In October 2013 around 400 pupils arrived at their primary school in North London to find that a UFO had crashed into their playground. The object, which appeared to be some sort of spacecraft marked with what looked like an alien language, had ripped up pieces of tarmac and was now wedged firmly in the ground. The whole area was cordoned off and a local police officer guarded the scene with a grave look on his face. A man dressed in a radiation suit was apparently searching for evidence. Astonished, the pupils were led inside the building and asked to write what they thought the best explanation for what was happening.
For some of the children, well-versed in the conventions of science-fiction and fantasy, this was an opportunity for their imaginations to let rip: to bring the excitement and drama that had hitherto existed only in stories into the real world. For others, whose horizons barely stretched beyond their own neighbourhoods and in whose families books and stories were not a significant presence, it was a rare opportunity to imagine and engage with new possibilities, above and beyond the everyday. For some of the older children, there was almost a philosophical exercise taking place as they grappled with matters of skepticism, doubt, evidence and explanation. When you can’t believe your eyes, how else can you try to account for what is taking place? To most of the pupils in Year 6 there was no doubt this must be some sort of elaborate hoax. And the fact that the teachers seemed neither to share their suspicion nor to be as concerned as you would expect adults to be in such a situation suggested that they were “in on it.” For those who spent the day intent on proving the lie, the learning was as powerful as for those who preferred to embrace the silliness.
In reality the spaceship had been built by the father of one of the pupils, positioned in the playground with fake rubble around it and a local police officer (a tremendously good sport) had agreed to come along at drop-off time to add a sense of authenticity to the scene.
I can already hear the retorts of the trolls and reactionary keyboard warriors: why were the school’s staff wasting time on this sort of frivolous nonsense when the children were supposed to be doing real learning? The problem with advocating the “importance of play” in education is that it is a position so easily misrepresented and twisted into straw men by those who wish to defend a dry and joyless vision of “rigour.” In the case of the UFO visit, the member of staff who led the project was one of the most rigorous people I’ve ever known, most of whose time was spent relentlessly drilling the copious amounts of maths and English knowledge pupils in Year 6 need to excel in national tests. Anyone who has ever tried to teach children (or anyone else) anything recognises that learning cannot always be entirely abstract.
For play to have become such a ubiquitous part of childhood in almost any human culture (except, perhaps tellingly, when serious trauma or abuse has taken place) suggests it must have offered some sort of selection advantage to our ancestors. The simplest explanation seems to be that playing evolved as learning behaviour. We are not the only animal that exhibits it after all. Playing involves mimicking the behaviour of adults, imagining new possibilities, inventing and sticking to rules and testing one’s own limits and abilities. In short, it is the very means through which children practise the skills you need to thrive as a human being.
Playing is, of course, something that most children will do of their own accord and for this reason many will argue it should be kept for their “free time,” and that what happens in school should deal with the “other stuff” they need to learn to succeed in a modern society (even though it’s far from clear that’s what the primary national curriculum offers.) I am sympathetic to this insofar as I believe children should be taught to read, write and do maths whether they want to or not. As adults they will not thank us if they have been deprived of the advantages this obviously provides. But surely, if playing is the very means our species evolved through which children can learn and develop, it is only logical that we incorporate it into what we want them to learn at school.
It is hard to argue with the proposition that we learn better when presented with a concrete experience of something. You would struggle to teach someone how to drive a car entirely by telling them about cars: they need the real experience of pushing the pedals, turning the wheel and watching the road around them. Role play serves the same function in primary school. Trying to teach children how to calculate change from a £20 note in the abstract is trickier than you would think if you’ve never tried to do it. Yet give almost any child in Key Stage 2 a stall to run or a shop to manage, even in a make-believe context, and it’s remarkable how quickly the concept comes into focus for them.
I’m currently working on a play about primary education in the UK and, as part of this project, I recently caught up with a group of my former Year 6 pupils, now sixteen years old, to ask them what they remembered about their year in my class. What stood out for all of them was an activity we called “Imagination Island” in which the class was divided into groups representing different “communities” on an imaginary island. They worked together in their groups to create their own flags, their own laws and even their own Gods. Each “community” had skills and resources (in the form of little paper tokens) that could be traded with the other groups using paper money. The rules of this game were set up so that the “economy” of the island fluctuated: the value of different resources varied according to supply and demand and the communities had to continually re-assess their strategy for ensuring their ongoing prosperity. While trading was going on the mood in my classroom was feverish. It reminded me of the news footage of the trading floors on Black Wednesday in 1992: representatives from different “communities” dashing back and forth to strike the best deals. They were communicating, they were negotiating, they were doing maths. And they were playing. My former pupils are right: it was the best thing I ever did as a teacher. They never forgot it, the learning was heavily reinforced and it was fun. We do things so much better when we enjoy them- that’s surely as obvious as the importance of learning to read. Incidentally, that particular group of children achieved excellent results in their SATs.
On another occasion, both my opposite number in the other Year 6 class and I were struggling to give our pupils a solid grasp of ratio. It was January and they needed to be able to crack it before the national tests in May. There was snow on the ground outside and the skies were a persistent, murky grey. We decided to tackle the problem with humour and, yes, with play. And so “Tropical Day” was born. We asked every child in Year 6 to get 50p from their parents and we bought huge quantities of different types of fruit juice. On the designated day, we encouraged everyone to come to school in “summery” clothes: t-shirts, shorts, Hawaiian shirts if they had them and we ordered some cheap and cheerful fake flower garlands to give our classrooms a tropical feel. We played Hawaiian ukulele and Caribbean steel-pan music at full volume and cranked up the heating. As the ground froze outside, the children had a cocktail-making competition (non-alcoholic of course- these guys were ten!) The children first had the freedom to experiment by mixing the different juices in different ratios and tasting the results. Once they’d found mixtures they were happy with, they had to use those ratios to produce the same drink in a larger quantities. It was fun, it was memorable and I’d bet good money that year group (my last Year 6 class before I became a deputy head) ended up retaining a better understanding of ratio than any other group I ever taught. They spent the afternoon designing promotional posters and packaging for their drinks- government education ministers and the charlatans that do their bidding would have howled with traditionalist rage.
The word “play” can be used as both a countable or an uncountable noun (if you’re not clear on what that means, you’d get at best a mediocre score on a Year 6 grammar test- just so you know) and “the school play” is a great but declining tradition in England’s primary schools. This is a more debatable issue and please don’t misunderstand me: a lot of school plays are truly dreadful. If the play itself is unchallenging for the age group involved, if low standards of singing, acting or dancing are tolerated or if rehearsals require children to sit and do nothing for large periods of time, the exercise of performing a play in a school can have questionable educational merit. Done well, however, I believe it’s one of the best experiences primary-aged children can have at school. It requires them to memorise information, co-ordinate their actions with others and speak confidently in public. Drama, music and art are too easily dismissed as “woolly” parts of the curriculum which is why in some primary schools they have all but disappeared from it. For me, this is a tragedy and we are robbing our children of what should be an important entitlement.
Children need to learn to read, write and add up. Obviously. I have literally never met anyone in an English primary school who disputes that. But they need to play just as much. That’s how they evolved to learn and to ignore it isn’t rigorous- it’s dumb. What annoys me most about the interpretation of “rigour” that dominates political thinking on education now is the way it presents “learning through play” as some sort of cop-out: the easy path to avoid the difficult realities of the curriculum. This is utter rubbish. Organising good play-based learning experiences is hard work. It requires elaborate preparation and careful execution but, unlike so much teachers are asked to do, it is worth every minute. Like anything, it isn’t always done well but where that’s case the answer is not to ban it but to improve it.
I enjoy teaching maths and grammar- so much so that my Secret Santa present at work the year before last was a mug emblazoned with the words “grammar police.” Sometimes that means learning by rote and that’s fine in those situations. The either/or is a useful myth put out by those who lack the imagination to attempt anything bolder under any circumstances. All work and no play makes Jack a “dull” boy, in both senses of the word.
Children learn by playing. They learn even better when we join in.