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An ocean in a puddle

In a child's imagination, anything is possible. Diane Hofkins visits a Croydon primary where teachers look for ways that children can learn through the power of play

At Ridgeway primary school in Croydon, the principles of the foundation stage come naturally. Young children move freely between the classroom and the outdoor play areas. A puddle becomes the sea to a childish mind, and teachers join in, encouraging a boy to paddle in the ocean shallows.

"One of the things we value is children as independent learners," says headteacher Anna House. "We're not handing it to them on a plate, but expecting them to use the learning environment. Children learn through play."

Skilled teachers at the 600-pupil school tap into children's interests, and find ways to extend their learning. For instance, nursery staff, seeing some boys playing football, gave them a whiteboard and pen for keeping score. The children enthusiastically wrote their own names and every time a goal was scored they rushed over to record it.

"It shows the relationship between play and learning," says foundation stage leader Anna Skinner.

Another boy, Joseph, was interested in building and frequently made things out of bricks, so his teachers took him to a roadworks site to see real building materials and men at work.

As children play, teachers watch for ways to encourage them into deeper learning, bearing in mind the child's stage of development and the Government's foundation stage guidance. As Natalie builds a house, for instance, the teacher thinks about the early learning goals for each of the six areas of experience to see which activities might help Natalie to advance.

Teachers draw up a Plod (Possible Lines of Direction) for every child; it changes as the children do. There are also Plods for different types of activities. For instance, the Plod for super-heroes in nursery classes brings in role play and model-making under creative development; helping people comes under personal and social development; and time comes under mathematical development - "How many super things can you do in a minute?"

Meanwhile, a reception class Plod for football brings in ball control under physical development; books on football come under language and literacy; and being part of a team comes under personal and social development. The "knowledge of the world" element asks, "Which countries do football teams come from?" and "Why are balls round? Try out different shapes."

The concept of Plods was developed at the pioneering Pen Green early childhood centre in Corby, Northamptonshire.

Unusually for a primary headteacher, Anna House is a former nursery head.

She has extended the sort of philosophy underpinning the foundation stage guidance throughout the school: "I always knew that the principles on which you built the early years were right for the primary phase," she says.

Building good relationships, providing open-ended challenges and helping children to make connections are key concepts at Ridgeway.

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