Let the children play, and watch independent learning flourish

17th June 2016 at 00:00
Some in education are skeptical about the benefits of play and possibility of independent learning in early years, but this teacher argues it is the best way to ensure that children are learners for life

After a busy morning, Thomas had a growing appetite. He speedily took off his gallant knight costume, placed it back on the hanger in the role-play area and headed straight to the snack shack to fill up his tummy, ahead of his next exciting challenge.

As Thomas approached, he could see a selection of fresh fruit that the teaching assistant had placed in a large glass bowl. Thomas self-selected a ceramic plate and real knife from the shelf and headed to the round table to sit down alongside two other children.

Diligently taking the fruit from the bowl, Thomas used a knife to cut up bananas, oranges and apples to create his final masterpiece – a fruit salad!

Following a lengthy discussion with his friends about what they planned to do next, Thomas picked up his empty plate, placed it in the washing up bowl and used the brush to give it a good clean. He gave his friend the nod to signal he was happy for him to help dry up the plate with a tea-towel. Once the children were confident that all the resources had been placed away correctly, they headed off to the Mister Maker creative area to design and build the all-important swords for their knights and dragon’s role play.

I stood back with a smile on my face. Thomas and his friend, both five years old, had clearly demonstrated independent learning and vast amounts of sustained shared thinking, too. It was what our Reception unit had been designed to do: to enable children to explore the way in which they learn best, to ensure the development of the characteristics of effective learning, and to help our children to become self-regulated learners. Thomas was evidence it was working.

Some people in education take rather a pessimistic view of a heavy play-based approach to teaching and learning in early years. Many more will shudder at the idea of providing real cutlery and crockery for children to access independently in the snack area. But I strongly believe that children learn best when they are actively engaged in their play because of high levels of interest and motivation.

Play is an essential part of every child’s development. It is our job as skilled early years practitioners to facilitate learning by manipulating and supporting play to ensure learning is irresistible. If we model and scaffold effectively, there’s no need to put them in a box and spoonfeed them an education. Here’s how we make sure that the modelling and scaffolding works.

The right amount of freedom

Walking into our vibrant early years Reception unit, where play is used as the main vehicle for learning, things may seem a tad chaotic to the untrained eye. But if you look closer, you will see that the indoor and outdoor learning environment has been planned to a high standard and to develop children’s independence skills. Continuous provision has been organised in a way that enables children to carry on learning in the absence of an adult. Resources within each area of the provision are well organised and are age- and stageappropriate, which enables children to make choices. The environment is ever changing and supports pupils to develop the skills that they need.

Take, for example, the writing area.

At the very beginning of the academic year, when the children first come into reception, practitioners lay large pieces of plain paper on the floor. Children self-select from a carefully chosen range of stimulating and attractive mark-making tools, which are clearly labelled and well organised into different sizes and colours. Children draw and experiment with early mark-making independently, with support from adults only if it is required. By lying on their stomachs, children are able to develop core stability. Tummy time builds upper body strength, which is something that is required before the child is able to hold a pencil correctly.

Further into the year, as children develop their phonological awareness, tables, clipboards and writing tubes are introduced in the writing area. Children are offered a wider range of stationery, which is often dressed in their interests. Dressing a pencil box with a Spiderman theme often encourages young boys to access the writing area independently and write for a purpose.

So what are teachers and EYFS practitioners actually doing while children are engaged with their play? Contrary to popular belief, there is no time for us to sit back and drink cups of tea while the children have a lovely time.

Achieving superb outcomes at the end of EYFS is largely managed by the facilitation of a healthy balance of both adult-led and child-initiated learning.

Teachers achieve high-level engagement within adult-led activities by taking the time to deliver them in a playful manner. There is absolutely no doubt that your average five-year-old prefers to learn phonics on the push bikes outdoors rather than being stuck on the carpet of terror indoors.

The primary role of the adult in child-initiated learning time is to ensure that learning is captivating. By playing alongside the child, the teacher is able to achieve a holistic view of not only what the child is capable of, but more importantly, what motivates and engages them. Adults skilfully manipulate play to support children to achieve their personalised next steps in learning.

Here’s another example. Number recognition is a particularly challenging skill to embed for most young children. To address this, a water-based game has been added to our outdoor provision. The adult involved carefully selects a range of numeral cards and fixes them to what is known as the “The Firing Range”. The children’s eyes light up when a water pistol is introduced. The adult tasks the children with a challenge: to nominate a boss, who would call out a certain number and select another child to fire the water pistol at that number.

Not only does this particular enhancement achieve high-level engagement, it also provides the adult with an accurate assessment of number recognition.

A personal approach

Independent learning in early years is crucial, because it not only allows children to learn at their own rates and in their own manner, but it also gives them a real opportunity to embed new skills.

We are preparing children for jobs that do not yet exist. Will Thomas go on and use his cutting skills as an executive chef or use his creative flare in the Armed Forces? Needless to say, transferable skills are significant in the workplace today.

By enabling children to be independent at such a young age, they discover how they learn best. It’s not leaving them to it as some claim – adults skilfully personalise the provision to ensure learning is extended – but it is handing the children control. Children are not simply prepared for learning in YR, but are transformed into learners for life.

Tim Barber is assistant headteacher at St Thomas More’s Catholic Primary School and Pre-School, and leading foundation stage practitioner at Hampshire County Council

Nine strategies to promote independent learning in EYFS

Minimise transitions to provide time for extended periods of play.

Encourage children to initiate ideas and activities.

Wait, watch and wonder before interrupting children in their play.

Present opportunities to extend learning.

Model and encourage opportunities for sustained shared thinking.

Provide age- and stage-appropriate resources.

Ensure the learning environment is well organised and accessible for all.

Select resources that reflect the breadth of the seven areas of learning.

Remember play is a young child’s work, it is how they make sense of the world.

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