Role-play is an excellent way of developing language and social skills. But how can children make the most of it when they have so little experience of the adult world? Sue Palmer reports on a scheme that has the answer taped
One morning in 1998, Sue Marshall waved goodbye to her husband as he set off for a charity golf tournament. He never came home. During the match he suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 44. Sue, a year younger, was left with four children aged 11 to 17.
Bob Marshall, an agricultural auctioneer, had been an immensely popular man in their home town of Ross-on-Wye in Herefordshire; so popular that 900 people turned up for his funeral. They spilled out of the church and flooded the town centre. This huge public show of affection made Sue realise that "it's not what you take out that matters in this world, it's what you give. It's the difference you make to people's lives while you're here that counts".
The funeral over, she concentrated on her family. Bob had left them well provided for; the mortgage was paid off and there was insurance money, so they were free from financial worries. But Sue wanted that money to do something worthwhile. With hindsight, she says it was inevitable that it would be connected with early years education.
She had been fascinated by the subject since her children were small; so fascinated that in 1987 she left her job as a legal secretary to attend a playgroup course, and opened a small nursery group in their home, originally with just 14 children. She later took a Montessori course, a degree in early childhood education at University College Worcester and finally, in 1996, an early years Ofsted qualification. Before Bob died, the Marshalls had built an extension and Sue was running a full-scale nursery school, called Oak House, with 46 pupils. Now she threw herself into this work while she thought about what to do next.
"All I knew was that I was worried by the early age that children were starting schoolwork in reception, particularly the boys," she says. "People say, 'Oh, they'll cope', but they shouldn't have to cope."
British children have always started school early compared to most other countries (at five, rather than six or seven), but in the past 10 years, it's been getting earlier. Changes to funding in the 1990s have encouraged headteachers to get "bums on seats" as early as possible and, in England, the demands of the national strategies and the foundation profile mean schools increasingly admit children to reception classes at the start of the school year in which they are five. For some summer-born children, that is just days after their fourth birthday, which is young to be starting traditional literacy activities.
Sue Marshall believed reception and key stage 1 teachers needed resources to develop children's language and interest in literacy skills in ways that excited and interested them. She knew from her academic studies that the best way to help children develop spoken language was through high quality role-play, which could also offer opportunities for developing reading and writing skills. But she also knew this was under-exploited.
One key problem is that role-playing a part - for example, the postman in the class post office - demands that children know what postmen do, talk about and read and write within the context of their job. "But how can they learn these things? You can take them around the local sorting office, but visits are difficult, with risk assessments and staffing requirements.
Anyway, when you go on a trip, you don't always get to see what you want, or the children notice all the 'wrong' things. Or the person who tells them about it doesn't engage them. Or by the time you're back in school, they've forgotten the details."
She realised the answer lay in video. She could bring real life into the classroom by filming a postman going about his daily business, editing out all the boring bits, and showing it to the children. After they had watched, they could talk about it. And the teacher could drop in an idea:
"Wouldn't it be great to set up our own post office? What do you think we'd need? Shall we watch again, and make a list?"
In 2002, Sue remarried. Her new husband, Martin Firman, is a business consultant. Now she had defined her "worthwhile idea", Martin and her son Oliver helped set up a company, Early Vision, and Sue and a group of early years professionals set to work. For two years, they have been taping the working people of Ross-on-Wye: postmen, garage mechanics, vets, pet shop assistants, hairdressers, dentists. For the police video they managed to get the whole of the West Mercia emergency services to stage a traffic accident with an emergency response team.
The videos feature the typical language of the job concerned and give children a chance to see real-life reading and writing in action; appointment books, paperwork, signs, labels and so on. The first three videos, carefully edited, come with a CD of songs and support materials for setting up role-play areas, and are now on sale. The proceeds will be ploughed back into more projects.
Sue's mission to make the wider world understandable to young minds is, like the everyday lives her videos depict, finally being realised. "I'm so keen on this idea," she says. "I know it can make a difference."
For more information, contact Early Vision: 01989 567353 or www.earlyvision.co.uk
AT YOUR SERVICE
A short cameo from Early Vision's "The Garage" video: Scene County Tyres and Batteries.
We focus on the garage sign, then a car draws up and the mechanic comes out to greet the driver.
Customer Good morning. I've brought my car for a check over.
Mechanic Good morning, Sir. Through here please. If you'd just pop the bonnet for me.
Customer (Opening bonnet) Do you want me to start the engine?
Mechanic Yes please, Sir. (Customer starts the engine and lets it run for a short while, then switches off again, gets out of the car and walks round to the front.) Customer Can you check my oil?
Mechanic Check your oil's still in action? Ermm. Needs about half a litre or so.
Customer Could you put some in for me?
Mechanic Of course, Sir. And the battery? (He checks it.) Battery's fine.
Now I'll check the water. Water's fine.
Customer That's good.
Mechanic Water for your windscreen washers? (He brings water to fill the container.) Here we go. If I could just check these work.
Customer Do you want me to get in the car? (Customer gets in the car and switches on the wipers.) Mechanic Thank you, Sir. That's great. I'll just check your lights for you.
Could you do headlights? (Driver switches lights on and off as instructed) OK. Main beam... OK. And the rear lights... Brake lights... that's great.
Indicators... OK. And reversing lights... that's great.
Customer Thank you.
Mechanic OK. If I could just get you to sign this form, Sir.