Playing to pupils’ strengths in the early years

20th July 2018 at 00:00
The great debate between direct instruction and learning through play is a false dichotomy, argues Nicky Clements. Here, she offers tips on finding cohesion between the two rival schools of thought

There is currently, at many different levels in early years education, a debate about the best foundation for children in the Reception year. There appears to be a stand-off between the supporters of play-based learning and those who favour direct instruction.

It’s a frustratingly forced dichotomy, because in reality what we should aim for is a balance (and most good providers already aim for balance). But what does that look like in practice?

Before we go any further into how we achieve balance, we need to examine why so many in the sector value play so highly and are so passionate in their defence of it.

The Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) is a seminal figure in the debate. In Mind in Society, a translation of his work published in 1978, Vygotsky looks at how play relates to the development of language and the ability to self-regulate. He observes that pretend play is often accompanied by “private speech” and commentary, and that this often takes the form of problem-solving.

More recently, Dr David Whitebread – an early years specialist at the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education and a founding member of PEDAL (Centre of Research in Play, Education, Development and Learning) – has also been researching the importance of play.

He argues that the outcomes that were outlined by Vygotsky around language and self-regulation are “the most powerful indicators of a child’s future academic achievement and emotional wellbeing”.

In his 2012 paper The Importance of Play, he identifies five types of play: physical, play with objects, symbolic (language, reading, writing, drawing etc), pretence/socio-dramatic play (in which he identifies a strong link with co-operative and social skills) and games with rules. He draws particular attention to “well-designed computer games offering open-ended or problem-solving challenges to children [that] are likely to share some of the benefits of constructional play or problem-solving with objects”.

Taking these in turn, I can identify so much early years foundation stage (EYFS) non-statutory curriculum content that can be covered through play. Physical development is covered through physical play; communication and language, maths, literacy and expressive art and design are accounted for in symbolic play; understanding the world can be identified through play with objects; and personal, social and emotional development (PSED) outcomes occur frequently in both socio-dramatic play and games with rules.

This is in stark contrast to a comment in Ofsted’s Bold Beginnings report, where one school considered play to be useful just for PSED.

Whitebread further comments that there is an interrelationship between playfulness and mental wellbeing. Not only is play an indication of wellbeing, the ability to play also lends itself to making relationships and consequently to emotional stability.

While discussing the negative effects of a lack of play, Whitebread says: “Even the most playfully inclined children will not be able to play sufficiently for them to reap the benefits in terms of their learning and development, if they are not given the time, the space and the independence to develop their own spontaneous and self-initiated play activities.”

The role of the adult in all this is crucial, and Whitebread is not under any illusions about the quality of those adult interactions. There is a lot of room for CPD here to ensure that adults are aware of how their interactions can and will affect a child’s ability to learn through play.

This brings us to some of the arguments in support of an increase in direct instruction. I do think it is true that not all aspects of early years learning will be accessed by every child through play. Children will not learn to write by osmosis, for example. Writing in Reception continues to be discussed as an area that lags behind other early learning goals and seems more difficult for a five-year-old to achieve. Some may argue that this is owing to it not being as developmentally appropriate as many of the other goals. Regardless, writing a simple sentence using phonetically plausible words and some common exception words is highly unlikely to be achieved without quality teaching.

This is where there is definitely a need for cohesion between the two schools of thought on early years practice. For me, good practice in Reception will include seeing the adults teaching quality phonics, modelling writing and the “need for writing” as a means of communication and expression. This gives children the tools for accessing writing. This will undoubtedly require some form of direct instruction, and often. However, this can come in many forms. Direct instruction needs not be in the traditional image of children sitting at desks. It may, for example, take the form of whole-class carpet times. Similarly it could include small group work, paired work or one-to-one support.

Direct instruction can also be included in those quality interactions between adults and children as children play. Knowing when to step in and provide high-level questioning and challenge is one way an adult can directly influence the process of learning. The playing of games allows the adult to establish boundaries, rules and expectations. Knowledge-rich learning can take place during object play if the adult observes and identifies the learning taking place, while still promoting critical thinking.

This should not be restricted to the Reception year. The need for writing, for example, may well start earlier; children can be involved in purposeful mark-making in pre-school and nursery settings through role play or child-initiated learning. Adults may frequently model the need to record – lists, votes, questions, ideas, letters, messages or instructions.

There are plenty more examples of balance and we should be sharing them. We should also be debating where the tipping point of the balancing act should be. What is needed are big conversations. Lots of them. These have to be conducted openly and without prejudice. Our children deserve no less.

Nicky Clements is director of EYFS at Victoria Academies Trust

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