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A Play Odyssey

This term I seem to have embarked on something of an odyssey through play. I keep having enjoyable and unexpected encounters with all things play-based, and it has got me questioning many things in my practice. It all began last year, when I led a collaborative enquiry into encouraging children to talk more – which sparked a rather geeky obsession with Vygotsky! I drew on his theories of language development and play to introduce “talking time” sessions, where children and adults played together at a variety of activities. You can see a summary of this at: Getting Children to Talk More: Prezi. At the height of my Vygotsky obsession I was lucky enough to attend a seminar led by Galina Dolya, author of the Keys to the Curriculum, and bona fide academic from the Vygotsky Institute in Moscow. A couple of great concepts I have introduced following this are the idea of external reminders (e.g. editors glasses; a king ring to support good pencil grip; presenters microphone; a magnifying glass for comprehension questions) and focussed work on encoding and decoding, using symbols and social tools such as venn diagrams. If you ever get the chance to hear Galina speak, I highly recommend it.

Following on from this work last year, I heard that my school was looking at introducing more play-based learning opportunities, and offered to lead a working party on this. Our intention is to run this working party along the lines of a collaborative enquiry, and so our group has been gathering evidence of current practice and looking into theory and practice of play-based learning in order to gain more insights and ideas. As frequently happens when you get a group of teachers together to actually focus on learning, the ideas have been flowing thick and fast and I am really looking forward to trying out some new approaches in the new year. Meanwhile, two further opportunities presented themselves to learn more about play-based learning.

The first was at the Pedagoo #EnquiryMeet at Grangemouth High School in November. I attended a session entitled “Throwing out the Plastic; Constructing an environment which supports the development of high quality creative play”, led by Catriona Gill. Catriona (@LintonLass) shared her work developing play in a nursery setting using Froebelian principles. I had never heard of Froebel before (too busy reading Vygotsky!), but as these things seem to happen, I am now finding the Froebelian approach popping up everywhere! The approach, I learnt, involves providing children with “an environment which allows free access to a rich range of materials that promote open-ended opportunities for play, representation and creativity” (The Froebel Trust, 2012). Suddenly I understood what my HTs obsession with “loose parts” was all about! One of the great opportunities in all of this, is that many of the materials which provide greatest stimulation (stones, shells, mud, water)  are free!

This tied in nicely with the second event I attended, just last week, the Midlothian Association of Play Conference “Un-popping the Bubblewrap”. The keynote speaker was Tim Gill, presenting on “No risk, no reward: Liberating the bubble-wrapped generation”. Unbeknownst to him of course, Tim led on nicely from Catriona, reminding us that children are naturally boiphilic and that we have a responsibility to provide them with play spaces which allow them to interact with nature, with one another and with the challenges and responsibilities we want them to become skilled in dealing with. Listening to Tim I felt incredibly lucky to live in a town blessed with some great play parks, not to mention woods and beaches – but it also made me wonder at how often these spaces are devoid of children playing. There is clearly a need to change attitudes, and again if you ever get the chance to hear Tim speak, then I would highly recommend it. You can also download his book for free from his fascinating website Rethinking Childhood.

Following the keynote speech, I attended two inspiring practical workshops. The first looked at making toys with junk – I can’t wait to make my first water rockets with a class! And the second explored a myriad of simple activities you can do with young children in the woods, including tin can cooking, painting stone people with nail polish, making fairy homes and framing transient art with a lashed stick frame. It rained all day, but I left with a big smile on my face.

So where has all this led to? Firstly, thanks to so many people sharing their ideas and experiences, I have a sackful of practical ideas that I can’t wait to try out. Secondly, thanks to Tim Gill (my new Vygotsky?) I have a deeper understanding of the value of play, some of the barriers to play for today’s children, and the absolute necessity for ourselves as educators to help redress the balance.


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