The big catch up

Children in school uniforms playing outdoors

At the end of last year, the Government announced £1 billion of funding to support children and young people to catch up on lost time following school closures. In her final speech as Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield said:

“The major disruption to two years of education, alongside the limited opportunities to see friends and wider families, to play and enjoy activities and the worry about the impact of Covid on their families, will have taken a heavy toll on some children.”

The Government’s Recovery Commissioner, Sir Kevan Collins, has indicated schools should take a broad view of catch up, stating:

“I think we need to think about the extra hours, not only for learning, but for children to be together, to play, to engage in competitive sport, for music, for drama, because these are critical areas of learning, not just the academics but these vital areas that have been I think missed by many children and will be missed in their growth and development. We need to make sure that whatever we offer children is broad, is rich and doesn’t completely stifle all the other things in life that matter.”

However, a trawl of primary school websites shows a wide range of interpretations of what catching up involves. Many only publish their ‘catch up curriculums’, these are lists of subject knowledge and skills in the core subjects. A few have a more whole-child approach, one saying: “When the children returned to school [in September 2020], we focused upon their wellbeing and physical health.” Others have defined their broad approach more clearly:

“We utilise opportunities for outdoor learning wherever possible so that children can explore the outdoor environment, link what they are learning to the natural world, and take part in stimulating real life challenges such as gardening and building.”

What have children missed out on the most?

As one school points out: “Each school has been given £80 per pupil. This equates to £2 per week or 41p a day.” So, before schools make too many plans on how to spend their 41ps, we should pause to think about what children have missed out on the most. 

As well as missing out on lessons, many children have spent a year with up to 14 hours a day screen time, and a huge or complete decline in most aspects of ‘real life childhood’; seeing friends, touching, playing, exploring, laughing, running, and having any control over anything other than their virtual lives.

Play is the primary way that children learn

Children are young primates. If you took young primates from another species, say chimpanzees, and for a year deprived them of access to nature, opportunities to socialise, stimulating environments, and opportunities to play in a pleasant well-resourced environment, what outcomes would you expect and how would you help them to recover?

It is no coincidence that the more intelligent a species the more and the longer they play. Like other young primates in their primary years, children need a lot of primary experience to gather a huge amount of data or intelligence (in the military meaning) about themselves and every aspect of the world around them. Screen learning is mostly a secondary experience, it does not provide the opportunity to get on, go under/over, smell, feel, pick up, push, pull, hold hands with, hug, carry or do anything that only a real experience enables. 

Is it us that needs to catch up?

Longfield’s departing speech lays down a challenge:

“I want to see the Prime Minister getting passionate about making sure that we don’t define children by what’s happened during this year, but we define ourselves by what we offer to them.’

If we approach the catch up from the perspective of ‘How can we provide what children need most in their lives?’ rather than ‘Here is an extra list of things you don’t know; on top of the other ones you were going to have to learn’, we may not only have a hope of helping children recover better from the damage to their wellbeing, happiness and development, but also go forward with a stronger vision of what a good childhood means.

Play is the way that children learn everything that cannot be taught. In my work as founder and director of the country’s largest not-for-profit organisation supporting schools to improve the quality of play for all of their children, I have seen the incredible impact that amazing play opportunities can have on children’s happiness, development and wellbeing.

I don’t believe any primary school catch up plan is sufficient without addressing the quality and sufficiency of play for every child. And, if catch ups are about providing more play, you might even get change from that 41p.

Michel Follett BA Hons Ed, PGCE

Director, OPAL

Author of Creating Excellence in Primary School Playtimes (JKP 2017)

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