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:

• 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.

Attention sp

William Pooley raises some interesting questions here about attention span. Should we be “so willing to assume that every individual has a fixed ‘span’ (which can be stretched, or curtailed, perhaps, but still exists as a kind of objective measure)”?   The notion of us needing to maintain or enhance our focus is something Jason Elsom raised earlier this week in his tweet “How to focus in the age of…  SQUIRREL!!!” (@JasonElsom).  In both cases there are undertones of the now well-disseminated TED talk by Ken Robinson in which he claims too much of education is anaesthetising children.

I’d like, however, just to take an anecdotal sideways look at this.

Boys, we all know (because we are told we all know) have poor fine motor control, poor attention span., &c., &c. While William P is right that a serious study needs to be done on attention (I once found some interesting evidence of English monks in the Middle Ages muttering about long, rambling sermons, and attention during prayer has long been the focus of spiritual writers, but that’s even more of a digression), he is also right that this discourse of attention itself needs sustained enquiry. What follows is merely a snapshot.

Evan was having a good time – on and off – with the cars one week. Evan was four. One day he found that smashing trucks down a plank meant that the car crash was more spectacular than brumming them together. He built a ramp with planks and bricks to stop the trucks from falling off the sides. So far, an hour has passed. Group time, tidy-up time. Home time.

The next day he returns to the play, builds up the ramp, asks for some technical help about stopping the planks from sliding off the bricks (masking tape) and returns to his exploration of car crashes. He spends half and hour on this, goes to the loo, comes back – you can see where this is going. His key worker comes and sits with him from time to time, asking questions, finding masking tape, suggesting better cars – and by now fetching them from down the classroom where Evan is by now getting them to zip to. Two hours pass that day.

By the end of the third day, Evan has, in effect, devised an experiment to see whether how steep the ramp is affects how far the cars go. His key worker’s job on his Foundation Stage Profile is nearly done – if that’s a factor here.

My point is that the ‘discourse of attention span,’ when it hits the early years needs to take account of motivation: “Can concentrate on a self-chosen task” is a different thing (almost) entirely from “Can do as s/he is told for at least five minutes without wandering off.” Confusing the two risks misunderstanding the nature of self-motivated learning.


Suffering from Childhood

Again the thoughtful and thought-provoking Ken Robinson talking about the nature of learning.
Learning or compliance? Teaching or testing? I won’t comment much more, but it does tie in to some extent with last night’s post about my position as an HE lecturer; what he says about teaching children also applies, mutatis mutandis to many University classes, too.

Maybe that Latin tag is ill-advised?

Well being and the curriculum

The battle recommences. From the noise of battles between EY specialists and the Labour Government at the height of its sense of power in the 90s come similar misunderstandings from the present Government. Liz Truss, whom I have mentioned before,  has again become part of the whirlwind, although a quick trawl of the web this evening finds that her interjections today are not visible, not even on  her own website. Puzzling: if I can find her words later, I’ll link them, them, of course.

As a sideline, it should be noted that BBC reportage is, as so often, skewed, so that it reports on “Starting School.” It’s not about the date of entry, or the age of the child, but of the pedagogy, the approach to teaching and learning, that best supports a child for their learning today and their learning tomorrow.

The Save Childhood Movement echoes (?is a reincarnation of?) the Toxic Childhood movement that gained media attention with Sue Palmer’s book. Its very attractive website (linked here) has some powerful things to say about how “Play is not a frivolous thing,” “Some of the best and deepest learning is slow” and “Healthy neurological development relies on real experiences in the real world” – Nothing I’d disagree with, and I see the points, too, that they make in their letter to the Telegraph today.

I’m tempted to suggest that the division, however, doesn’t exist where the battle lines have been drawn. It’s not about formal learning being needed earlier for disadvantaged children; it’s also not about well-being and play taking over the whole curriculum. For me, it’s about how people who know – and the list of signatories to the Telegraph letter contains a host of people who do know – deserve to be listened to by policy makers.


Sense of Purpose

Liz Truss has made some comments which, if accurately reported in this morning’s Guardian, suggest that she and I sit at opposite ends of a spectrum of views of how children learn best.  “Free-flow play is not compulsory,” she states in the Mail. I will be addressing this as a key theme in my class tomorrow morning  – a gift ( as is Toby Young’s rather sideways defence in the Telegraph) for my summative class on Play and Pedagogy of the semester!

But we do need to look behind the rhetoric and the snarling with which the Guardian message boards are filling up. The bile is extraordinary, a tap turned on to release a slurry pit of anger. Maybe that was her intention; it certainly doesn’t help a reasoned voice to be heard in response. Giving children a sense of purpose is important, and I worry that this sort of statement is liable to drown out a lot of good work that thoughtful people do with their own children and as paid professionals or volunteers.  Few parents (or grandparents) want a bear pit at home, any more than a nursery worker wants a block play corner wrecked or Lord of The Flies in the garden – but that’s not what actually happens; by building on children’s interests that grow from adult stimuli (a book, a song, some colour in the water tray) children are encouraged to develop a sense of purpose. This is autonomous learning: satnav politeness isn’t the aim, and in any case politeness is best modelled rather than instructed, which requires, for one thing, warm, genuine interest from the adults around the child.

And here is part of my chapter from our book Themes and Debates, blogged last summer. I note an increase recently in people finding my longer extract on by searching for “Formal and informal curricula,” too.

New toys

Thanks to Paul Wickens, I have been able to play with word clouds, using the Wordle software. Of course these kinds of  results need interpreting – but note the “must” in the Wordle cloud word frequency for the first chapter of EYFS – and am I right the wordle for chapter I have laboured so hard at looks rather woolly?

Or is this just the font?

The new header image, btw, is a Wordle of the introduction to EYFS.