This is a blog about my interaction with my grandson Charlie who is now 3 years and 11 months. The last time we were together we were playing with a range of IKEA soft toys that I use in my work with teachers. I had planned for his arrival by planning to read a story (also from IKEA) and by laying out all the story characters around the room. Charlie was excited when he saw all the toys and after his initial exploration I read the story and he enjoyed finding the characters as they appeared. I always try to follow Charlie’s interests and support his play and the next day play possibilities emerged that I would never have expected or planned for.
I was sitting on the sofa and Charlie was playing by himself with the soft toys. He picked up a large black rat saying, ‘they have these in Warwick castle’. ‘Rat-throwing’ is a rather bizarre game that Charlie has enjoyed playing on visits to the castle. This year, having moved to Oxford in September, he hasn’t been to the castle, but he still remembers the game. His imaginary play often reflects his experiences of the world and gives us some insight into concepts he has already acquired. He picked up a small drum in the room and began to pretend the rat could balance it on his nose. I asked him, ‘Is he a circus rat?’ Charlie nodded. I did a drum roll on another drum and called out to a pretend audience, ‘Roll up, roll up, see the rat balance a drum on his nose.’ Charlie seemed to enjoy this so I asked him, ‘Shall we do a circus?’ He nodded. ‘I think we have a toy clown, they have clowns in the circus don’t they?’ Charlie found the clown and began pretending it was standing on the drum, which he turned onto its side and rolled along.
I took on the role of ringmaster and rolled on the drum: ‘See the clown rolling a giant drum across the circus ring.’ ‘Who else can be in the circus?’ Soon we had a wolf who could swallow a grandma whole and emerge unscathed (a very entertaining soft toy, again from IKEA) and a king whose heart could be taken in and out of his body (IKEA again). Charlie picked up a little horse and pranced him around our imaginary circus ring.
‘Where’s the pixie?’ I said, ‘she could ride on the horse’s back.’
Charlie found the pixie and placed her on the horse’s back and trotted off with her.
‘What about Puss-in-Boots?’ I said.
‘He can be in charge,’ said Charlie.
‘The ring master of the circus?’
‘Yes’, said Charlie.
‘What about the dragon? Can he be in the circus? What could he do?’
‘Breathe fire and fly,’ said Charlie.
I did another drum role: ‘see the amazing fire-breathing dragon fly through the big top.’ Charlie swooped the dragon around the room. We repeated the whole thing again. I did the drum rolls and as I called out what each toy would do in the circus, Charlie picked them up and acted out their roles.
Later on we were in the garden and Charlie asked for some paper and a pen. He rarely shows any interest in mark making so I was surprised. He drew some scribbly lines on the paper.
‘Is that a poster to advertise the circus?’ I said.
‘No, it’s a map to the circus.’
‘Shall I write, “Map to the circus” on the top?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ said Charlie, so I did.
Charlie had made marks to create a map, a symbol imbued with cultural significance and I was thrilled. Today, a week later just as I was writing this blog, my daughter phoned me and said that for the first time ever on Wednesday, when she had taken Charlie to work to visit and see a member of staff’s new baby, he had asked for paper and pen and drawn people with round bodies and stick arms. He told her who each of the people he had drawn were and she wrote their names on the paper for him.
This is a really significant event for us as we had previously been worried about his disinterest in mark-making – especially as his 21 month old brother shows great interest in pens and makes marks everywhere. This caused me to wonder why in the space of a week he had freely chosen to mark-make in two very different and meaningful ways.
In reflecting on these events I realise I have learnt something about child-initiated, adult-supported play. Charlie had initiated the play with the rat and the drum. I extended it by suggesting it could be a circus rat. I wanted to pick up on Charlie’s ideas and knew he had some experience of circuses. We had been to the circus together when he was two and had often talked about it and watched a video on my phone of the trapeze act featuring a fireman. I acted spontaneously and on getting a positive response from Charlie, went on to consciously explore the narrative of a circus with him. He clearly understood the idea of animals doing tricks and readily responded to my suggestions for extending his imaginary play. This seems to illustrate the overlap between play as a natural development activity and play as an intentional educational activity. By building on Charlie’s personal knowledge and interests I was able to connect with him and help him to extend his understanding of the world.
I subscribe to a socio-cultural model of learning and believe we have to view this play in the context of Charlie’s social and cultural world. His experience of story, circuses and soft toys combined with his memory of the game he had played with ‘rats’ at Warwick castle had been incorporated into his play and has enhanced his imaginative capacity. Furthermore, Charlie has a lot of experience of entertainment and performance in general. He has attended plays, musicals and pantomimes, and therefore my introduction of a drum roll to stage-manage the ‘circus’ production made sense to him in the light of his knowledge of theatre, where music can be used to introduce action and mark transitions. His acceptance of my suggestion of creating a circus and his capacity to join in was an imaginative act we both participated in. I took on the mediating role of the adult by linking his play to his lived social experience to extend his imaginative play. Charlie had demonstrated his emotional engagement with the toys and by following this I was able to extend his thinking and imagination. Without his affective commitment I doubt this would have happened. And in the process I have gained a better understanding of the relationship between child-initiated and adult-supported play. Now I have had a chance to think about it, I wish we had gone on to look at maps and made links between Charlie’s map-making and other maps in our world, but we can do that another time.
Let’s return to the idea of mark making. Charlie is in pre-school and his lack of interest in mark making was beginning to worry us. The assessment instruments schools are expected to use are designed to measure children against nationally expected outcomes. He will be starting school in September and in order to be ‘school-ready’ there are expectations that he will acquire some competence in mark making. Because of this we have been worried about his lack of interest in this activity. I was worried that when he is assessed against the learning indicators he would be found wanting and that this might lead his teachers to focus on what he can’t yet do – in the name of getting him ‘school-ready’ – rather than build on his achievements. Increasingly it is the ultimate demands of the school and getting him ready for school that drives the experiences offered to him and sparked our fear that he won’t measure up. I know from my work with early years’ settings, that instead of following the child’s lead in play, many settings are planning individual curriculum activities to address a child’s perceived deficits.
Mark making is important and is one of the many languages of children. In these two examples of Charlie’s spontaneous mark making he has shown us that he is perfectly capable of communicating through his mark making when he decides he wants to do it. In his life he has been exposed to maps and drawing as a way of communicating which will have shown him that graphic communication is a valued activity and can be used to express ideas. By adding words to his map and his drawings of people we have linked his mark making to another communicative tool, that of writing. Because this is embedded in his everyday experience it holds meaning for him that no amount of targeted teaching to address a deficit can do.
As I said in a previous blog, Charlie is already very aware of environmental print and knows that symbols convey information; of course it was just a matter of time before he appropriated this communicative tool for himself – it is part of his socio-cultural context, unfortunately time has been elevated to a high status when judging children’s capabilities – it is not just whether or not they can do things, but when they can do them that is important. Charlie already risked being judged as deficit because he had not made marks according to the timescale set by the developmental criteria. Unfortunately, we have made when as important as what in our developmental milestones and I think that can have a negative impact on children’s sense of themselves and their capabilities and will alarm parents when they are told what their child can’t yet do. The fact that Charlie’s mark making has started later than most of his peers has been a cause for worry. I wonder how often, when a child doesn’t demonstrate competence in a pre-determined learning outcome at the age they are ‘supposed’ to, the result is a child worrying about their lack of competence. How soon would children like Charlie, who began mark making later than most of their peers, be made to feel that they were lacking and start to worry about it? And would that school-induced worry (and often parent-induced as well) make children anxious because they are unable to do what the adults around them expect?
I think it will have an impact. A teacher friend of mine recently wrote to me about the experience she had at parents’ evening for her four year old:
“At my son’s nursery they compare him against outcomes and his teacher spent the whole evening telling us what he can’t do, we had to find the things he can. She said, ‘we are a bit concerned that he only likes to play with the small world, he always chooses that.’ She rattled off some more things he can’t do. I said, ‘what about outside, he likes to be outside.’ She said, ‘Oh yes, he is OK outside, but he didn’t want to build a castle in a group, and his castle wasn't as big or as elaborate as the others.’ Everything is focused on what the children can’t do, but there was no emphasis placed on what he can do.”
What kind of messages are we giving to children when we focus on what they can’t do, instead of building on what they can do and what they are interested in. As a doting grandmother I am tempted to think that Charlie waited to mark make until he could see a communicative point in doing it. Yet if he is viewed as a child who doesn’t make marks and if, in response to this, the provision offered to him targets mark making, we will be responding to a perceived deficit in the child rather than build on his accomplishments. If choices of activities for children is driven by targets that have been set because of the child’s failure to demonstrate the pre-determined outcomes of the early years foundation stage we sacrifice a child-centred curriculum.
I am worried about the increasing prevalence of a deficit model of the child’s capacity to understand and act upon their world. I want a model that assumes each child is a competent learner, that is someone who is capable, confident and self-assured. It follows from this that we need a model of children as active and capable of fully participating and directing their own learning through the social interactions we provide for them in educational settings and sometimes with practitioners who can follow their learning. In contrast, a view of the child as deficient leads to a different kind of curriculum and interaction. The deficit model fosters a ‘can’t do’ rather than a ‘can do’ attitude that I am afraid will transfer itself to the child. Thank goodness Charlie has started mark making before he saw himself as deficient in this area. I look forward to finding out where our play might lead us next.