“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.