Playing for Success
In the fourth of our blog series about what makes Salisbury Cathedral School Special, we join Year One to discover how the school is doing things differently for some of its youngest pupils
It’s just after morning break in the Year One classroom at Salisbury Cathedral School (SCS) and the children are happy. There is no sense of disappointment about being back in the classroom. There are also no formal tables set up for reading, writing and arithmetic. Instead, tables host a play castle, a large dragon egg, and other learning tools including coloured paper, scissors and glue, beads and painting. Mrs Ride, SCS Year One Teacher, tells the pupils: ‘You can do your learning through play.’
The children immediately disperse and a sense of purpose paints the room. Not one asks for inspiration. Some continue with a previous activity such as finishing a junk model dragon - the current theme is fairy tales – or mixing a magic potion. Three children opt for role play corner which is currently an ice cream shop. One boy is buying an ice cream, another is taking payment from the large tray of plastic money while the third makes the ice cream from cardboard cones and the selection of different coloured tissue paper representing a range of flavours.
This is not a special day, rather it is the special way that SCS has adopted to ensure pupils learn much more than just the academic outcomes detailed for key stage 1. Partly inspired by how much school 2019/20 reception pupils missed, the SCS Pre-Prep department decided to make Year One more of a bridge between the gentle play-based teaching in reception and the formalised learning pupils experience in Year Two, as they prepare to move up to the Prep school.
‘The top-down pressure for increasingly formalised learning in the early years of school is intense. Here at SCS, we have decided to buck the trend. We choose to consciously allow play to occur freely and meaningfully within a quality environment,’ explains Chloe. ‘The benefits of child-initiated learning through play are manifold. It allows all our pupils to be challenged even though they progress at different rates. It means we, the staff, know our pupils very well as we see what each child finds interesting, challenging and fun. And, as for the children, they develop the most incredible resilience, independence and a deep-rooted curiosity and love of learning.’
Turning our attention back to the here and now in the classroom, two pupils have chosen to complete one of their ‘must-do’ activities of the week. Laid out in rainbow trays, are tasks relating to history, phonics, science and all other areas of the key stage 1 curriculum. The children have to complete each activity in every tray, weekly, in their own time and then stick the completed work into their exercise books. In this way they hold responsibility for their own learning and continually improve their independence – one of the life skills pro-actively built at SCS. The staff will, of course, gently remind pupils of the activities they need to do during the week, but exactly when they decide to access this required material is a decision for the child.
Chloe explains how she was initially inspired by Anna Ephgrave’s famous book, ‘Planning in the Moment with Young Children’, which promotes child-led learning in which children are given autonomy and respect. Anna’s pedagogy is that ‘children are born with a natural desire to explore and learn and we, the adults, support them by creating an enabling environment . . . and we remain in the moment with the children as they explore and learn. We observe carefully and enhance the learning whenever we spot a teachable moment.’
With the motto of ‘let the children play’ you could be excused for thinking that learning through play is an easy option, but that is very far from the truth. In fact, this method of teaching demands particularly deep understanding of the curriculum as staff need to spot teaching opportunities within each day as they arise, rather than pre-planning activities to meet specific learning objectives. This is demonstrated well by a girl who is making a beaded necklace. Chloe complements her necklace and then asks, ‘can you improve the design with a repeating pattern?’ The suggestion is embraced with enthusiasm and the girl continues gloriously unaware she is meeting a key stage 1 learning objective. Chloe knows though, but she will remain in the moment with her class for now and record her observations later as she checks in with each child’s progress towards their individual learning goals.
The SCS method is not a blanket reproduction of Anna Ephgrave’s methodology. Chloe explains how pupils in Year One at SCS benefit from specialist teaching in music, ballet, French, computing and sports. These lessons are timetabled and taught traditionally meaning the whole week cannot be solely dedicated to learning through play. The children also participate in daily short bursts, 10 to 15 minutes, of adult led teaching in maths, literacy and phonics. As the school year progresses, these intervals of more formal teaching increase to prepare the children for Year Two.
Careful progression between years is a key element of the SCS Pre-Prep journey. Just as Chloe gradually builds up her formal, adult-led teaching she also liaises with SCS Reception regarding what she is looking for in the next class of Year One pupils. The list may surprise you, as well as having a clear grasp of every child’s unique progress with their early learning goals (ELG), she also asks for children who, ‘know how to play, can find things to do, have ideas and stay busy with their friends’. All lifelong skills for mindful happiness.
Head of SCS Pre-Prep, Linda Cunningham Brown, sums it up well, ‘a child’s early learning is the foundation for all their future learning. Like all good foundations, it should be both strong and flexible. We think it should also be fun so if you can learn through play, why choose any other way?’