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Reflections Magazine : Issue 50
REFLECTIONS • GOWRIE AUSTRALIA • AUTUMN 2013 - ISSUE 50 7 totally teacher-directed. This is neither play-based learning nor effective teaching. According to the EYLF, intentional teaching can be both pre-planned and spontaneous and doesn't have to be teacher controlled. It is about noticing what children are doing, recognising learning or the potential for learning and responding in an appropriate way. It is about educators drawing on their specialised knowledge, their understanding of individual children and the curriculum, to be both proactive and responsive to children's interests and explorations. I think John Bennett, one of the writers of the OECD 'Starting Strong' reports, sums it up well: Effective pedagogy includes the provision of enriched learning and play environments, freely chosen activities by children, and responsive accompaniment of children by educators who guide, inform, model and instruct, but who do not dominate the child's thinking (Bennett, 2005: 18). Now, I would argue that our current, prior to school curriculum supports these approaches to play and learning. However, I am concerned about what happens next for these children and what I perceive to be diminishing play-based learning opportunities in school. There are often much sharper distinctions between work, play and learning in school. In some schools, work and learning is seen to happen in the classroom and play is relegated to mid morning and lunch breaks. While 'play' is mentioned frequently in the EYLF, it doesn't appear at all in the Australian School Curriculum, not even in the Foundation Year. In the broader community, many continue to view school as the starting point for 'real learning' and, drawing on their own experiences of school, expect teaching to take the form of direct instruction. But does this mean there is no place for play-based learning in school? I haven't found any evidence to support this view. A review of ECEC across OECD countries identified two different perspectives on curriculum: those countries who advocated a play-based approach to learning until around 7 years; and those who advocated a more formal approach, based on fostering academic knowledge and skills from the outset (Bennett, 2005). It is interesting to note that on international comparison, the countries that continue to do best on educational indicators (cf. OECD, 2012) tend to be those who advocate play-based learning approaches and a later start to formal learning. Beginning formal academic work too early has been found to detract from children's enjoyment of learning and school, impact on their motivation to learn and diminish learning dispositions (Walsh et al., 2006). Yet here in Australia, we seem to be following countries such as the United Kingdom, where children enter formal school at a young age (around 4 years), teachers plan and assess learning against tightly prescribed outcomes, and school results are published in a national league table. This context puts both children and teachers under pressure to reach externally imposed learning goals. In some circumstances, this pressure seems to be reducing, if not negating, the opportunity for play-based learning, even in non-compulsory Prep1. While only single snapshots, let me share a few recent personal anecdotes: • A talented and dedicated colleague told me recently that her school had abandoned their Prep perceptual motor program (a program to strengthen children's balance, coordination, gross and fine motor skills) because they simply couldn't fit it into their curriculum. • A parent, also a teacher, showed me the laminated alphabet board that she was given at her Prep interview to help her to work with her son over the Christmas holidays. • A parent told me she recently attended a Prep information session and queried why all of the printed information had Year 1 at the top. Apologising for the oversight, the teacher explained that everything they were doing now was previously done in Year 1. In many Queensland schools, units of work extend over 5 weeks and children are tested against the achievement benchmarks in the Australian Curriculum, from the beginning of the year, even in Prep. The result is that many teachers are resorting to a greater level of direct and formal instruction and there is reduced opportunity for play-based learning. There simply isn't time. Instead, time is taken up by teaching content, undertaking standardised assessments and hitting targets - disregarding the evidence that indicates that 'how' we teach is equally, if not more important, than 'what' we teach. Some concluding comments I value play-based learning as a context for lifelong learning, relevant in ECEC, school and many other adult contexts. While I think that children have the right to play, I don't harbour romantic or universal notions of children's play. I recognise that play happens in a social and cultural context and is not always natural, fair and fun for all players (Grieshaber & McArdle, 2010). I also recognise that simply providing opportunity for play does not guarantee meaningful learning, cognitive growth, social awareness or emotional wellbeing. Drawing on the EYLF, I see play 1 In Queensland the Preparatory (Prep) Year targets children aged 3 ½ to 4 ½ years and is equivalent to Kindergarten in some other states.
Reflections Magazine Issue 51