memorise that. But a child who doesn't have the chance to play with cubes at an early stage of development to find out how three and two makes five, won't have any foundation for their learning. It is crucial for children to have the right experiences when they are five or six."

The play-based foundation stage curriculum was introduced six years ago. It is due to be replaced by the early years foundation stage curriculum in 2008, but the guidance for teaching three to five-year-olds is much the same.


Marj Newbury, head of the foundation stage at Byron primary in Bradford, which serves a mostly non-English speaking community and has a three-form entry, is very clear about striking a balance between play and formal learning in reception.

Ms Newbury, who is also a Jolly Phonics trainer, said children learnt English primarily through play with areas such as a phone box, shops, or mini-worlds where children have to speak and negotiate with each other.

"We have strands of formal progressive teaching in and among foundation stage teaching. Children play with sand, water, playdough, cutting and sticking, they can go and read, go and role play. But we have formal teaching times as well. We have a literacy session for 20 minutes every day, a numeracy session, a topic session, and a story at the end of the day."

The formal sessions evolve throughout the year to match children's maturity and to prepare them for Year 1.

"Some people have issues with understanding that you can do formal teaching within the foundation stage without it harming children," she said. "I think it can inspire children's play."

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