Play as spiritual practice

I was, when it first launched, not a fan of the Hungry Little Minds campaign: its wording reminded me to the point of embarrassment of the platitudes I have spouted at Parents’ Evenings, and the refrain of every little thing you do together will help set them up nicely for the day they start school suggested that none of the aspirations of the 1980s and 90s about Early Years not being a preparation for later schooling had been heeded. This link, for example, takes you to ECF, the Early Chidlhood Forum, or at least to an overview of its history, and this takes you to its 2016 charter.

However, there are two things I see on the two posters I pass regularly: two wonderful smiling children. In this first one, Is there a tiger under the flap? the child is focussed, excited, showing (it seems to me) a real enjoyment at the experience of sharing a book. Resolutely Early Years in its focus, this sums up, for me, some key elements in these stages of learning to read: enjoying their own expectations, engaged with a book the image at least suggests they found engrossing and funny.

And in this one, I’m so glad we had this chat, the happiness is accompanied by what looks to me to be a smile of recognition: along with the excitement of entertainment is the absolutely vital element of relationship. So I am revising my feelings about these posters and the Hungry Little Minds project in total, and seeing them, as we stumble through the treacle of guidance – and lack of it, and mendacity, and goodness knows what – as a real contribution to recognising some of the wonderful work that relating to children does at home and in settings.

In the light of some very odd interventions – the SoS suggesting children should face the front, plans from serving teachers being given some prominence (and cash for the project, extending into next year), and rhetoric from both major parties about children losing out and catching up, not to mention sight of the new EYFS for the “early adopters” (a helpful comparison is in this blog post) – it seems to me that these posters show an important element in young children’s communication: delight.*

A long time back in my blogging history I did some thinking about spirituality and proposed writing about Play as spiritual practice for young children and I return (as I have in lectures; as I did time and again as a practitioner with 3-5 year olds) to Tina Bruce’s idea of play having a strong theme of wallowing in ideas and feelings.

In control of their ideas yet sending sparks with their imagination (a far cry from the new Goals, where imagination is apparently subordinate to cultural replication), a child at play is a learner alive with possibilities. Interesting to note, I think, how many metaphors I felt I needed for that one sentence: to be more straightforward, play is complex, dynamic – and I am sent back again to the post I wrote about teaching spirituality. I have asked before (in my old blog, linked here) about whether the idea of “dizzy” play and Roger Caillois’ model of the whirlpool are referring to the same phenomemon; whether play is in the ownership of the child because the child is wallowing out of the reach of the controlling adult. More metaphors; and they don’t hold together. Some steps back, then…

…and I come back to this notion of delight. When I wrote (about four years ago) that if we seek to limit play we take the edge off its imaginative, creative possibilities perhaps what I might now add is that if we seek to limit play we take the edge off its potential to delight. Why might this be important?

I suppose “delight” seems better than “fun.” Is this just a deep-seated Puritanism in me? Perhaps – but it also has an idea of irresistible attraction (St Augustine cites Vergil with the line Trahit sua quemque voluptas, everyone is drawn by their own delight although the context for the original [the dementia of hopeless love] is not especially apt). Lost in the magic of play, rather than giggling at the comic exploit.

Tina Bruce’s ideas come in here very well, and the final of her twelve features of free-flow play is of especial relevance:

Children at play co-ordinate their ideas and feelings and make sense of relationships with family, friends and culture. Play is an integrating mechanism which allows flexible, adaptive, imaginative, innovative behaviour. Play makes children into whole people, able to keep balancing their lives in a fast changing world.

Tina Bruce (2004) Developing Learning in Early Childhood – this itself is an expansion of ideas in, for example, her 1991 book Time to Play.

Interiorised, relational sense-making, holistic formation of the human, seems an important part of most recent definitions of spirituality – and helping, by this, to create a way of balance. Very close to the notion of the spiritual I have explored before where Tony Eaude writes of personal integration within a framework of relationships by fostering exploration, conscious or otherwise, of identity and purpose.

Jerome Bruner’s (complex, lengthy) essay on Why Play Evolved in Animals and Man in his (et al) compilation Play (Penguin 1976) discusses Bentham’s use of the phrase Deep Play:

Deep play is playing with fire. It is the kind of serious play that tidy and even permissive institutions for educating the young cannot live with happily, for their mandate from the society requires them to cary out their work with due regard for minimizing chagrin concerning outcomes achieved. And deep play is a poor vehicle for that.

Serious play. A vehicle for teaching the nature of a society’s convention and a contest between troubled human culture (“degrading the biosphere, failing to cope with population, permitting technology to degrade individuality, and failing to plan” [Yes this was written in 1972]) and modelling new lifestyles. This is a window into children’s play and adolescent play that looks at play as sociological formation and interpretation. The links to spiritual development seem to me to be about the kind of relational aspects I have garnered sources for recently. Where do I fit in? What is the world I am working to shape, and which is shaping me? These are much like Helen Hedges’ questions in her chapter Whose Goals and Interests? in Engaging Play (Brooker and Edwards 2010):

  • What will I do when I’m bigger?
  • What do intelligent, responsible and caring adults do?
  • How can I make special communications with people I know?
  • How can I make and communicate meaning?
  • How can I understand the world I live in?
  • How can I develop my physical and emotional well-being?
  • What is special about my identity in the place I live in?

These are not a million miles from the concerns that run through a lot of books – from, say, Ursula le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea to Dara McAnulty’s Diary of a Young Naturalist, and one of the problems about such a broad spread of notions around spirituality is that everything can be seen as having a spiritual aspect, and we run the risk of nothing being particularly spiritual. It’s a real risk: when everyone is somebody then no-one’s anybody, as Gilbert’s Grand Inquisitor puts it. But play (according to Bruce) is an integrating mechanism with intrinsic motivation and deep concentration that allows a child to be immersed in their activity, an activity arising from their own agenda. Intensely personal, rather than a space for a child to conform to an adult need. While “adult agenda” often suggests to Early Years practitioners the more formal, teacher-led aspects of school experience, there is also a danger in describing play in terms of a forum for children to ask big questions. Eaude, cited above, has a warning when he talks of fostering exploration, conscious or otherwise, of identity and purpose. His idea that this exploration and development is conscious or otherwise means, for me, that we do not have to squeeze our theoretical expectations out of children like this.

I am reminded of my first class, a Reception class suffering the visitation from a local Secondary Head (incidentally my first experience of secondary mansplaining in that he told us all [including my own headteacher] that he was in charge of all our curricula), where he bent over one child and asked “So what have you been learning today?” to which the child replied “That’s a very difficult question to ask someone who’s only four.” For children engaged in play the answer at the end of a nursery day might be “I went in the garden with Sam,” or “I got paint on my shirt.”

So let’s look again at these charming and photogenic children. They are shown engrossed and delighted in their activities: sharing a book, having a chat. Similar expressions are well known by anyone who even looks at a child gazing out of the window on a bus. The adult response – the serve and return of communication is crucial, and in the best cases, returns the same delight. When in the observations culled from being with my grandchildren I see something delightful – something that gives me joy – I hope I respond well enough. I often remember with a pang a child who came up to me to ask me something, took one look at me and said

Is this a “in a minute” minute?

Sue Waite’s 2011 article in Education 3-13 looks specifically at a pedagogy founded in a reawakening of joy in learning…the positive emotions encoraged by a rich sensory environment. She is outdoors of course: this is Sue Waite – but she makes a point applicable throughout Early Years pedagogy when she warns, in the tradition of Bruce and others that,

Contributing to, without commandeering, play situations for learning is a delicate skill and may run counter to practitioner’s expectations…The values expressed by practitioners included freedom, fun, authenticity, autonomy and physicality and were reflected in examples of child-led, real-life experiential pedagogies engaging the enthusiasm of children and adults. Nevertheless, these examples were framed by an acute awareness of external requirements and at times conflict was reported between personal aspirations and practice, the ideal and the real.

Teaching and learning outside the classroom: personal values, alternative pedagogies and standards (Education 3-13 Volume 39, 2011)

Neither the child glad to have had this chat nor the one looking a for the tiger under the flap could, I believe, have shown that delight without an element of shared enthusiasm. Our awareness of external requirements should not be allowed to chip away at what is the core of education for me: the spiritual aspect of working with children helping them grow into whole people, able to keep balancing their lives in a fast changing world.

But maybe this isn’t just the mission of the Early Years educator: maybe this is how we should look at our lives, in our families, in the shop queue, when we tun to social media. And we are back to my friend and colleague Jon Reid’s examen I have mentioned before: three ways I have shown myself some care; three ways I have cared for others; three ways I have experienced some care from others. Back to the compassion at the heart of ethical practice…

***

*It is worth noting that Alison Peacock – who contributed to the new EYFS and welcomes the changes to the curriculum – writes of the task of Reception as “joyful,” in part, I think, because of the restored primacy of teachers’ freedom to use their knowledge of the children and their expert judgement to offer a wonderful Early Years experience for all.

Geology and the Solar System

I use the Grandparental Reflections pages for occasional observations about my grandchildren. Maybe they are “incidents” rather than “ reflections;” Sleeping in the Bin and other such incidents are often funny and illustrate (a bit) the quirkinesses of children’s language. What follows is a reflection that came out of playing with my 6yo granddaughter, but is more a reflection than those short transcripts.  There isn’t a whole load of geology in here, or indeed the solar system – but they are part of the starting point.

6yo, staying with us, built a spaceship out of a box, wrote and drew all sorts of aliens on it, then in due course went to bed. The next morning, she and I went for walk though the local scrubby woods and out onto a disused car park. She was in her spaceship. We collected stones from the gravel, noted the Alien Squirrel, the Alien Magpies, &c., &c, then came back to my house.  What happened then was interesting, in that, with no prompting, 6yo asked for pens and paper “to make a book,” which turned out to be a catalogue of the stones and where we had found them: Hot Venus stones; Cold JupiterE9A68576-5A5E-42A6-AD82-BE280C2CBA9A stones; Cold Venus stones. She worked through all the ones we had collected, and, with the help of a “map” of the solar system, saw were we had been. She also checked them against pictures of rocks (see the photo), although not always with a great deal of success. All in all, the project took maybe 30 mins in the evening and 90 mins the next day. We had fun.

It reminded me very strongly of the kind of work I was lucky to do with children not so much younger when I worked in nursery, in the dear days when children could stay until they were five: enough time, and space and adult interest to follow a project through for a number of sessions, with purposeful writing and reading, and bags of talk from both adult and child, and curiosity and mathematical language and perseverance at a self-chosen task.

I’m not going to be so crass as to ask that every child gets these opportunities in school, because I know schools do provide children with all sorts of ways to learn and to practise what they have learned (although If I Ruled The World I would bring back 5yo into a nursery environment). But I was struck by how easily we (me included) look to Learning Goals rather than what makes for effective learning, in other words what we want rather than how children learn.  I remember when the first Foundation Stage curriculum guidance came out we had something of a battle to move it away from simple goals to paths towards those goals. It is heartening that some years later the current EYFS (para 1.9 in the Statutory Framework) suggests that effective learning can be thought of like this:

Playing and Exploring
Active Learning
Creating and Thinking Critically.

I don’t like the phrase Active Learning, but at least it can stand for the complex mix (muddle????) of hands-on activities, persistence, learning from mistakes… but do note that “Shhhh and listen” is not part of it, any more than it was in 2002 when REPEY stated that

every effective form of pedagogy must be instructive in some way

but that

learning is an interactive event, where the child actively constructs his/her own understandings within a social and physical environment.

Wouldn’t it be good to hear more EY practitioners – and I’d include KS1 teachers – using this language? What might a parent-teacher meeting be like if, in the kind of meeting that might happen, say, in the spring of Y1, a teacher reported primarily on how Child A or Child X approached their learning? If, in other words, we looked at how children learn with a greater seriousness, and if the formative experiences of early Primary School were described to parents and carers not by what the children have (and then by implication have not) achieved but by what has excited their learning?  Would this allow us to look again at discovery as being more than “look at what I want you to see,” as a teacher suggested to me recently?

This comes back to the heart of the current debates about the models of childhood we use, and the difficult questions they bring to the surface. Should adults so set up Early Childhood education as to prepare children for the responsibilities of later study, or work?  Is relationship simply a tool to make instruction easier? A red herring when our true role is instruction to make children able to overcome barriers of social exclusion? Or are children going to be allowed to rule in some innocent-but-not-innocent kingdom where their wills are supreme? How might adults boundary their time, their energy?  What is the role of parent well-being in the healthy family? Do children have to be the key agents of their learning, their behaviour, their relationships?

The title of this blog post was deliberately misleading: my granddaughter did not intend to learn about rock formation or the planets any more than I intended to teach her. What we intended was some nice time together, a rare occasion for just the two of us in a home environment, and specifically in outdoor and indoor play.

What come from it for me is reflection on the nature of the adult-child relationship, and not just at home, but in the educational processes outside the home too.  What is the child in the family? What is the child in the family in the school community?  We are at the heart of the argument Ruth Swailes and others have tried to engage Channel 4 in this week about a programme they plan to air tomorrow. In her blog, Ruth argues (and I agree with her) that co-regulation is the effective way for children to learn how to make appropriate responses – but the reason a programme about training your child using dog-training techniques is even considered is that questions such as the above are not seriously open to scrutiny.  There is still room for discussion in lots of these areas – but TV sensationalism will not help us.

I know that with the ways we are swinging and falling and dividing among ourselves there is little or no energy for this debate right now – but when might we get the time?  Because the dog clickers are ready, and TV companies want the viewers, and will court all sorts of insanities to get them: the discussions will not wait.

 

Emmett and Caleb and

The book Emmett and Caleb is a simple story about two friends, an exploration of friendship DE186CC4-0C87-4FD2-B161-7040A806FA69not unlike DuBuc’s Up the Mountain. Hottois and Renon give us a bear and a deer who live next door to each other, and we follow them through a year and through the ups and downs of their friendship. They live in a world where a deer can check the internet in bed, and where a bear can roast chestnuts.

Ian Eagleton has already laid bare much of the complexity around this relationship in his revealing interview with the author, which is linked here. Karen Hottois says so much in her responses I couldn’t better it. There is lots more, both in the book and the interview  – nature, landscape, the seasons, freedom: I’ve tagged this post “spirituality” precisely because of this richness and the interior life of the characters it reveals.

Sarah Ardizonne the translator has deliberately chosen to use the word “love” where the French original uses “aimer, ” as an indicator of the relationship between the two characters, and Karen Hottois is clear about her intention when she talks with Ian:

To me, Emmett and Caleb are friends but I did indeed deliberately write in such a way that they might be something else. First of all because I think that the contours of a relationship aren’t always clear-cut and because I wanted my readers (children and parents alike) to be able to interpret it as they want. Nothing gives me more pleasure than when I’m told that same-sex parents enjoy the book and can identify with it.

Let’s unpick that paragraph a moment. Hottois isn’t sidestepping the question about the relationship between the two animals at all; rather she is meeting a very big question about friendship head-on.  What language do we use for a strong male-male relationship?

To start with I want to return to this blog post from a while back. I based it on the illuminating messages of Dennis Tirsch, which I expanded to say that

The sacred is not defined by how it might be attained but by how it is  boundaried by reverence.

And this caution, this reverence, is what gives me great joy when reading Emmett and  Caleb – as much as when a friend calls me to meet.  It is there too in the physicality of relationships: hugs, the touch of a hand, whatever; and in the ways these physical expressions of friendship are like and unlike the ones that are part and parcel of being a dad, or even part and parcel of more involved romantic and intimate relationships. Except I’m not sure I like intimacy as a euphemism: Emmett and Caleb do not have a sexual relationship that we can see, but their relationship is certainly intimate. In a certain sense  whether their relationship is sexual doesn’t matter in the story: real intimacy is what is at the heart of the book.

Now, this sounds like a cop-out. “They don’t need to be gay like that, just really good friends” sounds like something from my parents, and that’s not what I think at all.  I do think that Love is a powerful word, and maybe it is scarily powerful for many men, but physical expressions of intimacy are not impossible. I take joy when I meet a friend in the Weston Cafe for coffee; likewise I have friends I can cry with, share poems with; friends I have taken a cup of tea in bed; friends I can dance with, borrow clothes off; friends I kiss when I haven’t got a cold; friends I have lent my dressing gown to (and readers of Emmett and Caleb will understand the references). With some friends I share really difficult stuff about my emotions, or about the pains of growing old, or the schlep of parenthood.  The Venn diagrams for all these would look like a kaleidoscope, and changes in culture change the patterns we discern, but it isn’t easy, because the word Love is not always accessible to men.

Sometimes that feels unfair: love is such a complex and involving thing, but it should be possible for men to use the term.  It’s there, but not nameable. It “dares not speak its name” because its meaning is so often seen as not complex, a simple dart of Cupid.  I cannot deny the two characters in this book that feeling, of course: books are interpretation places and anyone who comes to a book can approach it and savour it as they wish.   I can also see the tender and committed affection between bear and deer  at various points when they are tearful, or sharing the winter cold, or whatever – but it is as complicated for Emmett and Caleb as it is for us. I called this post Emmet and Caleb and because whatever the interpretation of their relationship, it stands for so many others.  They stand for me and my friends. When the deer and the bear struggle to express their feelings and they tussle about poems and messages, I am fully in agreement with Karen Hottois when she says that

the contours of a relationship aren’t always clear-cut.

This emerged last year in the context of professional use of the word Love, too, which I discussed and is increasingly present in children’s literature. In Keith Negley’s Tough Guys (Have Feelings Too) , which I have mentioned before, and which comes up in the work on masculinities and fatherhood Mat and to some extent I have been exploring, seriously characteristic, even caricature male figures – superheroes, wrestlers – are shown to have a similar relationship to their emotions. I am glad they are vulnerable – very glad this vulnerability is on show in a book for children.  Mat calls it an “optimistic and liberating story of starting down the road to a sense of emotional freedom for the modern man and father.“ Emmett and Caleb, too, live in a world where they enjoy the change of seasons, a last dance at the end of a party, thinking about each other’s birthdays… They do not live in a bloke culture where everything is painfully clear cut. And I am glad they don’t – and again, glad that this relationship is open to interpretation, to discussion, to ambiguity. My world is like that, too.

To concentrate on who Emmett and Caleb might be “in real life” or what that real life might consist of is to miss something important: the role of closeness in male friendship, a sustaining, honest closeness.

Emmett brought Caleb his dressing gown. They stayed there, keeping each other warm.

Together, like that, they could last the whole winter.

Yes, we read this and really believe they could.

 

Marks Hold Meaning

I have my review copy of Sue Cowley’s Ultimate Guide to Mark Making in the Early Years with me, its new-print smell still strong. 124F0083-02B4-4930-AEEE-3EA73BAD0FEE
Thank you, Sue, and thank you Macmillan/
Bloomsbury/Featherstone for the copy: I hope I do this book justice.

Sue is engaging here with a number of the subjects she is well known for on Twitter. She is not unprepared, I suspect, for the to-and-fro tussles around the issues she discusses such as self-regulation and phonological awareness. We might debate quite how we have come to such spasms of controversy that I am mentally listing people who will engage with the ideas she presents (and how professionally they will do so), from secondary mansplainers to single-issue advocates. Nick Gibb was in prophetic mode when he foresaw this debate when arguing about power and curriculum with David Blunkett: what he either didn’t see or chose not to discuss was the potentially poisonous nature of such debate. Sue enters into these times of trial more willingly than I – and she doesn’t shy away from them in the Ultimate Guide, either, so these reflections will attempt to look seriously at Sue’s book, but without drawing down on her the πειρασμός of the curriculum wars.

To the book.

One of the things Sue states in the introduction is that this book is not about getting children to ‘meet targets,’ nor is it about how to please OfSTED inspectors, local authority advisers or the DfE.  Given how hard it is to discern the mind of any of these – and certainly impossible to discern a hive mind for all three together – this is an important point. She is aiming directly at effective practice, at people who will read it, in her words, so that it will help you trust in your professional judgement. This means that, for example, the fine motor activities for eye/hand coordination are not a scheme of work, a set of practices that the disempowered practitioner must follow, but things that might be of use; similarly, a Reception class might typically (her word) spend  20 minutes on literacy/phonics per day – but key to effective practice might also be having an eye to children who are absent. There is a fluidity to the suggestions in the book, which is both a guide a resource bank. Ideas that are simple and straightfoward – like developing dexterity by playing with hole punches and paper, or thinking about regulatng noise even in nursery areas – can sometimes be overlooked. This is a rich book of ideas.  Some people might like this; for others, either hesitant or hard-line (or both: not all rigorous practice stems from confidence) this will mean they might want to ponder: What works, and why? Why is this section before that in this book?

This is no bad thing.

However, I wouldn’t want to give the impression of a wish-washy book. I don’t think Sue does wishy-washy. When I was a new-ish teacher, the Bright Ideas books were a big thing: landscape format double-pages with time saving ideas, things to dig you out of a hole, some things you hadn’t thought of to make a display really shine. They fell from favour a little because they were scattergram ideas, rather than anything systematic. Because the ideas were good, I used them as a teacher and head teacher – just with the proviso that you can’t start on page 1 and move through to the end.  To give a sense of direction in a book like this is absolutely vital, and one strength of this book is that it moves between the might-and-could-and-trust-your-judgment approach and a structure rooted in an understanding of how children learn. Not everything works for everybody, despite what some people in education want to say, and a Ten Top Tips approach would have been destructive of the need for genuine professional reflection.

Starting from a discussion on who leads the learning (her quick response around what child-centred pedagogy is immediately followed by a page of coloured boxed on Finding a Balance), Sue takes us through developing talk, the physicality of starting to make marks (some great ideas here) through self-regulation (see below) as far as moving from letters to words and words to sentences. This (to my mind) really sensible structure not only gives shape to the text, but also allows Sue and her practitioner-readers to focus on particular practices or pinch points: I love (and will be pointing my students next semester towards) the motor skills section and then the glorious Mucky Activities; the genuine attempts at involvement of parents/carers likewise are deserving of attention.  There are basic ideas, quirky ideas, points to stop and think, thinks to love, to debate  – yes, always the challenge to reflect.

So the Ultimate Guide isn’t an all-or-nothing Programme, but a series of practice-based discussions around some areas that need serious consideration. This gives me a bit of leeway to question some things. Edite, a child whose writing of her name we see all through the Early Years in the section on marks holding meaning gives us a brilliant display of handwriting that develops, but given the lovely section that follows (the graffiti wall – which reminds me of the boy I taught who learned to write his name on the shed wall in letters taller than he was), I might have wanted more of Edite’s Story. More links between the discussion on motivations and Edite’s reasons for her name writing might have been illuminating- but perhaps that would have been another book?

The sections on motivation and self-regulation are interesting, and worth some discussion on their own. Sue takes a light-touch approach to a difficult topic that is currently quite controversial, and a different book would have had more room to discuss the issues she presents – but again, this would have been a different book, and with a different audience.  Her advice is solidly part of the “nursery inheritance,” emphasising that the dance of inculturation is slow, and suggesting that our own impulse control may need some time for reflection. Nevertheless, she is quite firm: Success at writing is inextricably linked to behaviour… And where a child cannot use language effectively, school becomes a daily trial by literacy.  Trial by literacy. Ouch: that is an uncomfortable phrase, and well worth pondering.   In this context I might also have wanted Sue to present the developmental continua of writing with a bit more of a health warning for nervous practitioners wedded to their milestones – but actually any misgivings about atypical development are set aside time after time by real-life considerations of children with a range of additional needs.

Any quibbles I have are minor. I know Sue will be prepared for the battles that purists, only-one-way merchants and the secondary mansplainers will want to join with her. There are a good number of reasons why this is a book to be proud of, Sue – and why I shall be suggesting a range of people I talk to should buy it.

Pottery

Some twenty years ago I used to “do pottery” at the local FE college. Two hours on a Monday evening and a kebab on the way home.  Today, courtesy of a birthday present (thank you, Lizzie), I was back – same room, probably some of the same tools, same mistakes of misplaced omnipotence and self-criticism.  Different tutor, still good: thank you Activate Learning, and thank you, Graham, for your skills as a tutor.

Tutor intro.  Tour, health and safety. “No running with scissors” was not mentioned – but beware the dangerous chemicals and the clay dust.   And then into the task. A demo which showed how very easy it was.

First attempt. IMG_0084 Dismal. In trying to make something small, I had something fiddly, and the techniques I hoped to use needed to be applied more delicately and with a more practised hand. A small pot became a pile of used clay and my ambition took a bash. Been here before.

Second go:  The longer attempt and really (with a lunch break) the work of the day, 11:00-3:30, went a little better.   A larger piece, but it still took a long time and I had to unguess shortcuts, to keep the pace, to refine and design. I watched smooth surfaces appear for other people when my effort looked like something the Beaker People would have looked at and said whatever their language had for “Meh.”

The work later in the afternoon was not without challenge but did allow a certain amount of “distract and redirect” as I used slip to decorate the misshapen vase. Plans and designs revised, the learner supported and encouraged – and forgiven, if that’s the right word – for assumptions and wrong turns.

What went right. Well, it wasn’t perfect, and I hesitate to think how I would have felt if it were being marked, and certainly on such an initial piece of learning and creation. Would I have tried harder?   Paid more attention?  Worried more? I am reminded of Margaret Donaldson’s warning (in Children’s Minds) that

” …if an activity is rewarded by an external prize or token…it is less likely to be enjoyed.”

and the next point might be (for me and the pottery) that I might have decided, given the freely chosen nature of activity, not to participate. Not everyone is the same: for some, the medal for Salsa or the position in the running club league is an important factor: but this is not universal. I am brought to consider pedagogy and curriculum because of my engagement as a learner.

IMG_0085

I wonder if every teacher/educationalist should be asked to go back to something and try to think about their learning.   The “There is Only Knowledge” team might find that no amount of knowledge organisers substitute for the feeling of clay, or the knack of smoothing a wet joint into place, and the “Experience is Everything” crew might find something too, about where clay comes from, how its history has been so close to human development, how art and colour and chemistry work together. We might find common ground; we might learn something important. So too might the pigeon-fancying behaviourists (particularly watching themselves when things go wrong) and the “It’s All About Self-regulation” group, watching how as adults we motivate and self-regulate (and help others to regulate) with breaks for a drink, chatting, swearing….  And my contention would be that when we observe our own learning we are acutely aware of the humanity of the learner. This isn’t a suggestion that everyone should take up dancing or running, or pottery, but perhaps that we might have a richer professional development experience if all CPD – or a large part of it – were directed to reflection on how we learn, and then ask how we might apply those insights to our own pedagogy.  We would have to be bold and committed for this to work as trainers or learners: genuine reflection is hard.

Observing ourselves as learners is not easy – but it has an important advantage over 4D8ACABD-AE50-4B68-BF32-406F01ED4ABCwatching our students or being observed by our leaders, and that is that we are less free to persuade ourselves “the children really love it” (or “won’t notice” in the case of baseline assessment) or “the students lap it up.”  We are certainly much less able to disentangle ourselves from the learner’s impatience, or the sense of a desire to build the perfect pot (the photos show I didn’t quite manage this) – even the sense of envy or discouragement at the gorgeous things other people produce.  And in Higher Education we might look again at our modes of assessment: writing at the same time as our students are on the essay treadmill we put them on is a revelation!

I want to conclude with praise for the kinds of tutors who work as my tutor did today: a judicious mix of direct “do-it-like-this” instruction, demonstration, leaving us to try, and advice. It seems to me the best way to respond to the humanity of the learner is by listening, responding but never letting go of the role of instructor where it is necessary. There are times when each of these is needed, and it is the professional educator (not the politician, I would contend, but that is by-the-by) who is best placed to find the way to teach. Top tips too easily become high horses (if that turn of phrase works) and teachers are better than that. As Donaldson concludes (and I will too), we have to keep trying

to help our children meet the demands we impose on them

and to do that, a deficit model of the child  learner is simply not enough:

…we must not call them stupid. We must rather call ourselves indifferent or afraid.

 

 

Passport to a Rant

I find myself really torn by the recent DfE initiative around enriching children’s childhoods. img_0772I love the idea of children being outside; I am unhappy when schools are elbowed into making sure children do this, that or the other outside the school day. We are told – and it already seems a bit defensive to highlight this in the web page that launches it  – that the initiative is “backed by the Scouts, Girlguiding and National Trust.” This is part of the introduction from the webpage:

The list of activities is intended to support parents and schools in introducing children to a wide variety of experiences and fulfilling activities like flying a kite, learning something new about the local area or putting on a performance.

The list of activities was inspired by the Education Secretary’s visit to St Werburgh’s Primary School, in Bristol, where every child is encouraged to take part in a list of tasks and experiences, with key achievements for each school year to tick off. The list will be sent to schools in January for teachers to adapt to meet the needs of their pupils and local communities, helping young people to build their personal skills and qualities during the school day and at home.

And here is the draft passport, downloadable and by and large unobjectionable as a set of things to do. Already some of my impatience at yet another thing for schools to do is partly mitigated: this is to “support parents and schools,” not just to be a tick list for schools, and it is adaptable, so that (to some extent – see below) issues of physical or economic challenge can be got round (I am choosing that awful phrase on purpose). Ah but look carefully at that last sentence.

The list will be sent to schools in January for teachers to adapt to meet the needs of their pupils and local communities, helping young people to build their personal skills and qualities during the school day and at home.

It will be for teachers to do this: schools are (yet again) seen as the managers of the deficit home life or at best the recorders and by extension legislators of parental attitudes and activities. The organisation Every Child Should (that title raises my hackles, but let that pass) take the line that “particularly with the demise of universal youth work provision and Surestart” schools are now the “only remaining point of universal access.” In other words because of all the cuts, teachers: work harder! Schools stump up the funds! This is where my – and their – disquiet is worth hearing:

Great to introduce a bucket list for 11 year old but is this just another thing for schools to be held to account for? Austerity. Little extras. And yep – these are all significant issues and to pretend a passport can fix these challenges is at best foolish and at worse insulting.

While they then do suggest a passport is an effective model, they do so with a set of very worthwhile pro viso warnings about affordability, inclusivity and partnership. Let me propose a couple of scenarios here to illustrate where the passport model might not be a good way forward:

In case one mum is a teacher and dad is an office worker. They have two primary age children. Hard working (remember the “hard-working families” guff from a few years back?) but if they feel to some extent time poor they are not at a critical point. They build snowpeople [sic] when they can, read books, play on IPads, go camping.

In case two, again a “hard-working family” with two primary age children, and with dad on nights, mum works in a local supermarket: they box-and-cox childcare as best they can. This is much more like real time poverty, but there is still time for a kick-about in the park, and swimming club on Wednesdays, most weeks: and sometimes a bit of belt-tightenng to afford it.

Family one are already doing this stuff, and the school are being asked to do what? Manage these things? Supervise them? Require parents to record them? I recall the Oxford Reading Spree conversation about teachers keeping children in to “do reading” if the Home-School Reading Record was not showing reading at home: are we now looking at compulsory After-School Guiding if the record is not kept up to date? Family two likewise might be able to take on suggestions about starry nights or planning a meal, but really do not need school breathing down their necks any more: there is already enough pressure around finding the approved shoes for school, doing the increasingly involved homework (“make an Egyptian irrigation system”), find the money for trips… My point here really is to ask what does this passport have to do with them?

When the NCB endorses the passport their Chief Executive writes

We welcome this effort to immerse children and young people in activities that can build their confidence, develop their curiosity and support their growth beyond academic attainment…

But none of the endorsements seem to see the relevance of this element of control on the lives of these families. Let’s face it: as proposed by the National Trust (whose suggestions for “Things to do” form the basis of the Passport) these activities are interesting, free from immediate curriculum constraints (until we get to writing about it in class: note the SoS for Education seeing the “relevance to the curriculum”), and might encourage a bit more engagement with world beyond the immediate, technology dominated life of today. They are a bit culturally biased, a bit lacking in context, a bit wistful for a childhood past (I love the adventure into Ladybird Land with “post a letter” – although “play in the garden while Daddy reads the paper” was strangely absent), but we are reminded this is adaptable. The parasites are already creating forms for you to use. When Action for Children suggest more face-to-face time in their Build Sound Minds campaign (and God knows we need to think about families’ mental health), I worry the resource creators are already licking their lips at some kind of target-driven initiative that makes quality parent-child time into a Couch to FiveK plan. Yes, that’ll work, I’m sure.

And now let me suggest case three: mum is full-time at home, not out of choice but because the needs of their child suggest she may be called upon when these additional needs are felt to be beyond the capabilities of the school; the out-of-school activities they need, as she once explained to me, to include “our own parking place at the local hospital.” This passport better be adaptable – and not just in terms of “work arounds” for this family, but in ways that are genuinely inclusive. Or is this child’s teacher actually going to have to say “We’ll let you off the tree climbing, of course…”

It would be easy to go along a scale in terms of severity of need and still not stray from families I have worked with: the child looked after all week by Granny; a family for whom the mother being outside the home was culturally a challenge (a challenge they were meeting); the single parent for whom a lie-in felt like a necessity and who didn’t know how to cook (one of the TAs taught her to save money by mashing potatoes rather than buy microwavable stuff)… and we aren’t yet in the serious crisis cases.

I am all in favour of schools – and families – going beyond academic attainment. I spent a large amount of time on my two modules on Outdoor Learning last semester talking about how the curriculum  is much more than a syllabus; learning is more than being filled with facts… We sat outside in the autumn sun; we lit a fire, found a badger sett…  And out of work – well, after work, and along the road from the Harcourt Hill campus, at least –  I IMG_9750-1have sat in a local copse with a couple of mates and a beer…  And this is all without mentioning my passion for exploring children’s literature and how it can represent the magic of being outdoors.

I am not (as Margaret Hodge once described me and some colleagues when we asked for developmental elements in the Foundation Stage documents) a “joyless do-gooder” who wants to deprive working class children of the opportunities I gave my own children. But I am not convinced – yet – of the passport as proposed from on high as not just another bit of target creep: codification and a plea for schools to work harder.

In the end, I guess, my rant comes down to one thing:

How joyless to see the stars at night so you can tick them off!

Language Play

Overheard on the bus, a four-year-old explaining patiently to his mum:

Only dogs are allowed to catch a cat.
And cat is allowed to catch a mouse.

The “play” here is at a number of levels. I really appreciated the repetition, but most of all the slightly ponderous cadences and pulses. I could  have looked at David Crystal’s eye-opening book Language Play, which makes a plea for language enrichment precisely through valuing children’s (and adults’) play with their language.  I could have looked more seriously at Bruner, whose book on Child Language I explored for myself this semester as part of the Brookes module on Practice and Pedagogy. I was drawn instead to a book that suggested to me ages ago (wrongly) that this was what Education research had to look like: the detailed transcripts in Martin et al’s 1976 Understanding Children Talking, and I was reminded of Jason and his life-story poem “I wish I was a raindrop.”  I am struck by what he plays with here in terms of rhythm and structure:

I wish I was a raindrop, a raindrop, a raindrop
I wish I was a raindrop and lived in a cloud
And it would be all warm, all warm, all warm,
And it would be all warm and we’d have a nice cup of tea.

(NB: there are four more verses to this).

I am struck by the rhetorical rhythm the boy on the bus gave to his Dogs and Cats pronouncement, which gave it authority. Martin et al call this “bardic,” which I wouldn’t want to lose as a concept.

The ideas expressed are influenced by the hidden demands of the mode.

and it’s this hiddenness that requires play. We could not teach Jason how to make a poem like this (very like “I’m walking like a Robot” and “Poor Jenny sits a weeping”) but we can allow him room to try out the various structures. As adults we introduce, repeat, maybe reinforce – but it is the child’s playful exploration that makes the creative leap.

Martin et al ask big questions of language, but I’ll end with the challenge of literature:

Are our novelists, poets and dramatists reaching back into their earlier days and, with the added skills of literacy, exploring and extending those same frameworks through which as children they talked out their fantasies?

Vocation I: thoughts in a bleak time.

A first thought on what makes me do what I do – or rather to voice something much deeper than curmudgeonly impatience at the world of work we face as the new year starts.

It comes in response to a sense that the world around me has changed so much, so quickly and in such ways, that I seem to have fallen out of it, to misuse Tolkien’s phrase about the fall of Gandalf. Higher Education is subject to market scrutiny and handed over to hugely paid leaders and  people frankly unsuitable not because of past misdemeanours but because of attitudes that seem at their heart a monstrous parody of past views of class and merit.  Early Years is again subject to the kind of battlegrounds I thought we had left bloodied but unbowed. Literacy will get some bits of funding to make hubs but schools continue to be short of money to do the everyday job which really would improve social mobility. It is acceptable for the pedagogologues who enjoy the attention to characterise children as “in need of a good slap” (this post so disgusted me I can only link to it obliquely: why give such stuff the satisfaction of hits?) and a young person who seeks inclusion as  a “functionally illiterate troglodyte with a mental age of six.” This is painfully and angrily expounded in the heartfelt blog “Troglodytes in the chocolate factory: the disabled child as rhetoric linked here.  So to go back to that sense in fantasy – in Le Guin’s Earthsea, in Garner’s Elidor, in the elves in Tolkien’s Middle Earth – the glory has departed, my time seems to be past.

And if this gloom and doom were all there was, any sense of vocation would seem lost. What is the point – other than the salary – of going in tomorrow? I sound like Fungus the Bogeyman, rather than Elrond.

And what can I say to my students? Dispassionately I can observe we have been here before. Personally I can go back – as I did in a previous blog post – to the teachers and leaders who inspired me or spurred me on. I look at them with gratitude.

What about the longer view, however?  I find my answers – and I don’t presume to say they are anybody else’s – in literature, especially in the heady punch of Alan Garner and the clear waters of children’s literature. As Cooper works to “unriddle” the world,” Garner too talks about the truth of story. His despair at the collapse of the culture of the Man in Boneland captures it in mythic form:

I have a Story.

Tell me your Story, said the other.

The world was full, and the people hunted, and the sun was young. Then two people of the Crow held each other, and the Stone Spirit wept and the sun moved its face. Then came cold, and the herds went. The Hunter and the people followed them and the world was empty; but the Bull stayed. And every night of winter he comes above the hills, watching to see that there is life; and the Stone Spirit looks to send out eagles from its head to feed the stars.

And because the Crow flesh brought the cold they stayed to dance and cut and sing in Ludcruck to make new the Bull and the beasts on the wall of the sky cave above the waters for the time when all will be again, with the Hunter striding. But if we do not dance and cut and sing and make the beasts new on the sky wall the Stone Spirit will not send eagles.

And who is it that you hold? said the other.

No one. She and the child went to the ice. No one is left to hold. No child to teach. I am alone. After me, no one will give my flesh to the sky, take my bones to the nooks of the dead. The sun will not come back. The Stone Spirit will not send eagles. The world will end.

That is a true Story, said the other.

Garner (and Cooper, and Pullman) are explicit about how storytelling takes you back to the universal, a window into truth.”  This particular storytelling shows a man, The Man, despairing as his world closes around him: some hope is also coming, however, as we read on, but it is longer term than we could possibly imagine.
If fantasy provides a heady mix of images and hopes and fears, I would also choose the clear stream of children’s literature because – well, at one level the lampoon of adult nostalgia that is Moomipappa is enough to prick any bubble of self importance and regret.

Play

It is worth speculating on the nature of curriculum. What is it? Who owns it – and by owning I suppose I’m asking “In whose gift are the decisions about it?”

As I’ve pointed out before (notably in the chapter on curriculum in Themes and Debates), while play is a key factor in a child’s learning and development, it does not take place independent of other learning; the provision of good quality experiences (in the home or in another setting) takes account of play as an enriching experience, so that adult-led experiences go hand-in-hand with the learning that arises from the children themselves and their play. Adults make choices about when and how to intervene – and this should be done sensitively and with an understanding of a the individual child’s needs and intentions.

So does this mean that play as a self-chosen activity is actually a myth? That the child is not really the free agent we fool ourselves into envisioning?

I think it depends on what is meant by play, a phenomenon every childhood practitioner might say they recognise but which actually carries a multitude of meanings so that it is really a series of interlocking experiences and intentions rather than one thing that is either here or not here. Maybe the same is true of curriculum.

“Ownership” is therefore a crucial issue for both – but maybe that isn’t  the right word. Is the problem embedded in the notion of control? Does anyone really need to “own” – as in possess and control – complexity? If play is a set of actions that involve emotion, competence, imagination, freedom, how can we say it gets owned? Or rather, if we own it, do we ruin it? A wise monk once said the Magnificat is a great, wild horse that we tame into being a farmyard pony: perhaps if we seek to limit play – Golden Time, and “Now you’ve done your work you can go and play,” and “This is an activity the grown-ups think is fun” – we take the edge off its imaginative, creative possibilities. The children may not have limitless freedom – but in play, their possible worlds are expanded and expanding, and we can limit this only when we are clear when and why we should.

EPPSE and beyond

October’s report on pre-school and early home learning effects on A-level outcomes (DFE-RR472A) has some heartening things to say for us who are struggling as Children’s Centres are closing, reshaping or simply looking gloomily at their money being taken away. Lasting impact to AS level; lasting impact beyond that for young people whose background is more problematic.

I’m going to put up part of the executive summary, partly for my students (yes, you: now look up the full text, linked above), but also because it never hurts to keep saying these things:

Pre-school
• There are continuing effects of pre-school at age 17. EPPSE students who had attended any pre-school were more likely to enter AS-level exams (mostly taken at age 17) than those who had not. In addition, if they attended a high quality pre-school they were twice as likely as those who hadn’t attended pre-school to take AS-levels.
• However, for most students the pre-school effect had disappeared by the time they took A-levels (generally at age 18) as there were no continuing effects of pre-school at entry to A-level exams or on the grades students achieved in them.
• Separate analysis for the Sutton Trust (Sammons, Toth and Sylva, 2015) showed that there is lasting impact of pre-school for the specific sub-group of disadvantaged young people who were classed as ‘high achievers’ at the end of primary school.
Home learning environment
• The quality of the home learning environment EPPSE students experienced before they attended school does have a continuing effect at ages 17 and 18. EPPSE students who experienced a good early HLE were more likely to enter AS-levels, A-levels, and have higher attainment in terms of KS5 point scores.

And beyond? Well, the implications for how we and the Higher Education students with whom we engage see the role of Early Childhood is a start: coming into the sector “to make a difference” really does seem to work.