Should Chocolate Be Delicious?

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:

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7 thoughts on “Should Chocolate Be Delicious?

  1. “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.”

    You’ve just validated Anthony’s position by posting this oxymoron. Thank you.

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  2. I wanted to see if I missed anything based on your objections. Seems I have not. “Respecting young children’s choice to engage…” is yet another oxymoron. Young children mimick, their environment; they have limited cognitive abilities. They do not “learn” the alphabet unless someone teaches it to them directly. They cannot read until someone teaches them through DI, and they will not “engage” unless direction is given. That’s not a “choice”, that’s teaching them how to learn. They aren’t mini grown ups, they’re children. This is not worth a discussion when cognitive evidence won’t even be acknowledged.

    Your objections earlier is off point. The discussion wasn’t about allowing children to play, it called into question the effectiveness of learning through play. The single biggest deficit children now have in our Canadian kindergarten classes (and I’m sure in other parts of the world) are underdeveloped motor skills. Children come into classroom settings with very little experience cutting with scissors, writing the alphabet (let alone knowing what how to spell their name), and the drawing skills are terrible. All those hours “playing” in preschool are no more than glorified childcare. My own kids sat at their week desk every day when they were little and they were quite content to spend hours gluing, cutting, pasting, drawing and writing for hours on end. An added bonus to that was that they learned to sit STILL…which is a huge problem in primary schools these days. Looking at poster boards outside of Kindergarten classes these days indicates a definite decline in these fine motor skill development, and many teachers are talking about it as well.

    Play is great for the, well, playground, however classroom instruction is for the 3 Rs. No “expert” in young childhood development is going to convince me otherwise. I’ve seen the results firsthand, and having a mother who was principal of a nursery school many years ago supports this notion. What always gets glossed over in these discussions is the evidence supporting effective instruction. And the cognitive science which supports it. Theories are fine and I am sure many get to sell their books to the unsuspecting public, but I prefer to go with what works.

    Thanks for reaffirming my belief on this topic. Good day.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Children’s motor skills are absolutely lagging. A major factor is lack of opportunities for proper play as young children. Motor skills develop from the head down and the core outwards. Before a child can sit at a desk to write effectively they need proper core strength. This comes naturally if young children have sufficient time to play. Which they don’t these days:

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2016/11/11/lets-face-it-keeping-children-sedentary-for-most-of-their-waking-hours-is-causing-harm/?utm_term=.5f03513f438e

    It’s a cliche to point out that “high performing” Scandinavian countries don’t even start formal education until children are seven. Have you considered there might be sound evidence for why they do this?

    I wrote my response to Anthony’s blog because I am concerned and skeptical of this relatively recent push towards more academics and less play for 3-5 year olds in the past couple decades. Children’s developmental time tables have not changed over this time, our educational systems have.

    Anthony wrote something skeptical of the value of play in nursery and Reception and I tried my best to respond.

    We all can and are going to think whatever we want about education and that’s fine. Online discussions between strangers can only go so far. I pushed Anthony for any evidence to back up the arguments in his blog and he could only respond with a quip on my poor grammar.

    What is effective instruction for 2-5 year olds? I shared links to studies that inform my opinions on the matter at the bottom of my blog post. If you have any studies to point me to that show more “academic” focussed nurseries and Reception/Kindergarten classes prepare children better for school and life better than “play-based” ones I’d gladly give them a serious read and response. I am not inclined to continue this back and forth with you otherwise.

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    1. I am sure there are other factors behind lagging motor skills such as ensuring the child has a decent breakfast before going to nursery school, their exposure to screen time and/or determining if the child is the eldest, middle, or youngest child – all anecdotal evidence, as your points tend to be also. (We can all have opinions – such as the article you have provided, and these studies you have listed are more anecdotal than they are evidence based on quantitative studies. Unless they’re randomly controlled, and involve thousands of individuals in the study, i quickly lose interest. Sort of like medicine. We do not launch new medications onto an unsuspecting public unless rigorous trials are first completed…other studies are quaint, but they’re not really meaningful in the long term). It doesn’t change the fact that kids lack specific fine motor skills by the time they get to Kindergarten and they’re already behind the 8 ball. This has been an observation from a great deal of Kindergarten teachers (and parents) and it’s been getting worse over the past 2 decades. And from what has been pointed out by these educators, the biggest impact on these fine motor skills are that children have had limited exposure to: sitting still for long periods of time, minimal exposure to using scissors, cutting/pasting/gluing, using pens and pencils to print and write, knowing their basic number facts and reading on their own.

      We all know the benefits of play, however this is a separate entity from “learning” their ABCs and 123s through play. As a parent I’ve witnessed it. I went into this whole play based movement with an open mind, and found out that without serious intervention of the grown ups, kids do not learn academic material on their own, or through whatever means have been highlighted here. It’s a false argument. My kids already had their alphabet memorized, their rudimentary arithmetic skills mastered, and their name spelled correctly by the time they got to Kindergarten because their mother, and their preschool instructors took the time to sit them down and teach it to them. Observing this with other children who did not have this same type of instruction led to very glaringly different conclusions. The results were painfully obvious in the displays mounted on classroom walls, and hallways.

      As for those children who opted out of play based preschool, they certainly weren’t behind academically in any aspect of their learning. Kids usually catch up pretty quickly in the first year, again, cognitively, they’re wee brains adapt quickly.

      There’s a time for play and a time for instruction; don’t confuse the two.

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