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Yes to creative activities but no to free play

How we laughed in the staffroom in the late 1960s when the Primary 1 teacher told us about a father complaining that his daughter had announced: "At school wi jist pray a' day."

He conceded that in a denominational school some prayer was expected, but he wanted it to be within reason. It was pointed out to him that his daughter's speech had conveyed entirely the wrong impression of how her days were spent. He left quite happy and no one mentioned the girl's obvious boredom.

Almost 40 years later, I was having a conversation with my grandson - whose school career is all of seven months long - trying to persuade him that some activities at school are fun. With a sigh he said: "Grandma, you've been a headteacher for a long time. You walk around your school. You can see the things we have to do."

There speaks a child who has not yet learned what it takes to be a praiseworthy pupil. There are many demands on him to sit for lengthy periods, to listen without interrupting and to use a pencil with some degree of accuracy, none of which have ever been his preferred choices.

Many thousands of children have eventually conformed to a rigidity of teaching approach which has become widespread in our drive for evidence of early attainment of formal skills. However, there is talk of a sea-change during the year of engagement with A Curriculum for Excellence and the focus on Article 31 of human rights legislation, which has brought the debate about play in the early years curriculum back into the spotlight.

I was never a devotee of learning through free play. The ubiquitous, leaking sand and water trays, the noisy wooden building blocks, the complete guddle of construction materials, the dressing-up area and the house corner, which doubled as a punch-up corner because it was out of view of the teacher, all live on unhappily in my memory. I could see no real difference between these activities and those in nursery, except that amid the cacophony the frazzled P1 teacher was trying to work with those children who hadn't finished the day's class work on reading or maths.

I fear that, collectively, we may be wearing rose-tinted specs and have forgotten the era of the totalitarian reign of the infant mistress and just how bad the quality of early education could be.

The breadth and quality of children's learning through play were determined by individual teachers' ability to plan and manage it, with the result that play was frequently an unstructured add-on and fully autonomous. There was a great reluctance among teachers to take on a P3 class, because they knew that it was the crunch year when some rigour had to be applied to the pace and progression of learning.

Acknowledgment that things were not all that they might have been in the old days would ensure an insightful review about what it is that we want to include in the early years curriculum and how we want it to be taught.

I suggest that we take a bold first step and drop the emotive word "play".

I wonder what the reaction of parents at induction meetings will be when we say, "Sorry, we got it wrong again! Play will now be a major feature of your child's timetable."

Any knowledgeable practitioner who is willing to spend time on planning and organising a learning environment for today's children can provide worthwhile activities which motivate them to use their imagination, test their ideas, take chances, engage with others in real or imaginary situations and learn from their mistakes as well as their successes. Who would dare to describe that approach to teaching as "play" in P7?

I am happy to hand over some choices to the experts. "Grandma, let's play at swimming in the sea. You're the whale."

Joan Fenton is headteacher of Dyce Primary in AberdeenIf you have any comments, email

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