Why Learning Should Be Child’s Play


Spelling tests.

Cursive handwriting.

Mental maths tests.

Children in ‘sets’ for literacy and maths.

Formal half termly assessments, often where children sit individually and must complete a test in silence.

You’d be forgiven for thinking I was referring to a secondary education here. Children practising for their GCSEs. Children attending five lessons a day with five different teachers.

But this is happening in primary schools up and down the country. And not just upper primary school where children who have yet to hit a double figure birthday are preparing for Key Stage 2 SATs. These things are happening to children as young as four.

Four. Years. Old.

Children in their reception year, following a curriculum which encourages Playing and Exploring, Active Learning and Creating and Thinking Critically as a statutory requirement, are being made to sit tests to ascertain their understandings of maths and literacy.

Children as young as four are being taught joined up (cursive) handwriting before they can even write. Before they have learnt enough sounds to make up an entire word, they are learning to write letters as if they are joined up. Have a Google of it.

Sound confusing? A bit ridiculous? That’s because it is.

There are children at age five who are transitioning from maths, to phonics, to literacy in three different classrooms with three different teachers all before lunchtime.

There are children aged five taking lists of spellings home to their parents telling them that they have the ‘a_e make a cake’ sound in them and there are parents who don’t have a chuffing clue what on earth their child is talking about. These are parents who are expected to help their child learn these spellings, despite not having qualifications to teach.

There are young children taking mental maths targets home with jargon like ‘number bonds to twenty’ written on a sheet of paper. There are parents who don’t have the foggiest what a number bond is, let alone how to help their child learn it.

And the problem with all these practices? They are fundamentally flawed because they ignore basic developmental trajectories of young children.

Fine motor control, for example (a child’s ability to use thumb and fingers to manipulate on a tiny scale) is continually developing up to the age of 7 years old. Why on earth then, are children up and down this country being timed to complete mental maths facts which they have solid understanding of and being told they have failed if they can’t write them quick enough?

Why are children, who do not yet know how to write, being taught to write joined up letters in isolation? The fine motor skill required to join handwriting is far beyond the typical development of a four year old. And some of these four year olds were three year olds only a month before.

Would we expect a six month old to walk? No. Would we be amazed if they could? Yes. Would we expect all other six month olds to suddenly be able to walk too? No. Would we ‘train’ all other six month olds until they could walk? No. This would be atypical development and, whilst it would be exciting, we would not tell parents they had failed because their six month old wasn’t walking.

Why are we expecting children to perform way beyond their ‘normal’ developmental expectations, and then making them feel like they’ve failed if they can’t keep up. Why are we forcing them to commit decontextualized words to memory simply because they all share the same spelling pattern? And if we are simply making them write lists of words in order to learn, why are we expecting them to be successful when their natural learning instinct is to play and explore, be active, create and to think critically?

The same goes for reading. We categorically cannot expect a four year old to sit a test on a individual desk. We cannot expect them to read a test paper for themselves and we cannot expect them to know how to complete a test paper. If my four year old knew what to do with a test paper I’d be absolutely horrified. Four year olds are not sitting down kind of people. They are active. They love exploring.

The only reason any teacher should test a child (except for end of year summative assessment – and even then, I’d suggest that if you have stringent enough moderation in place at a school, end of year assessments are unnecessary) is to ascertain gaps in a child’s understanding and plan lessons which address those gaps.

Spelling tests do not do that – especially when a new list is sent home regardless – as happens in most schools. Mental maths tests do not do that – especially when ‘proving’ mental maths understanding is hindered by developmentally normal fine motor ability.

Formal tests may show gaps. But are they really necessary? If teachers weren’t having to spend so much time administering and marking all these bloody tests, they might find that they have time to get to know the children they are teaching. And then, they would know the child’s gaps without having to sit a four year old down to a test in an environment akin to a GCSE examination room.

There has been so much research into spellings and setting children. The problem with spellings is that a lot of it falls to the parents. Schools are under so much pressure that they are passing it on to the parents. But parents don’t often know how to help. And ultimately, it is not their responsibility to teach their child to spell. They can help, sure. But as a parent, I want to teach my child to ride his bike, and swim and spend time with family. The problem with ‘sets’, especially for very young children, is that they become a self-fulfilling prophecy; there are ‘ceilings’ on lower sets and they have nothing to aspire to.

Regardless of research, the point is this: these practices are not developmentally appropriate for young children. Upper juniors? Yes, perhaps. If nothing else, it prepares them for secondary school.

But for four and five year olds? No.

And anyone who thinks it’s appropriate has clearly never spent time with a four year old.

There is a bit of a myth that teaching reception is easy. Anyone who thinks that has clearly never spent time with a four year old!

It takes a lot of effort, creativity and energy. Because it means knowing the children and using their interests and their natural instinct to play and explore to help them learn. So if you’re teaching ‘a_e make a cake’ in phonics, you make a cake. You bake it. You put it on a plate. You might even put a Flake on it. And then the kids in your class write about it. They write five words containing the a_e sound and as a reward they get to eat a bit of cake.

Yes, it takes a bit more planning. But this is how children learn – through meaningful, contextualised experiences that are appropriate to their typical developmental stages.

We can’t just blame the schools. The pressure from the government is almost stifling. But if this government really wants to improve education in this country, they need to understand children. Start with the children and everything else will fall into place. Skillfully use their childhood to weave learning into their experiences.

Expect children to be children.

I promise you, they’ll surprise you.

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3 Comments

  1. Caroline

    I was saying this 20 years ago when l was training to be a teacher. I know it is worse now.
    It is institutionalised child abuse,in my opinion.
    Most countries in the civilised world don’t even send their children to school until they are six.
    (Finnland not until they are 7)
    Nothing about it makes cognitive sense or physical sense.
    So WHY?

    • Becky H

      I know! Utter madness – institutionalised child abuse is a good way to put it – and sadly, so many parents without an education background (as in working in and trained in educational practice) think this is the norm so they just let it happen. So so sad.

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