More play at primary school

KATE BARBER talks with neuroscience educator NATHAN WALLIS about bringing our primary school curriculum into line with the research.

According to Nathan, New Zealand’s schooling system is setting up many younger students to feel bad about themselves as learners because their developing brains aren’t ready for the kind of cognitive exertion expected of them.

Nathan is part of a taskforce of experts advising the Ministry of Education on changes to the primary school curriculum. While a broad review is underway, proposed changes to the junior curriculum will have the most significant impact because they’ll benefit our youngest learners, says Nathan.

It seems like commonsense that we send our kids to school to learn to read and write. Yet, says Nathan, this preoccupation with pushing cognitive skills, especially in the first couple of years at school, goes against what the research tells us is optimal for supporting young children’s brains to ultimately reach their academic potential. 

This is because the frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain where ‘thinking’ happens – that will enable a child to identify the next number in a sequence and put in full stops at the end of sentences – doesn’t move into centre-stage development until children are about seven or eight. Suddenly, around this age, most children will find it a lot easier to engage with cognitive processes, like reading, for instance. 

The problem with persisting in teaching children their numbers and letters when their brains aren’t ready is that it can damage their perception of themselves as learners. 

“It is so damaging to put pressure on a six-year-old to do something his brain isn’t quite ready to do, and then tell him that he is falling behind,” says Nathan.

As in the national curriculum for early childhood education, Te Whãriki, Nathan says the focus of the primary curriculum, especially in the early years, needs to be on developing certain strengths or attitudes (‘dispositions’). For instance: how long they can sustain their attention, how confident they are to try new things and take risks, and how well they can link their ideas to those of others. 

Long-term, these dispositions matter so much more than how early a child is able to recognise all their letters. 

“You can’t sit children down and teach them these,” says Nathan. “Rather, dispositions develop naturally when children are in charge of their play and supported by responsive adults.” 

That our school curriculum needs to protect and promote children’s play goes against what some people think is best for our kids – the two-pronged assumption that children go to school to learn their ABCs, and that play must give way in order for this “real learning” to happen. 

Yet, Nathan says, to set up our kids to feel good about themselves as learners and enjoy school, and help reduce the number of youngsters getting anxiety and depression down the track, there needs to be less focus on sitting kids down and teaching them the alphabet, and more on developing dispositions like creativity, perseverance and resilience through child-led free play.

“It’s not that literacy and numeracy aren’t important. They’re wonderful when they are embedded in child-led free play. The problem is that focusing on numeracy and literacy when a child is under seven can mean that the developing brain isn’t getting what it really needs.”

Nathan Wallis is part of a taskforce of experts reviewing our national primary school curriculum. facebook.com/nathanwallisxfactoreducation