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The Power of Play

This week we are joined by Charlotte Dawson - an experienced Early Years educator who is now moving into the opposite end of the teaching curve and teaching GCSE & A Level! She shares her wisdom on The Power of Play and why play is important to learners of all ages. You can follow her fabulous Instagram page at @earlyyearstosecondary

The Power of Play – by Charlotte Dawson


A decade has passed since I qualified teaching; seven years in Early Years and three years in Year One. Within that time there have been countless changes in pedagogy and approach to teaching our youngest learners. As my own ethos and beliefs as a practitioner developed I never ventured far from that very special pocket of time between Nursery and Year One where curious minds reach their Early Learning Goals and prepare for a career in our education system. Whilst I still had years in the tank as an Early Years teacher, after a plot twist I now find myself transitioning from one end of such system to the other; GCSE and A-Level teaching of Health and Social Care.

I’ve chosen to write this blog on learning through play as regardless of age I believe we are a playful species, eager for new information, programmed to have fun and most of all, memorable learning is the learning that sticks. So how do we make sure we remember? How do we implant new learning into long term memory so that it can be retrieved for years to come? For some of us memorable learning is being asked on the spot a challenging calculation that brings about sweaty palms and a dry mouth, not exhibits we want to see in our classroom. Learning that is playful however is memorable for far greater reasons.

I’ll explain now a memory of learning through play that I can recall fondly, perhaps I can remember it so vividly because of the joy it brought or maybe because of my own sweaty palms and determination for success. It happened to be during an Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale (ECERS) assessment by our Early Years Improvement Officers. Plural. I will rename the little poppets James and Sarah, they’re the pupils not the EYIO’s! It was mid-morning, after snack time on a fresh Spring day and I was observing the pupils who had flowed into the outdoor area; a mostly grassy garden with enchanting willow arch and one curved sloped path just perfect for cracking the ability to balance on a scooter. We had a several scooters, however one was always more appealing than others, to adults we couldn’t recognise the difference, nonetheless James was eager to take control. “I want to use the scooter”, as Early Years Practitioners we are well rehearsed in responding “You can have a turn after….” In this instance rather than switching interest like the force of the wind James surprised me “well when will that be?”

Four words that changed what followed and became one of the most successful experiences of playful, real-life learning I have had the joy to facilitate. After a brief pause, my spontaneous planning in the moment wheel turned and my response was to suggest timing Sarah drag the scooter up the slope and racing back down with enviable stability. An opportunity was now available to teach the measure of time in a standard unit, something that is beyond our Early Learning Goals but nonetheless was accessible to James. Whilst he dashed to collect an I-Pad I was able to glance at my objective led planning to remind myself of the specific objectives for James’ learning that week.

After demonstrating how to use the timer with the iPad, James’ interest was captured, he was fixated in identifying the numbers roll by, identifying and counting to twenty and beyond. (There goes that ELG we were trying to achieve)! We extended this learning experience as James wanted to write down the numbers. After considering where he could find the resources, he returned with chalk board and chalk, hello PSED objectives. Here came the focussed teaching of the formation of number 5, using our catchy number song, a digit that until this time he had been unable to form correctly. He was now, after a few attempts, recording with control and ease, the formation hopefully stored in his muscle memory. Physical Development AND Mathematics, all whilst still waiting his turn on the scooter. This was his learning, and he was in control.

The interest was growing around the small picnic bench at the top of the slope; James was now stationed, relying on his phonics skills to decode and record names of all pupils riding scooters and measuring the time it took for them to ride from top to bottom of our busy track. In this short snippet of time in our day James had made progress in all seven areas of the Early Years Foundation Stage. Had I rung the bell, clapped the rhythm or called the triangle group to complete a teacher planned activity this would not have happened. His learning would have changed course, perhaps even to an activity that he had very little interest in and let’s be honest, disinterested children are not having fun. They are not experiencing memorable learning.

Our role as teachers is to ensure children achieve their next steps in the simplest way possible and we want them to remember it the next day and all the days to come. We need to make that learning stick and to do so we need to immerse ourselves in their world rather than bringing them into ours. In the EYFS, we have a short window of opportunity where learning through play is encouraged, essential and simply magic. Beyond the EYFS, the curriculum and ethos call for different demands, which brings me to where I am today; navigating the necessity to make learning at the other end of the education system stick for our eldest learners.

- If you would like to read more about playful learning, I can highly recommend the blog/books written by Alistair Bryce-Clegg and ‘Can I Go and Play Now’ by Greg Bottrill.

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