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This presentations purpose is to help primary school teachers

bring education alive.

[The notes give the basic message. The trainer may

embellish these notes, add anecdotes or substitute
photos to personalise this presentation or make it
more relevant to the audience. Statements in square
brackets are for the trainers information or to suggest
discussion points, not necessarily to be read aloud.
Book references can be found at the back of the
accompanying pamphlet, Lighting the Fire. Extra
copies of Lighting the Fire are available on request
from Community Playthings.]

Rather than enquiring whether children are ready for school, we
should consider Is our school ready for children?

We need to ask: What are children like? How do they learn


Answers may be found by observing the children around us and

by gleaning insights from wise educators, past and present.

Friedrich Froebel [1782-1852] was an educator who impacted
the UK through Margaret McMillan. Froebel revolutionised
education, departing from the rote learning of his day to
introduce active learning. His school went through the primary
years and he had profound influence throughout the world, right
up to the present.

Froebel believed curiosity to be childrens leading intellectual


He emphasised that sustained interest requires some form of
action on the childrens part.

He taught that childrens cognitive abilities are best sharpened
through self-expression, when motivation comes from within the

Self-expression involves imagination, which Einstein claimed to

be more important than knowledge: For knowledge is limited,
whereas imagination embraces the entire world.

Linda Pound writes that imagination develops from the wide
range of ways in which ideas can be represented... All too often,
the poetic connections and imaginative comparisons which
children make are seen as frills, to be set aside in order to get
on with teaching what are called basic skills. In reality, these
forms of thinking and imagining are the real foundations of

One of the twelve aims of the Cambridge Primary Review

(2009) is to excite childrens imagination so they can advance
their understanding, extend the boundaries of their lives,
contemplate worlds possible as well as actual, understand
cause and consequence, develop the capacity for empathy,
think about and regulate their behaviour, and explore language,
ideas and arguments.

Another of the Cambridge Primary Reviews aims is to secure
childrens active and enthusiastic engagement in their learning.

We want children to take initiative and make knowledge their


The primary way children make knowledge their own is
through play. Wendy Scott reminds us that children are at the
height of their powers when playing, and Vygotsky wrote that in
play, it is as though the child were a head taller than himself.

For children, play can be (and often is) a very serious business.
It needs concentrated attention. It is about children learning
through perseverance, attention to detail, and concentration
characteristics usually associated with work. Play is not only
crucial to the way children become self-aware and the way in
which they learn the rules of social behaviour; it is also
fundamental to intellectual development. [Welsh Foundation
Phase Framework]

Play builds vital communication skills. Children learn to
articulate their thoughts, to plan, discuss and negotiate.

All children and young people need to play. The impulse to play
is innate. Play is a biological, psychological, and social
necessity and is fundamental to the healthy development and
well-being of individuals and communities. [Playwork Primer]

So play must be central in childrens daily experience.

The fine motor control necessary for tasks like writing must be
preceded by large motor control, which children achieve
through active play.

This active play which expresses their adventurous spirit and

joy in life supports the healthy development of all their
physical systems and organs.

Active play is an antidote to the virtual play that is moulding too

many children into an unnatural sedentary lifestyle.

Children run, skip, climb, jump, slide, swing, spin... developing
their sense of balance and effecting crucial co-ordination of
body and brain. Healthy children have a drive for such actions
and seek them repeatedly.

Jean Piaget said that movement is the bedrock of all intellectual

learning: Children must move to learn!

Play is not just for after school but should be incorporated in
the school day. Pat Broadhead states, There is evidence that
play provides better for flexible and creative thinking and
learning than closely prescribed teaching and testing.

Julie Fisher writes, Where high quality play has become a

central process for learning in Key Stage 1, standards in many
aspects of the curriculum have been raised... and In play, no
one gives boundaries to the learning, so children explore at the
very edges of their experience, reasoning and imagination.

Once teachers grasp its value, they gain confidence to make

the case for play and allow it generous time alongside the
teacher-led learning. Play becomes amazingly rich when it is no
longer an add-on but is embedded in the school curriculum.

The Cambridge Primary Review, which was the most
comprehensive investigation of English primary education in
over 40 years, recommended that the Foundation Stage be
extended to age six. Whether that happens or not, it is obvious
that children in Year 1 who have not yet achieved their Early
Learning Goals particularly boys and summer-born girls still
need the kind of playful provision outlined in the EYFS

Role play and small-world play have always been favourites, in
which children consolidate and extend their understanding by
acting out events or stories. When space and time are allowed
for this in Key Stage 1 classrooms, the transition from
Foundation Stage is eased.

[Julie Fisher shares concrete suggestions on implementing

classroom play in her book, Moving on to Key Stage 1.]

Blockplay too warrants a designated area of the classroom,
protected from traffic and having ample floor space. Given
opportunity, Key Stage 1 children display remarkable dexterity
with blocks.

Blockplay provides direct experience of physics, spatial and

mathematical concepts, reasoning and problem-solving.

Blockplay has a strong connection with literacy as well.
Manipulating blocks, children develop the fine-motor skills and
hand-eye co-ordination needed for writing.

Even more important: think of blockplay as a language in

which children weave elaborate narratives. Blockplay is a
concrete form of symbolism; written language is an abstract
one. Children must have opportunity to express ideas in
concrete ways before advancing to complex forms of

[Community Playthings offers a CD-ROM, Foundations,

demonstrating how blockplay supports all Key Stage 1
curriculum areas.]

The large hollow blocks are also basic equipment for Key Stage
1 and 2; using them children combine construction with role
play, and creative involvement can be observed across
differences in age and gender.

Both at home and school, many children have computer games
or toys that move, flash, beep and talk, assigning the child a
passive spectators role. These have questionable play value as
they have been designed to impress parents and to entertain,
rather than involve, the child.

Simple materials facilitate deeper-level play as they invite

participation, engage all a childs senses, and fuel imagination.

[A training pack Simple Materials, Rich Experiences including

pamphlet and PowerPoint is available on request from
Community Playthings.]

The teachers role is all-important, because it is the teacher
who gives thought and care to organising an environment
both indoors and out that captures interest. The teacher
allows time for play, supplies resources, and unobtrusively
supports children in their play.

The teacher may also have to convince others about the

learning potential of play, so that parents and administrators
understand and value what is happening.

Hands-on learning is closely related to play.

To a high degree all humans think with our hands so it is no

surprise that children are drawn to hands-on activity.

Direct experience gives the understanding essential for real

How can a child convey the wetness, coolness, reflections,

drops, ripples, or splashing sounds of water without first
experiencing them through her own senses?

[A suggestion to emphasise this: Give participants a worksheet

drawing of an apple and have them list all the words that
describe it. Then repeat the exercise with a real apple the
second list of adjectives will be far longer than the first!]

Priscilla Vail wrote that children learn those new words which
hover at the rim of experience. As we lead students into new
realms and concepts, we can help them grasp the vocabulary
which matches their explorations and new powers.

Loris Malaguzzi of Reggio Emilia said Creativity should not be
considered a separate mental faculty but a characteristic of our
way of thinking, knowing, and making choices.

Like playfulness, creativity is part of a childs approach to life.

And like play, creativity must be nurtured through the

environment, time, resources and support provided by an
understanding teacher.

Through creative innovation, children develop divergent ways of
thinking. If children are not allowed to experiment, they may
become inhibited fearful of doing it wrong and never
discover their full potential or learn to think outside the box.

Our task, regarding creativity, is to help children climb their own

mountains, as high as possible. (Malaguzzi)

A child experiencing difficulties at home may find peace in
creative activity. Some schools start the day with a creative
period, giving pupils freedom to explore ideas in their own
ways, to find a sense of well-being before settling into formal

Of course creativity is broader than art and crafts. Boys
particularly like to tinker and are intrigued by wheels, gears,
pulleys, ratchets and other gadgets.

Ask the best mechanics and engineers what they enjoyed in


Any technology children use should help them understand
mechanical forces and physical properties of matter.

Such practical technology demonstrates true cause and effect;

it is much more real than electronic technology, where a childs
actions (such as moving and clicking a mouse) have little
logical connection to the result (perhaps colourful swirls or a
synthesised voice).

[Discussion point Why has electronic technology become so

widespread? Who is pushing ICT for young children? How well
does it serve their long-term development?]

Through hands-on involvement, students gain scientific
knowledge that their young minds store and build on into
adolescence and adulthood.

They now have a solid foundation from which they can branch
into further fields of interest, including ICT.

Taking the learning outside helps children keep a positive
outlook; Jan White says, Human beings were designed to be

[Share examples of where pupils had tuned out of school but

regained interest when the class went out.]

There are successful head teachers who state that no aspect of
the national curriculum cannot be taught outdoors at Key Stage
1 level. (This photo is from a school where they call the outdoor
area their largest classroom!)

[Discuss how each school subject might be taken outdoors.]

Tim Gill writes, Outdoor environments offer the best
opportunities for children to get to grips with the unpredictable,
engaging, challenging world around them.

Heads wishing to create engaging environments might take

inspiration from a Danish landscape architect who designed
playgrounds after World War II. He noticed that children
enjoyed playing in bombed buildings so included areas where
youngsters could construct with loose parts.

Penny Wilson addresses the importance of risk: If we stop kids
from having the chance to experience the perilous range of
human experience, then we are not protecting them. We are
endangering them...They will have no resilience, no depth of
character. They will not understand how to come at the world.

[For further reading, see Helen Toveys book, Playing Outdoors:

spaces and places, risk and challenge.]

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The forest school movement has helped many children bond

with nature.

Such direct experience is far more meaningful than simply

collecting information about the natural world. Froebel said, To
have discovered a quarter of the answer to his own question is
of more value to the child than to hear the whole answer, half-
understood, from another.

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If your class regularly visits the same patch of woodland or

meadow, students will feel at home there and have time to
develop individual interests. One might be fascinated by small
creatures. Another may love to collect and identify rocks. As the
teacher, you can help children build on these interests,
discovering answers with them and guiding them to related
books when you return to the classroom.

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In nature, children find the quiet their minds need in order to

ponder and process all they are learning. Given opportunity,
they will often choose their own place to be alone.

[Discussion point: Does anyone want to relate childhood

memories in this connection?]

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Even at schools with no access to woodlands, surprising

aspects of nature can be observed in the playground if there
are areas of bushes, grass, and soil or woodchips.

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Growing and tending plants particularly those that produce

food is richly satisfying. Children witness life processes, they
find out where food comes from, they learn to care for living
organisms and take pride in the outcome of their labour.

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In schools that raise animals, children learn still more about

lifes mysteries.

They also learn responsibility and gentleness, surely some of

our highest goals for them in their primary school years.

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Rachel Carson wrote, Those who contemplate the beauty of

the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as
life lasts. There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the
migration of the birds, the ebb and flow of the tides, the folded
bud ready for spring. There is something infinitely healing in the
repeated refrains of nature the assurance that dawn comes
after night, and spring after winter.

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If childrens school experience is permeated with play, hands-on

investigation and outdoor learning, they will have a rich store of
memories to carry into life.

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The end or perhaps we should say the beginning!

[Invite audience thoughts on how this presentation might affect

their schools approach to learning and teaching.]