Let’s make time to play!

Summer is on the way - let's go and make some sandcastles!

Summer is on the way – let’s go and make some sandcastles!

“Puzzles not punctuation are key to clever toddlers,” thus ran a headline above an article written by Nicola Woolcock in today’s Times newspaper. The article reports the research of David Whitebread a respected academic from the University of Cambridge, in which he suggests that parents who play games with their young children are making a greater contribution to their learning than those who try to get them to read or solve mathematical problems. At a conference in Denmark Whitebread reportedly stated that if parents want their children to do well at school they should spend more time playing with them in early life. “Focusing on early reading achievement is, at best a waste of time, at worst damaging. Instead the parent should share something they love, such as making cakes or tinkering with engines,” says Whitebread.

Hallelujah! (sorry about that  – but that’s how it makes me feel).

Here is someone prepared to go against current trends that suggest we should be cramming children with formal learning virtually from the moment of birth, and is advocating a return to the common sense that contributed to effective child development for years. The urge to erode childhood and to treat children as empty vessels in need of filling with words and numbers seems to have dominated the discourse of education of late. David Whitebread is using his position and expertise to voice a concern that many of us feel with regards the need to respect children as self regulating learners.

As Whitebread reminds us, there is a wealth of evidence to demonstrate, how children who are encouraged to engage in exploratory play, and to interact in non-formal situations with trusted adults, become much more effective learners as they progress through school. Indeed, there is sufficient data to suggest that such children achieve better academic grades and are less likely to develop inappropriate behaviours or become involved in crime. Such facts are not popular with many of today’s politicians, but they need to be heralded with a far greater fanfare than has been evident of late.

The modern view of education, usually promulgated by those who have little experience of teaching or engagement in the school system, is that we should cram children with knowledge and rules, particularly in relation to mathematics and reading, as this will equip them better for today’s society. This does, however, lead me to ask a number of questions.  Firstly, is today’s society exactly what we want to replicate for the future? Should we be preparing children to live in society as it is, or would we rather have individuals capable of the kind of creative thinking that might assist us to improve upon the many challenges that we have created? Secondly, what kind of messages do we wish to convey to today’s generation of young learners? Do we want children who value learning other than that which takes place in formal situations and young people who learn to occupy their time in a constructive manner? Or are we happy to see a generation that has no appreciation of creativity, culture, spirituality or fun because it is not valued by the adults who determine their lives?

For me the most telling part of the Times article is where it quotes David Whitebread saying-

“Play is characterised as essentially unimportant, trivial and lacking serious purpose, something that children do because they are immature and will grow out of. On the contrary, play is one of the highest achievements of the human species. It enables the development of language, the arts, culture, science, maths and technology.”

Perhaps the problem might be that today’s education policy makers have themselves forgotten how to play.

So I say three cheers for David Whitebread and all others who believe in childhood. As for those who will undoubtedly attack him over the coming weeks I say, why not go to the beach and build a sandcastle, go to the park and fly a kite, find a few puddles to jump in, climb a tree, or if you must stay at home at least get out your building blocks?

Yes, today’s blog is another of those that is a bit of a rant – and no I don’t intend to apologise! (just off to play with my grandchildren)

Incidentally, today is William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday – now there was a man who knew how to play! Happy birthday Will.

4 thoughts on “Let’s make time to play!

  1. Thanks for this post, really interesting and heartening to read! It reminds me of a recent Culture Show prog I saw on architecture where the presenter talked to architects about the construction toys they played with as children and then showed the sorts of building they then went on to design. Sadly not currently available on Iplayer (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03vkt8l) but maybe it’s on Box of Broadcasts for people who work or studio at university.

    • Thanks for this Jean, I will try to find the programme as it sounds very interesting and relevant to current debates. Hopefully some of today’s students will also see this research.

  2. Negative Nelly here 🙂 I fully agree, Richard. My kids’ teachers are obsessed with giving homework of the dull textbook variety. Earlier in the year I challenged this, asking them to provide me with evidence that this sort of activity has value. If they had no evidence, I said, they were better off leaving kids alone in the evening. Of course no evidence was forthcoming (because it does not exist), but nevertheless the teachers have continued with their blind faith in homework. I compare this to a doctor recommending a good bleeding because it was always done that way in the past. Let the kids ride a bike I say! If schools really engaged in evidence based practice as they say there would be a lot more time carved out for play. As you can imagine, I’m pretty sure there is a lot of eye-rolling when the staff see the smart alec professor Dad walking towards the school door. 🙂

  3. Hi Tim, I am sure the “Smart Alec Professor Club” has a lot of members. Perhaps we ought to have a club meet sometime! I am sure that the fact that our two sons attended scouts, went a swimming club, played cricket, rode the bikes all over Europe and learned musical instruments made a significant contribution to their status as well rounded, respectful and enthusiastic young adults – and despite these frivilous evening activities they both achieved well academically. Incidentally I am assure by my youngest son who is a doctor that he very rarely sees need to use the leeches these days!

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