To Study or Not to Study?

 

Jessica Gosling, founder of Step to Pre-school, has years of experience teaching in both the early years and primary schools, in the UK and internationally. In this long read, she explains why she chose to further her studies with a Masters in Early Childhood Education, what she thinks the value of these kinds of qualifications are for practitioners, and the importance and value of learning through play.

 

I am a qualified Primary teacher, specialising in Key Stage 1. Yet Primary just does not equate to Early Years pedagogy, as far as I see it. Primary training did not prepare me whatsoever for the very complicated and specialised teaching required in the Early Years.  So I have come the long way round to continue my studies. Had I been asked directly following the P.G.C.E. would I consider a Masters in Education, the reply would have been a resounding negative.  However, following my first two-year placement in an international Early Years environment, I was sure I needed to fill in the gaps of my knowledge.

"I missed the interactions, child-led sessions and the joy of Early Years teaching. I knew I wanted to return to Early Years"

Following my placement in an Early Years environment, I returned to Key Stage 1. I was working within a demanding school in terms of academic results, so play was cut short and excluded in the school day.  I felt the pangs when I entered the Early Years classroom - I missed the interactions, child-led sessions and the joy of Early Years teaching. I knew I wanted to return to Early Years so I sought online training, however, I was covering ideas I already knew. And I was left dissatisfied.

So – why a Masters in Early Childhood Education?

After several years raising my daughter I felt I once again had the energy and interest to study. It had been 8 years since I finished my P.G.C.E. I wanted to be an Early Years teacher when I returned to work.  Furthermore, I wanted to understand my daughter better. So I enrolled on a distance learning MA Childhood Studies and Early Years. Thankfully this was a part-time option, as I was a full-time mum with only 9 hours per week with my child in day-care. It was a big decision, I was concerned that I would be too far removed from academia and perhaps not cut out for studying anymore, as my daughter was my priority now.

However, from day one I was addicted. I craved knowledge again and suddenly so much made sense to me. Working within the kindergarten, I could 'see' what I could not see before. I understood episodes of play and could effectively support and extend them. It sounds corny but this knowledge literally opened my eyes. This extended to my home. I was aware of when to interact with my daughter and when not to interfere in her play. I focussed on play (and am still focussing in this area) within my Master's study as this is the area I feel is the most complex to understand. Specifically, how play represents learning and how can it be incorporated within an objectives focussed curriculum.  Slowly I am finding the answers to these questions. I'm coming to see that objectives should mostly remain within teacher-led activities, where child-led play should remain that way, at times without teacher interference. In child-led play teachers can scaffold learning, however they must be very aware that they do not deviate from the child's goals.

A young girl plays bongos whilst a young boy claps alongPutting my studies into practice

As I progressed within the course, I began to think how I could best implement my skills and knowledge. I felt it was time to work for myself, to explore how best to provide a pre-school session. Having the confidence to set up my company came from the knowledge I had gained in the sphere of Early Years study, of believing tutor’s comments in terms of my competency and receiving marks which put me in the league of gaining a Master’s with distinction.

So I decided to return to work, supporting infants who are not yet at pre-school and perhaps need a little help getting there. As these children were very young, between 1-2 years of age, I decided to do something I had always been apprehensive about, to work alongside parents within a classroom.  This is a two way learning process: I learn about their child with them and through them: the cultural and social implications, whilst my expertise provides training for parents to see the benefits of play and how they can support their child in play. The parent’s feedback is vital to improve my teaching and also eye-opening as a teacher.

Partnerships with parents are vital tooThree children play with a xylophone outdoors, whilst an adult watches

When feedback revealed a lack of understanding of the value of play, this was one area I began to rectify. I had noticed that some parents here in Vietnam couldn’t quite recognise the power of play therefore I try to demonstrate the value of play to parents.  For example, it was argued that infants do not need extended free play in my sessions. We know as practitioners that within extended free play children relax and begin to become creative. So how did I counteract this opinion? Firstly, I tried to verbally give examples of the benefits of play and free play by explaining how certain activities produced certain key skills. However, there was nothing more powerful than child-led play in action.

Thankfully this occurred early, within my second session. One little girl looked through the toy cupboard and found a xylophone and stick. Seeing her delight at the noise of the metal xylophone I retrieved a wooden one, where she began to compare sounds as she played. Another child came and sat next to her and watched. She indicated she wanted to join in the activity so I quickly retrieved a third xylophone. She indicated she had no stick therefore I again retrieved one for her (noticing the reluctance of the first xylophone player to give up a valuable stick!) And then a third child showed interest. And sat without a stick. The second child acknowledged this and gave the third child a stick when she had gestured she wanted one. The first child watched and offered the same. The children sustained this activity for several minutes, watching one another, sharing sticks and listening to each other’s xylophones. And they were only one year old. I had only provided the resources as I was attentively around at the time. The children had developed the activity which had been unplanned. This, for me, represents the magic of child-led play.

"...there was nothing more powerful than child-led play in action."

Prior to my study, like some parents in Vietnam tend to think, I would have thought the children ‘just playing’ and not seen the value of this self-chosen activity. The parents were all focussed on these three children playing with one another, collaborating and totally immersed in their learning. So I feel my further study can offer a valuable service to families here in Vietnam. I feel I am bringing forward the concept of ‘Learning through Play’ as the best method to support children’s learning. The focus here in Asia is to ‘teach’ early, in teacher-led sessions and small group activities. Whilst there is a time and place for this, in short directed bursts, we know in the West that this an outmoded teaching method, if this is used as the only method of learning. Children lose focus quickly and cannot relate to the learning. As my sessions involve parents and their infant, the examples we have of quality interactions and learning through play not only benefit the child, but the adult as well. I hope little by little I can chip away at preconceptions of how children ‘should’ learn, and open the door to how children learn best.

Bringing the learning back homeJessica's daughter exploring a sensory activity

A final example of the excellence of play comes from closer to home. Being a teacher I of course want to teach my daughter. My partner and I often lamented how she always needed so much attention rather than sustaining play by herself. I was always available, always trying to teach. However, she has become central to my development of activities for my class. I have begun to step back and allow her to develop her play. She helped construct ‘sensory bottles’ and I was amazed to see without direction how she worked through the issue of putting items into the bottles. You can see by the pictures what she decided to do! My course had taught me to step back during these moments and I just made sure I was on hand with resources as she asked for them. The power of play is not always interfering, but in fact letting go at times. Which I do think both parents and teachers struggle with! Instead we must provide the correct resources and opportunities, extending with conversation only when appropriate and not distracting.

Jessica's daughter playing with sensory activity

Jessica Gosling is the founder of Step to Pre-school and has years of experience teaching in both the early years and primary schools, in the UK and internationally.

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