Why Don’t They All Learn Well Through Play?

This article has been written by Ellie Collar from Early Years SEN.

I am an early years practitioner and I have worked with Flitters.

You know the children who play like butterflies, circling the play environment but never really engaging with anything long enough to extend their play or use the language you planned for it to stimulate? Those children who play well if an adult is there to extend and model, but drift away once the adult leaves? Those children who live for the bikes outside and spend much of their time there, but only very reluctantly and briefly follow your encouragement to visit things like mark making or adult led activities? The children who don’t follow routines easily without reminders, and the ones you probably wouldn’t leave unsupervised near a sink because of a bit of a history with toilet roll and plug holes? The ones who you work hardest to engage at group times?

I have done the choice boards and the timers and the patient scaffolding of playing alongside, and those things helped a bit, but for years I have thought about those children.

In particular, working for a local authority, I noticed how many of those children who I knew as flitters but with no other noticeable needs, turned out to be struggling at school in year one, year two, year three. They were often the children whom parents told me didn’t like school very much, especially when they made the transition from a play based-environment to year one.

Now leaving aside the very large elephant of ‘should play based learning end at reception?’, I and many other practitioners and teachers I spoke to knew these children and wanted to know, how can we better support these children? I wanted to know: why was flitting a predictor of the challenges at school?

That was when I heard about Executive Function.

What is Executive Function?

Executive function skills are a group of skills including attention, impulse control, emotional regulation, physical regulation, memory and organisation. There are plenty of marketed materials for secondary schools at present about executive function: the advertising generally says something like: Improve your students’ executive function skills and working memory skills, and see their exam results go up!

That connected for me. My flitters have this group of needs;

  • They are the children who find impulse control more challenging than their peers.
  • They find holding their attention for language based activities and extended play more challenging than their peers.
  • They find it hard to remember and organise routines independently – and parents often say that getting them dressed in the morning is hard work.
  • They find sitting still, or any activity not involving excitement and activity, too much; struggling to find the resilience or attention skills to be interested by quieter content.
  • They are often my children who emotionally are more ‘wobbly’ and ‘explosive’, who still struggle with not hitting out or biting after they’ve learned the language and social skills to cope with conflict.
  • They’re also often my children who are wiggly, who seem to be constantly on the go even sitting on a chair, and get easily very excited, needing more support to handle their excitement and to calm down afterwards than their peers for example when we get the bubbles out.

These are signs of early executive function need. Typical in toddlers, but in three to five year olds most children are acquiring these skills fast and I can see the difference between the ones who are lucky with good executive function development and those who might benefit from support. 

Just as blowing and popping bubbles is a root learning experience for reading, and swinging on a swing is a root learning experience for spelling- (seriously! I can prove this!) there are play experiences that are root learning for executive functions skills. Play is hard core learning: the deepest and strongest and earliest means of development. If we know what to play, we can help.

More about Ellie Collar

Ellie Collar has worked as both a Special School teacher and an Early Years SEN advisor for a Local Authority, and now works as an independent consultant, advisor, teacher and trainer with an active case load in schools, early years settings and families. Her particular interest is in the role of strong early development as the most important foundation for successful and confident formal learning. She also works regularly with an inclusive children’s sensory theatre company. You can learn more about Ellie and Early Years SEN here.

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