At Chapelhall Primary, Christmas looks as if it has come early as children work together on a series of festive themes. But while `purposeful play' sessions are clearly fun, the goal is education. Douglas Blane reports
Christmas came early to one North Lanarkshire school, with the Snowman, Santa Claus and baby Jesus bringing festive fun to first steps in learning, long before December.
"Our four infant teachers have been working on the Winter Wonderland for a large part of this term," says Chapelhall Primary 2 teacher Gordon Murray.
Like street lights, decorations and gifts in October shops, this might seem like one more sign of Christmas coming earlier every year. But although Leah (P2) says she gets "a lot of games and a bit of work at school", the point of this project was education, not recreation.
Play is at the heart of it, however, says Mr Murray. "We have purposeful play sessions in infant classes one morning a week. At first, we just wanted to tie enterprise in with those, by getting the kids to make and sell tree decorations, Christmas door-hangers and gift boxes."
Then the idea took flight, like the Snowman himself, in all directions. North Lanarkshire's active literacy initiative, which throws worksheets away and gets young children learning co-operatively on multi-sensory tasks, had been showing gains in schools around the authority, particularly with slower learners (TESS October 10, 2008).
"We decided to pull that in as well," says Mr Murray, "and get the kids to make a fourth item to sell - Chapelhall Christmas storybooks".
Every child has been writing a story to be included in their class's storybook. Each story is one pupil's interpretation of a published tale they have encountered and interacted with during active literacy sessions.
The next step in the evolution of the idea, transforming the classrooms and going cross-curricular, was not as formidable or as time-consuming as might be expected, the Chapelhall teachers insist.
"We wanted them learning in a meaningful, motivating context," says Mr Murray. "So we bought large scene-setters to transform each classroom with a theme of its own - the Snowman; the Nativity; Santa's house.
"Then we went cross-curricular. We brought the Christmas and winter themes into ICT and expressive arts. We did a mini-topic on the Arctic, looking at the plight of polar bears. We created Christmas-related maths challenges, like buying presents, counting and ordering, adding and subtracting reindeer."
It was a substantial amount of work, he admits. "But that's the way it's going to be with the new curriculum - and it won't take as much work next time. With the four of us working as a team, that's this term organised for next year and beyond."
The new curriculum was a concern before they embarked on the project, says Primary 2 teacher Julie Creighton. "We are much happier about it now. We've a better understanding of what's involved.
"In planning the project, we looked at it first in terms of the old learning outcomes. I was quite apprehensive about the new ones. But I discovered I really liked using them. I started with language and maths then looked at science and expressive arts. I remember thinking: `These aren't that hard to use.'"
Two aspects particularly appealed: "I like how the outcomes are worded in terms of `I can'. So I can relate them easily to what I want my children to be able to do. The best part, though, was discovering we were doing a lot of it already.
"In the end, we really enjoyed planning the project and carrying it out. Every day you're coming up with new ideas and sharing them. You're watching kids learning and coming up with their own ideas.
"There's still a lot we don't know about A Curriculum for Excellence - particularly how we're going to assess the children's progress. But this experience has given us a lot more confidence that we can do it."
Back in Mr Murray's class, purposeful play is underway, with the youngsters moving in groups around the four Snowman stations in his space - enterprise, active maths, writing and creative play - and staying long enough to get things done. Good words are selected for a snowman. Door- hangers are decorated with tinsel and ribbon. Lumps of playdough are squished and squeezed into smiling snowmen.
One or two questions and disputes need resolution by the teacher:
- "Can I wash my hands?"
- "I feel sick."
- "There are too many people in the girls' toilet."
But there are fewer than might be expected. The little ones work well together, talking things over and generally getting things done.
"They are good now," agrees Mr Murray. "They're used to working this way. They've been doing purposeful play since Primary 1."
A light touch from the teacher is sometimes needed to keep the kids on track, and like most creative people, their grasp of the business side seems shaky. What price are they going to charge for their glittering products?
"Dunno - Pounds 15 each?" a lad offers.
"Maybe Pounds 15,000 each," another suggests, hopefully.
"It doesn't matter, `cos we don't get the money," says a third, ending the discussion.
Purposeful play draws to a close and is followed by playtime itself, which today is indoors because the playground is seasonally slippy. Noise levels rise, but not by much.
The visual impact of three Winter Wonderland classrooms in this open-plan school is enhanced by the absence of walls. Teachers easily share the planning, organising and development of space and resources. Children can interact across classes in a structured way and move easily among spaces for different activities.
Robyn (P2) illustrates this, seeking teacher feedback on a bright red decorated door-hanger before leading the way across the corridor to the products of Santa's workshop, in Primary 1, where she and her classmates have been making a glistening galaxy of blue stars, inlaid with candles and coloured stones.
All this sharing is an educationally valuable aspect of the project, says depute head Jackie Spencer. "We want to take forward that sharing - of workload, planning, ideas, resources - and not just among the teachers. The children come up with lots of ideas too."
Purposeful play and active literacy, now in their second year at Chapelhall, are being extended to Primary 3 and 3-4, says Ms Spencer, while the success of the Winter Wonderland cross-curricular concept will be taken forward with the infants next term, and extended up the school, using traditional tales as a focus.
"With A Curriculum for Excellence we can no longer leave literacy in the language block. We have to take it cross-curricular, help the children make links and develop literacy in everything they do. Active literacy and purposeful play are great ways of doing that."
The Chapelhall infants demonstrate the effects of the requirement of A Curriculum for Excellence for every teacher to "encourage young people to explain their thinking, debate their ideas and read and write".
There are clear signs too of the beneficial effects of the co-operative learning techniques. Invited by Mr Murray to say in pairs what they liked about each other's Snowman story, pupils respond positively.
"He knew all the words and used a full-stop and a capital letter," says Daniel.
Fraser tops this: "Daniel's writing was nice and neat - so neat it was the best in the world."
As the lesson closes, Mr Murray invites the children to select a story that they themselves wrote to include in the Christmas storybook. "Read your Snowman and Nativity stories over, decide which one you want, then write it out as neatly as you can. Be ready to explain to us why you chose that one."
Fourth-year BEd student Gayle Whitefield, on placement in Mr Murray's class, hasn't previously seen this level of engagement with A Curriculum for Excellence, she says: "I like the elements of choice and the purposeful play, and I especially like active literacy. It really motivates them and suits their way of learning at this age."
All round the room children are demonstrating the truth of this, concentrating hard on transcribing their stories onto decorated sheets for inclusion in the Christmas story-book. Ming (P2) has chosen her version of the Nativity and reads it out fluently: "Once upon a time baby Jesus was born. Shepherds came to see him and the Wise Men brought him presents."
"Play can miniaturise a part of the complex world children experience, reduce it to understandable dimensions, manipulate it, and help them understand how it works."
Professor Jerome Singer, Yale University
"Adults who criticise teachers for allowing children to play are unaware that play is the principal means of learning in early childhood." Birmingham City Early Years Advisory Team
"Play is thinking time for young children. It is language time. Problem- solving time. It is memory time, planning time, investigating time." James L. Hymes Jr, child development specialist, author
"You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation."
Chapelhall Primary is unusual in two respects. It is one of North Lanarkshire's joint campus schools - sharing buildings and social facilities with St Aloysius Primary - and is entirely open-plan, with all seven stages leading off one long corridor in an enormous space.
Staff seem less ambivalent about the joint campus than about the open plan. "Kids who wouldn't have talked to each other because they went to different schools now get on fine," says Julie Creighton.
"Open plan does take some getting used to. Noise levels are a bit higher and everyone can see what you're doing. But it makes a project like this easier."