“Play is one of the most important ways in which young children gain essential knowledge and skills. For this reason, play opportunities and environments that promote play, exploration and hands-on learning are at the core of effective early years education. An important aspect of play is children’s agency and control over the experience.” (UNICEF)
Woodgrange is a four form entry infant school in Newham which serves a wide socio-economic catchment area. The school is part of a soft federation, Newham North Learning Partnership, with seven other local schools who share the same vision – “to create an exemplary model of partnership working through which to develop in our young people a love of learning and the confidence, resilience, ambition and integrity to achieve great things and lead healthy, safe and successful lives in modern Britain.”
Since 2018, staff at Woodgrange Infant School have been working hard to establish a unique model of continuous provision and child led learning from Early Years through to Year 2 in order to secure high levels of well-being, engagement and progress and lay the foundations for future learning in Key Stage 2.
Staff at the school have a deep understanding of how young children learn and have designed their curriculum and pedagogy to reflect this. The curriculum aims to stimulate enquiry, challenge children to think creatively and be purposeful in how they apply their knowledge and develop their skills.
‘Our playful approach is at the heart of our school. We follow the children’s interests and encourage them to explore, think creatively, collaborate and play! Adults follow the children, join in with their play, taking every opportunity to model, develop and expand their vocabulary and language. We see children who are thriving- they are extremely happy, they show deep involvement in their play and are making excellent progress in a wide range of knowledge and skills.’ Quote from school website
Before embarking on this project staff read, attended professional development opportunities and visited other schools in order to clarify what they wanted to achieve. This was also an opportunity for them to identify potential pitfalls and problems. They found that many schools claim to be ‘playful’ but in reality it is for brief timetabled slots of time between Phonics and Maths sessions. Woodgrange staff were clear that they didn’t want this to be a compromise and that they wanted to implement continuous provision in its true form like the best performing European systems.
Prior to implementing changes the school identified the following key objectives:
- To meet high levels of speech, language and communication needs that were hard to meet in a highly structured classroom without taking children out of class to complete learning out of context
- To reduce the vocabulary gap for all children
- To enrich children’s lives – teaching children the language to join play
- To engage boys and other potentially vulnerable groups who were not engaging in their learning or making the expected progress
- To provide an inclusive curriculum for pupils with SEND that they can access independently and reduce dependence on adults to complete a teacher led task
- Enable the staff team to try something new!
Initially, staff worked together to examine and plan to address the barriers to successful transition from EYFS to Year 1 at Woodgrange. They included:
- Time – previous attempts to implement this approach had been time limited- 6 weeks – a big effort for the short term.
They decided to invest time in getting this right and set no end date for the project
- Resources- areas had too much furniture and insufficient space or equipment for indoor or outdoor play.
They reduced the amount of tables and chairs in Year 1 classrooms to free space for playful learning- small world/ construction/ creative workshops. They invested heavily in resources and open access furniture, rugs and equipment for play
- Timetable- this was broken up by breaks and specific subject lessons
They tore up the timetable and introduced comfort breaks in Year 1 (in line with EYFS practice). They then planned the timetable around the learning they wanted to take place. This provided 3 uninterrupted hours in the mornings and 2.5 hours in the afternoon. The timetable was then created to identify whole class teaching sessions at start and end of each session with time for child led learning in between.
- Access to outdoor learning
Fortunately, all classes are located on the ground floor with direct access to the outside. Initially, all four Year 1 classes were moved to enable them to share the same part of the school building with a canopy outside each door. They invested in resources such as blocks, loose parts, a giant sand pit and lots of storage bins/ sheds
- Whole class lessons
In earlier implementation attempts the staff had retained a 1 hour daily maths lesson which meant that they needed a table and chair for each child. They decided to drop this and keep maths progress under close review- this enabled them to free up space.
- Staff attitudes
Teachers were mostly positive about the change as they could see the benefits. Teaching Assistants were skeptical and needed more persuading. Professional development was provided weekly for teachers, using key texts: Moving on the KS1 (J. Fisher) and then parallel sessions were offered for teaching assistants during school hours. This access to senior staff was powerful and developed strong relationships, based on trust, and enabling the views of all staff members to be heard. Smaller year group based sessions were manageable and meant all staff could confidently participate. Sessions were based on observing vulnerable pupils and discussing how they could adapt provision to boost their involvement.
Evidence of Success
The new approach was implemented for Year 1 children in September 2018 and contributed to a positive Ofsted inspection outcome in November 2019.
‘There is a strong focus on reading, communication and learning through play. Staff prioritise supporting pupils communication and language. This makes sure that all pupils, particularly those with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND), are included and enjoy learning.’ Quote from Ofsted Inspection report
Outcomes for children at the end of Year 1 in 2019 were exceptionally good, particularly in writing. An Assistant Headteacher returning from maternity leave was astounded at the progress in writing, particularly for children who would normally struggle in conventional “lessons”.
In September 2019 staff continued the implementation journey for Year 2 children. A timetable was created, similar to that of Year 1, but with a little more time for taught sessions and introducing book talk (our version of reciprocal reading) in place of phonics during the Spring and Summer terms.
Unfortunately, Covid closures interrupted the journey and Year 1 & Year 2 children did not return to school after March. Therefore, the journey paused and re-started in September 2020. The playful learning approach was perfect for the return to school as the children went straight back into school, happy and settled. The approach aligned perfectly with the covid restrictions as they had most children outside for extended amounts of time and doors constantly open.
Following the return of children after ‘Lockdown 2’ the structure in Year 2 was gradually tightened to provide more opportunities for writing. This action was in response to feedback from the ‘feeder’ Junior school suggesting that the children’s stamina for writing was weak (albeit after lockdown). The children coped well with this and staff now see them writing daily. The children have adapted well to a “flexible working approach”- some at tables, some on tummies on the carpet or on clipboards etc.
Maths has continued with a daily input and a follow up focus activity with one group per day.
Pupil outcomes in Year 2 Reading are as strong as before the implementation of the playful learning approach. Pupil outcomes in Maths are very strong, based on assessments of the curriculum taught. Staff focused on addition and subtraction as part of the recovery curriculum. Wellbeing and welfare are very high. Progress in speech and language is very strong, with opportunities to talk and play with peers and adults resulting in less time needed for specific interventions.
- Visits to schools before the “launch” were essential – ideally we would have continued these and offered them to more staff
- Training for Teaching Assistants was vital to secure ‘buy in’
- The governing board were incredibly supportive as they were well informed about the changes
- Recruit staff with EYFS experience and move them around to share their experience
- Integrate children with SEND into the main class through an inclusive curriculum offer