Sometimes when we are talking about learning we get caught up in buzzwords – STEM! STEAM! Literacy! Numeracy! We think about content, we think about assessment, we might think about NAPLAN and all the things that are ahead of us.
It all feels really complicated. Competitive. And complex. But does it have to be?
Learning in the early years is really, fundamentally, all about play. Play and playful investigations enable children to experience the world in a wide range of ways. Play in carefully constructed environments builds a strong foundation of experience, upon which children can later build structured content knowledge. Indeed, without this strong foundation of experience, children will find it quite difficult to later build this structured content knowledge.
“If it hasn’t been in the hand and body, it can’t be in the brain”Bev Bos
The wise words of Bev Bos are backed by substantial research. Take, for example, mathematics. When teaching children mathematical content in a school setting, teachers tend to follow a particular sequence – concrete (physical resources), iconic (pictures that represent physical resources) and symbolic (using symbols such as number sentence to represent physical resources). Children often move back and forth through these various stages as they encounter increasingly complex concepts, or unfamiliar ideas.
If we expand this out from a single content area and instead look more broadly at the learning and development of children, we can see the connection between the importance of play-based learning before embarking on direct instruction.
Take the following photograph…
Here you can see a child who moved through the first two stages of learning as they sorted and categorised the animals, then drew graphic representations of their work. This simple, entirely child directed experience is fundamentally a numeracy experience, from the sorting and ordering to the categorising and recording. Numeracy (and later mathematics) is much more than numbers, it is about data, organisation, representation, measurement and geometry. Here the child is clearly experiencing all these concepts through play.
It’s actually kind of amazing.
For more about stages of play and learning, take a look at the work of Jean Piaget and Jerome Bruner, upon whose theories these ideas are based.