Anyone who has ventured into a primary school in the past decade or so will have met WALT (We Are Learning To) – information plastered all over the brightly-coloured display boards that tells parents, governors, OFSTED inspectors and other visitors what the pupils’ learning intentions are this term. WALTs aren’t the activities the children do – they’re the tickable learning outcomes listed in every student’s file to make sure they finish Year 6 able to count and do fractions list rivers and whatever else they’re still allowed to learn as part of a post-Gove curriculum. WALT is everywhere. WALT has his uses, for sure, but WALT is seeping out of schools and into all aspects of childhood and he bothers me.
We subscribe to a lovely arts and crafts delivery box service called Toucanbox. It’s great. Every two weeks, a little box turns up in the post with everything you need for a fun afternoon art project – we’ve made collages, stencil prints, puppets, papier mache bowls, jewelled crowns, butterflies, jellyfish, parrots, treasure maps and all sorts of other things, and the resulting products are sturdy enough that many of them have lasted several attempted trashings. Scarlett loves drawing and painting and I love having everything in a box in one place ready to go (even, on one occasion, down to a teabag used to give our treasure map an aged effect). They’re great, and I totally recommend them.
Of course, because it’s any given thing in the world, each Toucanbox turns up with a little leaflet for me so I can be assured that Scarlett is not simply having fun with these projects, she’s LEARNING STUFF. Not just fine motor skills, either! No, we’re whizzing through the KS1 curriculum, from Numeracy and Science to Literacy and History. When we stick our jewels on our royal crown, we’re learning about Kings and Queens *and* gemstone-related Earth Science! The gemstones are plastic of course but hey, igneous rocks y’all. When we make a lovely jellyfish, we’re learning both biology and geography (if I tell her where jellyfish live)! And of course we have polygons coming out the wazzoo. It’s all so very educational.
The thing is, I really resist this codification of learning with all my soul. That’s not to say I don’t think play is an important part of childhood development – of course it is. Through play, Scarlett is learning all those gross and fine motor skills and shape recognition that will eventually end up being reading and writing; she’s learning empathy and communication through imitation and imaginative play; she’s learning balance, agility and coordination and if she so chooses those skills might later be handy in sports or performing arts (or just in the service of, y’know, staying upright). I know all these things feed into the later development of more complex skills. I know she’s learning through experience. I just think it’s a bit miserable that absolutely everything we seem to encounter has to spell these things out for a generation of apparently results-obsessed helicopter parents who evidently want their children to have ALL THE SKILLS NOW instead of, dare I say it, fun.
From Scarlett’s birth, every toy we bought or were gifted came with a handy set of bullet points, often on the outside of the packaging so you could see at a glance how much AMAZING LEARNING was contained in this toy and you could be sure you weren’t going to waste your infant child’s precious development time with something that was merely nice to look at or fun to shake. It’s not bashing a button because it makes a fun noise, it’s all about developing hand-eye coordination and learning to recognise cause and effect. This toy will help your child recognise their body parts. This toy will have your child standing upright at six months and walking by seven. This toy will enable a future career as a vet. This toy will transform your child into Einstein, even if they ignore it, even if all they do is chew it to pieces. As she’s grown older, the claims have grown in earnest.
I’m not, honestly, objecting to recognising the learning potential of play, I’m just questioning why we valorise it above all else. As an educational project planner I’m well used to making the case for arts and creative activity through their extrinsic benefits – working together on creative problem solving promotes speaking and listening skills, sharing and teamwork, analytic and evaluation skills and all that endlessly beneficial jazz – and these are valid and genuine. I’m not saying they don’t exist. I do, however, often feel that we ignore the intrinsic value of creative activity, which is simply to create, to enjoy making something, to play in the clay and have fun moving for its own sake. I think there’s a danger that we so over-lard toys and play activities with learning outcomes that we forget the value of play for its own sake, which is simply to play. It’s fun to bash buttons, dagnammit. That’s why I still do it, decades after discovering what cause and effect are. It’s OK for something to be fun.
I’m not sure what the solution is – I doubt those bullet points are going to go away any time soon. And I do totally recommend those Toucanboxes. Just maybe use the art materials and quietly file the parents’ leaflet away under “things I don’t need to care about for a few years”.
Do you hate the relentless march of tickbox culture as much as I do? Perhaps you love being able to state your two-year-old’s learning intentions for the quarter and would like a handy wallchart to tick them on? Leave your grades for effort and attainment on the back of a used lesson plan, or in the comments below.