Let's Not Sacrifice Play-Based Learning For A More Structured Reception Experience

If I said “enbala nen sen ampotato sares kopan” would you understand me? No, well I don’t blame you. They’re “alien words” written by my 5-year-old daughter in preparation for her end of year phonics test. The fact that an identical list written in my husband’s handwriting is lying beside hers on the sofa - well, that’s neither here nor there. I’m sure there was a good reason for it. But the appearance of alien words in our life signals the start of standardised testing for our younger child - it starts now and won’t let up for another decade or two. It’s a lot to ask of someone who’s still trying to work out whether to use the hand soap first or turn on the tap first.

(It’s the tap. Always the tap)

Year 1 is a stressful transition from the free play of Reception into a more structured environment and the obvious solution would, to most parents, be a gradual and gentle autumn term so that children learn to adapt. What no-one would heartily recommend is to just make Reception structured and stressful as well so the kids barely notice the difference. Except someone has recommended that. And it’s Ofsted, who unfortunately have quite a lot of power when it comes to recommending things like this. Their “Bold Beginnings” report talks of providing a “sufficiently challenging curriculum for the four- and five-year-olds” and the need to “move children on more quickly from their starting points”. In basic terms, they want more structure and less free play in Reception so that children are better prepared to knuckle down in Year 1.

Except children don’t really work like that. The average just-turned-4-year-old isn’t ready to sit still all day and learn in a formal way. They want to play and explore and be children for just a little longer. As a letter from several education experts notes, “Thousands of reception children make excellent progress following a broad and balanced curriculum where play is the central feature”. Why change a process that so far has produced not just literate children but also well-balanced ones?

Think for a moment about the interview stage on “The Apprentice” - eager young candidates present their business plans to Claude Littner, with amazing million-pound profits in the first year. And every time, Claude shoots their dreams down by telling them it’s too much too soon. You can’t force results out of a business that’s not ready. A fledgling business needs nurture and investment before it can turn a profit and fledgling academics need time to mature and grow before they’re ready to start typing out the complete works of Shakespeare.

It’s enough that they’re being tested on their alien words aged 5 or 6-and-a-bit. Let’s not take Reception away from them too. We risk sacrificing childhood and for what? Some statistics on a report that reveal little more than what we already know - children’s outcomes are more influenced by their class, background and home support than whether they’ve been drilled on their times tables every morning since they first stepped into a classroom. There is more to be done in narrowing the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers but that’s not the issue this report addresses - it’s only concerned with a kind of intensive teaching that only the most able children will respond to.

Play-based learning has so many advantages beyond the academic - it helps children to learn the social skills that are vital for their development, working together in spontaneous groups to make mud pies or put on a puppet show. It provides a gradual introduction to formal schooling and sets them up to eventually spend more time on literacy and numeracy when they’re mature enough to concentrate. So let’s not throw Early Years free-flow away just yet. There’s too much at risk and too little to gain.