In 2022, the Foundation Phase in Wales will be replaced by the new Curriculum for Wales (CfW), a national framework for children aged between three and 16. One of its aims is to provide ‘experience-based’ learning opportunities, echoing the Foundation Phase (FP). In relation to changes in assessment, children’s progress will be evaluated through progression steps to provide more flexibility for assessments based on learner achievements, rather than their meeting – or not meeting – predetermined outcomes. Although this reflects the existing values of the FP, findings from my PhD study (Rekers-Power, 2020) surfaced tensions between values and demands in practice, which impact on the teacher as well as the child. Here, I discuss these tensions from the perspective of the teacher, in order to highlight how collaborations with external providers may support teaching staff in implementing the CfW.
The study’s participants were reception-year pupils and teaching staff, who had access to externally provided forest school (FS) in a local woodland one day a week throughout the school year. The purpose of the study was to explore how children participate in activity settings in reciprocity with the values, expectations and demands of institutional practices.
The study’s theoretical, methodological and analytical foundations were based upon Hedegaard et al. (2008) to provide a means of interpreting the participants’ perspectives (see figure 1).
Figure 1: A dialectical environmental affordance perspective of children’s participation in activity settings within institutions
Source: Rekers-Power (2020)
Findings demonstrated how the collaboration with FS provided opportunities for teaching staff to observe children’s uninterrupted play and to become play partners, enhancing affordances for assessment and interactions that were unavailable in the classroom. The classroom teacher stated that the classroom alone restrained her ability to enact the FP values due to conflicting demands:
‘We are trying to do early years … the way the research tells us it’s best to do it … but with the demands on us – “Oh, they have to be at this stage by this age,” and then we have to stop all the time to “do literacy” and “do numeracy” or “stop that to go out and play”; there’s no flow and it’s contradictory. You never feel like you’re doing it properly.’
Interview conducted on 4 July 2017
At FS there were fewer children (only half of the class attended at a time), extra adult support, less pressure on outcomes, and more time for playful adult-child interaction. Thus, the teacher found she was better able to engage with and assess children from a competency rather than deficiency perspective, due to the ‘spaciousness’ of both FS pedagogy and place.
‘In a school like ours you’ve got to make the children feel they are amazing. Regardless of where they are on that developmental continuum, it’s your job as a teacher to make those children feel skilled in what they’re doing and say, “… here’s what we can do next!” … People don’t realise how important that is in the early years – getting kids on board and engaged and feeling good about school and themselves. If you don’t get it right now, it will impact them for life.’
Interview conducted on 4 July 2017
The new CfW encourages teachers to be flexible and have greater agency in how they shape their practice, as well as giving greater weight to formative assessment. The collaboration between classroom and FS supported this. Early years (and beyond!) provision needs to be supported by pedagogical understanding of play as an opportunity to observe children’s competencies and challenges and build conceptual knowledge (Fleer, 2010). There must, therefore, be space for teachers to fully utilise children’s playful activity to support ongoing development. Viewing children from a deficit perspective, often the case when continually measuring against milestones, contributes to pressure on teachers to achieve results in both behaviour management and learning outcomes. However, having time to engage with the child as a capable learner in multiple spaces of activity allows the practitioner to better support the child. It also allows space for the practitioner to bridge often conflicting demands for both academic skills development and child-directed play. Both children and teachers may be better supported by ‘spacious’ approaches for learning if we acknowledge the role of external provision, not as extracurricular, but as essential.
Fleer, M. (2010). Early learning and development: Cultural-historical concepts in play. Cambridge University Press.
Hedegaard, M., Fleer, M., Bang, J., & Hviid, P. (2008). Studying children. A cultural-historical approach. Open University Press.
Rekers-Power, A. (2020). Exploring young children’s participation and motive orientation in the reception year classroom and at forest school [Unpublished thesis]. University of Wales Trinity Saint David. https://repository.uwtsd.ac.uk/id/eprint/1410/