Get disruptive with this playful teaching method

Paula O'Hare

Paula O’Hare has worked within North Lanarkshire and Falkirk Council at a variety of stages. She also lived in Dubai for three years. She has experience in both the Curriculum for Excellence and the British Curriculum. Paula has the responsibility of building a positive communication environment within the school, and also in implementing the play-based learning approach in Early Years, alongside her colleagues. She is currently teaching Primary One and Nursery at Nethermains Primary School (@NethermainsPS).

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Teachers warn learning through play can lead to pupil disruption” was the title of an article printed by a Scottish newspaper in January this year. The article cited a recent report which had shown that some teachers in Scotland were worried about increasingly poor behaviour within classrooms when engaging in active learning.

Learning through play is not a new concept within education; Friedrich Froebel, the founder of the Kindergarten, was well ahead of his time in the early 19th Century. He embraced an education that was centred on freedom of choice and allowed children to access learning through individual interest, which in turn would lead to a developed self-motivation.

As a child who was brought up through the 5-14 Curriculum, and as a practitioner who has studied and taught the Curriculum for Excellence in the Early Years stage, I have seen a considerable amount of change over the past few years. Strategies of learning and teaching have been adapted to cater to an ever-evolving Scottish curriculum; a less prescriptive and rigid curriculum which allows for creativity and flexibility for both teachers and pupils.

The catalyst for change in our school came through a visit of good practice to Melrose Primary School (located in the Scottish borders), who had embraced play-based learning from Nursery through to Primary 4 and who had ultimately achieved success. The feedback from the visit was extremely positive, and effectively brought about the discussion of integrating play-based learning into our own Early Years practice. This was a shift I was more than happy to make. After nearly a year of working in the nursery team, I had developed a real love of the play-based learning approach, and saw the immediate impact it had on children’s learning, problem-solving skills and development of vocabulary.

In adopting this ‘new’ approach, I have rarely encountered a ‘disruption’ to behaviour or learning through play-based activities. If anything, I have witnessed high levels of engagement, the confident transference of key skills and the development of rich, relevant vocabulary. Whilst I am aware that there are many different issues that teachers, practitioners and management teams will encounter, I am positive that with a willingness to embrace change and continue to build upon a focused approach of assessment and tracking of learning, play will be the way forward.

So, here are my six reasons to embrace ‘disruption’:

1. Providing play-based learning opportunities in a classroom environment ensures that the transition between Nursery and Primary 1 is fluid.

The initial stage of Primary 1 can be a shock to the system for many children: those who have developmental speech problems, children who come from backgrounds where play and conversation is not encouraged, or children who are just simply not ready for the school yet. From a Nursery environment where children are free to access all areas at their leisure, and then straight into Primary 1, where on the first day of school children are given a chair and a desk and told to sit down. It is an unreasonable expectation for children to have that extreme freedom and then have it cut off so prematurely in Primary 1. Allowing children to have range of the classroom is vital. To emphasise that all areas of the class are for learning, not just solely at your desk. I do believe it is also important to bring the children together and teach the art of sitting appropriately whilst developing talking and listening skills. This can, however be taught at the teacher’s discretion; ‘Teacher Time’ whilst working with small focused groups and whole class lessons on the carpet can be used here. Children are extremely resourceful and adaptable, and will accommodate their experience to the environment. After a few days of asking where their name tags had gone, I observed a positive response to the change of space from my own class.

2. Play-based learning allows us to show children that we trust in their judgement and productivity.

We are giving them the confidence to be the authors of their own learning journeys. It is imperative to remove the ceiling on their learning experiences. As adults, we are prone to creating a preconceived notion that children do not necessarily know as much as we think they do. I know this, as I have, ashamedly done it; I’ve heard myself say “they won’t know that sound or that fact, so maybe we should just go over it again”.

Never assume you know the boundary of a child’s knowledge. They will surprise you in the best way possible; mixing primary colours together to create new colours, asking if a client would like a cup of tea with two sugars whilst waiting on their hair appointment, or even reassembling a broken torch without being given the instructions.

These are just a few examples of the knowledge these children harvest, and it is our job to watch and listen and maybe learn something ourselves. Showing that you trust a child will only further develop your relationship with them and their parents, whilst also cultivating a positive, productive and safe learning environment where learning is a shared experience. Learning through play can develop resilience and independence; by introducing daily targets, the children are able to regulate their learning and self-evaluate progress throughout the day. These daily targets can be used to highlight key areas of learning for children, giving them the understanding of what literacy, numeracy or problem-solving can look like, and how they can develop these skills.

3. Teachers can work with smaller, more focused groups!

This is the aspect of the learning through play which I have probably loved the most. I find working with smaller groups more beneficial for both the children and myself. Learning is more specific to the children’s needs, concentrating on any gaps in learning and also engaging with different learning styles. I am able to spend an increasingly longer amount of time with the children, not only in teaching specific elements of the curriculum, but also being able to communicate and converse with the children on a different level. I am not just Miss O’Hare - I am a customer, I am a construction worker, I am a fellow learner. I can interact with those spending time in the hairdressing role-play and talk to them about the appointments they have for the day, or what colour they are going to dye my hair.

I have the opportunity to discuss the high-rise tower the children have built in the construction area, questioning them about the number of blocks they have used or how they can make it taller. I also have the chance to sit with an individual and talk to them about their work; what they have achieved and how they can develop their skills. This verbal and written feedback is instant, and far more effective as the child is made aware of next steps in learning.

4. Children are developing their vocabulary and communication skills through play.

40% of children in Scotland at five years of age, have inadequate spoken language to access learning at school.” - Law, McBean, Rush (2011)

A very disconcerting statement, one which should only highlight the need for play to be a major factor in developing this gap in learning.

Vygotsky’s theory of cognitive development credits imaginative play as a crucial component of normal development for a child. For Vygotsky, children made sense of the world around them through play. We see this happening in a Nursery environment: children accessing various areas and relating this to their own experiences through language. So why should it be any different for children transitioning into Primary 1 and beyond? The answer is, it shouldn’t. Role-play is not just an add-on experience for a child; a role-play exercise should become a doorway to participate in real life or imaginary experiences. This, in turn, begins to nurture the development of questioning and problem-solving skills.

Having taught in Primary 1 for some years now, I have often found that some children can struggle to construct and understand questions. Through observations within play-based learning, I have seen children naturally ask questions without being prodded with prescriptive question words, such as “who” and “what”. The overwhelming sense of enquiry and genuine interest is incredible.

5. Problem-solving skills, and skills for life, are developed.

Having found that some children needed extra support in personal life skills, such as pulling up zips on jackets and tying laces, we created a challenge zone for the children to practise the life skills. Developing an understanding of the practical life skills the children need is important, and this is an area which we can expand through parental involvement. We have used our homework to discuss the skills parents would like to see their children learn.

Natural numeracy and literacy opportunities emerge from play-based activities and role-play. I have found that specific areas, such as construction, provide many opportunities and experiences, which allow children to expand their understanding of the processes involved within problem solving.

Children are not forced into answering a problem written on a sheet of paper. They are given the opportunity to actually physically work out a problem. They do this by building structures and deciding how they are going to attach a roof, or creating a book using paper and paper fasteners. Children’s natural curiosity is enriched through personal choice and interest, again relating to the self-motivational impact from the Froebelian approach.

6. We can develop our own skills.

More often than not, it is incredibly easy to get lost in a busy curriculum. Valuable play and relationship building can be endangered with these added pressures. I believe that we can become highly-skilled practitioners through play-based learning. We have the opportunity to be creative. We develop real, strong relationships with our children because we take the time to get to know them and their interests. We also get to take a bit of pressure off of ourselves. We can use our professional judgement to establish experiences and outcomes, which can be addressed subtly through imaginative play or other play-based activities.

We are more aware of appropriate, purposeful resources which relate directly to teaching, and through this we engineer experiences that are crucially important for the development of the child. Highly focused role-play and construction areas are developed in accordance to interest, and are littered with opportunities for literacy and numeracy. Children are engaged in activities because they want to do them - this is half the battle for a teacher! We are constantly up-levelling our teaching experiences, as well broadening our own questioning and problem-solving skills alongside the children.

Of course, with change comes the wave of uncertainty and an unsureness of what the future will bring. As always, bringing about change is about modifying mindsets. We, as professionals, place a lot of pressure not only on ourselves, but also on the children we teach. We have expectations of achievement which can make the classroom a very stressful environment. The beauty of play-based learning is that both the child and the teacher can change the dynamic of the learning journey, and make it a positive experience for all.

Simply, play is the way!

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