Take an unlucky five-year-old. At an age younger than the vast majority of children in Europe, he is plunged into full-time formal school. The building blocks and sandpits of his playgroup and nursery class have disappeared.
For the next 13 years he will be a conscript in the most tested pupil army in the world. The head of his school is not an early years specialist, but is conscious of league table scores. His teacher is under pressure to get the children reading and writing. The reception classroom environment is arid - desks, chairs, worksheets - and play becomes something that happens outside on an equally arid patch of concrete. The boy struggles to learn, finds it difficult to sit still, let alone hold a pencil. He doesn't talk much because what is there to say about worksheets? He becomes anxious and withdrawn. He doesn't like school, he would much rather be playing.
Too stressed to learn
This dismal scenario is driving a growing rebellion in English primary schools. Accounts abound of infants bored or distressed by being drilled for tests, and of music, art, PE - and fun - being squeezed out of the timetable. Exam stress is affecting more than one in two seven-year-olds, according to a survey carried out late last year for the Liberal Democrats.
Some children lose their appetite, some start wetting the bed, while others become forgetful and depressed. The party's survey of 147 schools also showed that 68 per cent of teachers believe tests at such a young age are not good for pupils. A recent TES survey (April 25) showed that one in five seven-year-olds spend so much time revising that they have less time to play with friends. By the age of 11, two-thirds show symptoms of stress as they revise for national tests.
Other research backs up the feeling that too formal too soon is counterproductive. Caroline Sharp of the National Foundation for Educational Research concluded last year that "the best available evidence suggests that teaching more formal skills early in school gives children an initial academic advantage, but that this advantage is not sustained. . .
an early introduction to a formal curriculum may increase anxiety and have a negative impact on children's self-esteem and motivation to learn".
Such alarming findings have put learning through play back on the primary agenda, to the relief of its great champions in the early years sector. In February, Welsh education minister Jane Davidson proposed that key stage 1 be swept away and replaced by a play-based foundation phase for three to seven-year-olds. Many early years teachers in England yearn for such action, and a campaign is gathering steam, supported by the National Union of Teachers and the Liberal Democrats.
Tina Bruce, visiting professor at London Metropolitan University and author of books on young children and play, talks of a sea change supported by David Bell, the chief inspector. "We are beginning to get some understanding that children in key stage 1 are often quite unhappy and we are not producing the goods at age 11 with this formal didactic transmission model approach. Children don't enjoy school in the way we know they can."
In the early years, she says, the brain is geared up to language and play, to communication and movement. "It is madness to sit children down at tables. It is actually stopping them from learning. Good creative writing and scientific thinking come out of first-hand experience. We are closing down learning, and the evidence is there because children at 11 are unable to write creative stories."
Two years ago, Margaret Edgington, an early years consultant, petitioned MPs to protect the new play-based foundation stage for three to five-year-olds against the formality of key stage 1. She agrees things are moving forwards. Baseline tests of five-year-olds were abolished last September and progress is now assessed using the foundation "profile". This is built up over a year and based entirely on observation. "More headteachers are aware of the foundation stage," she says, "and Ofsted is looking out for evidence of good play."
Children need play as the route into learning until at least age seven, she says, so tests at key stage 1 must go and play-based learning be extended.
And if Professor Bruce had her way tests would go at key stage 2 as well,"but we don't talk about that yet. . . "
In 1905, a Board of Education inspector painted a grim picture of infant school life. "Let us follow the baby of three years through part of one day of school life. He is placed on a hard wooden seat with a desk in front of him and a window behind, which is too high up. He often cannot reach the floor with his feet and in many cases has no back to lean against. He is told to fold his arms and sit quietly. He is surrounded by a large number of other babies all under similar alarming and incomprehensible conditions.
. . He usually spends the first day or two in tears. . . A blackboard has been produced and hieroglyphics are drawn upon it by the teacher. At a given signal every child in the class begins calling out the mysterious sounds: 'Letter A, letter A. . . ' I have actually heard a baby class repeat one sound 120 times continuously."
Such inhumane treatment opened the door to the ideas of the great figures in the early years world: Friedrich Froebel, Maria Montessori and Jean Piaget. They stressed the importance of manipulative experiences for young children and the dangers of too early a launch into the world of symbols.
They created toys for children to use in their instructive play. "Children must master the language of things before they master the language of words," said Froebel, who believed youngsters must be free to follow their own interests. He was supported in the 1930s by Piaget, who argued that young children learn from their own spontaneous exploration, and that concepts such as volume and weight cannot be formally taught by adults.
A contrasting note was struck by the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky.
Research released late last year backs his belief that infants only fully realise their abilities with the help of adults to guide them and "model" appropriate behaviour. Vygotsky, who died in 1934, emphasised the teacher's role more than the other three educationists, who were happy to leave much of a child's learning to the child.
Piaget ruled in the child-centred 1960s and 1970s. It was accepted that the under-fives did most, if not all, their learning through freely chosen and self-directed play. The nursery teacher's role was to ensure they had appropriate toys and activities to choose from. But some were starting to question just how free "free" play should be, sparking a debate that is still continuing. Teachers began to be encouraged to intervene in children's play and to talk to them more to develop their language.
By 2000 Margaret Hodge, then early years minister, had declared: "I am fed up of hearing how unstructured play and free activity are all a young child needs." The Conservatives and New Labour both set goals and targets for the under-fives. Mrs Hodge's draft proposals for nursery education drove 16 of the Government's 18 early excellence centres to rebel. They argued, with some success, that the Government was trying to get the under-fives to do too much too soon - though, by then, most were offering their children something more complex than merely "free" play.
Good play, bad play?
According to Margaret Edgington, many nursery staff say they believe in play, but they do not necessarily understand it. "The open-ended nature of it, the lack of control, can leave them feeling uneasy. A piece of paper with some marks on it at least gives you some 'proof' that 'learning' has taken place."
The foundation stage, introduced in 2000, emphasises learning and teaching, in that order. The children lead the way and the teaching is "indirect".
Professor Bruce says adults should not take over play so that it becomes overstructured. "Then it isn't play any more. It has become an adult task."
Nevertheless, she says, "we are not talking about no structure. The foundation stage is a highly structured approach, one that gives children the freedom to develop their own ideas." Good teachers recognise the "fine line" between supporting and extending play without taking control.
Sustained shared thinking
Drawing this fine line is not easy. "It is not enough, as many early years staff believe, to create a stimulating environment and let the children play. Staff need to teach the children, which means modelling appropriate language and behaviour, sharing intelligent conversations, asking questions and using play to motivate and encourage them," concluded researchers late last year, in an influential report on effective pedagogy in the early years.
"It has caught the imagination of local authorities because it gives staff an idea of what early years teaching looks like," says Professor Iram Siraj-Blatchford of the Institute of Education, who led the project with Professor Kathy Sylva of Oxford University (see resources). Play is an important medium for children, she says, and they will continue to develop if left to play in a rich environment. "But the reality is that pre-school educators are being paid to help children move forward. While it might be all right to let more middle-class youngsters just get on with it, children who arrive with half their language skills need more support."
Under-fives did best in terms of cognitive development in settings such as nursery schools where there was a good balance between child and adult-initiated activities, and where well-qualified staff were skilled in "extending" or developing the children's activities. Free play was on the menu, but so were more focused group activities.
The best settings also promoted "shared sustained thinking" between adults and children, and between the children themselves. Encouraging conversation through role-play games such as doctors and patients was one way, asking open-ended questions was another - though even in the best centres only one in 20 questions to children was open-ended.
Wales leads the way
When young children play, it is their work. This echo of Maria Montessori appears in the Welsh Assembly's consultation document on the foundation phase. Jane Davidson's drive for a more child-centred approach to three to seven-year-olds was inspired by visits to countries, including Cuba, where the early years agenda is focused on child development.
Ms Davidson says there is evidence that children need more time for well-planned play and less time sitting working at tables. Their language, creativity, self-reliance and decision-making skills are suffering. "It is all about teaching children how to listen, how to talk, how to engage with each other, how to express emotion, how to develop confidence. It is not that we don't want any kind of structure, it's that we want the right kind."
The subtleties of how best to plan and structure children's play would be anathema to the world's most famous progressive school. Summerhill, set up by A S Neill in 1921, is the oldest children's democracy in the world, where rules are set and reviewed weekly by pupils and staff. Lessons are optional and the pupils are free to play how they like and as much as they like. Their creative and imaginative activities are seen as an essential part of childhood, not something to be redirected or undermined by adults in pursuit of learning experiences.
That horrifies Zoe Readhead, daughter of A S Neill, and current principal of the Suffolk school. Her nightmare is the school inspector "going up to children in a sandpit and saying, 'Oh, that's really interesting, and how much more does that bit of sand weigh than that bit', and then telling us it's a really good learning experience, but we should be monitoring it and cataloguing it. We really don't go there. Play is for the kids, it is what they want to do and we just keep right out of it."
Ms Readhead is well aware of the educational benefits of play. "We have learned in 80 or so years of freedom that there are a lot more learning experiences in so-called play than the establishment imagines." Take Warhammer, she says. This strategy war game, which involves armies, monsters, orcs and the undead, is popular with the older children. "The kids love it and it involves strategic planning, and helps their literacy when they read about the characters, and their fine motor skills when they paint the models. But that doesn't affect the way I feel about it. I don't think, 'Oh goodie, that is going to improve so-and-so's literacy skills'."
Teenagers need play, just as much as the under-fives. There is tremendous learning going on in a group of young people who are just "hanging out", says Ms Readhead. "There's interaction and personal relationships, and the exchange of information and knowledge, maybe about a film they saw last week. Even idle chat between teenagers can be a huge learning experience."
So what happens to children who grow up free to play? Most Summerhillians go on to further study. They tend to be creative thinkers with quick minds, says Ms Readhead. They often make good entrepreneurs as well as architects, artists, professors, gardeners, carers and chefs. An ex-pupil wrote recently: "We are the sort of people that Tony Blair would love. We're sociable, we're honest, we're law-abiding, we're not trouble-makers and we are just really good citizens."
Zoe Readhead says the Summerhill message is again being heeded, particularly in terms of pupil power. "There is a real swing and so much more interest," she says. "Summerhill raises questions that are good to be raised."
Her view on the fear that tests at seven are stultifying children is simple: "Well, bravo. Finally they've noticed."