Practitioners, parents and the pedagogy of play
Practitioners who are committed to the idea of learning through play, and to the rights of young children to play unfettered, may feel con- stantly embattled and beleaguered. In England, despite the powerful mantra of learning-through-play (Bennett et al. 1997), early educators complain of top-down pressures from statutory subject-based curricula for school-aged children, and increasingly for pre-schoolers (Soler and Miller 2003), prompting ongoing struggles to incorporate traditional early childhood ideologies into the recommended pedagogy. Tensions lie
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along several axes: between free choice and compulsion for children; between adult-initiated and child-initiated activities; between structured and unstructured learning tasks; and between convergent and divergent forms of knowledge.
Ultimately, the ‘struggle’ described by Soler and Miller (2003) is not sim- ply between different theories of learning but between different views of children: as immature, inexperienced and ignorant people whose learning depends on the tutoring of more mature, experienced and knowledgeable adults, or as competent individuals who are capable of making meaning from their experiences of the world, in collaboration with others and with the support of cultural tools. And since such views are themselves funda- mentally cultural, in the sense that they have been constructed through experience from the beliefs of previous generations, and transmitted through early experiences in the family and community, these tensions have their roots within families and education systems, and are made vis- ible when children pass from their home culture to that of the pre-school. As a result, practitioners often describe pressure from parents to ‘sit them down and teach them’ as the most pressing constraint on their practice; while at the same time, many parents feel disappointed that their educa- tional aspirations for their children are unmet (Brooker 2002). Where are children in this debate, and what do they make of their experiences?
Learning through cultural activities at 2, 3 and 4
This section presents examples of children’s early learning – their par- ticipation in cultural activities within different play-based contexts – in a range of English settings. They illustrate some of the ways that children learn through participation in the environments they experience before school, and in their first encounter with formal schooling; and the extent to which practitioners’ understandings of this learning may be aligned with those of parents.
The episodes have been chosen to illustrate some of the complexity surrounding this issue. In the case of younger children, for instance, there may be a broad consensus between parents and practitioners on the goals for their development: most adults want children to develop at their own pace, to demonstrate well-being, and to display a positive sense of self. As children approach school age, however, there may be a growing concern for children to show they are acquiring academic knowledge and skills; a growing division between a focus on the ‘basics’ of literacy and numeracy, and a recognition of the value of broader life-skills; and a growing polar- ization in beliefs about the most effective ways for children to learn. The children and parents presented here exemplify some of these issues.
44 ENGAGING PLAY