Plea for play hits all the right notes

10th September 2004 at 01:00
THE PLAY ETHIC: A MANIFESTO FOR A DIFFERENT WAY OF LIVING. By Pat Kane. Macmillan pound;12.99

CULTIVATING CREATIVITY IN BABIES, TODDLERS AND YOUNG CHILDREN. By Tina Bruce. Hodder amp; Stoughton pound;14.99

A WELL-TEMPERED MIND: USING MUSIC TO HELP CHILDREN LISTEN AND LEARN. By Peter Perret and Janet Fox. Dana Press pound;16.50

In the film The Sound of Music, Maria (Julie Andrews) famously takes down the nursery curtains to make play clothes for the stern captain's seven children. It's a subversive act for, as the housekeeper tells her: "Von Trapp children do not play - they march!"

It's surprising that Pat Kane doesn't invoke Maria - the ultimate playful adult ("a flibbertigibbet, a will o' the wisp, a clown") - in support of his thesis, for he drags in just about everyone else. His richly exotic index, in fact, reads like one of those knowingly clever songs by Noel Coward; the Ds alone include Bobby Darin, Rene Descartes, Dilbert, the Dixie Chicks and Greg Dyke.

Kane's entertaining roller-coaster ride of a book strives to define a counter to the "work ethic", and to give it a philosophical underpinning, illustrated by reference to people and groups who are reaching for, or have achieved, a playful life of unbridled creativity. Take Sarah, for example, "a tall, chin-forward woman in her early thirties".

"'Of course,' she announced, cigarette already aloft, 'you have a slightly wobbly moment about whether you'll get the next gig - whoops, hold on.' Her mobile phone rang: it was a London product designer." (No wonder Julie Andrews hasn't made it into Kane's universe. What chance does she have against the cool Sarah with her "gel-flipped hair"?) To the teacher who reads them, some of Kane's ideas are already received wisdom, but it's still good to see them reiterated. "Education has always prepared children for 'society'," he writes. "Yet 'society' has never been prepared for truly educated children."

Kane detects real hope in the way educators strive to inject passion and vision into the nuts and bolts of their work. He finds The TES (which he read over six months as part of his research) "inspiring". It has "human capaciousness". There are "so many experts straining to translate their findings into useable tools for pressured teachers".

Kane knows there are too many people out there who really do think life is a serious business that's not workin' if it ain't hurtin'. The scary thought (which he avoids) is that it just might be their seriousness that gives the rest of us the playful freedom he's so passionate about.

Kane, you imagine, would approve of the current drive to get more creativity into the curriculum. He'd certainly nod at Tina Bruce's notion in Cultivating Creativity of the child's right to play. "Whilst they play, children prepare, simmer and illuminate ideas."

There are always doubts about any earnest attempt to corral and closely define a concept such as creativity. Nevertheless, it's an area where teachers - especially those trained in the grey 1990s - need lots of practical help, and that's what Professor Bruce sets out to provide.

She begins by demolishing some myths - creativity isn't necessarily about genius, or just to do with the arts, or only displayed in performance. She goes on to give guidance about nurturing individual children, about building a creative environment and about the crucial role of adults. (How many parents worry that their child has a teacher who's not picking up on obvious signs of creativity?) There are good photographs that illustrate points in the text. Professor Bruce is strong on the idea that creativity isn't just about painting and singing.

In A Well-Tempered Mind (a reference to Bach's ground-breaking "Well-Tempered Clavier"), the authors put flesh on the feeling shared by all music teachers that the experience of music enhances thought and learning in unexpected directions, well beyond the simple act of enjoying the sound.

The book describes work in the United States: the Bolton Project, in which a group of musicians regularly visited Bolton elementary, an under-performing school in North Carolina. They played music to the children and encouraged responses that improved thinking skills, abstract reasoning and communication. Over two years, test scores improved and the school moved out of its "at risk" status.

The book describes the project and many of the individual lessons and children's reactions in detail. It's exciting stuff and necessary reading for all who are battling to ensure the place of music in the school curriculum.

See next week's TES for a free 24-page supplement on creativity

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