We often don't let young children lead their own learning, although it can improve their fluency. Early-years education expert Dr Sandie Mourão clears some misunderstandings and advises how best to include 'free play' into a busy curriculum.
Play is diverse and can range from pretend, solitary or group play to co-operative play and rough-and-tumble. When encouraging children to play, it is important to combine adult-led and child-initiated (or free) play to improve the learner’s experiences.
Imagine a young boy and girl playing together – the girl is wearing a white uniform, and the boy is wearing a scarf and coughing. They are playing doctor and patient. ‘Open your mouth’, says the girl to ‘her patient’, who is obedient, so she praises him: ‘Good’. The children imitate the language and actions they have seen in a familiar context. They both know their roles, and are able to prompt and re-live an event in their lives because of the resources at their disposal.
Some differences between adult-led and child-initiated play
Adult-led play is often the main form of teaching in English classes, due to the time-bound nature of the lessons. Child-initiated play is when children play alone, or together, without the interaction of adults. Through this kind of play, children learn by imitating, experimenting, making mistakes, and making their own decisions about what to do. It encourages children to become more autonomous, as it leaves them to be responsible for their own actions and decisions.
In the mainstream classroom, children are often given access to different resources in designated learning areas or centres, where they can choose to play and interact with the resources there. While children play alone or with others, a teacher will monitor and observe, but rarely intervene. The resources help the children develop different skills and competencies, and understand new concepts. They can range from building blocks and Lego, to weighing apparatuses, or thematic areas such as scenes from a shop, hospital or home.
In many countries around the world, English lessons last little more than 45 minutes, once or twice a week. It is necessary to make the most of this time, and there is a common misconception that young learners of English don’t know enough of the language to play in it, or that there isn't enough time for child-initiated play. Often adult-led play in English sessions is favoured and child-initiated play excluded as a result. Try and strike a balance between the two. How you do this can depend on the length of the lessons in question.
How to include child-initiated play in short English lessons in pre-primary education
Imagine you only have 45 minutes, twice a week, to work with a class in a pre-primary institution. During a research project, two other researchers and I investigated English-learning areas in a classroom and made sure that the areas contained resources associated with the teacher-led English sessions. This set-up depended on collaboration between the pre-primary educator and the English teacher. The educator had to manage the area. She created a physical space for the children in the classroom and ensured the English resources were accessible to children on a shelf or in a box. The educator also allocated time for child-initiated play, but, as this was standard practice in that school, it required little effort. The English teacher provided the resources for the area, which replicated those used during teacher-led play in the English sessions.
As long as the children had been exposed to the activities and the language needed for them to play and interact, we found that they would play in English. The area itself was never used during English sessions. Instead, it was available to children during free play time, which occurred several times a day.
How to include free play into longer English lessons in an English language school
Now, imagine you work in an English-language institution, where children attend lessons for at least an hour. Longer lessons need to be planned to include lots of variety, so you could include a ten-minute free play session into circle-time and table-time activities. To do this, set activities using resources that your children will be able to respond to in the English they are already familiar with. Place the resources in different parts of the classroom and present each learning area, letting children choose where they want to play. You may need to limit the number of children in certain areas, depending on the size of the group and their interests.
The following example does not come from the research above, but from a language school in Spain: As a ten-minute follow-up activity after table time, the teacher set up areas in the classroom with the following resources – an interactive whiteboard game, a dice game, a puppet, a poster, big book of stories, mini-cards and some sonic and picture flashcards. As children finished the table activity, they chose an area, and the teacher was surprised at how much English they used, or demonstrated they understood, and the extent to which they helped each other use the language. She also noted how autonomous the children were in proceeding with the activities they had chosen.
What kind of resources an English-learning area should contain
A wide range of resources, including flashcard sets, games (board games, bingo, etc.), mascots, props or puppets, story cards, picture books, class-made books, child-made picture dictionaries and wall displays relating to what the children know in English, are effective when placed in an English-learning area. All but the picture dictionary need to have been used and experienced by the children during teacher-led activities. The children should be familiar with the language and the structure of the activity to make them feel at ease and confident to communicate in English.
The resources in those areas should also be rotated and varied, so that children do not get bored. It is important to consider the durability of the resources, too, so that they can be used again and again without breaking, and can be left unattended. This may prove to be a challenge, but the benefits resulting from having an English-learning area far outweigh the investment.
Our research showed that children used whole chunks of English to engage with resources and peers – retelling stories, using English during games, and role-playing teacher and student – all imitating their encounters in English with the English teacher. My experience, supported by the research, shows that, if children have not experienced a resource in English, they will only play with it in their first language, except from the picture dictionary, which despite not being used as part of teacher-led sessions, is very popular with them. They have different ways of playing with it, from being alone, gathering in small groups, turning pages, pointing at images and labelling them in English.
How to convince others of the benefits of child-initiated play
Informing school managers, and parents in particular, about the use of free play in the classroom is essential, if you want this approach to work. Providing evidence that children are using English during their play can be one way to help the adults understand the benefits it brings to the classroom. Use a portfolio for assessment and include photographs of children, with notes on what they were doing and saying. Film or record children and share the films (provided you have written permission from the parents or the guardians). Ask children to draw pictures of what they like doing in English and annotate these with their comments.
Including child-initiated play in our pre-primary English classes, in a foreign-language context, is rare, mainly because play is often not understood as an opportunity to use English. Child-initiated play in English is dependent on teacher-led play during English lessons, for it cannot exist unless children are familiar with the resources and know the English they need. This kind of play enables a spontaneous and natural use of English, which is what we want to encourage in our children as they begin their life-long journey into learning English.
Find out more about this topic and watch Dr Mourão's webinar from 19 November 2015 on integrating English into pre-primary education.