Primary education: listening and observing
Primary education: listening and observing

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Primary education: listening and observing

1 The importance of the playground

Not every child has access to a private garden, a park or an area of woodland. But almost every child has access to school grounds. There’s something significant about the daily experience of an outdoor space, experiencing it in all weathers and throughout the seasons.

If you ask children which part of the school day they enjoy the most, many will say ‘playtime’. Nowadays, adults are much more aware of the importance of playtime for children’s physical and social development and their well-being. Adults who are playtime supervisors in primary schools will confirm that the playground can be educational and directly supportive of classroom learning.

There are two places in primary schools where children can talk whenever they like and about whatever they like – one is the dinner hall (although adults often control the volume of talk) and the second is the playground.

Clearly, playgrounds and classrooms are very different kinds of designed spaces. To a large extent, children decide what happens in a playground; whereas, in the main, adults decide what happens in a classroom. Playgrounds provide children with opportunities for activity and spontaneous bodily movement that would be problematic in a classroom. If you want to have a sense of how children truly are when they are free, you should observe them at playtime.

In Session 1, you looked at two transcripts of children’s talk, and you explored what this talk revealed about them. It is important to remember that non-verbal communication and ‘body language’ can be observed too. Body language includes facial expressions, particularly the use of eyes, hand and arm gestures, body posture, movements, as well as the clothes we wear and even the colours we choose. Even children at the earliest stages of language learning use their hands when they speak, especially if their parents do. Gestures often mirror speech.

Next, you’ll hear from headteacher Mark Millinson again, about his perspectives on the playground and what happens there.

Activity 1 A head teacher talks about the playground

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

Adults who work and volunteer in primary schools often find themselves in the playground during breaktimes or lunchtimes. It’s a great opportunity to observe children moving freely, talking, singing, playing games, or simply sitting and watching. Adults often use this time to observe children’s friendship groups and how children get along with each other. Headteacher Mark Millinson says the playground is part of the school day.

Download this video clip.Video player: Video 1
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Transcript: Video 1

I view the school day as being an extension of learning, or an opportunity to learn. So the playground is a big part of that. Because learning isn't just about what people call the three Rs and extra bits associated with that. It's about how to interact. It's how to be social. It's how to sort issues out and problems. It's about supporting each other. So, very often I've had children on the playground come to me and mentioned something that's been going on in the classroom because they wanted-- they weren't quite sure about that something. More often than not though, it's "it's not fair because he's not letting me play" or whatever. And my response, then, is not to charge into the situation, to solve the issues for the children, but to teach them how to discuss disagreements. Because that type of opportunity to learn is so important because it's a lifelong skill. When I'm on the playground, which is frequent, I observe children quite closely. Because what I'm looking for, fundamentally, is are the children happy? The flip side of that is who looks lonely? Who looks sad? Because that's the opportunity for me to gently stroll over and say, "Hi, how are you?" And if there is something that the child needs help with, then I'm there. It may be that they just want to be by themselves, as well. And it may be their personality that they don't look as happy as the other children. We're all different and we need to celebrate those differences.
End transcript: Video 1
Video 1
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Mark says it’s fun to be in the playground, because sometimes children ask him and other teacher to play with them. Later, you’ll hear two children confirm this.

But what about problems and conflicts that arise in the playground? Mark explains his school’s way of dealing with these, and why adults in the school need to help children resolve disagreements at playtime.

Download this video clip.Video player: Video 2
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Transcript: Video 2

There are times when an adult does need to intervene because children are indignant and there is a position where they feel that they're aggrieved, and they need to-- and they're angry. And although that's rare, when that does happen, then an adult will move into the situation. And in this school, we try and use something called restorative justice. So, again, it's about listening and it's about not having value statements in the questioning that the adult makes. So instead of saying, who started this problem? Who is at fault? We will say things such as-- it's quite open-ended-- such as, what happened? Yeah, who's been affected by this? How are you feeling about this now? How can we put this right? And with those questions punctuated with the children's responses, it doesn't always resolve issues, but the children calm down. Nobody is being blamed, certainly not in the first instance. And there's a greater awareness of actually what happened during that because we all see the world from our own point of view, and this is a way of encouraging children to listen to somebody else's point of view. So actually those conflicts are quite useful in developing resilience and developing an appreciation that somebody else has a different point of view, and also learning how to work with conflict resolution, even over whose turn was it to be it. You know, it's early days, but it's a step in the right direction for our learning within society and how we need to conduct ourselves as adults.
End transcript: Video 2
Video 2
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In the next activity, you’ll observe a primary school playground and children’s use of the spaces in it.

Activity 2 Observing a playground

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes

Watch this video of a primary school playground. This playground has two parts: a tarmac area, and a field area.

As you watch, scan the two playground spaces. Notice their physical and environmental characteristics. Look at how children are moving and gesturing, on their own and in relation to each other.

From what you can see in the sequences, sketch a rough plan of these areas. Include any distinctive playground markings, surface areas, objects or boundaries.

As you watch, also listen for the sounds of these playground spaces. What do you hear? Jot these down as well. Notice what the adults are doing in the playground too.

You can watch the sequence a few times and pause the video in order to record the details.

Download this video clip.Video player: Video 3
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Transcript: Video 3










End transcript: Video 3
Video 3
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The seemingly disorganised sounds that arise from playgrounds are not unlike the cacophony of sound that can be heard on a crowded beach. The detail of what is being said, and the reasons for individual interactions, will change over the years but the ‘chorus’ of combined and disparate sounds is timeless.

The children in the video that you watched seem to use all of the available space in the two play areas, tarmac and field. They have freedom and space to run and climb, and play team games. There are also quiet spaces, and a semi-wild woodland area. In the video sequence, you can hear a child ask ‘Can I play?’ and later you can hear children singing. The adults are circulating and watching, not participating in children’s activities but ready to step in if necessary.

One benefit of playtime is that children of different ages can mix, and you may have noticed children playing a game at a table with older boys from a local secondary school who are acting as playground helpers.

Later in this session you will use some criteria to evaluate the playground spaces.

Next, you will listen to two children talk about the school playground that you have just seen.


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