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Why we must do more to promote reading for pleasure

Hurray! At last, some good news about the impact of lockdown on children! Apparently, they have not only been reading more during lockdown but also tackling more challenging texts as well. Alas, the positive headlines masked what is actually a rather less encouraging situation. In fact, the overall trend in children’s reading is probably down rather than up, and — no surprises here — disadvantaged children are facing significantly greater challenges than their non-disadvantaged peers when it comes to reading. As a nation, we simply don’t read enough — despite the many undisputed benefits that reading brings. Nor do we do enough to make it easy and fun for our children to read. We need to give them every encouragement to develop the habit of reading for pleasure so that they carry a love of reading with them into adulthood.

The eye-catching headlines were generated by publication of the thirteenth What Kids Are Reading report by Renaissance Learning, in their words “the largest annual study of the reading habits and trends of students across the UK and Ireland”, involving more than one million young people and covering the 2019-2020 academic year.

The summary on their website reads:

Our data shows that the total number of books read overall in the 2019-20 academic year actually dropped by 17% against 2018-19. But the good news is that during the period of school closures due to Covid-19, reading levels increased! And when children did read, they were picking up longer books, and more challenging books for their age, which they read with better comprehension. In particular, children in year 7 and below improved their reading levels by reading more demanding texts.

from What Kids Are Reading 2021 – The Summary, a blog on the Renaissance Learning website

Professor Keith Topping of the University of Dundee, who was the author of the report, said:

Having more time to read gave children the chance to immerse themselves in literature. Schools should encourage more reading time now that they are open again. It is great to see that primary age children are reading more difficult books and this should be reflected at secondary school age where book difficulty this year plateaued. Secondary schools need to encourage their pupils to attack more difficult books.

Professor Keith Topping of the University of Dundee

The findings of the report are in line with research published in 2020 by the National Literacy Trust which found that:

  • children were reading and enjoying reading more during lockdown
  • children were reading genres they may not have tried before
  • reading helped support children’s mental wellbeing — 3 in 5 said that reading made them feel better

However, the National Literacy Trust also highlighted problems caused by a lack of access to books, a lack of quiet space to read at home and a lack of support and encouragement from school and friends because of lockdown. World Book Day research in March 2021 showed that “a quarter of primary schools raised concern that access to books had become a barrier to reading for pleasure and overall literacy levels.”

As in many other areas, lockdown — including the closure of schools and public libraries — merely exacerbated pre-existing difficulties and inequalities. For example, we recently posted about the unevenness of school library provision across the country, with schools in areas of highest deprivation having the worst provision.

Figures published on the website of The Reading Agency paint a depressing picture of the nation’s reading habits:

  • 31% of adults don’t read in their free time, rising to 46% of young people (aged 16 to 24)
  • Around 5.8 million people (16% of adults) score at the lowest level of proficiency in literacy (at or below Level 1)
  • Low levels of literacy cost the UK an estimated £81 billion a year in lost earnings and increased welfare spending
  • Adults with lower levels of literacy are more likely to believe that they have little impact on political processes, and are less likely to participate in volunteer activities

Proficiency in writing, oracy, numeracy and especially in reading is perhaps more important than ever in this digital age. Put simply, reading transforms lives — for people of all ages. The benefits of reading are incalculable. It increases educational attainment. It broadens horizons. It promotes tolerance and understanding across cultures. It develops creativity and the imagination. It boosts mental health and wellbeing. The list is endless.

Life-based learning is all about equipping children with knowledge, skills and values that they need now and throughout their lives. That’s why the Forum for Life-Based Learning supports the prioritisation of children reading for pleasure, building on their natural curiosity, so that they develop the reading habit at a young age and carry a love of reading with them into adulthood. And that’s why we say that our school libraries should be funded generously, so that reading for enjoyment can be a reality for all children and not just for the privileged few.

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Free play is an important ingredient in the learning mix

Concerns about the damage to children’s wellbeing caused by a relentless focus on academic achievement and an unforgiving accountability-by-results culture — a 2019 survey of primary school heads included the comment “For those children in year 6 […] it’s intense, it’s grotty. It’s just reading, writing, maths, pretty much and I wouldn’t choose that for any child” — are well known and well founded. However, there are also fears that the growing tendency to structure more and more aspects of children’s lives — their sporting, cultural, social and play activities — is also hampering the development of key life skills such as creativity, problem solving and resilience. We must not lose sight of the social and educational benefits of free play in our efforts to cater adequately for more structured learning-through-play activities.

Our recent post Children need to be able to safely enjoy and learn through play highlighted the fact that children are playing out less than they used to, and that children of primary age are not playing out alone (ie without adult supervision) until they are significantly older than their parents were — as much as two years older.

Professor Helen Dodd, professor of child psychology at the University of Reading, is quoted in a recent Guardian article about what it refers to as the ‘schoolification’ of UK childhood:

This scholarisation of childhood, and the increase in time children spend in adult-led activities, decreases children’s time spent playing, removes opportunities for independence and denies them the simple joys and freedoms of childhood.

Helen Dodd, Professor of Child Psychology at the University of Reading

The Guardian also featured an article by Michael Rosen, writer and former children’s laureate, one of whose many books is about the importance of play. In his article he cautions against setting up what he calls “a false opposition” between free-flowing play and structured play: “Whether we’re parents, carers, teachers or anyone working with young children, we know that children move easily and often between free play and structured play. One is not better or worse than another, they each offer different experiences, different ways of thinking, and different kinds of learning.”

He goes on to describe watching a young child in a park approach a low dome that was in the middle of the path. What he witnessed, he says, was not purposeless, chaotic and without any learning outcome, as some people might say:

The girl had noticed the dome and decided to do a dance, skipping round and round it and over and over again. As she did so, she made up a song with the words “round” and “roundy-roundy” in it, working variations as she danced. The movement and the singing were created without fear of failure and involved a variety of trial-and-error activities: testing the size and height of the dome, testing the little gradients for their “danceability”, matching her song with the movements and vice versa, expressing the whole thing in words.

I call this “learning”. There’s a lot of cognition going on there, but I would also want to add in what the activity did for her sense of self and wellbeing. She had created something that worked: a fun song-and-dance routine, using the environment (the dome) that she had encountered. She held her arms out, taking up more space than we do when we hold ourselves folded up. It was a physical expression of confidence.

Michael Rosen, Skip the kindergarten cop routine: free play is vital for young children

Rosen’s article was praised on the letters page in subsequent days. One contributor (a fan of Steiner education so admittedly not a neutral observer) described a similar situation:

On Friday I watched two six-year-olds for a good 20 minutes as they tried to haul a friend up to the top of a metal slide – his shoes were too slippy to climb the slope. They tried a variety of methods: using a plank and a plastic spade as tools; one lowering another down while holding on to him firmly at the top; and so on. Eventually a third child joined them, and with a new approach and much determination on all sides they succeeded.

Geometry, physics, mechanics, knowledge of their own bodies and of materials, balance, strength, cooperation, persistence, communication … the list goes on. Learning of that sort is what prepares us for the real challenges we may have to meet in life.

from Annabel Gibb’s letter to the Guardian

Rosen’s comment that free play has at its heart the spirit of “trial and error without fear of failure” brings to mind the Joy of Not Knowing learning philosophy championed by Marcelo Staricoff, which we posted about recently. The JONK approach involves engaging children’s natural sense of curiosity and desire to find things out, removing the worry and fear of failure commonly associated with not knowing something, and allowing them to search for answers and try out possible solutions. Marcelo is featured on our Changemakers page.

The Forum for Life-Based Learning believes that we need to reform the school curriculum for young children. Nine learning themes — each with equal priority — form the framework through which we believe the individual subjects of the national curriculum should be taught, in order to equip children with the knowledge, skills and values to tackle the challenges they will meet as adults.

How we learn is a key consideration in the life-based learning approach, one that is informed by understanding of the way that the brain works and by the importance of establishing an appropriate emotional climate so that children are relaxed and ready for learning. Encouraging creativity, exploration and problem solving is also central to a life-based approach.

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All young children should be receiving free swimming lessons

Former Olympic swimming gold medallist Duncan Goodhew has been in the news this week urging parents to prioritise swimming lessons for their children now that swimming pools are able to reopen. His intervention is a timely reminder of the importance that swimming plays not just in promoting children’s safety but also in terms of their overall physical and mental health and wellbeing. However, despite swimming lessons being part of the national curriculum, it is likely that around one in three children are unable to swim by the age of 11.

Goodhew is president of Swimathon, a charity involved in staging swimming events to help people to raise money for good causes, which has so far helped to generate more than £50m. In a recent message on the Swimathon website Goodhew highlighted the importance of swimming, not least in the context of the Covid pandemic. Calling for a post-lockdown “resurgence” in swimming, he said that:

  • Covid-19 is “a wake-up call to the nation, and will hopefully help drive people to get fit and be more active”
  • swimming provides immense benefits to people’s physical and mental health, and the combined economic and social value of taking part in community sport and physical activity in England is estimated at over £85 billion per year
  • swimming saves the health and social care system £357m per year

According to the website of Swim England, which describes itself as the only recognised national governing body for swimming in England, drowning is the third most common cause of accidental death in children. It makes the point that, although many children learn to swim outside of school, primary school will for some be the only opportunity they have to learn vital swimming and water safety skills.

The national curriculum states that all schools must provide swimming lessons either in key stage 1 or key stage 2. It should, however, be noted that academies and free schools do not have to follow the national curriculum. Moreover, research published by the Amateur Swimming Association (ASA) in 2018 indicated that one in three children leave primary school unable to swim, up from the previously reported figure of one in five.

The three key swimming outcomes specified in the national curriculum are that children learn to:

  • swim competently, confidently and proficiently over a distance of at least 25 metres
  • use a range of strokes effectively [for example, front crawl, backstroke and breaststroke]
  • perform safe self-rescue in different water-based situations

The Swim England website includes lots of resources to help primary schools and others deliver swimming and water safety lessons, as well as helpful information for parents and carers. In particular, the resources area of their website includes a downloadable guide for primary schools and a booklet of support materials, with separate checklists depending on whether schools are delivering swimming lessons themselves or via a third-party provider.

Swim England features in the Links area of the Forum website. There is a page for each of the nine life-based learning themes, with links (a) to sites with teaching ideas and resources for immediate use in the classroom and in curriculum planning (b) to a range of information-rich websites relevant to life-based learning.

We are always looking to expand the Links area of the website and welcome suggestions for additional links to high-quality websites. You can contact us here.

Image at the head of this article by Fredrik Bäckman from Pixabay.

Woodland Trust adds its voice to calls for environmental education reform

A first-of-its-kind report from the Woodland Trust on the state of the UK’s woods and trees is calling for key changes in environmental education, including its inclusion in “core teaching curricula”, the allocation of guaranteed time for outdoor learning and the provision of nature areas as part of all new school builds.

The Woodland Trust’s State of the UK’s Woods and Trees 2021 report claims to be “the first to present important facts and trends focusing predominantly on native woods and trees, and trees in towns and cities.” It says that, although woodland cover is increasing, woodland wildlife is decreasing and “[n]ot nearly enough is being done” to protect and expand our woods and trees.

The report makes clear the importance of woods and trees in promoting a sustainable future: “They lock up carbon to fight climate change, improve our health, wellbeing and education, reduce pollution and flooding, and support people, wildlife and livestock.”

Clive Anderson, who is president of the Woodland Trust, reinforces the point in his foreword:

We are on the edge of a new era of interdependency with trees and woods. The role of trees in fighting climate change is now well understood. The challenge is to find the space that trees need to expand and thrive across our nation. As they grow, the roots, leaves, trunks and branches of trees store carbon and, in doing so, they protect us from ourselves.

Clive Anderson, from the foreword to the Woodland Trust report

The report also details the excellent work that the Woodland Trust does with schools:

  • It has engaged with over 70% of all UK schools
  • Over 40% of all UK schools are registered on their Green Tree Schools Award
  • Around 23% of all UK schools have applied for one or more free tree packs from the Woodland Trust since 2017
  • Trees planted by schools and community groups in 2019 made up 27% of all the trees planted through the Woodland Trust in that year

The Woodland Trust report identifies four reforms it wants to see introduced to improve children’s learning about the environment and nature:

  • Changes to curricula: core teaching curricula should incorporate learning about the UK’s woods and trees, to better connect young people with the natural world and improve their physical, mental and social wellbeing
  • Provision for outdoor learning: a six-week (minimum) entitlement to an outdoor learning experience (for example the Green Tree Schools Award or Forest School4) for all primary-aged children across the UK
  • Nature in school grounds: all new school builds should include an outdoor area with trees and woodland areas either in, or in close proximity to school, and accessible by the school and local community
  • Funding: government and other funding is required to support the environmental education of the next generation

The Woodland Trust is clear about why reform is urgently needed: “As children and young people are our decision makers of the future, it is particularly important that they learn how to care for and protect the environment.” The trust also makes the point that children who learn about woods and trees “are much more likely to grow up to be environmentally responsible adults”.

You can read the full report by clicking here. You can also access the report via our Documents page, which is a growing collection of information and reports relating to life-based learning and primary education more generally.

The Forum for Life-Based Learning emphasises the importance of children learning about the environment and nature more generally as part of a fully rounded, life-based curriculum. Our Plant Life theme — one of nine themes that provide a life-based framework and focus for the primary curriculum — aims to ensure that children learn and adopt the skills, values and practices that will enable them to live sustainable lives in harmony with the needs of the planet.

We posted on this site recently about the opportunity presented by the forthcoming COP26 conference on climate change to press the reset button on our understanding of the importance of — and relationship with — nature and plant life:

“A truly imaginative approach to COP26 will put education at the heart of its legacy planning, looking again at what we are teaching our children so that environmental education isn’t just another box-ticking bolt-on, achieved via a few science lessons and an awareness-raising day once or twice a year, but an integral part of the curriculum.”

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More evidence of why schools need to focus on oracy skills

The BBC this week highlighted two reports which add to the mounting evidence of the damage that prolonged periods of lockdown have done to children and young people’s development, often exacerbating existing concerns, problems and inequalities. These particular reports are concerned with children’s speech and language skills, and their findings lend support to those who are arguing that the development of oracy — the ability to express oneself fluently and grammatically in speech — needs as much attention as literacy and numeracy.

The BBC highlighted Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) research which found that “[l]ess or no contact with grandparents, social distancing, no play dates, and the wearing of face coverings in public have left children less exposed to conversations and everyday experiences.”

It also cited alarming data from the company Speech Link: among 50,000 four- and five-year-olds starting school in September “an extra 20-25% needed help with language skills compared with the previous year”.

Click here to read the BBC’s report, which includes the views of parents and education professionals.

These findings are in line with other recent research that has charted the devastating effect of lockdown on children’s health and wellbeing and educational development. The following blogs, all posted on this site in recent weeks, illustrate the scale of the problem:

Life-based learning aims to respond to both the short-term and long-term issues we face. At its core is the need to reform the school curriculum for young children. Communication is one of nine learning themes — each with equal priority — through which the Forum proposes the individual subjects of the national curriculum in England should be taught, in order to equip children with the knowledge, skills and values to tackle the challenges they will meet as adults.

The Communication theme focuses not just on reading and writing — fundamental though they are — but on communication in all its aspects. This includes non-verbal communication, a key ingredient in forming positive and lasting relationships. And of course it includes oracy: the ability to speak fluently, to make yourself clearly understood and to articulate your thoughts and views is a key life skill.

A fundamental weakness of the national curriculum is the compartmentalisation of subjects, one consequence of which is that reading, writing and speaking are too often seen as almost the sole preserve of a single subject — English. The life-based learning framework, by contrast, values the role that all curriculum subjects can play in developing children’s communication skills.

It brings a fresh approach by building language acquisition into every subject. This is much more than merely children learning about grammar, punctuation and spelling, and teachers paying lip service to the notion of literacy across the curriculum. It involves an understanding that every subject has its own language to be learned and articulated by the child — the language of science, of physical education, of design technology etc — and that subject language is an integral part of learning in that subject. And it is an approach that also values the crucial role that speaking and listening play in the learning process itself.

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‘JONK’ is an intriguing approach to improving children’s learning

‘The joy of not knowing’ might seem like an odd, even somewhat counterintuitive, statement to make in the context of a discussion about learning — after all, most people probably think about education in terms of the acquisition of knowledge — but it is at the heart of a learning-to-learn culture promoted by Marcelo Staricoff in his latest book The Joy of Not Knowing: A Philosophy of Education Transforming Teaching, Thinking, Learning.

‘The Joy of Not Knowing’, or ‘JONK’ — both the phrase and the acronym are capitalised and trademarked — is an approach to and philosophy of education developed over more than two decades by Marcelo Staricoff. After initially pursuing a career as a research scientist, he retrained as a primary school teacher, with a particular interest in finding out how children learn best.

His CV is highly impressive. He is described in the book’s opening pages as “the creator of the Joy of Not Knowing (JONK) approach, founder and director of JONK Thinking and Learning Ltd, a School Tutor in Education at the University of Sussex and an educational consultant, speaker and trainer working with schools nationally and internationally on applying the principles contained in this book … He is a Founding Fellow of the Chartered College of Teaching (elected in 2019).”

In contrast to the traditional — and sadly all too prevalent — teacher-expounding-and-children-listening approach to learning, JONK promotes a learning-to-learn culture in the classroom. The difference in learning approaches is illustrated by one of Staricoff’s own examples (his book, though a contribution to academic debate, is also a practical guide and includes lots of ideas, strategies and case studies relevant to early years and primary settings):

When the plan is to teach children about an aspect of time – the concept of seconds, minutes, hours, days, telling the time, the 24 hours clock, digital time – the learning objective could be phrased as a statement, a question, or a philosophical question:

Statement – To be able to tell the time on an analogue clock.
Question – Can we learn how to tell the time using the hands on an analogue clock?
Philosophical – Does time exist?

By setting up the enquiry ‘Does time exist?’, children are drawn into a deeper understanding of the concept of measuring time than the traditional approach of ‘Here is a clock. What hour is the big hand pointing to?’ The factual knowledge is absorbed by the learners in the course of the Staricoff enquiry approach, but with the boredom element removed.

Staricoff himself notes: “The philosophical approach generates a great amount of motivation and interest as it presents the learning in a way that children find amusing, unusual and interesting as it makes them think in a completely different way about something they already know.”

The Joy of Not Knowing is certainly of relevance to anyone with an interest in aspects of the life-based learning approach. Engaging children’s natural sense of curiosity and desire to find things out, allowing them to try out possible solutions and search for answers in classrooms that are ‘communities of enquiry’, offers an intriguing and exciting approach to accelerating children’s learning.

‘JONK’ has the potential to take teaching teams on a transformational journey of understanding of their role as facilitators, providing inspirational learning by making it fun and stimulating for the children and for the adults too!

The Joy of Not Knowing: A Philosophy of Education Transforming Teaching, Thinking, Learning and Leadership in Schools by Marcelo Staricoff is published by Routledge, ISBN978-0-367-17272-5

Marcelo Staricoff features on our Changemakers page, a directory of education changemakers whose ideas on provision for primary-age children [5- to 11-year-olds] resonate with the life-based learning approach.

If you would like to be included on our Changemakers page, you can contact us here.

The Joy of Not Knowing

Click to go to the website

Life-Based Learning

Find out more

Changemakers

Our directory of changemakers in education

The image at the head of this article is by cherylt23 from Pixabay.

A young person’s stirring call for radical new thinking in education

Kayhan Ali is currently young mayor of Enfield. He is an articulate and engaging 17-year-old with big ideas and big ambitions. In particular, he has clear ideas about the failings of the current education system and of the new thinking that is required. If we want to build a world-class education system that properly meets the needs of our children, we need more than just the expertise of academics and policymakers, of teachers and non-teaching staff, and of parents and other stakeholders. We must also listen carefully to the thoughts and ideas of young people who are experiencing education now — people such as Kayhan Ali.

Kayhan is passionate about empowering young people. At the core of his thinking on education is the belief that the current approach is letting young people down and especially that the privileging of a traditional academic curriculum — coupled with an outdated exam system — means that schools are failing to provide young people with an education that properly prepares them for life.

Kayhan came up with the idea of Dream It Youth, a community organisation whose website says it is “dedicated to educating young people and allowing them to make informed decisions for their own future.” It aims to create learning materials to help teach young people “the fundamentals of politics and economics”, starting with year 6:

The reason we chose those two subjects is that they’re probably the least taught, unless you picked them, but they’re probably the most important.

Kayhan Ali, from his The Teachers’ Point of View interview with TJ Juttla

It is striking how much of Kayhan’s thinking about education and about the priorities of young people in general mirrors the critique of the current education system, and particularly of the national curriculum in England, put forward by the Forum for Life-Based Learning.

For example, Kayhan is concerned that key skills for life are undervalued in the exams-focused system. Dream It Youth highlights what it calls “DIY transferable skills”: critical thinking, teamwork, listening and communication. Communication, Relationships and The Mind (which incorporates brain-based learning) are three of the nine themes that provide the framework for a life-based learning curriculum.

Kayhan is also a passionate supporter of the environment and of animal rights. Life-based learning is made up of three life areas, the third of which — World — brings together the Plant Life, Animal Life and Physical World themes. The underlying concept uniting the three themes is the interdependence of all living and non-living things on the Earth and humanity’s moral imperative to care for the planet and safeguard its wellbeing.

You can learn more about Kayhan on this LinkedIn page written by TJ Juttla. TJ creates podcasts and videos with ‘changemakers’ and makes these available via LinkedIn and Teacheroo to inspire change in education and challenge the status quo.

Kayhan is a superstar sixth former who is currently 17 at a school in Enfield, North London. In education we often hear the views of those in power but we never hear what the students have to say so after speaking to Kayhan I had to let him share his views on education.

TJ Juttla on Kayhan Ali

TJ also features on the Forum’s Changemakers page, a directory of education changemakers whose ideas on provision for primary-age children [5- to 11-year-olds] resonate with the life-based learning approach.

If you would like to be included on our Changemakers page, you can contact us here.

Kayhan Ali Interview with TJ Juttla

Click to watch the full interview

Dream It Youth

The Dream It Youth website

Changemakers

Our directory of changemakers in education

The image at the head of this article is a template used by TJ Juttla to promote his podcasts and videos about education. You can find TJ’s podcasts by clicking here.

Children need to be able to safely enjoy and learn through play

Play has huge benefits for children and families. We have repeatedly highlighted on the Forum website its benefits for children’s intellectual, emotional, social and physical development. It helps maintain physical and mental health. It develops self-awareness and social interaction skills. It also promotes key life skills such as creativity and problem solving. However, opportunities for children to learn and develop through play are in decline. It is important that schools and communities address this, ensuring that there is quality play provision so that all children are able to safely enjoy and learn through play.

Our recent post Unlocking the benefits for children of play and outdoor learning stated that children are playing out less than they used to, and that the pandemic is not the only reason why this is the case. Newly published research supports this, indicating that children of primary age are not playing out alone (ie without adult supervision) until they are significantly older than their parents were — as much as two years older.

The British Children’s Play Survey involved researchers asking nearly 2,000 parents about the play of children aged 5 to 11. Key findings were that:

  • the average age that a child was allowed to play outside alone was just before their 11th birthday (an average of 10.74 years)
  • parents themselves said that they had been allowed out before their 9th birthday (an average of 8.91 years)
  • primary school children are, on average, getting just three hours of play a day over the course of a year, with around half of play taking place outside

Click here to read more about the survey.

There are, of course, understandable reasons why parents are reluctant to allow their children to play out unsupervised. However, Professor Helen Dodd, professor of child psychology at the University of Reading who led the study, explained why these findings are potentially a cause for concern:

First, we are seeing children getting towards the end of their primary school years without having had enough opportunities to develop their ability to assess and manage risk independently. Second, if children are getting less time to play outdoors in an adventurous way, this may have an impact on their mental health and overall wellbeing.

Professor Helen Dodd, Professor of Child Psychology, University of Reading

Play England is a charity campaigning to ensure that all children and young people have “the freedom — time, space, permission and opportunity — to play throughout their childhood and teenage years.” Their aims are in part educational, ensuring that everyone is “aware of the importance of play — outdoors and indoors — as part of children and young people’s daily lives.”

Click here to read Play England’s explanation of why play matters and the benefits it brings.

Life-based learning emphasises the importance of daily physical activity, of playing sports and games, and of outdoor play and outdoor learning more generally.

The Play England website features in the Links area of the Forum website. There is a page for each of the nine life-based learning themes, with links (a) to sites with teaching ideas and resources for immediate use in the classroom and in curriculum planning (b) to a range of information-rich websites relevant to life-based learning.

The Play England website includes a section for teachers. It includes case studies, research briefings, practical tips and quality-assurance documentation to support the setting up of quality play provision.

We are always looking to expand the Links area of the website and welcome suggestions for additional links to high-quality websites. You can contact us here.

Play England

Youth Sport Trust

Institute for Outdoor Learning

The image at the head of this article is from the Play England website.

Being involved in positive change can boost children’s mental health

A bold and imaginative approach to boosting children’s post-lockdown mental health and wellbeing would include a coordinated effort — involving parents and schools, young people’s organisations like Scouts and Guides, and community-driven initiatives — to offer every young person encouragement and, more importantly, easy-to-access opportunities to make a positive difference to the environment.

We know that children are interested in — often passionate about — environmental matters. In a recent post we referred to a 2020 survey by Natural England of 1,501 children aged between 8 and 15, which found that 83% of respondents agreed that being in nature made them very happy and 82% agreed that they would like to do more to protect the environment.

These figures were in line with a March 2020 survey carried out by the BBC Newsround team. Their survey of 2,000 children aged 8 to 16 found that:

  • four out of five respondents said the problem of climate change was important to them, and more than a third said it was very important
  • just three out of every 100 said that the environment wasn’t important to them

We also know that the Covid pandemic has taken a huge toll on children and young people’s mental health. The Newsround survey was particularly noteworthy because of the evidence of ‘climate anxiety’ among young people. Almost three in five of respondents said they are worried about the impact that climate change will have on their lives. Almost one in five (19%) admitted to having a bad dream about climate change.

The Newsround webpage ends with a number of tips for their readers on how to deal with their feelings of anxiety. These include:

Be involved in positive change – small efforts can make a difference and if you can’t control the rest of the world it’s easier to control what you do in your life! This might include walking, cycling and taking public transport to get around, and thinking about sustainability in your own life.

Encourage your school or family to be more eco-friendly. Seeing the ways you can influence others can help you feel more optimistic about making a difference.

from the Newsround webpage, Climate anxiety: Survey for BBC Newsround shows children losing sleep over climate change and the environment

These tips tally with advice for parents issued by the NHS Every Mind Matters campaign:

Being active or creative, learning new things and being a part of a team help connect us with others and are important ways we can all help our mental health. Support and encourage them [children] to explore their interests, whatever they are.

from the NHS website, Looking after a child or young person’s mental health

Young People’s Trust for the Environment (YPTE) is one of many organisations passionate about the environment and keen to actively involve children and young people. It is a charity which aims to encourage young people’s understanding of the environment and of the need for sustainability.

We want to give young people a real awareness of environmental problems, such as climate change, disappearing wildlife, the pollution of soil, air and water, the destruction of rainforests and wetlands, the spread of desert regions and the misuse of the oceans.

from the Young People’s Trust for the Environment website

Prominent backers of the charity include John Craven and Naomi Wilkinson, both familiar faces from television and both particularly associated with nature-related programmes.

The YPTE website includes lots of resources for children of all ages, including online educational games, factsheets and home learning packs, filled with fun activity ideas. There are also lesson plans, printable factsheets, videos and various downloads available for classroom use by teachers.

The YPTE website features in the Links area of the Forum website. There is a page for each of the nine life-based learning themes, with links (a) to sites with teaching ideas and resources for immediate use in the classroom and in curriculum planning (b) to a range of information-rich websites relevant to life-based learning.

We are always looking to expand the Links area of the website and welcome suggestions for additional links to high-quality websites. You can contact us here.

The image at the head of this article is from this page of the MyLondon website.

Oracy needs the same focus and attention as literacy and numeracy

Although we hear the word ‘literacy’ a great deal in education, we hear rather less about ‘oracy’. Oracy is defined by Oxford Dictionaries as ‘the ability to express oneself fluently and grammatically in speech’ — in other words, oral communication skills. Spoken communication is going to be more important than ever in the coming decades.

Consider, to cite just one example, the emergence of the video-conferencing platform Zoom in the popular consciousness as many people have worked from home during the lockdown; the need for physical distancing will (hopefully) soon pass, but the trend away from office working and towards remote working is likely to continue. The curriculum needs to reflect changing social, economic, cultural and technological realities, placing as much emphasis on oracy as it does on literacy and numeracy.

There is much work to be done, as our Communication Breakdown page makes clear. For example, Department for Education figures from 2018 showed that 28% of four- and five-year-olds do not meet communication and literacy levels expected by the end of the reception year.

The repeated lockdowns and the enforced closure of schools for most children for long periods has undoubtedly had an impact on young people’s oracy skills. A December 2020 report produced by Oxford University Press and the Centre for Education and Youth stated that 92% of teachers believe that school closures have increased the so-called ‘word gap’, which is a reference to children whose vocabulary is below age-related expectations.

As in so many areas, one of the effects of lockdown is to exacerbate already-existing inequalities. We know that there is a strong correlation between poverty and underdeveloped language skills. A 2015 report from Save the Children called Ready to read: Closing the gap in early language skills so that every child in England can read well reported that children living in poverty face a much greater risk of falling behind: one in three (35%) do not have the language skills expected of a five-year-old. Boys growing up in poverty face a particularly high risk of falling behind: 42% of poor boys do not have the language skills expected of a five-year-old, compared to 28% of poor girls.

There is an oracy all-party parliamentary group, which is due to launch its Speak for Change inquiry report next week. On its website the group says this:

Oracy is to speech what literacy is to writing and numeracy is to maths. It is the ability to express yourself effectively — to speak eloquently, articulate ideas and thoughts, influence through talking, listen to others and have the confidence to express your views. These are all fundamental skills that support success in both learning and life beyond school.

from the website of the Oracy All-Party Parliamentary Group

Oracy Cambridge: The Centre for Effective Spoken Communication aims to promote oracy in schools and in wider society.

Wendy Lee, one of the centre’s associates says:

Oracy is the foundation of everything! The ability to use our language to support our understanding and to share and develop our thoughts and ideas. It doesn’t happen by accident. It needs teaching and nurturing to grow. At the simplest level, it is one of the greatest gifts we can give to children.

Wendy Lee, quoted on the Oracy Cambridge website

The Oracy Cambridge website is packed with resources of use for teachers and school leaders, including guides for schools on developing pupils’ oracy, an oracy skills framework and classroom resources.

Oracy Cambridge features in the Links area of the Forum website. There is a page for each of the nine life-based learning themes, with links (a) to sites with teaching ideas and resources for immediate use in the classroom and in curriculum planning (b) to a range of information-rich websites relevant to life-based learning.

We are always looking to expand the Links area of the website and welcome suggestions for additional links to high-quality websites. You can contact us here.

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Image at the head of this article by Naser Mohammadi from Pixabay

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