Trampolines, sandboxes and more. In this episode Andy, Emily and Adam discuss the importance of play. Does it need a rebrand? Is it a waste of time? Plus, a mention of Jean Piaget's learning theory.
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Hi, I'm Andy Psarianos.
Hello, I'm Emily Guille-Marrett.
Hi, I'm Adam Gifford.
This is the School of School podcast. Welcome to the School of School podcast.
Hello, and welcome. We are talking about play in the early years. Play generally, but I think early years is, is kind of where we're really focusing on today. So, this is a really interesting one for me, because I absolutely love working on products for the early years space. And I find myself going constantly into classrooms or conferences and, and entering into debates about play. There's too much play. There's not enough play, you know, learning through play. And I thought it would be a really interesting one for us to all talk about. And one thing I wanted to ask you, Adam, is, do you think that there is a place for play in the early years classroom?
Oh, thanks for this, Emily you've passed me... You've passed me something that's really interesting, right? So I've heard this said where, "Oh, you, you're a certain year's teacher. Oh, all you do is play, right?" So what you've done is just put it over to me, so I have to deal with, with this situation. And I think the thing is, is that I don't get, what I don't understand is why people take such a sort of binary view of play. As if on one hand play is something that you cannot learn from. And so it's some, somehow a slight that if you say, "oh, you know, all the children do in the certain year group is play." Yeah. And then on the other hand, we know for a fact that you learn through play. I mean, so it's honestly ridiculous to suggest, otherwise.
Think of bouncing on a trampoline. When I grew up, we didn't have pads and walls and all that sort of stuff around trampoline that, you know, that children do these days. We learned that if you bounced your mate and he flew off the side, you got in trouble with your parents. Yeah? So we needed to learn how to synchronize our bouncing and those sorts of things. So A, your mate doesn't end up with broken bones and A&E, and secondly, you don't get told off by parents. Now, that's just a really simple crude analogy, but play is sophisticated. Play is massively sophisticated.
I don't know, I always think that it has the potential to be a touchy subject because it's sort of, it backhandedly suggests that we are dumbing down education through play. And I actually think that play is sophisticated. And if we start to manage it. You know, if you look at the particularly Piaget's work and looking at that, that initial stage of exploration and just being free to do what you want, and then starting to structure it slightly, just as a teacher dropping in something,
"Oh, what are you doing there? You're making something or go on, what are you making towers? Oh, how, how big a tower do you reckon you can make until it falls over? No, do you reckon you can do that. Oh, go on."
Like that sort of structuring of play. That's, that's essential to learning. We know this. We can apply it. Not just in say the early years, where often that word "play" is associated to. We can't do it all the way through. We do it with adults.
"Oh, I wonder how many shapes you can fold that piece of paper up into?"
We deal with teachers all the time, because there's a point to the learning. So I just think in the first instance, we need to get over this emotional relationship to the word, "play". To think that you can't learn from play is ridiculous. So let's not get precious if we suggest that children learn through play or in your classroom, the children play.
Yeah, they do. Yeah. I'd encourage that in every classroom, for sure. Dress it up however you want. But what we're saying is that's a phase of exploration and play is part of that. But play also has rules, it has boundaries, it has structures. It has all of those things that you could apply to a lesson. Right? So what's the difference? I don't know the difference. Do you know the difference, Andy? Would you? If I said to you, right, what's the difference? If I said I'm doing a maths lesson or we're playing with some numbers or playing with some shapes.
Yeah. Well, so yeah, I mean, I don't even know. I don't even know how you would teach most maths. So I'm talking about younger children here. I don't even know how you could teach a new concept without introducing some form of play in the sense of exploration and having a bit of unstructured learning before you structure is exactly that process that you just described. Right? You need to give people a chance to not merely assimilate ideas. Right? But to accommodate them. And the only way they can do that is through exploration. What am I talking about? If you introduce a new concept to someone they need to find boundaries, right? So it's kind of like you know, if you give kids a bunch of tangrams and say, "Make some rectangles". Right? Like you see, you put a few restrictions on it, but that's really play. Right?
It's like, there's no, there's very unstructured. You, just a few structures around it so that you can get some learning out of it. That play element is critical. Right? And it, and it's a great way to introduce the concept of area. Right? Through that exploration. Like moving these shapes around and seeing how they fit together and how many different ways can I find to make a rectangle with a tangram and what's the difference? How can I? Oh, I can make one that is the same size as two squares. Oh, I can find another way. Oh, here's another, here's the third way. Here's the fourth way. Oh, I can't make one that's the same size as five squares. Why is that? Now there's a lot of learning going on there. Right? There's a lot of learning going on there.
So Emily, my question for you. Cause I think out of the three of us, I'm, I hazard guess is that you've spent more time in early year settings than Andy and I. I think that would probably be fair to say. Why is, why is play so emotive? Why is the word? Cause I don't know if you've found that, but I've found that there is connotations attached to it. It just tends to be an emotive word when it comes to education. Why, why is that?
Well, I think there is this sense, there's always this pushing boundary. Between pushing, pulling down what education and learning looks like from the top down or whether we should actually be taking it from the early years and moving it up. i.e. more play, but understood. But I think one of the problems is you guys have been talking about it, but I mean, I'm not a teacher, but I work with a lot of teachers and early years is one of the areas I've like done a lot of time, spent a lot of time in. And I'll give you a story. And it's one of my favorites and it's the sandbox story. So in an early year's environment, I think that we have, I don't know whether it's cultural or what it is, but there's this kind of the in the early years, classroom is very, can be perceived to be chaotic or that the play somehow doesn't have enough formality to it.
You know, you've got the, you've got the, they might be cooking over here. The children might be in the role play area over there. They might be playing with their building blocks and doing amazing towers. And not necessarily, perhaps people, whether it's someone inspecting or reviewing, having a perception that there is learning, you know, taking place. So we've got to evidence this. Where's the learning, show me the learning. So I think that there could be something around perception of what learning looks like. It's a bit like the old fashioned sense that to be in a library, it had to be so silent in order for book borrowing and book learning to take place. So there might be something about the environment and the understanding, but the sand tray area I love, because this is a little bit about what you were saying about Piaget and this idea of, of what learning is taking place. What questions are being asked.
And I love this story of a very sort of senior literacy consultant, I know, going into an early years' environment and being shown the phonics and some examples of phonics through play that were taking place. And it's the sandbox where loads of letters had been thrown in the sandbox. Loads and loads of letters. And the kids are in the sandbox, and they're all playing. And they were saying, "yeah, we've been introducing doing phonics. And we've put a load of letters in the sandbox for the kids to play with."
And my friend was like, "What are you doing?" Like it blew her mind. "Why are you putting letters in the sandbox? And you are calling that learning through play, what are they learning? Like, why don't you just use the sandbox to play with sand blocks? They use it to kind of, they could be maybe exploring something in particular, or they could be doing volume, like filling up a bucket and just, just let them play. Why have you filled, why have you put the letters in there? What so that the kid next to you can pick up a letter, say the wrong name to the kid next to them who picks up a different one. What learning is taking place?"
And I do think that's a lovely example of this misunderstanding of learning through play. Just because it was a sand tray. Because it was play and you threw some letters in it. That's not, that's not learning through play. I always go to that when I think about play in the early years and learning through play, and what is the purpose? Because sometimes as you said, play takes place and who knows this so well, Lego originally, that was kind of, you know, there's so much learning that takes place just through play. And that's okay to have a place for the children to explore.
And they are developing in their learning. Sometimes there needs to be structured play, but don't just throw a load of numbers into the water tray and say, "We're doing, we're doing 1 to 10 this week, 1 to 9 this week." Because you've just thrown some numbers in a water tray. But if you are being thoughtful and really good, early year's professionals, they're doing interesting learning. Genuine, and structuring genuine learning through play. And they may come up. I've seen examples where, you know, the staff have had really interesting discussions about what words they're going to be using, what story they've done, what picture book they've done. And where could you use some of those words when you're doing the cookery or when you're do, you know, when you're in the role play area. Or when you are, you know, so it's all about just taking that time, which, which we all know good early year's teachers do.
I think the problem is of the words that are being used, right? So you've got play on one hand and I've always heard that the progression from play is formalized learning. Yeah? So you're almost separating this out, and I would argue that there were, that this labeling of it, I'm sure at some point was done with a healthy dose of cynicism. That those guys play. We formally learn. Now, if you applied exploration that covers all year groups. The problem's gone. You know, learn through exploration. It's no longer that you can't attach cynicism to it because everyone's doing it. So I just reckon it needs a rebrand. Simple. That's all.
Yeah, I think you're right. I think at the heart that's the problem, is that people associate play with wasting time, right? And like, play is what you do when you don't have work to do. You know, and that's at the heart, the problem. But at the heart is that this idea that learning for really young children, it's much more fundamental skills that we're looking for. Socialization, communication, right? These are pre, these are, pre-skills. What I mean by that is its like, when you look at, when you talk about numeracy, right? In early year's, what you got to consider is what are the pre numeracy skills? So you know that in year one, they need to, they need to be able to do rote counting up until a hundred. Let's say, right? That's important. Right?
But what do they need to be able to do before they can even do that? Right? They need to be able to put things in sets and understand that you put things in sets in order to count them. Right? That's to say that when you're counting the children, you're not counting the chairs, you're counting a set of children. You're not counting the chairs that the children are sitting on. Okay. That may sound like a nonsense. Yeah. But for like a four year old, that's not a nonsense statement. Right? That's the kinds of things that they're struggling with. Right? And also when you're counting the children, you don't count the teacher that's, those are sets. They need to learn these things. Right? So what are the skills that build up to being able to put things in sets? Well, you need to be able to, you put things in groups, right? You need to be able to group things.
You need to be able to create categories of things. These are all triangles. These are all yellow. These are all big. These are all small. Right? How do you learn those things? Well you learn those things by doing that stuff with things, right? Like, and you also need to learn that, you know, you need to work with somebody else, right? So when you're all standing around that sandpit, there's somebody standing next to you and you can't just do whatever you want. You have to do. Because if you can't learn that, if you need to learn that, right?
Some kids will come to school knowing that already, because they have brothers and sisters, other kids will not know how to interact with other children. And you need to learn that. And how do you learn that? You learn that by playing, because if you can't do that in year one, good luck trying to teach them how to count rote to a hundred, right? Some kids will already know that, but maybe it's not that maybe it's something else. You know, whatever it is, that's in the curriculum that you need to teach them in year one.
They need to be somewhat socialized. That's a skill that you learn through playing, right? Those skills are critical. If you don't have those skills, you can't teach those kid's anything. Because they'll be wrestling with the kids sitting next to them and play is the only way they will learn it. And you can't assume that they've learned those things when they come to preschool.
I'm listening to you talking there Andy. Absolutely. It reminds me of, you know, go right back into those early years. And there's perceptions of what evidence learning looks like. So, you know, handwriting skills. You need fine and gross motor skills. You're going to get that through play. It might be getting those lovely big tweezers, you know, where you pick the bead's up and move them across. That's giving you the pincer movement and it's, it's giving the strength to be able to hold a pen or a pencil. That's play, but it's like absolutely critical to the next stage. You know? And I think that not having that deep knowledge of like the different developmental skills that happen in to a child in the early year's, can make people really misunderstand. Like mark making and painting. You know, all of that stuff is absolutely critical.
Alright. So go on. What are we going to summarize here? What play in early year's? Should we do more? Should we do less? Is it overrated? Is it underrated?
We should value it. And everybody has to go into the early year's. And I do genuinely believe play is absolutely critical. And I think increasingly for society, play is important.
I think. What do I think? If you want your four year old to be a mathematician when they grow up, throw away the flashcards and go throw a ball.
I like that.
No, I just think like you too. I just think play. I think go for it and value it. Like give it, value it for goodness sake. Go and play and enjoy it. And you can't help, but learn. Even if you're trying your hardest and you pull out all of your cynical best, you can't help, but learn when you do it.
But with a little ellipses or brackets or something just to say, but don't go and say, you're doing phonics and shove, a load of letters in the sand tray.
That's not play anyway. That sounds a bit boring to me. Eh, its oh no, no, no.
No one plays like that.
You could be doing. It could be. That could be a math lesson.
Right? Could be a math lesson. Anyway, there you have it. Go and play with your kids. Throw away those flashcards.
Thank you for joining us on the School of School podcast.