Relax and let the bairns play again

20th February 2004 at 00:00
The atmosphere in primary classrooms has become far too testing for tots and teachers, says John Muir

Your feature, "Put the play back into learning" (Scotland Plus, January 16), highlighting the advantages of having more play and creativity in the infant classroom, must have raised a few eyebrows among teachers, particularly those trained in the 1960s and 1970s.

Hard slog and testing for tots has been the order of the day recently, with pre-school education now dominated by the same plethora of planning and paperwork that has depressed primary staff. Is this "new" approach going to be the saviour of primary teachers, a means of making them feel 10 years younger, as Doris Alan of East Ayrshire's New Farm primary claims?

Now where had I heard all this before? I thought I had thrown out my copy of Primary Education in Scotland (the Primary Memorandum, the bible for primary teachers from 1965 onwards). I dusted it off (noticing that it cost an expensive 10s 6d in those days) and there it was:

"(The five-year-old's) . . . characteristic mode of learning is play, through which he assimilates past experience and approaches new ones . . .

"Play should not be regarded as the antipathy of work . . . It is through play that a child tests and becomes aware of his own physical powers . . .

"For this first year at school, the day will consist of fairly long periods of self chosen activities . . . It is during these periods of play that the teacher can observe the children closely, notice those who are already fluent in speech and detect those who have little to say and require special encouragement."

The Primary Memorandum fell out of favour in the late 1970s, if not before, but did we throw out the baby with the bath water? The idea that play was something pupils did only after they had "done their work" was reinforced by a number of practitioners and not a few politicians, as the curriculum was reviewed and the gospel of the 5-14 development programme was preached.

Yet over these years, the more enlightened educationists were not afraid to remind teachers that "all work and no play" made more than Jack a dull pupil.

In 1989, Janet Moyles waved the flag in her book Just Playing - The Role and Status of Play in Early Childhood Education, setting out all the reasons why play should not be dismissed as an optional extra to "work" on "the basics" and putting such activity in the centre of the learning experience.

She suggests that the adult's view that play is a reward for work, something which they do for relaxation, has resulted in the downgrading of play in the curriculum. But she reminds us that in the classroom "children play to encounter reality: adults play to avoid it".

Even more recently, we only need to look at Play in the Primary Curriculum (edited by Hall and Abbott) to realise that play was being actively promoted for teachers. While it is written with the English national curriculum in mind, the content is valid in the Scottish context. The authors express the fears of many teachers that the demands of the new curriculum would lead to stress among teachers and a move away from the pleasures of play for pupils in the classroom.

Supporting the key issues raised in the previous two publications I have referred to, Hall and Abbott state: "If we want to foster and encourage the more general disposition towards learning, we shall have to have the courage to let children play and then to follow, support and extend their ideas and intentions in whatever direction they lead."

Above all, they maintain that play not only allows many opportunities for pupils to learn across the curriculum, but also provides teachers with an ideal context to understand the children in their charge.

There is nothing quite like nostalgia to lighten a dreary day in the staffroom. As I look back on education over the past three decades, I am the first to admit that "the good old days" did not really exist. However, as we see stressed-out staff and frequent readvertisements of promoted posts (despite the post-McCrone settlement), perhaps it is time to examine where we are going and to admit that some of the approaches valued in the past might just be worth a second look.

It is not only time to let the bairns play a bit more in order to learn but to allow overworked teachers more time to relax with them in the classroom.

If the Kilmarnock approach is rolled out across the country along with early intervention, maybe teachers will be asking to work to 70 instead of joining the queue to get out as soon as they reach 50.

John Muir is a quality development officer with Highland Council.

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