I don’t know if it’s virtuous or masochistic of me to bother at all but this is a response a blog post I found entitled “Should Young Children Learn Through Play?” It is kind of sad that this is how I spend a good chunk of a day of my Easter holidays but I own it.
The blogger, Anthony Radice is a proud traditionalist teacher with some opinions abut Early Years practice. He quickly falls flat in the first paragraph saying: “teachers of younger children are much less likely to be subject specialists.” Quality EY practitioners and teachers should be and are specialists in early childhood development, a subject that has developed immensely in the last thirty years. Though it has confirmed what quality nursery and preschool teachers have known intuitively for much longer, the rest of society has yet to catch on to these findings. Working with young kids is easy “women’s work” after all, so why should we be listened to?
Anthony tries to get up but trips again:
But what do very young children do naturally? Even play is not ‘natural’. Anyone who has cared for more than one young child at a time will know how frequently disputes have to be resolved, and how much effort is required to establish some rules for playing: sharing, for example, is not something which children naturally do. They have to be instructed.
Many EY practitioners do indeed instruct kids how to share in all sorts of ways, but the effectiveness of different techniques is out of the scope of this post.
For young children, play is as natural as breathing and eating, and just as necessary for healthy growth and development. Young children are at a distinct stage of development, for a reason. Even a basic background in early childhood development would help others see the danger of trying to rush young children through it.
We’re all entitled to our opinions and Anthony goes on with the rest of the blog post with simplistic remarks about the difficulties of kids not sharing, toilet training and “Lord of the Flies” scenarios to justify his. Many EY practitioners and teachers will agree with him on these points to varying degrees and that is fine. Where he simply fails is using these quips as justification for his “traditional/academic/earlier-is-better” approach to EY. The points just don’t connect.
Don’t like to go here but Anthony begs the question if he has ever working or setting foot in an Early Years setting when he goes on to say:
Then there are the other wonderful things that can be done with groups of young children, all without their having to start learning to read and write excessively early. They can listen to stories, they can learn songs and poems, they can make their first attempts at drawing. All of these require an authority figure to be in charge and to maintain order if they are to be executed successfully.
Any setting where children aren’t listening to stories, learning songs or “first attempts at drawing” would be shoddy. Anthony would probably be horrified by my practice but my key children regularly engage in these activities (and much more of their choosing).
Anthony’s closing paragraph is an event in itself.
Most wonderful of all these aspects of early formal education, if we are thinking about opening minds to the wider world, are the ability to listen to stories and to memorise songs and poems. So much fascinating and valuable knowledge can be built into education from the earliest stages, if we are prepared to take charge and stop idolising children.
I am even perfectly fine with direct instruction and even engage in lots of it myself, as long as the young child is actively choosing to be there. When they have their inevitable conflicts over toys or play, I am there to guide them through them solving their problems as much as possible. I am absolutely an authority figure but my goal is to give them social and emotional skills to increasingly handle their problems without me, which they are.
(The truth is children can and do handle many conflicts themselves without adults barking rules at them, but we train them to expect us to solve their problems. Adults of all ideological stripes make moral problems out of simple developmental ones all too often.)
I accept that some people like to have circular, insular edutwitter debates (like myself apparently). I accept there are going to be people within and outside of Early Years who favour “academics” over play in nursery & Reception settings. I fully recognise that this blog is not going to change any of their minds.
What I don’t accept, or respect is the fact that none of these people – who love to talk about evidence and research in terms of education for older children – do not and possibly cannot point to anything evidence-based to justify their opinions and feelings in terms of Early Years practice. They complain about it being dominated by “child-centered progressivism” and as far as I can tell never engage with the stone-cold evidence that quality practice is based on. I, and others, in Early Years can, and do get tired of this.
Quality EY practice is frustrating for these types because it isn’t about their narrow views of learning but rather about what literally builds young children’s brains and fosters their overall development. I think many like “academic” Early Years practice because it makes primary school teacher’s jobs easier in many ways. Children are used to sitting still and looking to adults as the sole source of knowledge and bestower of approval.
Primary school teachers have incredibly hard jobs and more is being expected of them and their students than ever before. I can see why most teachers (who wisely never set foot in edutwitter land, or more likely have never heard of it) appreciate it when they have compliant and “easy” students. I empathise with their situation but the fact that over-testing, lack of recess and worship of SAT scores has warped and twisted education into what it is today does not change young children’s basic biological and physiological hard-wiring. If anything, Early Years principles need to be pushed up into the rest of education. I can already hear the same usual objections from Radice and others, and I’ll give the same “look at the Scandinavian countries” response. The edutwitter carousel will continue to turn.
Nobody has to agree with me about anything at all, and of course we are all going to keep our favourite ideological teddy bears but I do ask Anthony Radice and others to study some basic early childhood development before going on about Early Years in the future.
Suggested Reading List for Anthony Radice or anyone else:
- Early Academic Training Produces Long-Term Harm – Short summary from Peter Gray on three studies that show play-based settings are far more successful in terms of academics, social/emotional health and general success in life. I have yet to see any “Earlier is Better” types even attempt a reply to this article.
- Play, Cognition and Self-Regulation: What exactly are children learning when they learn through play? – Article summarising studies showing how children develop their cognitive and self-regulatory skills when engaged in play.
- The Physical Play and Motor Development of Young Children – Literature review about the vital need for physical play and free play in young children’s overall growth and development.