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'Play is a child's work': a plea for embracing child-led learning from a former teacher


Image courtesy of my clever husband.

Image description: Illustration of wooden playing figures. 5 sit inside a box, pale blue, dark blue, orange, red and pink. One, teal colour, sits outside the box.



It’s December, a few years ago, in my old early years classroom. I sit on a u-shaped table (Foucault’s panopticon, anyone?) with four children around me, pritt sticks in hand, and a classic EYFS activity in front of them. The cut and stick Christmas stocking complete with a stack of Argos catalogues (do they even do these anymore?). The children have been instructed to cut out images of what they’d like for Christmas from Santa. This is supposed to improve cutting skills and… I’m not entirely sure what else beyond encourage consumerism for those in an affluent family and remind children of their lack, for that those aren’t. I mentioned this activity in my previous blog post, and it spurred me on to write this. Our kiddos need so much less of the prescriptive, adult led and initiated early years (and all years, for that matter) activities at this time of year, and all year round. They might look cute on Pinterest but they do little for the child beyond keep them busy. Sure, there’s a time and a place for busy activities (parental/educator sanity is important too), but I implore! We need far less of this gumf!


Regardless of the time of year, in many a planning meeting I was expected to produce activities that had a set learning objective (I.e, what is considered the actual input and learning), alongside opportunities in the learning environment to embed this decided upon learning (‘continuous provision’). The underlying message here was that ‘real learning’ is facilitated by an adult that knows best, and the rest is intentionally guided filler. Call this a bit dramatic, but ask the average teacher and you will find this is a common feeling, and is something that has to be particularly fought against in the early years of a child’s life. What I don’t want to say here is that all teachers are strange, controlling creatures. Quite the opposite. Most teachers I know are creative, passionate individuals; but so frequently a system which expects extensive outcomes for small children forces educators to take said children down a conveyer belt in order to ensure they meet these prescribed goals.

I’ve mentioned before that my PGCE had an Early Years focus. In my training I encountered inspiring individuals with a real range of opinions on what makes a great education, all valid and interesting. The one thing that was homogenous among them? Learning, especially and most critically in the early years, should happen through play and self direction. Learning is best when it happens spontaneously, joyfully, and led by the child. It’s not just Cambridge’s scholars that say such things. Maria Montessori’s most famous epigraphs are well known; ‘follow the child’ and ‘play is a child’s work’. Charlotte Mason consistently argues for the use of living books and outdoor freedom. Rudolph Steiner teaches that formalised learning shouldn’t even be happening until a child is roughly seven. Learning freely and through child initiated, exploratory play is both an academically sound argument and also not rocket science. It’s sad to say that in a prescriptive schooling system it’s a real challenge to meet this.

When children are forced to separate ‘work’ (of the ‘come and sit down and do this fun thing I planned for you and 89 other children please’ variety) and ‘play’, as is so often the case in 21st century traditional education systems, this tells children their self directed time isn’t of value. Yet it is precisely in the flow of play and discovery that we develop most deeply. Lots of children can memorise numbers 1 to 20 with a mundane set of flash cards, but isn’t it more fun to explore what numbers represent and mean as a natural process when counting up the treasures you found on a walk? Or the amount of puddles you can jump in? Isn’t it more fun to learn to read through first exploring sounds on a nature walk, then recognising that our favourite books are read to us through the medium of script, than sitting amongst 30 other children and repeating what the adult at the front says to you over and over again until you have no choice but to memorise it? Certainly, there are some things we can’t learn through osmosis, where actual specific information transmission is needed. But can’t we agree that when you as an adult choose to research something, it is much more memorable and meaningful to you? My manifesto here is not to ditch the phonics completely and burn your numicon; but to recognise that a sustained, joyful education happens much more easily within a child led, playful approach.


What that does not mean is popping out of nowhere next to the outdoor sand pit, plastic numbers in hand, ready to suddenly interrupt some fantastic imaginative, cooperative play with a sudden question of ‘ooh! And how many sandcastles have you made? Who has the biggest?’. I advocate for careful observation of a child’s interests and needs, with the adult working in combination with a prepared environment that allows for exploration and discovery. If I had a penny for each time I’ve noticed an adult interrupting child initiated play with something that doesn’t extend it, my Amazon delivery driver would feel like a family member. I have seen enough extensively planned activities for our an adult’s wants and needs in mind, instead of being carefully considered to suit the child’s joyful learning. If I could sum up my feelings on this; it would be to borrow want what our lady Maria said 100 years ago; that we frequently forget. Wherever you can; follow the child.

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