The play's the thing

13th January 2006 at 00:00
Some things just can't be quantified: curiosity, imagination and storytelling, for instance. Michael Duffy reads the case for more child's play in early years learning

Real Kids: creating meaning in everyday life

By Susan M Engel

Harvard Educational Press pound;15.95

My children used to play a game when they were little that their children - my grandchildren - still play. If they had a boiled egg for breakfast, they would eat it quickly, and then mischievously invert the empty shell. We knew exactly what was expected of us. "You haven't even started!" we would say, and would briskly decapitate the apparently untouched egg, and then recoil in mock surprise. Great hilarity ensued. Everyone will recognise some variant of this game. But what is happening when children and their parents play it? What is the extra ingredient - the playfulness, perhaps - that lifts it above the activity that is simply "play"? And what is the significance of the element of pretence - not just that the egg is untouched, but that the adult is surprised?

What Susan Engel shows in this important, timely and highly readable new book is that if we want to understand child development we may need to think more carefully about this sort of question. Psychologists - and teachers - have been too concerned about measuring what children can do to look closely at what they are doing; too focused on children as future adults to study them as children; too concerned with research to recognise that it is through context - the child's unique experience - that early learning happens.

A "tremendous focus on cognitive processes", Engel argues, has drawn our attention away from equally essential aspects of the learning process: curiosity, reflection, imagination and storytelling, and play. Especially play. Yet in the past three years the major journals of developmental psychology have between them published only four articles on this topic.

Perhaps it is because it is hard to pin down with scientific precision.

Perhaps it is because, as a society, we are ever more eager to find ways to get children to "settle down" and "learn". Either way, this author claims, we are in danger of failing to see children as they really are, and hence of misunderstanding the nature of their development.

She presents her argument in five stages. The opening chapter, "What we see and what we miss", outlines her case. It is followed by a comprehensive overview of what child psychologists have learned since Jean Piaget's observations of his three children laid the foundations of the discipline 70 years ago. As she acknowledges, this research is ingenious, convincing and impressive, but the picture it builds up doesn't sufficiently resemble, she says, the child you might encounter in real life. This child - the real child - is above all a social animal, not an individual. Her development, however rapid, is inconsistent and uneven, and her intellectual process is a function of the interaction between her feelings and her reasoning. Is there a better way of observing this process, describing it, and learning from it? The answer, of course - and this is the theme of the central chapters - is to watch and listen while children engage in the activities which, in almost every culture, seem to be most important to them.

Play, and playfulness, is certainly one of these, but it has to be "child's play" rather than play as the experimenter ("Can you put these animals into different groups for me?") describes it. Child's play is different. It moves backwards and forwards, stops and starts, changes frame and context.

In that respect it's very like life. It is, says Susan Engel, "an orientation towards reality". This sort of play becomes less important to children as they reach school age. That is emphatically not so, she argues, for the other essential component, which is storytelling. Like pretend play, stories offer a wonderful window on to the ways in which strong feelings and newly emerging forms of thought come together. Storytelling, in all its manifestations, remains central to how we make sense of our world and communicate with others.

Piaget, the scientist, watching his children playing with objects rather than with each other, measuring their progress towards the adult state, missed much of this. So, Susan Engel says, do we. In a world that sees "child development" and "education" in increasingly instrumental terms - as the process that forms children into the smart, kind, responsible and industrious adults we want them to become - we make less and less room for children as they really are. The implications of this view for early years education are considerable, and in her final chapter she explores them.

Though her standpoint is American - she is a senior lecturer at Williams College, Massachusetts - her questions have uncomfortable resonance in Britain. What message, for example, are we giving to educational psychologists if we rate the ability to score well in tests as the most important part of education? What message are we giving to parents and teachers if we lengthen the school day to make more time for teaching, and set homework tasks to six-year-olds? And what damage are we doing to children's development, in the fullest sense of that word, if we tell them, as an eight-year-old of Susan Engel's acquaintance was told, not to make up stories, but to write "only about things that have happened to us"?

By way of justification, this teacher said that when children put make-believe into their stories, they tend to get lost in the process.

"Their stories are much clearer and better if we hold them to the facts."

As Susan Engel comments, children may use stories not so much to communicate as to think out loud - and it may well be the thinking out loud that ultimately turns them into competent, clear-writing adults. We must be careful, she says, lest we drive the childishness out of childhood.

It is a serious argument, based on solid research and close, affectionate observation. Because it is about young children, it's intriguing and often funny, too. Early years teachers will enjoy it; the pundits who tell us they "know what works" will find - should they read it - some important and challenging perceptions.

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