Teaching English at pre-primary: Why incorporate free play?

English for very young learners: training and practice

In November I took part in the British Council’s ‘English in Early Childhood: Language Learning and Development’ MOOC. This training in teaching very young learners, which is free, is particularly welcome at a time when English language instruction in pre-school settings around the world is exploding, mostly in an ad hoc and unregulated way. According to a Eurydice report from 2012, over a third of the European community was due to officially implement second or foreign language teaching to children ages six and under by September 2015. This trend is reflected worldwide, and is based on a widespread perception that ‘earlier is better’ when it comes to exposing pre-school children to a foreign language. It’s a questionable assumption, since effectiveness very much depends on the quality of the provision and the type of input, and the teacher training necessary to accompany this demand for English at pre-primary is often woefully lacking.  There is still a marked tendency to allocate ‘educational’ work for older children to qualified staff , and ‘care’ for very young learners to less qualified staff (Eurydice policy brief: Early Education Childhood and Care, 2014). Even TEFL Young Learner bolt-on training courses generally don’t focus in detail on very young learners (ie, the 2–6 year-old age bracket).

The British Council MOOC is running again from March 20th, so if this blog post whets your appetite, you can sign up here. I’d certainly recommend it for young learners’ teachers, publishers and parents alike.

The course provides some great insights into how young children learn, and, particularly usefully, how the needs of pre-primary and primary learners are different. I intend to use this blog to reflect on one of the most important themes to be discussed: play.

Pre-school child at play. Photo source: Pexels

Time for play is being squeezed out

Play is an area of educational research which hit the headlines recently with the news that Lego are funding a £4m professorship at Cambridge University’s newly established Centre for Research on Play in Education, whose stated aim is to “conduct rigorous research into the importance of play and how playful learning can be used to improve students’ outcomes.” It’s an under-researched area, but there are already some finding that play improves memory, concentration and maths skills, and that there’s a link between pretend play and language development.  Hanne Rasmussen, the head of Lego’s education charity arm, has been highly critical of formal education which has increasingly de-prioritised play in favour of a knowledge-based approach, with a heavy focus on testing, even at a young age, at the expense of creativity, collaboration and problem-solving.

This clash of ideals reflects the two very different schools of thought about early childhood education. At one end of the spectrum you have a teacher-led, education-focussed approach based around the idea of school-readiness, with particular attention to numeracy and literacy. On the other side there’s a child-directed approach based on sociocultural theory, where attention is given to educational goals, play, and interactivity, and where the development of relationships is specifically seen to link to children’s social and cognitive well-being. In simple terms, this could be described as the difference between the US-favoured approach, and that most famously followed at pre-primary in Nordic countries.

What’s free play and why’s it important?

I recently attended session for pre-schoolers run by the Wildlife Trust (which was excellent, by the way). They’d set up various activities for the children around a theme of birds. Picture the scene: in one area, a big tray full of birdseed is laid out, with the idea that the children will rummage around in it looking for “worms”. The children have other ideas, and, to the alarm of their parents, who intervene, begin pouring large quantities of seed onto the floor (making a pleasing noise and an interesting new texture to stamp around in). Meanwhile, in another area, glue, feathers, colourful paper and photocopies of woodpecker pictures are provided, which children are encouraged to decorate. Like other parents there, I find myself assiduously gluing and sticking. We all cajole the children into helping us, and work fast to produce the most attractive and complete bird pictures we can before the children lose interest.

What does this scene tell us? What learning is going on? Is it the same as  what the organisers had planned? Are any learning opportunities being missed? Why? To help answer this, let’s consider different classifications of play.

Open-ended, or child-initiated play, is when learners choose resources freely, and are in control of the activity, without the guidance of an adult. ‘Through this kind of play, children learn by imitating, experimenting, making mistakes, and making their own decisions about what to do.’ says Sandie Mourão.

Adult-initiated play is defined as an activity where adults set up the resources and guide the experience. This can be a useful way to expose learners to new language, and spark curiosity about new ways of doing things. It’s also the way we introduce children to vocabulary and ideas through stories and songs (more from me on that here). However, children who are only used to following an adult’s lead are less likely learn how to think for themselves, to be creative and to develop problem-solving skills.

By allowing play to follow the child’s agenda, not the adult’s, new possibilities open up. Play is a way for children to re-enact and reflect on their own first hand experiences. It also allows them to rehearse and in some ways prepare for future scenarios, as a kind of safe ‘dress rehearsal’. While at play, children will also test out and consolidate their recent learning and skills as they become embedded. That’s why we often hear young children repeating phrases to their toys which sound hilariously grown-up, and which we may recognise as our own speech.

At the Wildlife Trust event, this tension between the children’s and the adults’ agendas was plain. In ELT contexts, too, perhaps we need to strike a better balance between child-led and adult-led activities, and resist the urge to spend every moment ‘teaching’. Child-led, opened-ended play appears to be essential for development, but is often not given any time in English lessons.

What are pre-schoolers learning through play?

All play is learning. When we stop to think about the vast array of skills and concepts young children are getting their heads around, we might consider play in a new light. Consider, for example, how playing with water, play dough, trains, puppets or building blocks might afford opportunities to develop some of the following:

  • Fine and gross motor skills
  • Hand-eye coordination
  • Pre-writing skills
  • Learning about colour
  • Learning about shape
  • Learning about texture
  • Learning about patterns
  • Learning opposites like wet/dry, clean/dirty, float/sink
  • Sensory play (how does something feel?)
  • Sound recognition (how sounds are different: loud/soft, fast/slow, high/low)
  • Learning about friction and motion
  • Learning about concepts like weight, size and height
  • Developing their imagination
  • Making sense of social relationships

And let’s not forget that cooperative play is also how children start learning to navigate the landscape of empathy. Collaborating, helping, sharing and forgiving – frankly, it’s a minefield, and I’d struggle to name more important skills that students will need the 21st century world of work.

There’s more interesting information about how play prepares a young brain for life here.

But if children are playing all the time, how are they going to learn to speak English?

This is an understandable concern, especially when there is an expectation from parents that children will come home producing English, or holding crafts that they’ve made in class under the guidance of a teacher. Sandie Mourão’s research has indicated that as long as children have been exposed to the language before, and been initially introduced to an activity by an adult, in time they will start to spontaneously use that language. She advocates creating an ‘English learning area’ for very young learners, ‘where children can engage in child-initiated play with and through English’ (my italics). This area should be full of stimulating resources like puppets, flashcard sets, games, mascots, props or puppets, story cards, picture books and so on.  Young children can roam freely around the room and interact with these resources at their own pace, directing their play as they choose.

In reality, in many settings, there will be a mix of child- and adult-led activity, and the overall approach will fall somewhere in the middle of the two schools of thought espoused at the extremes of the continuum. You could say it’s a question of balance. But for both parents and teachers of very young learners, it’s important to be reminded that carving out both time and suitable physical space for free play is important, and many would argue that this should probably be valued just as highly as teaching phonics and numeracy. Our focus needs to be on providing a range of stimulating resources and contexts for learners to explore in an open-ended way, rather than pushing learners towards a particular product or outcome.

Going back to the birdseed and the woodpecker pictures, I chose this experience to illustrate two points:
  1. We need to allow young children to direct their learning. The children’s behaviour with the birdseed may appear destructive, but in fact they are responding with curiosity to an interesting learning opportunity they have uncovered for themselves. Hurrah!
  2. The process is more important than the product. Producing a picture that looks like a woodpecker is not the point. So what is? Developing fine motor skills by using a spatula to spread glue. Exercising autonomy by choosing colourful feathers and interesting patterns. Experiencing the feel of tickly feathers and sticky glue. Sharing access to the glue pot. Taking turns. And so on, and so on. It’s so easy to get caught up with the need for a finished picture for learners to take home – we’ve all done it many times – but this is less important than the learning experiences for the child, which might not be the ones we expect.
And a third and final point: child-led learning can be messy… Did I mention that?!
Our rather adult-led woodpecker
Photo source: My own

Further reading and references

Bruce, Tina (2015), Early Childhood Education: 5th Edition Hodder Education.

Mourão, Sandie (2015), ‘English in Pre-primary: The Challenges of Getting it Right’, Teaching English to Young Learners: Critical Issues in Language Teaching with 3-12 Year Olds Janice Bland (ed), London: Bloomsbury Academic, pp 51-69.


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