1.2 Why do you come here?
1.2.1 Children's perceptions of play and learning
An innovative study looked at why children thought they came to their particular schools and centres. Researchers collected the things that children said and analysed the ways in which they said them. The intention behind this was to inform the development of the services the children and their families received (Farrell, Taylor, Tennent and Gahan, 2002). By taking this approach, the children became active and important participants in the work. Building the children's views into the development of their education services was an acknowledgement of their right to participate in the social processes affecting their lives.
No social organization can hope to be built on the rights of its members unless there are mechanisms whereby those members may express themselves and wherein those expressions are taken seriously. Hearing what children say must, therefore, lie at the root of an elaboration of children's rights …
(Eekelaar, 1992, cited in Farrell et al., 2002)
Telling stories and playing with narratives about ourselves and experiences is a way in which we build our notions of ‘self’, who we are and our place in the world (Harrett, 2002).
Iris Keating and her colleagues visited ten primary schools in the north-west of England and asked young children about the things that they were doing in their reception classes. One child who had done PE, music and sand in a day commented, ‘Well I've not done any work today, I don't know why I came to school’ (Keating et al., 2000, p. 443). ‘Real work’ was identified by children as reading and writing: ‘Looking at books. That's not playing. Painting – that's playing. Writing is work’ (Keating et al., 2000, p. 443). Moreover, these reception-age children saw play as inferior to work:
Interviewer: You told me that work is important. Is playing important?
(Keating et al., 2000, p. 443)
Children did recognize implicitly that things could be learnt through play: ‘You learn to make stuff’ (child quoted in Keating et al., 2000, p. 444). This wasn't a school ‘thing’; school is the place for proper schoolwork to take place.
What are the implications for children who do not accomplish the ‘real work’ of the reception class quickly? How will they come to view themselves and others? These children see writing as ‘real work’, that is the thing that they have come to school to learn and at which they need to succeed. It counts. Yet around 46 per cent of six and seven year olds have difficulty with letter formation (Alston, 1995). By the time they are eleven years old, children will have spent thousands of hours, usually one-third of their time in class, involved in language-related handwriting tasks (Alston, 1995). At this stage 20 per cent of boys and 10 per cent of girls report that they ‘hated writing’ and, in addition, 37 per cent of boys and 23 per cent of girls claimed to write as little as possible and only when they had to do so (Alston, 1995; Sheehy and Jenkin, 1999). This situation will affect children's attitudes to themselves and their relationship to learning.
Already at an early age therefore some pupils are beginning to feel that the things they can do in school are not valued and that they are in some way ‘outside’ the valued groups. John Davis and Nick Watson have shown that this process of exclusion takes place in both mainstream and special schools. They found that children in special schools picked up adult perceptions and ‘mirrored adult discourses’; when a child in a special school was asked the question ‘Why are you here?’, their answer was ‘Because I'm not very bright’ (Davis and Watson, 2001).