Past is part of today's play

8th February 2008 at 00:00
Primary schools are bringing local history alive with a little help from the new foundation phase.

The days of learning the dates of kings and queens parrot fashion are long gone.

Primary pupils are instead being encouraged to engage in history by stepping outside the classroom and studying the world around them - even if it is on their doorsteps.

As the Assembly government prepares to roll out the play-led foundation phase across Wales, more primary school teachers are drawing on the scheme's creative ethos to interest pupils in local and world history.

Pupils at Kitchener Primary School in Cardiff, one of 84 schools piloting the foundation phase, have been studying the Age of Princes, a new history option in the key stage 2 syllabus.

"There aren't many resources for it yet, so we took a class to visit Caerphilly Castle," says Mary Skinner, history co-ordinator at the school. "There was a siege being staged and it really brought the subject to life, especially because they did some work on it beforehand at school."

While field trips have long been an important part of school life, teachers are thinking more closely about the benefits of hands-on activities for their pupils.

"We have lots of children whose first language isn't English, so we do a lot to involve visitors or go to particular places," says Mrs Skinner.

"We're trying to make more of an oral tradition. The skills they gain are definitely transferred to different subjects. They're retaining information and vocabulary and bringing up names they have learnt in other lessons."

Marc Armitage is helping to develop the play aspect of the new foundation phase through his consultancy company, Play People. He cites reminiscence projects as a great way of raising children's awareness of community history.

"It also helps schools with their community focus agenda," he says.

Llanbister Primary School in Powys is one school with a thriving oral history project. Members of the local community are invited to talk about their lives, resulting in tales from the Second World War to farming in Cyprus.

"The local village is our biggest resource," says Andrew Strong, headteacher of Llanbister. "It puts history in a context, so if you meet somebody from across the road who says, 'When I was 20, there was no electricity,' it makes it much more tangible."

While teachers enthuse about the benefits of interactive lessons, some schools remain wary of taking pupils outside school grounds.

Eimion Evans, head of Ysgol Groeslon in Gwynedd, says: "We haven't been doing that many trips recently. Risk assessment is a barrier and there are money issues as well."

However, Mr Evans maintains history can always be found much nearer to home. "We try to speak about local history - for example, the quarries."

Pupils at Puncheston School in Pembrokeshire are taught about famous local figures such as Barti Ddu, the notorious Welsh pirate, who was born two miles from the school in Little Newcastle.

"I have gone out of my way to learn about the local aspects of Pembrokeshire," says Puncheston's head Alun Ifan. "If we don't start on our doorsteps, what's the point of teaching about history anywhere else?"


Claire Humphreys, a teacher at Monnow Junior School in Newport, recently took a Year 6 class on a hands-on historical expedition around South Wales.

The group of 60 pupils visited the National Roman Legion Museum in Caerleon and Cosmeston Medieval Village, in an event organised by the University of Wales, Newport's First Campus scheme. To end the day, pupils were shown Newport's historical buildings to give them a taste of university life.

"I think the experience was worth more than 10 weeks in the classroom," says Miss Humphreys. "The children got to handle artefacts, put on costumes and were encouraged to ask questions."

Building on the ethos of the foundation phase, Monnow follows a "creative curriculum" in which lessons are determined by the children's interests.

"It is a child-led curriculum, so we don't teach specific subjects such as history or art or science," says Miss Humphreys.

"So, although we weren't particularly studying the periods in time from the museums, when we came back we talked about what we'd done and made links to other subjects. We believe any subject can be taught in a creative way."

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