The Power of Play - Mill Hill Schools

Head’s blog

The Power of Play

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending an ABC Does Conference with the Grimsdell Early Years Team.

Alistair Bryce-Clegg heads up ‘ABC Does…’ and he is a leading educationalist in Early Years, having 30 years’ experience in his field and working with schools across the world to develop their understanding of how children in the early years learn – and how classroom environments can be set up and operated in order to maximise the learning for all children.

Apart from the fact that Alistair could easily have had a career in stand-up comedy and had the entire room crying with laughter, he is also deeply knowledgeable and committed to understanding what the experience of learning is like for the child and how this impacts upon its effectiveness. He shared anecdotes and re-enacted scenarios that allowed us to get inside the head of a child and understand what they really think and feel when placed in different learning opportunities, allowing us to reflect on our practice and consider the best way to engage children.

His talk focused on the potential for learning within adult led and child initiated activities and play. In the Early Years (at Grimsdell this is represented by our Nursery and Reception year groups) learning is structured around children’s play and as practitioners and parents we understand that children play to learn (the two are not distinct!). Where an adult is not directly present in the play we studied the behaviour of children and their natural dispositions or ‘common play behaviours’ when faced with independent opportunities.

To illustrate this a sand tray is a good place to start; children are most likely to play with the sand by pouring, sifting, burying objects and if the sand is wet; moulding and shaping. We can then craft the activity to use these natural play behaviours in such a way that they develop dexterity and motor skills, construction skills, creative vision and problem solving skills. In doing so, we think carefully about the resources we put out in the sand. A two handed scoop will be less of a challenge for digging and pouring, whilst a tea spoon will require a more refined set of motor skills and perhaps greater focus and concentration. It is always about making sure that you know what you want to achieve in terms of the activity, rather than the activity itself.

In a construction activity for example, we might provide the children with high level resources such as tubing and hinges to develop technical skill and problem solving. However in a separate activity we may select a low level resource that is simple to use such as Duplo, but our expectations for concepts in other areas are at a higher level, such as building a castle for role play or using the construction for story telling that will develop language and communication skills.

The old story of a child being more interested in the box than the present on their birthday, is also no joke and no accident. Alistair brought our attention to role play areas that are made entirely of boxes, enhanced only by accessories or equipment that can spark imagination or be used creatively whilst children devise their own structures within which to play. ABC did point out that the problem with these areas is that they look a mess, causing much laughter – but the natural creativity to come out of these spaces is often under-utilised at the expense of things looking perfect to the adult eye.

Play is also the way in which children understand and process their experiences. We will often be able to help children work through issues and anxieties by spotting unusual or very particular play scenarios. Children need play to understand the world around them – and to understand themselves.

The team and I were so excited to develop our practice by reflecting on these insights and we came back with our brains fizzing and lots of ideas.

We are also very excited that one of our Early Years practitioners at Grimsdell has commenced her Play Therapy training so that we will be developing our capacity to tap into the power of play for therapeutic purposes as well as for learning.

Kate Simon