Play is vital as brains develop

8th August 2008 at 01:00

As a retired teacher, I support the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) in principle, but am appalled by the form it has taken, which is to impose the audit culture on young children in a way that will damage their ability to learn ("Teachers hail `nappy' plan", TES, August 1).

In the past, teachers did not receive early years training, so most of the current workforce has not explored this very different area. The point is that, as children's brains develop, the older structures unfold before the more recent: the reptilian brain develops first, up until 4, then the limbic, emotional brain, up until 7. These are sub-cortical areas; the sub-cortex has to achieve all the physiological development that is fundamental to later growth, and is also packed with species information to be selected according to culture, location etc, whereas the cortex is an action facility waiting to be filled.

During this pre-cortical period, growth occurs fast and in complex ways, and the right hemisphere dominates, meaning that this is achieved holistically and holographically, every input resonating throughout the whole. Nature, ingeniously, gave us the desire to play, which ensures a natural progression of all the complex, interrelated and co-ordinated physical and mental issues with maximum ease.

The child can be forced to work in a left hemispheric way, but this will be at the expense of vital functions that nature intended to be set in place first. For example, imagination is a sub-cortical function that establishes a neural foundation for the cortical skill of intellect. Without it, intellect will lack depth and wisdom.

The central objection to the EYFS is control. The phrases "structured play", "directed play" and "purposeful play" are adult-centric and indicate a lack of awareness of the fundamental sub-cortical nature of play: it has to flow from inside out. The moment adults try to direct it, the delicate learning process collapses. To give an example of the nature of holographic learning, the only way to teach a child to listen is to listen, genuinely, to the child, who will then reproduce that. If you tell a child to listen, they learn to expect control and to attempt to control others. Equally serious for our culture, they relate listening to anticipating not receiving.

At age 7, the left hemisphere becomes dominant, nature's green flag to plunge into cortical development. Children learn easily, rapidly, and joyfully. Some, like Einstein, who read at 8, may be slower; if so, they need more play, music and stories, not less. Sadly, our government has not understood this concept, unlike Finland (top of the literacy league), which forbids any cognitive work before the age of 7. The Welsh EYFS, put together much more responsibly over 5 years' research, does the same.

Grethe Hooper Hansen, Bath.

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