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The value of play in a successful transition from Early Years to Year 1

Written By: Rebecca Underwood
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10 min read
Rebecca Underwood, Avanti Schools Trust, UK

Have you ever been fortunate enough to have watched children play – to observe them captivated in a task that they have complete ownership over? If so, you will fully appreciate the infinite value of play and its major significance as part of a broad and balanced curriculum for primary aged children.

Play – those uninterrupted, spontaneous moments of joy and discovery. That is how children flourish, how they make connections with what they already know and how their self-confidence radiates to all around them. With evidence behind us, (Fisher, 2020a; Whitebread et al., 2012; Piaget, 1945), we must let go of the notion that if children are not at a desk, then they are not learning. Fisher states that ‘play is a word that chills the hearts of some headteachers, and senior leaders, particularly those who have never taught young children in their careers’ (2020a, p. 62). Whitebread’s research also confirms this attitude and claims that ‘“play” is sometimes contrasted with “work” and characterised as a type of activity which is essentially unimportant’ (Whitebread et al., 2012, p. 3). Surely no one can agree that this can be true within a child’s earliest years? When children play, no matter their age, some degree of learning takes place. Fisher highlights that many ‘skills that children continue to learn through play are those that are rehearsal for the skills they will need throughout their lives’ (2020a, p. 66). With this in mind, the transition phase between Reception and Year 1 should always include and advocate play. Transition should be seamless and well-structured and given ample time and priority. There should be no play ‘cut-off’ points, but rather a shift in the type of ‘play’ that is offered. Effective transition is a process rather than a one-off event. Some children are eager and well equipped for the formality that the Year 1 curriculum presents; however, others may be hesitant simply due to their own personal journey or, more recently, due to the restrictions of the pandemic. We must always start with the children themselves – their needs and interests.

It is pleasing to know that the EYFS Framework 2021 acknowledges and promotes learning through play. ‘Play is essential for children’s development, building their confidence as they learn to explore, relate to others, set their own goals and solve problems.’ (DfE, 2021, p. 16) The framework goes on to state that practitioners should ‘promote the learning and development of all children in their care, to ensure they are ready for year 1’ (p. 7). For the transition process to be truly effective, it needs to be meticulously planned and clearly communicated to all those who matter: teachers, classroom support staff, Year 1 staff, older children within the school, parents and carers, grandparents and, of course, the children themselves. I wonder whether we can embark upon this process with greater understanding of how ‘purposeful play’ can successfully bridge this gap and ensure that all children are inspired and looking forward to the challenge of Key Stage 1.

Vygotsky claims that cognitive development is directly related to play and ‘provides rich and varied contexts for developing skills such as observing, organising, recording, interpreting and predicting and develops natural curiosity and stimulates imagination’ (cited in Esteban-Quitart, 2018). Alistair Bryce-Clegg (2022), inspiring educational EYFS consultant and advocate for play in Key Stage 1, states that ‘play is a self-initiated opportunity where children are motivated by engagement and curiosity to use every aspect of their creative and critical thinking brain to consolidate and rehearse what they already know whilst actively creating new knowledge’. Although difficult to define, everyone knows ‘play’ when they see it and children from all cultures and economic backgrounds can engage in play;  a child’s universal language. Piaget (1962) suggested that play is a form of assimilation (1962). For me, childhood is synonymous with play. The most important life lessons can come from the experiences that children have while playing. It is personally directed, intrinsically motivated and chosen with a great deal of autonomy. ‘Play in all its rich variety is one of the highest achievements of the human species, alongside language, culture and technology. Indeed, without play, none of these other achievements would be possible.’ (Whitebread et al., 2012, p. 3)

What children are actually doing when playing is bountiful: they are problem-solvers, collaborators, detectives, investigators, artists and delegators. Play inspires them to pretend, create and imagine. Staff too are integral to the process at every juncture. All staff must be on board and ready to intervene and support individual children. They must provide, guide and oversee an abundance of meaningful, educational experiences that promote progress at every opportunity. When given a degree of choice and freedom, children are able to manage information, think, solve problems, be creative, work with diligence and purpose, and make decisions. Through play, children discover a slew of emotional skills and learn how to process the world around them. Maria Montessori states that that ‘Play is the work of the child’, and I believe that it is pivotal to a child’s development, no matter the age. They are able to manage their own knowledge and understanding, they think and solve problems independently and make on-the-spot decisions while working alongside peers, building positive relationships and managing their own emotions. That’s what it’s all about!

I am an advocate for sophisticated play, which, at its simplest, means providing time to play. The greatest three years of my teaching career occurred in a mixed Reception/Year 1 class, where play was at the heart of all we did. There was choice, freedom, exploration, discovery, practice, consolidation, excitement, challenge, spontaneity and fun, and children in Year 1 wrote with flair about experiences that actually happened, created science experiments and spoke like real authors right before my eyes. They taught me how to be a learner! The children worked diligently, they progressed radically and craved learning challenges because they were ready for them. When a child’s experiences are developmentally appropriate (Copple and Bredekamp, 2009), meaningful (CODC, 2018) and enjoyable (Pritchard, 2018), children will engage and learn with greater efficacy (cited in Fisher, 2020b). By assessing the children frequently through questioning and observing their actions and listening intently to their conversations, I was able to plan activities for all children that were relevant and that impacted their learning at every opportunity. My marvellous classroom support teacher and I worked together in unison and would enhance learning opportunities by adding appropriate resources and setting up daily challenges, which the children led with gusto. They were three very magical years; the children soared and so did I. I could see the benefits of play right before my eyes and soon welcomed visitors from all over the UK into our classroom to share our successes. I rarely said much to convince others; just watching the children and listening to their ‘never give up’ mantras and key explanations were enough.

Children innately observe play around them and join in when prompted, invited or ignited with intrigue, watching and listening before jumping in with curiosity, tapping into their prior knowledge, making those constant connections with what they already know. Effective practitioners value play and are able to provide safe but challenging environments that support and extend learning for all.

Play embraces children’s total experience. They use it to tell stories; to be funny and silly; to challenge the world; to imitate it; to engage with it; to discover and understand it; and to be social. They also use play to explore their inmost feelings.

(Jenkinson, 2002)

Children thrive when their needs are met across all domains, including emotional, social, language and physical needs, as well as throughout their own personal learning journeys. Julian Grenier, EYFS expert, says that ‘the early years are the crucial time for developing children’s enjoyment of learning, their engagement and motivation. It’s an important time for children to develop their ability to persist and show gritty determination.’ (2020, p. 2)

Effective pedagogy must meet the needs of each child, while meeting the requirements of the different statutory frameworks – in this case, in relation to outcomes at the end of the EYFS and also at the end of Year 1. Children need challenge in their play and opportunities to expose strong characteristics of effective learning towards the end of their time in EYFS. Children’s enjoyment of play means that it is highly motivating, which, in turn, encourages greater concentration and perseverance (Whitebread et al., 2017). This is why play should also be a part of Year 1 and beyond. Practitioners know the age-related outcomes and control the content of what is to be taught, and so allowing children to lead their own learning while simultaneously acquiring life skills such as resilience, failure, persistence and success is surely beneficial to all.

It’s true that we have a destination and goal for these children to achieve the expectations of a [Year 1] curriculum by the end of the year. How we do this is so important.

(Avanti Institute, nd)

Children need to believe that their intelligence grows with their efforts and that they can bounce back from setbacks with confidence, and they should listen to feedback with intrigue. This positive ‘growth mindset’ (Dweck, 2017) works alongside a play-based provision in Key Stage 1, as positive, confident children who never stop learning are leading the way – in the things that they do, say and believe. Dweck states that ‘without the right mindset, nothing is possible. But with the right mindset? Everything is possible.’ The culture, environment and high expectations must not be a shock for the Year 1 children or their parents in September. We must all realise the critical role of play in empowering young children and promoting their understanding within the variety of curriculum areas.

If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning.

(Dweck, 2017)

There is still a place for discovery, curiosity and play in Key Stage 1 (and beyond), and therefore play must not be forgotten or used as an ‘add on’ or reward within those first few weeks. Instead, it should be an integral part of their daily routine, with learning across the seven areas at the crux of every single child’s action. Children engage in learning when they are the decision-makers and when their imaginations are ignited. Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (Esteban-Quitart, 2018) indicates that it is with the help of more knowledgeable others that people are able to progressively learn and increase their skills and scope of understanding. These quality and timely interventions involving purposeful questions and our genuine ‘wide eyed’ comments are crucial for allowing children to feel unique and important and to fuel the fire for their ever-changing interests. For them to get lost in play, we must understand the true value of play. As Usha Goswami, Professor of Cognitive Developmental Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge argues, ‘children think and reason largely in the same way as adults. However, they lack experience, and they are still developing important metacognitive and executive function skills.’ (2015, p. 25) They need to experience a wide range of emotions on a daily basis in order to learn from them, and they can do this through the mistakes that they make, the frustrations that they overcome and the successes that they encounter and celebrate.

Ofsted (2017, p. 26) stated, ‘Most Year 1 teachers spoken to said that the EYFSP provided only shallow and unnecessary information about a child’s achievements.’ Therefore, the EYFS and Year 1 staff teams need to work together at every opportunity. They need to be in and out of each other’s classrooms, having weekly meetings to discuss the children and analysing data and progress wherever possible, and SLT and parents should also be on board at pivotal points. Year 1 children need continuity of experience in order to flourish.

As children move from the EYFS into KS1 they need continuity of experience, with the ways in which they learn successfully in their Reception class continued into Year 1. This does not mean that what they will learn will be the same, but how they learn should be very similar and familiar.

(Birth to 5 Matters, nd)

While time constraints and teacher workload may negatively impact transition programmes and push them to the bottom of the to-do list, it is important to note that effective transition that starts in EYFS will pay dividends in the long run.

Getting transition right is essential for ensuring that children are able to build on the learning and development fostered within the Early Years, providing them with a strong foundation from which they can flourish in all areas of the curriculum and beyond. This is not as simple, however, as recreating an exact replica of the EYFS environment in the Year 1 classroom. It is about careful preparation and communication, ensuring that best practice is shared between the key stages. There has to be a distinct understanding of what high-quality learning in Year 1 looks like and how this relates to the practices and pedagogies nurtured in the Early Years.

Children need to feel excited as they move up into Year 1. Successful transition between Reception and Year 1 is also essential for the wellbeing of the children. Play supports the foundations of children’s wellbeing for life (Howard and McInnes, 2012; Allee-Herdon et al., 2019). Children are curious by nature and driven to learn. They investigate, explore, create, imagine and ask why every step of the way because they have a thirst for knowledge.

Let them play…

The world’s greatest discoveries have been made because people were playing around with an idea. The freedom of thought allowed for by play may unlock the learning potential which more confined approaches to the curriculum leave behind.

(Taylor and Baulter, 1993, in Northern Ireland Curriculum, 2008, p. 5)

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