Children are adept at dancing or singing when they think there's no one watching or listening; but how do you get them to learn when they think there's no one teaching?
Staff at East Bergholt Primary School near Colchester in Essex achieved this blissful state with the help of the Happy Puzzle Company, which ran one of its Puzzle Challenge Days to provide pupils with an alternative learning environment. "In our school development plan we wanted to provide more opportunities for children to show what they could do," reveals headteacher Jan Seaborne.
"Children just don't have the opportunity to rehearse their skills enough and they need open, unstructured sessions to know what they can do."
To this end she recruited the irrepressible Gavin Ucko, managing director of Happy Puzzle, to run a challenge day taking in Years 1 and 2, 3 and 4, and 5 and 6 in three 90-minute sessions over a day.
Out go whiteboards, computers, pens, pencils and paper and in come wobbly icebergs and penguins, marble runs, giant jigsaws and mosaic puzzles. Gavin Ucko promises to "make the impossible possible" and the children are itching to get started.
Working in mixed-ability groups, they have to solve problems against the clock. There's a real buzz as they bicker and chatter and try with varying degrees of success to complete the task in hand. Despite the noise levels, every one of the 40-plus children in the hall is focused on working out the problem.
In one game, they have to balance a set of penguins on a plastic iceberg.
What at first seems like an easy task requires more thought and, by a process of elimination, most teams find success. Other tasks include separating a seemingly impossible set of entwined hoops, completing a mosaic jigsaw while keeping the same-colour pieces apart and creating a complex marble run.
"Everyone is buzzing," says deputy head Wilma Hyde. "The children you don't expect to shine are shining. All of the children are engaged and fired up by the whole experience. They were unlocking all sorts of skills that don't always get used in the classroom."
As well as developing independent learning skills, communications skills, strategic thinking and problem solving, she says the sessions allowed staff to step back and see their pupils in a different context. "We have seen a different side to the children and they are taking on different roles.
We've seen which children are emerging as leaders and which ones are emerging as organisers."
With Gavin Ucko's mix of educator and circus ringmaster, its easy to see why the children send him off with cheers, rapturous applause and spontaneous foot-stomping. But the key to the challenge days, says Gavin Ucko, is that they have a long-lasting effect and aren't just an afternoon of razzle-dazzle. "There is an awful lot of static learning and for some children that can be disastrous. We want to see children achieve in different ways.
"What we're aiming at here is that pupils do things in such a way that they are able to map it on to other areas of their school work. Ultimately, what we want to achieve is for the children to come across a problem in their school work and say 'I don't need to give up, I've now got the understanding of how to look at a problem in a different way'."
Jan Seaborne agrees: "One of the big things is getting children to listen to other children and taking into account what other children have said and consider it. Yes, the problem-solving bit is very important, but the spin-offs happen across the whole curriculum."
There's also something in it for the teachers, apart from a break from classroom routine. "Gavin ran the sessions like the conductor of an orchestra and already teachers are saying 'I could use that in that kind of situation and we could do that then'. It has given us another boost," says Jan Seaborne.
As well as the activities with the pupils, Gavin Ucko ran a session the previous evening with pupils and their parents, which looked at how parents could help their children develop a full-range of learning skills. It was another great success. "The lovely thing was hearing people laugh and enjoying what they were doing. Lots of parents came back into school this morning to talk to Gavin again. I think they found it exciting and enlightening, which is what education should be about," says Jan Seaborne.
* The Happy Puzzle Company has four facilitators that run Puzzle Challenge Days for KS1-4 pupils in a range of formats. Prices start from pound;180. Happy Puzzle also provides resource packs for schools to run their own sessions. Individual thinking-skills games, logic puzzles etc are also available via mail order from The Happy Puzzle Company, PO Box 586, Elstree, Herts WD6 3XY .
Tel: 0870 873 8989