A chance to reflect
Young children learn through play. That’s something we’d all agree on, even if there are myriad theories and interpretations of what exactly ‘play’ entails. Reflecting on young families I know, I’m left wondering what might be the implications of the imposed lockdown for children’s learning and development. Does being at home all day mean more or less play, more or less learning?
It is perhaps significant that the term in common usage has been ‘home schooling ‘ rather than ‘home learning’. Schooling (defined in my dictionary as to train, discipline or control) has a Dickensian ring, bringing to mind Gradgrind’s narrow interpretation of education in Hard Times. ‘Home learning’ should be the aim – but perhaps that sounds too casual and dependent on chance to those required to account for education outcomes? Yet children benefit greatly from joint attention episodes alongside parents and older siblings and ‘guided participation’ (Rogoff 2003), through domestic routines, like preparing food or sorting socks from the washing machine, can support powerful learning.
‘Learning’ of course is also open to interpretation. Many (including numerous politicians and no doubt a considerable number of parents) conflate learning with instruction, yet learning is active, not passive, and effective learning requires full engagement and active experience – something that may be more readily available without pressure of lesson plans and learning outcomes. But those lacking trust in children’s boundless capacity for learning often prefer to play safe and instruct them in formal academic content, particularly when there is anxiety about ensuring children are ‘ready’ for school (McDowall Clark 2017). The internet is awash with ‘teach your child at home’ activity books encouraging ‘playful learning’ through tracing or colouring letters and numbers. Sadly these may be seen by well-meaning parents as more educative than playing with Lego, or indeed sorting socks…
A huge benefit of home learning is the opportunity to interact with siblings. Our education system rigidly divides children into age bands for administrative purposes. This has no educational benefit ; on the contrary, interaction with more capable others supports a child in reaching their zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978). One of the most rewarding experiences of my teaching career was in the 1970s with a vertically grouped class ranging from 5 to 9 years (including several siblings) within a supportive learning community – a situation likely to have been replicated within many families recently.
Outdoor play, something already under threat in contemporary society, is also a crucial component of children’s learning. Concerns during the lockdown were mostly expressed in terms of physical exercise but it impinges just as much on social, emotional and cognitive development. On my daily walk along the seafront I witness children engrossed in sorting shells, making dams and streams, clambering over rocks and exploring pools. But not all children are lucky enough to have such a playground on their doorstep so thoughts turn to those without gardens, those stuck inside cramped and inadequate housing, those with limited resources and parents unable or unwilling to engage with them. We live in a starkly unequal society and it is those children already amongst the most disadvantaged who bear the brunt of current problems and for whom long-term consequences will be most serious.
So more play, or less play? More learning or less learning? Inevitably the overall effect of the lockdown for children’s learning will be as individual as children themselves. For many families, this will have been a rewarding experience, so much so that, as Pam Jarvis finds (2020), some may be reluctant to send children back to school. And many children will be reluctant to return. Others will heave a sigh of relief – parents keen to return to their previous way of life, handing over responsibility for their children’s learning to others; children eager to be with friends again and to enjoy the resources and opportunities that school can offer. Whatever happens, those from stable and supportive environments will usually be able to weather the storm but the gulf between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ will have widened further. The past decade saw so-called austerity measures wreak havoc on Local Authorities, on schools and on EY settings; policy consequences of the financial fallout from Covid 19 are likely to be equally dire. We have heard a lot recently about ‘the new normal’, implying we should learn to accept the unacceptable because there is no alternative. A ‘new normal’ is not good enough for our youngest citizens, but one thing is for certain, nor is returning to the ‘old normal’. This hiatus is an opportunity to stop and take stock: what has gone so wrong with our education system that many families have been thankful for this respite (Jarvis, 2010) and, more importantly, what are we going to do to put it right?
Jarvis, P (2020) Exam factory spring? A lockdown reflection. Available at http://histpsych.blogspot.com/2020/04/exam-factory-spring-lockdown-reflection.html?m=1
McDowall Clark, R (2017) Exploring the contexts for early learning: challenging the school readiness agenda; Abingdon: Routledge.
Rogoff, B (2003)The cultural nature of human development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Vygotsky (1978) Mind in society. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.