The schoolification of EYFS and the demise of play-based learning.

Painting? Thinking? Learning? Playing? All of these?
Before I taught in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), I would jest that this learning through play malarkey was just playing. How on earth could a teacher focus in such a noisy and chaotic environment? How could someone actually make sense of what was happening whilst the children would go from one activity to another whenever they liked? From the outside looking in it appeared that it was just playing and this illusion continued until I decided to work as an EYFS teacher. How hard could it be? I would draw on my 15+ years of primary experience and sort my foundation class into shape. Actually, the initial shock was fear. Fear that my assumptions were correct and that I had made a huge mistake. Fear that my confidence and ability to teach in any primary age group were no more.  Fear when I quickly realised I didn’t have a clue how to teach in EYFS and these four and five-year-olds were making a mockery of my so-called professionalism.
Three years later, I felt more in control. Through trial and error, reading early years literature, asking questions and visiting other EYFS classrooms, I improved my practice. The fear was gone and I had more faith in my ability to ‘teach’ these young learners but I still had questions about this vital age group. One area that I questioned was my assumption that I would be able to teach in EYFS. The Association for Professional Development in Early Years (TACTYC) clears up this error in judgment saying that as part of the EYFS, 

‘the Reception year would appropriately be led by teachers trained specifically in early childhood education, including child development. Unfortunately, it is not unusual for a school to move teachers whose training and experience centre on later phases of education into Reception classes.’ (TACTYC, 2017)

This, of course, makes sense. I immersed myself in literature to improve my understanding of early years pedagogy but I found that I struggled to put what I was reading regarding play-based learning into practice in the classroom due to a growing ‘schoolification’ of EYFS (Alcock and Haggerty, 2013; Brostrom, 2017; Ring and O’Sullivan; 2018). This schoolification is a growing trend that attempts to prepare children earlier in their lives for the challenges that academic rigour presents. Primary schools face ever-growing external pressure to ensure the demands of the curriculum are met and that standards continue to rise. From the outside looking in it all looks like play, so why not reduce the amount of play-based learning and, as the DFE in its EYFS Framework alludes to, promote more formal teaching so that the children are ready for Year 1 (DFE, 2017)? However, play underpins both the EYFS Profile and the Framework,

Play is essential for children’s development, building their confidence as they learn to explore, to think about problems, and relate to others. Children learn by leading their own play, and by taking part in play which is guided by adults (p.9)

And there is a wealth of literature that details the benefits of a play-based approach (Whitebread, Basilio, Kuvalja, Verma, 2012; Lester, Russell, 2010; Jarvis, 2010. Macintyre, 2016; Bruce, 2011; Broadhead, 2013; Brooker, Braise, Edwards, 2014). Play-based learning, when done well, is incredibly powerful as a teaching and learning approach but it requires a lot of effort and thought to get right. Do EYFS teachers face growing pressures to ensure their children are ready for Year 1? If so, do these pressures mean less time spent on developing pedagogically sound play-based learning approaches in favour of short whole class teaching sessions? Do expectations to achieve ever higher numbers of children meeting a ‘Good Level of Development’ (GLD) lead to fewer opportunities for effective play-based learning approaches? I will leave this, for now, with a warning from Emer Ring and Lisha O’Sullivan (2018).

Allowing the ‘schoolification epidemic’ to propel early years’ education globally seriously compromises children’s earliest experiences and places undue demands on young children. Identifying school readiness as the key rationale for early years’ education may potentially be counterproductive if children’s individual needs, abilities, interests and development are side-lined in favour of prescribed curricula and inappropriate pedagogy. (P. 408)

References
Association for Professional Development in Early Years, 2017. Bald Beginnings: a response to Ofsted’s 2017 report. http://tactyc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Bold-Beginnings-TACTYC-response-FINAL-09.12.17.pdf

Alcock, S., Haggerty, M. 2013. Recent policy developments and the ‘schoolification’ of early childhood care and education in Aotearoa New Zealand.  http://www.nzcer.org.nz/system/files/ECF2013_2_021_1.pdf

DFE, 2017. Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage. https://www.foundationyears.org.uk/files/2017/03/EYFS_STATUTORY_FRAMEWORK_2017.pdf

Stig Broström (2017) A dynamic learning concept in early years’ education: a
possible way to prevent schoolification, International Journal of Early Years Education, 25:1, 3-15,
DOI: 10.1080/09669760.2016.1270196

Emer Ring & Lisha O’Sullivan (2018) Dewey: a panacea for the ‘schoolification’
epidemic, Education 3-13, 46:4, 402-410, DOI: 10.1080/03004279.2018.1445474

Whitebread, Basilio, Kuvalja and Verma, 2012. The Importance of Play. http://www.importanceofplay.eu/IMG/pdf/dr_david_whitebread_-_the_importance_of_play.pdf

Lester, S., Russell, W., 2010. Children’s right to play.  https://www.researchgate.net/publication/263087157_Children’s_Right_to_Play_An_Examination_of_the_Importance_of_Play_in_the_Lives_of_Children_Worldwide

Jarvis, P. (2010). ‘Born to play’: the biocultural roots of rough and tumble play, and its impact upon young children’s learning and development. In P. Broadhead, J. Howard and E. Wood (Eds.). Play and learning in the early years. London: Sage.

Macintyre, C. (2016). Enhancing Learning through Play: A developmental perspective for early years settings. Milton: Taylor and Francis.

Bruce, T. (2011). Learning Through Play, 2nd Edition For Babies, Toddlers and Young Children. London: Hodder Education.

Broadhead, P. (2013). Early Years Play and Learning: Developing Social Skills and Cooperation. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis.

In Brooker, L., In Blaise, M., & In Edwards, S. (2014). The SAGE Handbook of Play and Learning in Early Childhood. London: SAGE Publications.

DFE, 2018. Early Years Foundation Stage Profile. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/669079/Early_years_foundation_stage_profile_2018_handbook.pdf

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