All work and no play make pupils worse off

12th February 2016 at 00:00
As the attainment gap widens and more pupils access mental health services, one expert argues that it’s time to adopt a radical new approach to the early years

Here are two facts that worry the Scottish government. First, despite all efforts by the teaching profession to narrow the attainment gap in the three Rs, it’s actually widening. Second, there’s a growing crisis in Scotland’s child and adolescent mental health services – clinicians simply cannot cope with the number of referrals.

And here’s a connection between these facts that politicians don’t seem to have noticed: our children aren’t playing enough.

Active outdoor play has been in decline for decades and now even very young children spend much of their leisure time staring at screen-based devices. As this becomes their default activity, children’s inborn drive to run, jump, climb, explore and expand their understanding of the real world and real people is steadily extinguished; they become dependent on ready-made entertainment.

Since play is nature’s way of ensuring healthy development of both body and brain, this means that the current generation of youngsters is missing out on experiences essential for physical health and fitness, social competence, emotional well-being and the capacity to flourish in the educational system (and later, the workplace). In the past, we could assume that children were out playing with their pals around the edges of the school day, at weekends and in the holidays. Now we can’t.

So here’s a simple suggestion from a campaign called Upstart Scotland ( We should raise the starting age for formal schooling and introduce a play-based stage for children between the ages of 3 and 7, providing opportunities for active, creative, self-directed play (as often as possible outdoors), as well as art, drama, music and stories. Not only would this give children time and space to play – and want to go on playing as they grow older – it would also lay down the developmental foundations on which lifelong wellbeing and learning depends.

There’s no shortage of evidence that a play-based approach in the early years pays educational dividends. On the international front, countries with long-established kindergarten systems regularly top the educational charts. In the OECD’s (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) most recent education review, the three highest-scoring western nations were Finland, Estonia and Switzerland, none of which start formal schooling till children are 7.

Research also shows that there is nothing to gain from an earlier start – any initial advantage in the three Rs tends to “wash out” by the time children reach secondary level. On the other hand – as studies illustrate – when play time is limited, there are likely to be adverse consequences on health and wellbeing.

The Perry Project in Michigan, US, followed a large group of disadvantaged children over 30 years. Those who started formal education at 4 or 5 had more problems in school than those who learned through play for a couple of years longer, and in adulthood the early starters were more likely to be involved in crime, have problems with relationships and have difficulty holding down a job. The Longevity Project, which followed a middle-class cohort of Californians (“intelligent and good learners”) for 80 years, concluded that early formal education was correlated with less impressive educational outcomes, poorer mid-life adjustment and more health problems, including earlier death.

Curriculum for Excellence recognises the significance of all-round child development for health, wellbeing and educational success. However, the developmental principles that underpin the early level of CfE are seldom translated into practice – a fact that Upstart attributes to deeply entrenched cultural beliefs. Scotland’s very early school-starting age, which it shares with only 12 per cent of nations worldwide (all, incidentally, ex-members of the British Empire), means that parents expect children to start learning the three Rs at the age of four or five, and schools expect to start teaching them.

Indeed, many parents now want their offspring reading and writing well before school starts. Nurseries have responded to this by becoming ever more “schoolified”. And so, between the highly-structured, schoolified agenda of nursery and early primary, and the highly commercialised, largely sedentary activities available at home, “real play” is being squeezed out of young children’s lives. And with it go physical self-confidence and control, social adjustment, emotional resilience and creativity.

The introduction of national tests for five-year-olds will only exacerbate this problem. In its recent review of CfE, the OECD urged the Scottish government to act boldly to “narrow the gap and raise the bar”. In the circumstances, more testing seems less like a bold response than a displacement activity. A genuinely brave gesture would be to buck the trend and take practical steps to transform cultural attitudes to early education.

The introduction of a kindergarten stage wouldn’t affect children’s entitlement to state-funded care and education before the age of 7, but it could – at a stroke – change its ethos. It could ensure that the CfE’s early level is based on holistic, child-centred educational practice, as opposed to the more academic approach of formal schooling.

Upstart Scotland is already gaining support from parents, early-years practitioners, teachers and academics, not to mention professionals from psychology, medicine, social work and the criminal justice system, all of whom can see the long-term advantages of a kindergarten system for the under-7s. As evidence continues to mount, politicians will have to take note of the state of play.

If they genuinely want Scotland to be the best place in the world to grow up, it’s time for a culture change in early-years education.

Sue Palmer is a former teacher, a literacy specialist and author of Toxic Childhood and Detoxing Childhood. Her new book, Upstart, will be published in June

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