Play for today

Children starting out in school benefit most from play-based activities, agree many experts. So why is the government set on increasing the amount of formal learning they do, asks Antonia Charlesworth

This week parents across the county will send their four and five-year-old children to school for the first time. For some it is a proud moment as they look forward to their children learning new things, discovering their strengths and abilities, and developing into bright, intelligent learners. But for many others – those whose children are summer-born in particular – it can be an agonising time because they feel their just four- year-olds are simply not ready.

In theory the school system acknowledges those fears. Children in Reception – the first year of primary school – are meant to spend much of their time on play-based activities, rather than formal learning. And they are meant to be guided into learning through activities they are comfortable with.

In practice however, Reception teachers are driven by Early Learning Goals – 17 government targets demanding that by the end of the year children should be able to ?read and write simple sentences, count reliably from one to 20, add and subtract single digits, have an understanding of concepts like time and money, and more.

Many education experts feel? these targets already undermine? the supposed emphasis on play. They point to a strong body of international and UK-based research, some funded by the Department of Education itself, that points to the advantages of this emphasis and? a later start to formal instruction.?But now the government is set to? go one step further and introduce? the assessment of children when they begin the Reception year.?This growing formalisation of the education of the youngest has been condemned as “counter-productive” and “outrageous”.

David Whitebread

Developmental cognitive psychologist David Whitebread? was among the 130 early childhood education experts to sign a letter last year calling for a change and advocating an extension of informal, play-based pre-school provision and the later start of formal schooling in England.

He says: “If a child spends the? first couple of years of their time in school not being able to understand what they’re supposed to be doing, getting it wrong, not being able to ?do it and failing, then of course the consequences for their attitudes ?and for themselves as a learner are damaged. As a result you get all these lovely little confident, enthusiastic, curious four and five year olds going into school and not enjoying it, and within a year not wanting to go to school.”

This new move is a result of education watchdog Ofsted’s annual report this year, in which its chair Michael Wilshaw said more formal education for the youngest children would help close the attainment gap between pupils from the richest and poorest families. The current approach for Reception children is too broad and assessment comes too late, he said, adding that children in poverty often do not get the parental support they need to prosper at school.

“Children who fall behind in the early years of their life struggle to catch up,” argues Wilshaw. “If by seven, children cannot read, the odds are stacked against them.”

Whitebread acknowledges the UK has a problem with an attainment gap but says that earlier formal education would not solve it. “If you look at education achievement in the UK ?it’s notable that at the very top we’re absolutely world class but we have this huge tail of children that do really badly, and you don’t see that ?in countries where everybody starts later.”

English children enter education earlier than those in most other European countries. Campaign group Too Much Too Soon, in which Whitebread is a key figure,? is urging the government to look to countries such as Finland and New Zealand, where many children begin formal education at age seven.

Studies in New Zealand comparing children who began literacy instruction at ages five and seven have shown that by 11 there was no difference in reading ability – but the children who started earlier developed less positive attitudes to reading.

There are two main arguments? for play-based learning over formal instruction. The first is its key role? in developing a child’s ability to self- regulate: to maintain attention, delay gratification, control emotions and develop an awareness of their own mental processes.

English children enter education earlier than those in most other European countries

“We now know through research that a child’s self-regulatory ability is the most powerful predictor of children as learners and also of their emotional wellbeing,” explains Whitebread, pointing out how these skills, which affect a child’s ability to maintain relationships and friendships, are developed through play. “People talk about free play but if you watch children playing together, it is very highly rule governed and regulated. They have to fit in with other children, they have to negotiate, they have to fulfil a role and stick to it.”

Secondly, something that is hugely advanced through play is a child’s representational skills, fundamental to language development. A 2006 study by US academics supported the idea that a playful approach to language learning offers the most powerful support for the early development of written and spoken skills, but Whitebread points out that artistic and musical development are also supported in this way.

“These things really benefit from play because a lot of play is about pretence. That facility to pretend that one thing stands for another is actually key to be able to use language, learn language, being able to decode squiggles on a page and get meaning from them.”

Combined, Whitebread adds, self- regulation and representational skills are what make play such a powerful engine for learning, and until a child has acquired those they’re not going to be able to benefit from any direct instructions.

A former early years teacher himself, he believes that targets and assessments reduce the opportunity for children to learn in playful ways. Teachers, he says, are pushed into teaching solely in order to pass the tests.

Sarah Roach, Reception teacher?at St Mary Magdalene’s Catholic Primary School in Penwortham, Lancashire, says the greatest pressure in Reception is to “establish routines, familiarity, boundaries ?and expectations”. She says many schools put pressure on teachers for good literacy and numeracy results “but that pressure comes from the government who need to choose education ministers who have been inside a classroom in the last 30 years”.

She is not fundamentally opposed to the new assessment at the start ?of the Reception year – which will be introduced in 2016 – because it will allow her to track progress throughout the year. But she does believe that play-based learning is the most successful approach, and where she personally has achieved outstanding results.

“The downside is that you can’t rely on children’s ability to play appropriately and independently,” she points out. “Guided activities are often the most successful as adults can add new vocabulary to experiences and help ask leading questions for children to develop their creativity, their confidence to explore and develop their critical thinking skills. The solution is to have more adults in the classroom to allow for more supported activities alongside independent play.”

With researchers and teachers in agreement that play-based learning?is what works, why are ministers pushing for the formalisation of early years education?

“Overwhelmingly they’re from public school backgrounds,” points out Whitebread. “They prospered in a very old-fashioned style of teaching and they think that’s what everybody would benefit from, which couldn’t be further from the truth.”

With regard to the attainment ?gap, Whitebread points out that?it is not poverty that causes underachievement but the issues that poverty brings with it – stressed parents, a lack of resources in the home and malnutrition.

“What goes on in the family and the home outweighs what’s happening in the school, always.? If the right kinds of things are happening at home, regardless of income – there’s loving relationships, unconditional support, a stimulating environment, interesting conversations – then children can cope with inappropriate teaching. It’s the children that haven’t got that that are the worry.”

And it’s those children who ?lack that parental support who will benefit least from more formal education, he believes.

“It’s entirely counterproductive because it’s precisely those children who aren’t getting that sort of supportive environment at home who need a more play-based learning structure to be able to develop those early skills for school.

“What the government is saying is that they are going to expect every child to be at the same level of ability at the same time as each other, which is just nonsense. Consequently we’re going to end up treating most children inappropriately and not giving them the best possible opportunities.”

If my child’s not ready…

By law children in England are not required to start school until the term following their fifth birthday, meaning a child could have anything from four months to a full year more at home or in their pre-school setting than if they start at the first possible September.

Parents who do choose to defer school entry will remain entitled to their child’s funded early education place of 15 hours a week. If a child is summer-born, this means they would effectively skip the Reception year – a prospect that may not appeal as Reception is generally seen as a gentle introduction into school life.

But there is no statutory barrier to children then being admitted outside their normal year group, meaning an August- born child could enter Reception at five, closer to the age of many of his or her peers and not begin formal learning until age six.

This is at the discretion of the admission authorities, usually the local council, on a case-by-case basis. Alternatively, parents can request that their child attends school part time until they reach compulsory age.

For further information, see advice from the Department of Education at

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