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Bringing a nursery model into the infant classroom

  16th September 2019

When I walked into the ‘one-ery’ (a play on the words year ‘one’ and ‘nursery’) at South Morningside, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Many educational professionals had been talking widely about its innovative approach to play-based learning in the first years of school, but how that would fit into an educational system seeking specific learning outcomes was unclear. We were impressed.

Research is demonstrating an increased need to develop children’s skills and creativity, since the jobs they will fill in the future are incredibly hard to predict today. Learning facts is no longer enough; children need to be able to apply their skills in different ways. On top of this, they need to be encouraged to be creative, inspiring the next generation of inventors and innovators.

At South Morningside it was noted that traditional methods of teaching five-year-old pupils was disengaging. Whilst being effective in teaching literacy and numeracy, it was dull. There are some exceptions to this nationally, but the premise is generally agreed: sitting down all day completing worksheets while the teacher works with small groups is neither fun nor likely to develop a range of skills or creativity. So South Morningside opted for a new approach.

Most desks were removed save for a few that would be used. Five classrooms, originally constituting five independent classes being taught separately, were all turned into ‘zone rooms’: Imagination Zone, Connection Zone, STEM Zone, Sensory Zone, Creative Zone. A sixth Outdoor Zone was also added to make six areas in total. Each area was staffed with a qualified teacher (the teachers who would originally have been teaching their classes) and supported by pupil support assistants. Literacy and numeracy activities permeated every zone. Whole-class input was delivered for a short time twice a day for literacy and maths and small groups were still taken for specific learning input, but the remainder of the time was spent by children learning through play across all of the zones. This time was referred to as ‘Zone Time’.

During Zone Time the children were very clear on what they could do. That is, just about anything their imagination allowed for. Each zone had a series of well planned activities. The sensory zone had light boxes with magnetic letters, sand and water activities, a range of materials to feel and play with, sounds and music (including a listening station) and a whole manner of other activities that engaged the senses of the youngsters. And the learning was clear. While independent play at different activities didn’t necessarily result in specificlearning outcomes, a whole range of higher-order skills were being fostered: creativity, teamwork, and perseverance to name a few. The specific learning was being delivered more effectively in small groups too. A little bit of input with highly motivated and engaged children is far more effective than a long drawn out campaign to fill their little heads. And this isn’t just a hunch. Indeed the primary concern from parents in this approach, among the many positives, was the perceived effect on academic outcomes in maths and literacy. But the first couple of years of attainment data are now available, and it’s good. There is no change, at least not in the negative direction, in overall attainment in maths and literacy. This, despite the children spending less time specifically working on these areas.

And the children are far more motivated to go to school and to learn, continuing to develop the highly important skills they will need for their futures. One piece of advice for all early-years practitioners is to be brave enough to trust in play-based approaches to learning in the first few years of school. When combined with short chunks of planned teaching input with small groups the overall net effect is very positive indeed.

Posted in categories: Nursery News, Play and Learning, Scotland