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Ants or grasshoppers?

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By Sara Wernhamco-author of Jolly Learning

Do you know the story of the Ants and the Grasshopper?

The one where the grasshopper fiddles and plays all summer long, while laughing at the ants out collecting food and preparing for winter. Then come winter, the poor old grasshopper realises that he is woefully ill-prepared, and is saved by the ants who take him in.

What has this to do with anything? Well the children starting some schools at the moment put me in mind of the grasshopper.

They ‘play’ and ‘fiddle’ all Reception (or, I should say, Early Years) long and then find they are woefully ill prepared for the next stage of their school lives.

If I am ever bold enough to mention this I am often told that the problem is not that the Early Years leaves them without the skills and knowledge they need for Year 1 onwards, but that the curriculum in Year 1 is too difficult and should be more like the EYFS.

This argument will presumably be used against the curriculum in Year 2 and in all subsequent years. Therefore by logical extension, I look forward to the ‘play based’ History GCSE, or for Maths, Geography or Physics etc.

Dirty words

I am extremely interested to know when any teaching and learning actually does start. I would also like to know where the research is that says that 7 is a better age than 5. Most five-year-olds are very eager, and very capable, of learning. ‘Work and learning’ are not dirty words to young children. They have been working at and learning things for most of their lives.

From my experience as a primary school teacher, the children who would be labelled ‘not ready to start learning’ would still not be ready at 7, 11 or 15 for that matter. They are the very children who need more help. I also feel very sorry for the vast majority who are ready and who will be held back much to their, and their parents’, frustration.

However, this ‘work and learning’ should always be appropriate to the age and ability of the children and therein lies the rub. The crux of the argument, between those who believe in ‘play based’ learning and others, is that word ‘appropriate’. Some do not consider it appropriate to teach young children anything. Everything should be discovered through play by each individual child, and they should not be burdened with having to learn anything.

What a waste of time and effort, and how frustrating for all concerned – children, teachers and parents. Let’s re-invent the wheel everyday in every activity.

Teacher: “Yes Johnny. I know I know how to write an ‘a’ but I’m not going to tell you, I want you to discover it for yourself”.

There are no doubt those already jumping up and down and baying for my blood for daring to express such views. I have been accused of desiring to have all five-year-olds shackled to a desk, unable to get up, move, play or do anything fun, just write on endless bits of paper all day. This is of course utter, utter rubbish.

Appropriate teaching

Whatever is taught should be taught appropriately, but the same method is not appropriate for every subject in the curriculum. When they are learning to form letters and write, yes, children should sit at a table, be taught how to hold the pencil and shown how to form the letters correctly. This is one small part of the school day. At other times yes, they should be playing and exploring in the sand and water trays. However, subjects such as reading and writing and maths should be with the teacher in a group or at a table. The teaching needs to be appropriate to the subject being taught as well as to the children.

I should also point out that teaching children to read and write using a scheme such as Jolly Phonics involves a great deal of fun and movement and discovery. Being a multi-sensory scheme it does just that – engages with all the senses.

The vast majority of children I have taught loved learning to read and write, and indeed expected to learn how to do so. One lad I taught used to make his father climb through a hedge to peer through the classroom window so he could know the sound for today before entering the classroom.

Most children are more than ready and extremely eager to learn and we would do them a great disservice if it became unacceptable to allow them to.

According to the curriculum each child should be working at their own level and we should be encouraging them to work at the highest levels they can.

One lad I taught used to make his father climb through a hedge to peer through the classroom window so he could know the sound for today before entering the classroom.

From what I see and hear from classroom teachers, many ‘advisors’ and their ilk are re-interpreting the curriculum to fit their own ideas – ideas that are not supported by the National Curriculum or by any independent research.

By all means go and play outside and make pictures with sticks, but do not pretend that this is writing.

Children are acutely aware of what is ‘right’ or ‘proper’ as they term it. They do not like being fobbed off and told that a few scribbles on a piece of paper is ‘real’ writing. They are well aware it is not.

Laying down foundations

While play is important in the first years of school so too is laying down the foundations in learning and knowing how to learn. These are the skills that will enable the children to cope with not just their school lives, but with the rest of their lives as well. Leave teachers to teach how they would like to, in ways that are appropriate to both the children and the subject being taught.

Only by putting both ‘play’ and ‘work’ together did the grasshopper and the ants find the perfect compromise. The ants provided the food from their stores for the grasshopper, while the grasshopper entertained the ants in the long winter evenings.

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