What’s So Wrong With Kids Playing?


One of the surprising things about living in Australia is the near absence of public discussion on education, more specifically, schooling.  The Federal Education Minister, Peter Garrett is rarely seen on TV, and in general there does seem to be either a lack of interest, or an unwillingness to interfere, in how schools are run. This could either be a good thing, or a bad thing, I haven’t yet  worked out which.

So, I was interested, this week, to see how the press reported on the publication of a report into early years education in Australia, by research group E4Kids. The Sydney Morning Herald ran a damning opinion piece, with a telling paragraph: 

“According to the study, on a scale of one to seven, the quality of instruction for four-year-olds ranked only a two. E4Kids director Professor Karen Thorpe called it a ”shocking” finding, going on to say there were ”few examples of intentional teaching”. One parent interviewed by The Sunday Age described kindergarten as ”glorified playgroup”.

This is an unhappy situation, particularly in an era when most jobs require high levels of education. As the move to a knowledge-based economy accelerates, it is more important than ever to provide children with the tools to prosper in it.”

Considering the report was apparently commissioned by the government, one might have expected to hear the language of deliverology from Peter Garrett’s office. Thankfully their response was, refreshingly, the opposite. An education spokesperson said that the reference to a ”glorified playgroup” only ”trivialises the important work being done by early childhood teachers and is completely wrong”. And good for them. I have no personal experience of kindergarten in Australia, so I don’t know if there is any truth in the report’s finding. But I also know that, so long as they’re safe, happy and learning to understand themselves and others, getting worked up about whether the teaching ranks a 2 or a 7 (doesn’t sound terribly scientific to me, I’m afraid) isn’t worth the editorial angst, for three reasons:

Firstly, the middle-class fiction that attempts to link what goes on in kindergarten to preparing young people to compete in the ‘knowledge-based economies’, is laughable. As we Brits have shown, simply adding more and more ‘intentional teaching’ (personally I’m a lover of unintentional teaching, but that’s for another post) at a younger and younger age, has no effect on literacy and numeracy skills. The Finns, once again, show that it’s quality, not quantity, that matters. Their kids don’t start formal schooling till age 7, and are, not surprisingly, someway behind other countries reading levels at that point. Their kids have presumably been wasting their time on all that intentional play. But, lo and behold, once they get started, they overtake most countries in the developed world, and keep getting further away.

Second, perhaps becoming good at play is precisely what our kids need to make them competitive in the knowledge economy. The editors at the SMH would do well to watch this video from ‘Born To Learn’, which explains the well-researched connection between play and creativity, collaboration, curiosity, making connections – all the skills our captains of industry say our work-force lacks, in our battle to stay competitive. 

Thirdly, if the media are worried about early years education’s impact upon our global competitiveness in the knowledge economy, they are concentrating on a flea sitting on a great big elephant in the room. I’ve been reading The Global Auction: The Broken Promises of Education, Jobs and Incomes and the fact is, we are facing an inevitable, brutal, if inconvenient, truth: the fall in the value of knowledge, thanks to digital outsourcing to countries like India, China and Brazil, means that young people in the developed world are facing a high skill-low income future. If they’re trying to work in the knowledge economy, it’s unavoidable, due to the flood of graduates coming out of developing world universities, and the laws of supply and demand. Cramming a bit more teaching into playgroups isn’t going to make a jot of difference. We are going to have to radically rethink education, or get used to significantly lower standards of living for the next few decades.

So, preserving ‘play’ is not only important in humanitarian terms, it might just be the very thing we need more of in education, if we’re going to find our unique advantage, economically. There’s a reason why Googleplex often looks like a giant playground, you know….

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