Learning at home does not have to look like school and probably shouldn’t, says Britain’s first play professor.
With coronavirus closures offering opportunities for home learning, and many parents more on hand during the lockdown, play can come into its own, says Paul Ramchandani, Lego professor of play at the University of Cambridge.
A parent’s ability to notice, interpret and respond well to a young child’s attempt to communicate can positively affect development, he says. And fathers can also play a unique role. “From some of the studies we’ve done, we know that the children of fathers who are more engaged – and usually that’s in a playful way – tend to do better in terms of their behaviour and development,” he says.
“Rough and tumble play and other types of physical play can be great fun and can help children learn lots of different skills, such as physical coordination and self-control,” he adds. “Dads can also get involved in a wide variety of play activities, including fun games and singing songs with younger children.”
He says parents should not worry about the kind of play – “children will learn and enjoy different things from different kinds of play, and taking the time to play with your children, getting stuck in, is the most important thing”.
Watch what your child is doing and try to follow their lead, doing what interests them. He says this responsive parenting is key to supporting young children’s learning and social and emotional development. “Slow down and let the child complete the task themselves, however long it takes, because that is how they learn.”
“Research looking at the effect of parents being playful is still underway, so it’s difficult to answer the question about benefits of playful parenting from the science at the moment, but we do know that children being able to play freely is associated with better health outcomes and potentially lower stress,” he says.
“The most important thing for young children in times of stress is receiving predictable care and love from parents or carers they trust, but time to play is going to help.”
So does he get to play with bricks and plastic square heads all day? “No, it’s a great job title, but I knew it wasn’t going to involve – as some media headlines suggested – teaching posh students to play Lego.”
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Instead, Ramchandani, a practising child psychiatrist and former professor of child and adolescent mental health at Imperial College London, has been tasked with leading Cambridge’s research into the role of play in child development.
He warns that formalised education appears to be creeping down the age range, and he is not convinced that didactic learning environments for young children offer long-term benefits. “I don’t think there’s any evidence it does anybody any great good. I think we ought to be stopping and potentially reversing it.”
Opportunities for unstructured play in the early years are really important and expecting young children to sit and learn in structured environments for long periods does not fit with their developmental needs, he adds. “I haven’t yet seen any evidence that kids in systems that formalise education later do any worse. So I lean towards thinking we should formalise education a little later.”
Ramchandani, 51, the son of a hairdresser and an accountant, was born in Maidstone, Kent. He went to state schools there and in Bristol, where his family moved, before studying medicine at Southampton University.
After graduating he spent 10 years in the NHS and training as a child psychiatrist – he decided to focus on children after noticing that the roots of many adults’ mental health problems often started in childhood.
Meet the world’s first professor of play
He is critical of the UK’s education structure, and in particular the focus on formal learning. “I struggle with the way learning is set up in this country, in terms of the age at which we expect children to settle down and sit in class. Children at quite young ages are now being set ‘learning goals’. In my work as a child psychiatrist, I saw lots of boys, in particular, who get referred at six or seven because they’re not able to sit still in class and attend to the lesson.”
While some will have severe neuro-developmental disorders, “there are a lot of others who end up in difficulty because they are just not quite ready for sitting still like that.” They get unfairly labelled as “difficult” or “not fitting in”, he says.
Play, he says, is a child’s way of exploring the world, learning about consequences, how things fit together and how relationships work. “We’re trying to understand where play may work – because it’s not that if we just leave children to free play, they’re going to learn better. There’s no evidence for that.”
The question he wants to answer is this: “Where would play-based learning be best for aspects of children’s learning and education, and where would another approach be better?”
The lack of funding in state schools compared with the “amazing” resources of many independent schools concerns him. “The fact that most children don’t get those opportunities just seems to me to be tragic. I’m not doing down the state system – I’m very grateful for my state-school education, which provided me with tons of opportunities. But you see the difference in resourcing and opportunities. It’s just staggering to me that this is an acceptable ‘given’ of society.”
Inequality of opportunity from the start is the worst thing about the system, he says. “I wonder what a visitor from another planet would make of it: that we’re prepared to allocate children to massively different resourced education systems, just on the accident of their family’s wealth. It’s staggering. It’s ridiculous. It narrows opportunity for everybody – and it means we’re not making the most of the talents of the widest range of people, which is crazy.”
He would like state school funding increased to provide more teachers per pupil, and more joined-up government thinking about the opportunities for children, particularly in their first few years.
“There isn’t any kind of coherent story about what landscape we want to create for our children. “We’re not looking out for them. We’re not thinking about them. And we really should be.”
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