Wednesday, May 3, 2023

The Importance of Play Revisited

One of the most popular posts I've ever written on this blog (in fact the 2nd most popular at 35,000 reads) was one that considered how soon children can and should start writing (in the sense of writing 'real' words)? This might seem a silly question today, but for those of us over the age of 50, we all recall that researchers, educators, teachers and parents assumed that children should only learn to express themselves in handwriting once they had the foundations in listening, speaking, reading, writing letters and pretty much in this order. Of course, now we know this was incorrect.

Above: Two children reading together

While there were some reasonable grounds for supporting the traditional order, including the young child's difficulty physically handling pencils to create letters and words, more limited hand eye coordination etc, we accept now that it was simplistic to assume that there needed to be a lock step developmental sequence for spoken and written language. 


We also know, there are good reasons (and evidence) to support the early introduction of writing early (and some of us spent many years making this point). For example, while educators, psychologists and paediatricians once assumed there is little communicative intent with a newborn baby, it's clear that almost from the first day of life, babies begin to respond to their world. And many of their very early vocalisations, eye movements, gazes, facial movements and body movements are attempts to communicate. I'm a bit of a baby whisperer myself, and can get smiles from babies very early (and NO older readers, it isn't 'wind'!!).

Well known paediatrician Dr Kim Oates gave a wonderful lecture on this topic at New College in 2006 as part of the New College Lecture series (that at the time I hosted here). While speaking follows well after the ability to hear and respond to sound, attempts to communicate commence almost immediately. Babies will begin to focus their eyes on objects, and particularly faces talking to them VERY early.

Lydia writing at Palace of Versailles

Any as for writing, parents will attest to the marks small children will make on floors, walls and paper if they get hold of a crayon of pencil! Children begin attempting to place their mark on the world as soon as they can grab anything that will make a mark. It's as if they want to be able to say:

"Look, I did this. This is MY mark.

And of course, if you ask older toddlers what it says, they will often say things like, "me and mummy", "It's just a word", "it's a drawing", "dog" etc.

What do we know about early scribble and drawing?

We now know that even children's earliest scribbles very quickly have meaning associated with them. While at first children are as much interested in the gross motor movement (the rhythmic drawing of circular patterns, fast scribble to fill a page etc), they soon begin to attempt much more, as they seek to communicate or create meaning through their scribbles, patterns and drawing.

Above: Sample from the "Young in Art" site showing intent in the drawing of a young child

There have been numerous studies of children's early art, and many examined early literacy prior to the 1970s, but few looked closely at the relationship between the two. A colleague and dear friend of mine (still!) from Indiana University, Professor Jerome C. Harste conducted significant research in the late 1970s and early 1980s that taught us much about children's early writing. With his colleagues Professors Virginia Woodward and Carolyn Burke and many graduate students, they studied the early writing of children aged 3, 4, 5 & 6 years. They concluded that the process of scribbling "bears sociolinguistic and psycholinguistic similarity" to the processes we observe in reading and writing [See Harste, Woodward & Burke (1983), Language Stories and Literacy Lessons.

Harste, Woodward and Burke concluded that most children know the difference between reading and writing by age 3, and by this time they are developing an understanding of written language, demonstrated in their scribbles and attempts to write and draw. They argued against traditional developmental notions and suggested from at least the age of 3, children begin to demonstrate elements of authoring. They named this the "authoring cycle". As they examined the early 'scribble' and 'writing' of very young children they identified:

  • Organization (evidence of conventions and the genesis of cognitive processes similar to adults)
  • Intentionality (evidence children knew their marks signify something)
  • Generativeness (an attempt to generate or make meaning)
  • Risk-taking (trying things they hadn't before)
  • Awareness that writing & language have social functions
  • Understanding that context matters in language (i.e. the situation is related to what you write and how you use it)
  • Meaning making in children's 'scribbles', and later words using invented spelling, that formed a text or unit of meaning. They also realized that the sum of the elements collectively meant something.

For example, picking up on just one of the above elements of authoring, Harste, Woodward and Burke observed in the scribbles of children from families who had a first language other than English, some interesting differences. 

The writing below shows just how different scribble can be for four-year-old children living in homes that speak different languages; in this case, English, Arabic and Hebrew. 

They concluded that evidence like this demonstrates that at age four, and even before, these children were trying to write words, and their 'scribble' demonstrated organization similar to the processes used by proficient writers.

So, what does this mean for early writing?

Even though we've moved a great deal in family and school practices in the last 30 years, the following brief comments are still relevant and important for parents and Preschool teachers to understand. 

I believe we need to:

  • Take children's early drawing and scribble seriously - look at it, enjoy it, discuss it with your children (e.g. "What's this?" "What does this mean?" etc).
  • Encourage children to write - give them blank paper and simply suggest they "write"!
  • Let children see you writing and talk about your writing.
  • Look for patterns in children's early drawing and scribble and expect to learn things about your child from it.
  • In short, encourage writing just as much as you encourage reading and celebrate their drawing and 'writing'. How? Put it on the wall, fridge, notice board. Date it and keep it, or make up a writers' folder etc.

I have also written about this topic at length in other publications such as my book "Pathways to Literacy", Cassell: London, 1995.

What's different since I first wrote about this topic over 25 years ago? And why does it matter?

a) The Differences

There are a number of key differences in 2023. 

First, children are more likely to use devices for writing and drawing today. Early scribbles might be made on an iPad or similar device as well as on paper, walls, footpaths etc. And of course, most of these are rarely retained.

Second, adults should take early writing and drawing in any form more seriously. Look intently, ask your children to explain what they've written, drawn and so on. For example, the image below was drawn in 2007 and is one of my favourites from a grandchild who at the time was 4 years old. We'd been to the aquarium and he drew this back home and explained that he'd drawn it from the perspective of the fish. After he drew the image below he said, "that's how the fish looked at us while we were looking at them." 

Third, children probably spend less time with parents in the earliest development phases (0-4 years) than they did 30-50 years ago; attending playgroups and childcare centres. 

b) The adjustments we need to make

Today, parents and teachers are far less likely to observe their children or students as they compose, whether in text or drawings. 

As parents, we need to see iPads and other devices not just as a way to keep our children quiet, while we do other things. To be sure, there are times when we do NEED to do this. In days gone by the TV and toys played their part in achieving this, as did sand pits, parks etc (but let's not lose these either).

Above: A teacher using an iPad to demonstrate

My recommendation to parents (& teachers) is that when children are using devices, we need to ask them regularly what they're doing, and comment on drawings etc. You might even capture screen shots of special things to share with others (like parents, family etc). Create an electronic portfolio for toddlers.

Teachers of course can make much greater use of iPads and other devices in the classroom to encourage writing, drawing and far more. They are now tools that can be used individually or in groups. I have a graduate student Norah Aldossary who has just completed an interesting PhD on this titled 'The Potential of iPad Apps to support Vocabulary Development in Children Learning English as an Additional Language'.

Other literacy educators have been doing great work in considering how to use devices for learning in classrooms. For example, Michelle Neumann has written about this in 'Teacher Scaffolding of Preschoolers' Shared Story App and a Printed Book' (2019). The many studies by Michelle and others have shown varied benefits from using iPads in this more educational way. Some have found varied benefits, for example:

  • Vocabulary benefits (e.g. Shang & Gray, 2014)
  • Comprehension benefits (e.g. O'Toole & Kannsass, 2018)
  • Word learning in 5 year olds (e.g. Korat et al., 2010)

However conversely, others have found that if used badly, devices might lead to poorer vocabulary and story comprehension (e.g. de Jong and Bus (2003). This seems linked to the children ignoring the text and 'reading' the pictures alone. I'd also suspect, this is linked as well to less child and adult interaction, which we know 'stretches' children's language and learning.

Another interesting study by Roskos, Carroll and Burnstein (2012) looked closely at how teachers used the iPads. They found benefits when teachers used the iPad to extend shared reading by asking questions, explaining word meanings and engaging the students in conversation as they read the iPad stories. This of course leads to development.

In short, as we live in times where the parent and child, or the teacher and her/his students no longer sit reading book stories like they once did with their children, the iPad has potential to facilitate play and experimentation with language and with it growth in language, reading and writing.

Summing up

Children's play always has been, and still is, very important for learning. While the world has changed as technology has developed, the importance of stories and the interaction of children with adults as well as other children, is a key factor in early learning. There is a freedom in play that encourages:

  • Risk taking
  • Experimentation
  • Boldness

We must never allow our busyness, or the convenience of devices to reduce the place of play in children's early years, both prior to school, but also at school. This is a challenge that teachers and parents alike need to take on.

Sunday, March 26, 2023

What are the favourite ‘fairy’ stories?

I'm grateful to 'Flash Academy' for surveying children's favourite stories around the world. The most popular stories were mostly written in English, which reflects the dominance of children's book publishing in English as a universal language. Thanks to Book Riot for also sharing the 'Flash Academy' review online.


You might be surprised by the most popular story in your own country. For example, in my country (Australia), it was 'Puss in Boots'.


Some of the most popular stories included 'Jack and the Beanstalk', 'Thumbelina', 'Red Riding Hood', 'Puss in Boots', and 'Hansel and Gretel'. And many of the favourites were written in the 17th and 18th centuries.


There were some variations by the language used in nations, but not many as children's books are more widely published in English. But a couple of stories did seem to have favourites in specific regions of the world reflecting their own culture and traditions. For example, Middle Eastern and North African nations like Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Kuwait, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Cuba Jordan all had 'Aladdin' in first place! This wasn't the case in most of the other nations.


You might like to do your own survey by class or school to see what children under the age of 7 years indicate as their favourite. This would be a fun and useful activity for any classroom teacher or librarian (school or public). Of course, I'm sure that if you survey children their choices might well be books that they've read recently.


It is also interesting to ponder which stories written in the last 50 years in our own countries, might just make such a list in 100 years. I suspect that a small number will. For example, I think that Australian and English classics of the last 20-40 years that might make such a list are 'Possum Magic' (Mem Fox), 'Where's Julias' (John Burningham), 'Cowardly Clyde' (Bill Peet), 'The Nativity' by Julie Vivas, and 'The Tale of Peter Rabbit' (Beatrix Potter). There are many wonderful books loved by children, but will their children and grandchildren also know of them and love them? Such classic children’s books survive long term because children find deep meaning and connection to their lives in any age.



Friday, February 24, 2023

The Slow Death of Creativity and Imagination in our schools - PART 2

A recent media report presented survey results which suggested 60% of parents find it hard to play with their children. Another report indicated parents should spend at least 30 mins a day in directed play with their  toddlers. The media report shared some surprising comments: "I don't have the time." "I don't know how to play with a toddler." And "I hate playing with my toddler".  

I wrote a post in 2020 titled 'The Slow Death of the Imagination in our Schools - Part 1'. It seems like I need to write Part 2. The recent media reports and responses have stunned me into action!

My purpose in writing the post isn't to make parents feel guilty, especially in an age where both parents typically have paid jobs outside the home. Time is sometimes hard to stretch to allow things that might seem less critical (e.g. playing with our children). And of course, a sole parent needs to do the lot! 

I want instead, to remind everyone that creativity is critical for the world! Creative activities are not an optional extra in life. Unfortunately, we live in times where the globe faces numerous challenges. These include climate change, tragic natural events, the loss of far too many animal, insect, plant and marine species etc. On top of this we have seen global conflicts, pandemics and more. Now, I won't depress my readers. But we need to deal with our challenges. And it isn't just knowledge that will help to solve our many global challenges. Creativity is required in concert with knowledge to enable us to sustain our world. 

The problematic factor is that our schools have never had less time for fostering creativity. This is one of our great educational challenges. Teachers live in an age of constant external pressures to help children succeed on tests. The sad part is that the the more we test, the less time we have to teach and encourage creativity and the application of knowledge to the world. The nations that privilege and promote this at EVERY level of education, will be best placed. 

My post is motivated by the release of the latest NAPLAN test results. These once again show that Australia lags well behind nations like Sweden, where higher marks are demonstrated across all social class levels, as well as regional and urban locations. This is important because while politicians don't spend much time comparing public and private education, they should. Why? Because it would shed light on the great challenges for the public education system to teach more than just knowledge for external tests. We need a greater concentration on developing learners who can solve problems and seek creative solutions, not simply achieve high marks on external standardized tests.

Some of the depressing trends we've seen in higher education include:

  • Lower entry scores to be educated as a teacher than virtually any other course.
  • Large salary gaps between teachers in public and private education. 
  • More children in public education from disadvantaged communities including urban and rural schools.
  • All of the above tend to skew results for children of the privileged who typically attend private or selective schools.

Creativity is NOT simply a gift to privileged children

Above: A 'Big' sister reads to Lydia (age 1 day)
Creativity and imagination are available to all children. In fact, all children are born with an innate desire to explore the world. From birth, they receive a vast array of stimuli as they observe and try to make sense of their surroundings. The environment in which they live has a profound impact on them. Children commence life with great potential - notwithstanding genetic variations. But their environment can have negative as well as positive effects on their learning.

The potential impact of poverty and neglect on children's early development, underlines the need to ensure that children entering school are given every opportunity to be stimulated, inspired and have their horizons widened.

Neuroscience research has taught us a number of things about the young brain, including the immense capacity of children to learn, and for their minds to expand when stimulated. But across our school education system in Australia, I still see a dumbing down of the curriculum. State and nationally mandated testing seems increasingly to shape school programs and classroom practices, as well as wider community expectations.

Above: Philosopher Martin Buber
Social Philosopher Martin Buber suggested at an education conference in 1925 that imagination and creativity are not developed over time. His big take home message was that every child is born with a disposition to be creative.

However sadly, parents, teachers and schools can suppress this inbuilt creativity, and drive it from them with banal and repetitive activities.

As teachers and parents we can either "draw out these powers", or stifle them when done badly. What we offer in schools is but "...a selection of the world." In short, each child is born with an innate ability and desire to explore, imagine and create. The parent or teacher who says I have no time for creative work and play, is limiting the child's potential.

For most children, the first few years of life offer ample opportunities to explore, experiment and seek to push beyond their capacity to do most things. Preschool for most children can still offer freedom to explore, find out, imagine and act upon the creative urge they have to know and create. But by Kindergarten they begin to be trained to produce that which is seen as acceptable.

Above: A three year old doing some 'creative' writing

What can we do?

As parents and teachers we need to work hard at creating learning environments in which children are encouraged to ask "why?', "what if",  "how come" type questions. Parents, should endeavour not to become tired of the toddler asking "why", "what if", "how come" questions. We need to respond to them.

We also need to seek a variety of experiences for our children. As a parent and grandparent I spent as much time as possible with my children (and grandchildren) exploring their world. This included digging in my compost heap, seeking out bugs in our back yard, paddling in estuaries and rock pools, looking at the sky, and reading about the natural wonders of the world. We also read hundreds of books together, drew pictures after key experiences and more.

Teachers also need to look for ways to stimulate the imaginations of the children in our classes. There are many ways to do this, including reading to them and encouraging their responses (in word, drawing, actions...). There are also numerous simple experiences that we can integrate into classroom activities at varied grade levels.

Above: The restored Gramaphone that I still have!
As a young teacher I arrived at school one morning with a 'mystery' object. I found an old 1920s gramaphone on the side of the road. I put it in my car boot (trunk) and took it to school and simply placed it at the front of the classroom. Questions flowed. "What's that?" "Where did you get it?" "My grandma has one of those!" "We've got some old records in our shed, can I go and get them?" The creative activities and knowledge gained from this simply object sustained several days of varied activities and much learning.

In another school we created a number of gardens for flowers and edible plants. While teaching a grade 2/3 composite class we built a brontosaurus (measuring 3 metres by 1 metre) as a garden centrepiece in the school playground. To the joy of the  students, this was featured on the front page of our city newspaper.

Of course, there are subjects in the curriculum that should naturally allow imagination to be developed; including science, art and craft. 

My point in revisiting the previous post with an update, is that I have a sense that we've gone backwards. We cannot afford to allow creativity to be lost in the desire to skill, drill and educate for external exams. Education at all levels is about growing our students in more than just subject knowledge. 

Never allow the 'what if'? question to leave your classroom or home. 

If parents reading this post feel they haven't the time, or they don't know what to do, talk to other parents who do seem to do it, or just give it a go.

Monday, January 23, 2023

Four Great New Books Ideal for Readers 10-15 years

Regular readers now of my blog now that I often share good literature for younger readers. Often they are picture books for children aged 5-12 years. In this post I look at some short novels (all illustrated in some way). The four books chosen across the age range above, starting with the book for the youngest (closer to 5-8) and the last for older readers (12-13).

1. Fairy Tales Gone Bad: Creeping Beauty

Eshe and her twelve sisters are Fairy Godmothers, honoured for the incredible gifts they can bestow. But Eshe’s special abilities are a little different – she can glimpse into the future! And, one day, Eshe foresees something terrifying: a world blanketed in creeping vines and a girl covered in thorns. Eshe needs to stop her vision becoming true, but it will require old and powerful magic. And she won’t be able to do it alone… 

This twist on a well-known fair story is the third and final book in a slightly dark trilogy that twists the classics. It is written in verse, by well known and celebrated poet Joseph Coelho. It is illustrated by Freya Hartas.

This tale about 13 sisters (a 'tredicimalets'!) focusses on Mythica, the youngest of a baker's dozen. All 13 have gifts, including luck, talent, success, imagination, dreams etc. But is the gifts didn't like you, they might just turn into "uncontrollable ear wax", "bad breath", "sneeze laughing". The reader with a great imagination, and the weird and unusual, will love this book.

Freya Hartas also brings another dimension to the tale with her wonderful black and white line illustrations.

2. 'Crunch' written & illustrated by Kayla Miller

Olive is balancing the too-many things she has to do with the too-few hours in the day to do them... When everything adds up, suddenly it's crunch time!

Kayla Miller, the New York Times bestselling author–illustrator of Click, Camp, Act and Clash, returns with a new Olive story!

Its no secret that Olive loves trying new things. Between taking guitar lessons, making a short film, joining Berry Scouts and leading the charge on her school’s dress code reform, Olive has her hands full! But she enjoys being busy so staying on track with her jam-packed schedule should be no problem . . . right?

Olive loves to do new things and juggles guitar lessons, she joins the Berry Scouts. She enjoys being busy son juggles everything without any problems. But over time she begins to struggle. But will her 'sizzle' life style become a mere 'fizzle'? But then there comes a crunch time. 

It saddens me that life of our children has become so full of things that 'must' be done that don't have enough time to be just 'kids'. The carefree life of childhood that was once the norm for many children is under pressure.

Because this 214 page book is in the form of a graphic novel (or cartoon style book) it is certainly suitable for 10-13 year olds, even if not strong readers.

As these two images show, like any graphic novel the illustrations and text always contribute to the story and meaning. A wide age group will be able to relate to the story, particularly the age group 10-13.

Kayla Miller demonstrates wonderful illustrations as well as good writing. I suspect that once they read one of her books they will want to read them all. 

3. Diamond Brothers Detectives: Where Seagulls Dare

     By Anthony Horowitz & Illustrations by Mark Beech

Anthony Horowitz is a prolific acclaimed writer from the UK for both children & adults. His work includes books, TV series (e.g. 'Foyles War' & 'Midsomer Murders'), plays and journalism (when does he sleep!). He has over 50 books in print that includes the best selling 'Alex Rider' spy series for teenagers (over 21 million copies sold). This book is 245 pages long with a handful of delightful black line drawings. This is the 6th book in the Diamond Brothers series. 

This time they are searching for a missing technology genius. But while they search there is a desperate and notorious gang of thugs hot on his heels. This time Nick has his oldest brother Tim ("the world's worst detective") with him. Will they crack yet another case and survive? Like all of the books in the series it is a 'page turner' that children will find hard to put down!

Readers 11-14 yrs will enjoy this latest book in the series.

4. 'Tilda' by Sue Whiting

Overnight Matilda becomes an 'orphan' when her grandfather her carer heads off to war. Tilda refuses to believe that her grandfather has gone forever. But Sister Agatha who is in charge of the convent tells her she has been abandoned. But her grandfather told her he would be back! Is Sister Agatha out to get her? Why is she so hateful to her? Tilda refuses to accept that she is an orphan.

L.M. Montgomery meets Ruth Park in a story of friendship, hope and resilience.

You have a big heart. And people blessed with a big heart have a choice to make. Do they fill that heart with light and love or do they fill it with darkness and hate? This is your choice to make, Matilda. Make it wisely.

Tilda Moss refuses to believe her Grandfather has abandoned her and left her, alone and orphaned, in Brushwood Convent and Home for Girls, no matter what Sister Agatha says. Tilda's home has been destroyed in a fire and her Papa has headed off to the Bore war to earn money to rebuild their home and lives. A promise is made to Tilda by her Papa as he heads off that he would be back for her as soon as he returns from the war.

But Tilda is convinced the dreadful Sister Agatha is out to get her. She tells Tilda her grandfather will never return. Why is she so hateful all the time? She insists that Matilda declare to all at the convent that she is an orphan. She is not an orphan and she will never say it! Something is amiss and Tilda and her best friend Annie need to find out what before it is too late.

The story is a work of fiction motivated by Sue Whiting's own life inspired by her Grandmother who she knows little about. Readers aged 13-15 will enjoy the book. She is the author of over 60 books.