A study in Cardiff has found out something interesting, according to this report from the BBC. In essence it confirms in a longitudinal study findings that have been long suspected – that children who do well in end-of-year tests of whatever stripe have often had a better, more nutritious breakfast. The data is quite robust, and Welsh policy makers in particular will take note of it, in part to help eliminate differences in child obesity with England.

But I am concerned that this data is necessary, and worse, that it is presented in isolation. Eating well is part of a much wider responsibility to live well, and children in the UK are finding this harder and harder to do.

David Whitebread has written an excellent contribution to the Cambridge Primary Review Trust blog yesterday that outlines several hindrances to the kind of life we would ideally wish for our children. He is a prominent, but not the only, voice in what is turning out to be a fundamental, Europe-wide debate, on the role and purpose of play.

Noting that half of all children now grow up in urban settings, with much reduced opportunities for play, free play and access to time that is unstructured, David Whitebread comments:

…we know that the stresses of urban living, particularly for those living in poverty, often significantly reduce the amount of fun and playfulness in the home context, and it is clear that this loss of play experiences in children’s early years reduces their preparedness for school.

DSC01385We see this often. The opportunity to enjoy play, to develop talk and grow as humans often takes place away from adults and adult agendas, away from adult machines and in the safe place of role play and unfettered imagination. Just yesterday I was in a conversation with one of my early years teachers, commenting on how much high quality talk goes on amongst children once they think they are out of our earshot. Three 5-year old boys were in a lovely den that had been provided for the purpose in the classroom, and just standing outside listening, with the boys unaware, showed the veracity of that perception. The observation that children come to life behind masks, when they can assume another persona, is another facet of the same view of the world.

Do read Whitebread’s article, as it has much to speak to our obsession with finding things for our children to do, rather than allowing them to face and solve the small-step problems that come their way:

From anthropological studies of children’s play in extant hunter-gatherer societies, and evolutionary psychology studies of play in the young of other mammalian species, it is clear that play is an adaptation which evolved in early human social groups that enabled humans to become powerful learners and problem-solvers. Neuro-scientific studies have shown that playful activity leads to synaptic growth, particularly in the frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for all the uniquely human higher mental functions. Studies in developmental psychology have shown that a playful approach to language learning, as opposed to formal instruction, offers the most powerful support for the early development of phonological and literacy skills. Play has also been shown to support intellectual and emotional ‘self-regulation’, a key predictor of educational achievement and a range of other positive life outcomes.

We can be taught as adults to operate machines. Children frequently use a trial-and-error approach, whose root is “problem-solving as play”. And they get to mastery of a machine often quicker and with greater memory of how they got there than adults using a manual.

None of this is rocket science. We know that deprivation is a predictor both for inactivity amongst children (at least in modern times) and of childhood obesity. The question I have is whether the Cardiff study on the link between breakfast and pupil attainment would be significantly altered (in either direction) if children’s play-habits were taken into account. Or, to put it another way, are the acknowledged cognitive benefits of play for learning greater than the impact of simply eating well before learning? And, more interestingly, what is the correlation – direct or inverse – between those homes which encourage a good breakfast and those homes that allow the greater space for play?


About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011, looking to make education effective for the whole child and keeping a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for all our children. The views on this blog are all my own, and not in any way those of the school I lead!

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