Play is not for the faint hearted

There is snow in some parts of the UK currently and some schools are closed. Let’s all get outside. It’s healthy and good for us to be active and get exercise which raises the heart rate right? Sadly some schools and nurseries have had requests from parents not to let their child play out in the snow as the cold could make them ill. Concerned staff were asking colleagues on social media for evidenced based articles to show parents. Sad that any child should miss out on the joy of playing in snow, testing what they can do to run, jump and slide in the snow. Small children particularly need to learn to move and refine their coordination in differing conditions. The baby taking their first steps doesn’t grow into the child playing complex sports without experience and self knowledge of what their body can do.

In other news children are starting school with underdeveloped hands because of the limited range of fine motor experience which results from more time on screens and less active play with a variety of toys. Free play requires a safe space to roam and be active and even noisy. If a child is mostly indoors this can be restricted by both the environment and the level of tolerance of adult carers. Occupational therapists are now treating more children who might otherwise have developed these skills as nature intended – through play.

A child who attends an early years settings is getting the balance of free play that they need and parents get information on their child’s progress which can develop their awareness of what their child needs to thrive. However the early needs sector is under pressure to focus on the beginnings of maths and literacy ready for when they start school at four years old despite evidence from the rest of the world that have a later starting age that reading by 11 is not affected.

If an early start was an advantage, the UK would excel in any international comparisons, instead it lags behind. There’s a saying “if you want things to change do something different” Instead this government is asking early years and reception classes to intensify the early start. Plans to check on the impact of teaching will include a Baseline Test when children start school to allow scrutiny of the success of each school. Now this sounds sensible to those versed in corporate performance management. Take a base line, add input, then measure. Sadly small children can’t be reliably tested like that as 4 year olds. As a psychologist with many years experience in testing let me remind you of the reasons.

  1. Standardisation – standardised administration is essential to ensure all children see and hear the same thing. No coaxing, no pauses no extra instructions. A robotic and not very child friendly experience and few little ones cope with this odd experience. Especially unsettling when you are just getting to know this teacher and then they act in a cold and unhelpful way.
  2. Reliability – children don’t necessarily do something to order easily or consistently. It is highly likely that testing will be underestimate for some children.
  3. Validity – does the test really measure what you need to know? It may look right but face validity, as it is termed, is often deceptive. Test construction is a long process with lots of practice testing needed to select the right items for the test. This is not planned for this baseline.
  4. Predictability – Given that the baseline won’t be repeated annually it will have to link to other tests relevant for older children.  Do the results on the initial baseline link with later performance measures in maths and literacy? Test constructors need pilot tests and examination of later test results to ensure high scorers on the first test become later high achievers.

This brings me back round to my beginning. Play has a role in child development, it is not expendable when parents and teachers think their are better ways for a child to spend their time. Childhood has a purpose and cannot be set aside or accelerated. We seem to understand physical development reasonably well. The need to crawl and walk if impeded slows development. This is obvious and can be seen but our understanding of mental development is much more difficult to acquire from everyday experience.

Knowledge of child development is undervalued. This is evident in the link between pay and status in teaching and the age of the child. Secondary teachers have higher status than primary and early years specialists aren’t even on the same pay scale. Psychologists like myself who comment on education matters are often dismissed by secondary teachers as consultants ie only teachers understand education. Our colleagues in early years and primary are more aware of the importance of understanding the whole child and not just their performance with the curriculum in front of them.

We need to see a real culture shift which puts the child at the centre of the process of planning in education. We need to call upon evidence from child development to create a learning environment which is age appropriate and sensitive to any special needs. Play and child development are not soft subjects which can be side-lined as irrelevant. Play is essential for experience and practice in all areas of thinking, learning and communicating with others. We cannot afford to curtail early development as expendable. Play is practice, practice which explores each new emerging skill and consolidates it. Play allows the child freedom to learn about themselves as well as the world around them. Play is essential, without it essential skills are at risk of becoming stunted and not merely the ability to hold a pencil.

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About hooperj

I am a child psychologist and wellbeing coach and author of What Children Need to be Happy, Confident and Successful: Step by Step Positive Psychology to Help Children Flourish which is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
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