I try not to go over too much old ground in these posts, but sometimes there is a conspiracy of coincidences that just come together. Over this past weekend the main catalyst came while I was having lunch with Hannah, my elder daughter.
We were visiting friends as their daughter is close in age to our younger daughter, and she had invited us (Eleanor) to her birthday party. As this party was ostensibly geared for 7-year-old girls, both Hannah (10½) and I (nearly 44) made ourselves scarce. We walked into town for a bit of Dad-and-Daughter time. Often this is restricted to a few minutes at bedtime or when I pick her up after Guides, but on Saturday we had a couple of hours to ourselves. We installed ourselves in a café, she ordered the biggest milkshake on the menu, and I tried not to worry that people would think I was a Divorced Dad having my alternate-weekend access. Actually, I’m just having a bit of lunch with my daughter ON OUR OWN…
We started talking about our plans for a summer holiday – we’re hoping to go back to SW France – and I asked Hannah if there were any things she would like to do again, or places she’d like to revisit. I was expecting something along the lines of swimming in the rivers, but instead, after some thought, she declared…
I know what I’d like to do but will never be able to…
I tried not to look concerned, wondering where this was going.
…I’d like to go back in time and see the look on Oliver Cromwell’s face when I play him Gangnam Style… I’d take back the biggest speakers we could find, and I’d get Jack Wright (her classmate) to do the dancing. I’d love to see his face…
OK. I hadn’t thought of that one.
She knows Olive Cromwell was a puritan, and the puritans were no fans of dancing (thankyou, Horrible Histories!). So what would happen if…
I’ve written before about the innate creativity in children, and their fearlessness at expressing it. Sir Ken Robinson has spoken and written marvellously for years about the dangers of our education system treating all children the same, assuming that one type of intelligence is more important than others. When Hannah started learning to swim, she couldn’t seem to focus on swimming in straight lines across the pool. Even by my standards her concentration span is flaky, but she has an imagination that regularly surprises me, making lateral leaps I can barely fathom.
Later during the weekend I read an article in which the Tory Government finally completed the circle of demotivating every stage of UK education. Having already dealt with secondary and primary schools, Michael Gove has let loose his minister Liz Truss to champion changes in nursery and pre-school care.
In an impressive double-whammy, the Government plans to relax rules to allow nurseries to take on more children without having to hire more staff, yet at the same time, according to media reports, Ministers want youngsters to start being taught reading and maths at a younger age.
Nursery staff have a job of educating. It is not just looking after children.
But, and I’ll say this as calmly as I can, playing is an education for toddlers. They learn motor skills when they start to make marks with crayons; they learn social skills when they share crayons; they develop self-awareness and consideration for others when they take turns with the crayons. They build their imagination when they create stories, dress up, dance to music, listen to stories being read to them, sing songs. And at the same time, caring for pre-school children is really labour-intensive: it just is. Young children require more help and attention, socially, emotionally and physically, and it’s commensurately tiring for the carers.
While I was digesting this (IMHO) insane and inappropriate plan, I also discovered this article from nearly 5 years ago, suggesting precisely the opposite approach to that of our increasingly prescriptive Government. Self-regulating make-believe play is immensely important to develop the skills that will later be important for more formal education. But…
Despite the evidence of the benefits of imaginative play, however, even in the context of preschool young children’s play is in decline. According to Yale psychological researcher Dorothy Singer, teachers and school administrators just don’t see the value.
“Because of the testing, and the emphasis now that you have to really pass these tests, teachers are starting earlier and earlier to drill the kids in their basic fundamentals. Play is viewed as unnecessary, a waste of time,” Singer says. “I have so many articles that have documented the shortening of free play for children, where the teachers in these schools are using the time for cognitive skills.”
It seems that in the rush to give children every advantage — to protect them, to stimulate them, to enrich them — our culture has unwittingly compromised one of the activities that helped children most. All that “wasted time” was not such a waste after all.
Childish imagination is a marvel of the human brain. Impossible leaps of faith and vision can be magical and inspiring. In a final coincidence this past weekend we were reading the wonderful Emily Brown stories, in which the titular heroine plays with her favourite toy rabbit, Stanley, exploring the Amazonian rainforest or reaches of Outer Space, all from the comforts of her garden or kitchen.
When did we become afraid of our children being children? I’m as middle-class as they come, but where’s the clamour of angry parents demanding their children get a ‘proper’ education from their pre-school nursery? I don’t doubt that Gove et al. genuinely believe they’re doing the right thing, but when did sincerity and honest belief make something OK? That didn’t go so well with Iraq and WMD.
I Reckon this Government is systematically ignoring the weight of expert evidence and best practice to instead pursue an agenda based on their personal experiences and prejudices. But they’re messing with children at their most vulnerable, seeking to make childcare cheaper when it’s most important that providers don’t cut corners. Parents don’t want the reassurance their toddlers are getting an education; they want to know their toddlers are safe and happy.