Tag Archives: learning through play

Learning Through Play

It is one of my abiding sadnesses that Sam, through no fault of his own, does not go out to play with friends. At the moment he is, like I was at a similar age, listening to terrible music far too loudly and not feeling the lack. At the beginning of the holidays he is likely to be happy in his own company, mooching around the house, generally doing what he feels like; it is next week that I will find a young person telling me that he is bored, seeking something else to do and the company of his friends.

I don’t know if it’s something specific to Down’s syndrome, but I am wary of letting him out to play on his own. I recently had a conversation with the person who is handling his Personal Independence Payments (PIP) – now that he is 16, he is entering into another era of state involvement – and we talked about how, if he was out and about on his own, how easily it could happen that he might get lost, his limited understanding of danger, both in the environment and in terms of the trust he places in other people. Maybe other parents of disabled children feel the same way, I don’t know.

I can’t help but feel that he is missing out. When he and his younger siblings were little we used to do that thing that stay-at-home mums do in order to keep themselves from going round the twist, and meet up, as a big group, all together.  It was fascinating to watch the children playing. First, they would play side by side, and then slowly, they became more aware of each other, probably because they both wanted to play with the same car/train/dolly/teddy/other object of desire, until before we knew where we were they were playing with each other, chattering away and well on the way to becoming friends.

Now, partly because he attends a special school and therefore none of his friends live around the corner, partly because of the advent of the mobile phone (he doesn’t have one and I have no idea how to find out someone’s number unless they give it to you themselves), and partly down to my own sense of caution, I find myself at a bit of a loss as to how to help him gain the invaluable learning experience of unsupervised play with his peers.

Because, you know, it would be foolish to assume that there is no value to children’s play; that they should be always organised, never left to get on with it, in their own way and at their own pace. Oh, I’m not saying that it should take place in classrooms – although this doesn’t mean that the classroom should not be a playful place, one full of fun, and the joy of learning interesting things (and yes, I do accept that not every child will find the same thing interesting, although, if I am their teacher, I will do my best to persuade them of the wisdom of my way of thinking) –  but that children’s play, especially the unstructured sort where they learn to regulate their own behaviour, to manage their relationships, is an essential, an unmissable, part of growing up.

Maybe we are all afraid. Maybe it’s not just me. Maybe the world we live in is full of danger. Of cars. Of strangers. There is the ever present threat of failure, or of falling behind, and it affects us all. Maybe I’ve got a better reason than most to be fearful, but it strikes me, as I watch my children negotiate with each other, as I watch their kindness to the boy next door, as my role as arbiter and sorter out of fights is steadily lessened, that, if we are not careful, our fear will make us into fools.




“It is a hell of a responsibility to be yourself. It’s much easier to be somebody else, or nobody at all.” Sylvia Plath

I’ve been doing quite a bit of Sorting Out lately.  First, it was the Teaching Resources.  When I went back to work after my long baby break, I re-started a collection that I threw out, not long after Baby Number Two. I wasn’t going back, I decided, and so, all those lovingly hand drawn worksheets, detailing various aspects of the Tudors, or the Egyptians, made their way, as it were, to the classroom in the sky. (I kept a fair amount of the books, it has to be said; you never know when you might need to rustle up a quick spelling activity or build a Saxon Hall with toilet roll inner tubes.) It didn’t take long to fill ten or so box files. I’m terrible at throwing things out (see above), and I hate waste. The last four years have seen me better at keeping things to a minimum, but still.

Our coming house move has been the catalyst for my uncharacteristic sorting. Once the worksheets were gone, I turned my attention to the filing cabinet. An annoying piece of furniture, stuffed in a difficult to reach corner, it has been easier, for the last ten years, to pile the ever-growing number of letters and other bits of Useful Paper Based Information relating to three children, on top of it, rather than attempt to wrestle with the Hanging Files That Fall Apart At The Slightest Touch. I decided, as I had about ten or so empty box files, that I would transfer the contents of the filing cabinet to said box files (we won’t have room for it when we move, anyway) and do some Sorting Out while I was at it.

It’s been a worthwhile exercise (despite R’s protestations).  We have discovered the whereabouts of a fair number of important documents (along with several that were important in 2011 but are no longer), had a good discussion about pensions (confusing and depressing at the same time) and had (or rather, I have) a lovely trip down memory lane.

I didn’t feel it was necessary to keep hold of all of Sam’s old Statements, and the three or four draft EHCPs we received last winter. I haven’t kept every letter from every paediatrician or visit of the school nurse to check his hearing, although I have kept the first – the educational psychologist report and my original parental statement make interesting, and, to me anyway, somewhat heart-rending reading; one day I’ll tell you about it. I like to keep significant documents, papers that represent a turning or a starting point.

I’ve got the lovely little booklets that came from nursery, a record of a learning journey, a blast from the past that went in a flash, gobbled up by school runs and tea times and bed time and bath times. I look at them, I read the comments, and I see snatches of the people they are now; I am assailed by memory, of the time we went to Cornwall with grandad and took Macey, the class cuddly toy, the play-doh picnic and snow that came over the top of wellies.  A record of the baby years, gone, but not forgotten.

And in amongst the letters and the school reports, the certificates of birth and marriage and the last will and testament of me and him, is a plastic pocket (I am a primary teacher, after all) containing passports. A and I looked at them together, marvelling at the size of the official dark blue, at his resemblance to his father, from an age before I knew him, and to me, a photographic record of change in ten year jumps. (The VERY NICE man at the Post Office told me last time how little I’d changed. I don’t think he’ll say the same next time, that’s for sure.)

There she sits, shyly giving a half-smile to the boxed camera, wondering what the future has in store, and I wonder that she is me. Or at least, she was.

Not enough time to play

It’s a funny thing, the factors you apply when you are looking for a school for your darling children to attend.  When we were looking for the right secondary school for Sam we looked around two, one mainstream and one special, and before we even stepped over the threshold I was breaking my heart over the decision.  Should we continue to keep him in the ‘real’ world, with the friends he’s made at primary school, or should we send him to the smaller, specialised institution where he’d be all on his own, but he wouldn’t be so lost?  It was a big decision.

You’d think, with me being a teacher and all, that I’d be looking at standards and exam results and teaching styles and syllabuses and OfSted reports and all of that jazz.  Were they progressive or traditional, did they engage with educational research, what was the proportion of children going on to Russell Group universities?  All these are questions you would think I would be keen to have answers, but no.  Maybe it’s a touch of arrogance on my part that these things don’t really matter that much to me as a mother.  Maybe I take my understanding that learning is an active thing that children need to do themselves, an education is what they make of it, if you like, and that they do it sometimes in spite of us adults a bit far.  But whatever it is, when we looked at prospective schools I had very different things in mind.

How big were the class sizes?  How would a 1-1 TA work?  How would he find his way between classes?  Who were likely to be his friends?  Who was going to makes sure that he wasn’t regularly knocked to the floor by passing big teens?  How fiddly was the uniform? How would he manage his lunch?  And, where would he play?  What sort of things were there for him to do at break time?  When we looked around, in the one school there were bikes and adventure playgrounds, in the other there were some tatty books, dirty Lego and a window overlooking a busy road.  It was a no brainer, really.

It’s one of the things I like most about Sam’s special school, the care they take over his play, his social development.  Every other week he attends a Forest School.  Trips happen to local play parks.  Sam is encouraged to take part in clubs and activities at break time (his current favourite is board games club).  He is regularly reminded of the kind of things that friends do, how they play together.  When we took him and a bunch of his friends and classmates out for his birthday I was touched.

There they were, charging around an indoor play area, playing a game.  We stood, the parents and I, our metaphorical mouths hanging open with shock (well, mine, anyway) when no one had to intervene, no one had to show them what to do, suggest a game,sort out a fight. They organised themselves.  When we went on a countryside walk last Easter (during an unexpected break from all that wet weather) we set off, and, instead of grumping and declaring that it was too far, or too steep or too much, Sam flung his arms wide and declared, loud and clear, ‘Come on, guys, let’s play!’

Not long ago I had the dubious privilege of accompanying a group of children to a ‘day out’ at a private school not too far from where I live.  I say dubious because I am ideologically opposed to private education, not because I didn’t enjoy myself, you understand, and I came away with the surprising conclusion that we in the state sector could learn a good deal from the way they did things.  But it wasn’t about class sizes, or standards, or behaviour or classroom facilities, or curricula, or any of those things that hit the headlines so often.  It was play time.

There were three breaks in the day.  And not only that, they were long ones.  Teachers had the chance to set up their next lessons as well as go to the loo (and have a think while they were there) and have a chat with their colleagues in the staff room and a cup of coffee.  But the children.  They were bundled outside into the sort of grounds you see in public parks, and on with it they got.  A couple of teachers stationed themselves in the centre, coffee (in uncovered cups, probably) in hand and chatting, and around them, children swung on rope swings, climbed trees and threw sticks to recover lost rockets, rolled down the hill and generally wore themselves out.  They were provided with a snack (no mealy mouthed limp un-peeled carrots here, it was a sandwich and squash or water), and eventually returned to the classroom relaxed and sweaty.

It seemed to me that they had done the thing that we saw so clearly when we plumped for the special school.  They had put the needs of the child first (not that the mainstream one hadn’t – there were other reasons for our decision too); they had understood the need of children to play, to run around, to find out what it feels like to fall out of a tree, figure things out without too much adult intervention.  Children need to do this social learning, and, to be perfectly honest, they don’t do it shut up in airless classrooms, and they don’t do it when they experience the isolation peculiar to life with learning difficulties.

I think about the rounded education that Sam receives and I worry about his younger brother, as he embarks on the next stage, rushing from lesson to lesson, with a minimum of breaks in between.  And it’s not just a secondary issue.  Since coming back to work as a teacher, I have yet to find a primary school that still has afternoon play, where lunch isn’t a shade under an hour (not enough time to dash out and get yourself a sandwich because you’d run out of bread. if you ask me), where the morning is extended, rumbling tummies notwithstanding, because ‘children are more productive’ then.

In our rush for standards, our anxious desire to keep our places on the league table, to satisfy the demands of the Minister and his teams of inspectors we seem to have lost the plot.  There’s no time to get the paints out and put newspaper on the tables.  There’s no time for a pee.  No time to eat your lunch in a bit of peace and quiet, tell a few jokes and read the educational newspapers in the staffroom.  There’s not enough time to play.

We are at the stage where play parks are more fun if your friends are there.
We are at the stage where play parks are more fun if your friends are there.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NXhddUqNNjo 5 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Children Do.  A sideways relevance.


It’s funny how it’s only in certain situations that you realise how different your children’s childhood is from your own.  Most of the time, I am aware of the commonalities –  the cleaning of teeth, washing of hands, flushing of the toilet – but there are summer snapshots that highlight how different our experiences are.

I grew up in South Devon, just half an hour’s car journey from the sea.  We often used to go in the afternoon, laden with buckets and spades, sunbeds and umbrellas, trailing to the furthest possible point from the car to find a nice quiet spot.  My dad, a civil engineer, would enjoy telling us stories of how he designed this, that and the other part of the sea defences when I was just a baby.  If we were lucky, he might be persuaded to build us a boat or a car out of sand, before we got sucked into the general Divert the Sewage Overflow Game running amongst most of the children there.

Our favourite, or rather, the place they liked to take us the best, thanks partly to the lack of runoff, was Tunnel Beach.  It isn’t really called that, but amongst our family there is no other name.  It’s a shallow, south facing cove, a steeply shelving stretch of coarse red sand that means the children are never very far away, the only access being through a long, seaweed-smelling tunnel.

The first time I took my children, L was still in nappies and Sam refused to enter.  There we were, out in the glorious sunshine and he took one look at the darkly yawning hole cut into the cliffs and refused to budge.  I had to wedge him under one arm, push the pushchair with the other and forge ahead regardless.  After a couple of minutes and the sky hadn’t fallen in and they had all discovered the echo, he was prepared to trundle along under his own steam.

Apart from the shouting, the tunnel itself is fascinating.  About half way down it turns, changing track as if some sandstone signal man had pulled a giant switch.  The character of the walls changes from smoothly dressed to rough hewn; suddenly there are flights of steep steps (a great workout for those of us toting toddler paraphernalia), and there is, instantly discernable, the slow crescendo roar of the sea.

A corner, and there it is.  From the dimness you step out into blazing light, the beach and the sea.  It’s never very crowded, is Tunnel Beach, thanks to the steps.  There is an old shut up cave where my mum tells me that once upon a time there was a kiosk that sold cups of tea, but there are no easily accessible toilets, no ice cream booths.  Everything is at the top of the cliffs, a manicured garden and hillside golf course, a wishing well  and goldfish exactly as they were in the 70s of my childhood.

It’s never the same, that beach.  The first time the waves were crashing against the sand, exciting ‘rollers’ that made the children scream with delight.  The next, it was flat calm. Each time we go I am reminded that what I took for granted with the gentle contempt that grows with familiarity, is fresh and new and exciting for my land-lubbed children.

A’s surprise when he tasted the salt water for the first time.  L and Sam’s joy in making a seaweed salad.  The way that the tide comes in and you can’t stop it, no matter how many castle walls you build, and how many other children you persuade to help you.  The warmth of rock pools compared to the chill of the sea.  They are utterly absorbed, following each trickling pathway until they reach the sea, while I attempt to contain my anxiety that they will wash themselves away.  The whole thing is one intense learning experience.   No wonder they fall asleep, exhausted mouths sagging open, in the car on the way home.

And afterwards, when we get home, they feel the need to chill.  I can’t; I have to unload the car, rinse out the sand, make the tea; but them, they are washed out shells of children, good for nothing except a loll, a satisfied slump on the sofa.  If I asked them to do anything more productive than a spot of channel surfing I’d be faced with a mutiny.

But then, at home, I am mummy.  I don’t have the same authority and power that I do in the classroom, where I can insist that we work right up to the last minute on the last day of term if I see fit, and there’s not a lot they can do about it.  I look at the new school day for my soon to be secondary-schooled boy, and I wonder how they can keep it up, what with the outstanding teacher, outstanding lesson, outstanding school, accelerated progress-ness of a modern education.

When they started school I remember well that feeling of my nose being somewhat out of joint as they tantrummed all the way home.  It didn’t seem fair that the school should get the best of them, and I should have the tired old left overs.  I’m all for awe and wonder, but I’m all for quietness and reflection too.

I need headspace to make sense of it all.  They do too.



(This was just before some sunbathers were rather amusingly overwhemed by the incoming tide.)


Where did the waves go?

The player of games

Being the mother of three children has given me plenty of experience in observing children play, and in playing with them.  Although these days, I put my hands up; when they were very tiny I was fascinated by their development, and participating in that, but as they have grown older I have become less keen. My domestic responsibilities have grown, as they have (have you considered how much they eat? Or how much mess they make?), and I have returned to the workplace (so now work and home feel awfully, awfully similar), both factor leaving me with less time to play, and considerably more grumpiness.

It is, true to form, my son Sam, and the differences between him and his genetically ordinary siblings, who has given me the greatest of insights into children’s play, and how we adults can aid learning through it. Take standing and walking, for example. When I came into contact with Portage I took their principles to heart. Play was the engine by which I could help Sam to discover key skills, so when we wanted to get him on the move, play with him we did.

In common with many children with Down Syndrome, Sam was born with very low muscle tone. In fact, his rag-doll demeanour was the first thing that alerted midwives to the possibility if his diagnosis. Now, low muscle tone has some significant consequences, the least of which was that we never had to put a cover on the video player (yes, we are that old) because his fingers were so soft that he could never move the cover, let alone post a sandwich in the slot, the greatest of which being that coordinated movement was (and is) hard; skills like rolling over, sitting up, crawling, walking, running and jumping had to be taught, and worked at.

I got on very well with the paediatric physiotherapist.  I saw her, perhaps once every other week or so, at a therapeutic playgroup Sam and I attended.  She showed me through the physical stages of rolling, sitting and crawling, demonstrated how to hold him so that his core muscles were strengthened, taught me some fun songs to sing and play with him.  Getting him to roll over was no problem; he was delighted.  Sitting, also; playing with his little box of toys was so much easier.  But crawling.  Crawling was another matter.

Sam just couldn’t see the point in crawling.  Why should he, when mummy and daddy would fetch him the toys he wanted?  And even when we didn’t, even when we moved his toys just out of reach, he was more than happy to sit and clap his hands together, flap his arms and sing away to himself.  I used to put him in a crawling position on his tummy, apply pressure to one foot and nothing.  Not a single movement, not a budge, by accident or design.  No, for the skill of crawling we had to employ subterfuge.

It was obvious from an early age that Sam loved balls.  He loved it when we sat opposite each other and rolled one between us.  But one day, the ball rolled away and Mummy was busy doing something else (probably).  Sam had no choice but to follow, if he wanted it back.  He did.  He inched his way across that floor and wedged himself under a table in pursuit of his prize. We were delighted.  And I was intrigued.

This garage lasted a VERY long time!
This garage lasted a VERY long time!

I could set Sam up as best I could for learning new stuff, but when it came down to it, without his investment, without his cooperation, I may as well have been painting the sky pink.  So, we never had any of the contraptions available to get Sam standing, or cruising, or tottering around the house.  We just made it into a game.  He loves cars.  We got him a garage tough enough for him to lean on when he was standing to post the cars down the helter skelter.  We bought him one of those red and yellow cars that he had to negotiate his was in and out of if he wanted to play in it.  A toy push chair with a car in it got him toddling around the house.

And we've only just got rid of this one.
And we’ve only just got rid of this one.

Watching Sam play, and develop in this way also gave me the idea of the Interconnectedness of Things.  We didn’t have times in the day when we ‘did some Portage’.  The key skills we were developing were interwoven into what he ordinarily did.  My mum, the Queen of Play, calls it something like taking where they are, and extending them just that little bit further.  Not too far, or the step required is just too big, but just far enough to push those muscles, get that brain thinking.

As a teacher I might call this ‘pitch’.  Make no mistake, I get it wrong all the time, both at home and in the classroom.  I’m not the sort of person who learns in small, incremental steps.  I tend to take big leaps, bouncing over several ideas at once.  This tendency leads me to slip up many, many times.  I have had to go home and re-think my lessons because I didn’t quite know the children well enough to start my lessons from where they were.  But when you pitch it right, when you know those children, that child, well enough to know who they are, what they enjoy doing, that magical ingredient, motivation, comes into play.  Something amazing happens.  They learn.

This post was inspired by http://www.thefuturesrosie.com/2014/02/learning-to-walk-and-fork.html

I would also like to credit the late, great Iain M Banks for the title of this post.

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