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Matthew O'Reilly

How to let children lead the learning

Matthew O'Reilly, Head of Juniors at St Mary's Cambridge, says play-led learning can be 'wonderfully unpredictable'

Posted by Stephanie Broad | August 01, 2016 | Teaching

The discussion around a parent’s right to delay the start of school for children born in the summer has revolved around each individual child’s maturity and the importance of learning through play. In my experience as a teacher and a parent, it is vital that children are allowed to learn through play and there is no reason why this essential part of a child’s development should be cut short when they start school. A good primary school should encourage child-led learning so that whether a child starts school at four or five years, play will be an important part of their development for years to come.

Ken Robinson believes that education is killing children’s creativity by placing too much emphasis on doing things the ‘correct’ way instead of waiting to see what children can do by themselves. In our school we spend time listening to the pupils and, if they want us to play, we ask them how they would like us to play and follow their directions

Adults – both at school and home – can provide the scaffolding for early years learning, helping children to move into their Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), and bridging the gap between what the child could achieve on its own and what they have the potential to achieve. In our school I see ZPD in action every day with teachers guiding the pupils through their play by, for example, getting into the role play area with the children to show them how a shopkeeper might use a till or how a doctor might use a stethoscope. The next time the children play out these scenarios I see them include these details in their play independently and, in this way, the adult has acted as ‘guide’, not teacher, never taking control of the play or issuing instructions but, instead, observing and extending the play. 

In this role of guide, it is important, of course, to strike the right balance between structure and freedom of play. Education author and orator, Ken Robinson, believes that education is killing children’s creativity by placing too much emphasis on doing things the ‘correct’ way instead of waiting to see what children can do by themselves. In our school we spend time listening to the pupils and, if they want us to play, we ask them how they would like us to play and follow their directions. We encourage them to take risks and explore their language and ideas further by offering up little details. For example, if a child is pretending to bake a cake, we might show them how to mime cracking an egg or sprinkling sugar, we will then stand back and watch them incorporate these actions into their play the next time around. 

Children should be able to use resources made available to them to decide the focus and direction of their play. Adults can extend their play through questioning and modelling but should only intervene when it is appropriate for the child. For example, a child who is engaged in construction play may need to be shown how to attach two blocks together before then continuing to attach the next blocks on their own. When they have built their tower the adult may then extend the play by asking who might live in that tower? And then encouraging the child’s idea of, say a brave knight: “great idea, and maybe he has to fight a fierce dragon?”. The teacher then might provide the child with model knights and dragons, and leave them to continue their play. 

As another example, in a shop role play scene, an adult might provide some food with basic price tags, blank tags for pupils to write prices on. Pupils come into the role play and start by just picking up the food with the tags and taking them to the shopkeeper at the till. An adult entering the role play may pick up an item without a price tag and ask the pupils a question about the price, thus encouraging the pupils to decide to make more tags. The children can then independently select the resources they need to make the tags. The adult can make their purchase and ask how much change they will receive. Pupils then independently add up the purchases and work out the change owed.  An adult observing this scene would see that the learning can quickly change – the pupils may decide that the shop now sells magic food and all the customers are fairies and witches, or they are going shopping to buy all the food in the whole shop for a hungry elephant who has come to tea; children's play is wonderful in its unpredictability! 

At St Mary’s Junior School, Cambridge we guide our pupils’ play-led learning through our Creative Curriculum, which starts at reception and runs throughout the school, with a different topic each half term. Topics are chosen to allow for as much creative learning as possible, encouraging investigation and acquisition of skills through trial and error which promote perseverance, critical thinking, problem solving, self-reflection and evaluation, humour and independence. This is then taken through at an age appropriate level at the Senior School to which the girls generally automatically transfer at age 11 into year seven; and thus creativity runs as a leitmotif throughout the educational journey of a St Mary's girl from the age of four to 18. 

Matthew O’Reilly is Head of Juniors at St Mary’s School, Cambridge.

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