From making imaginary pizzas to becoming interior designers for a doll’s house, learning through play isn’t just for the youngest pupils, argue two Glasgow teachers. They tell Emma Seith how they are using it to support children who speak English as an additional language – and to connect with colleagues around the world.
Have you heard the tale about play-based learning, a viral Facebook page and one of Scotland’s most diverse communities? It involves two young teachers in Glasgow, who have gained thousands of followers around the world for their imaginative use of play in the classroom.
The magic happens at Holy Cross Primary in the Govanhill area, which serves a truly multicultural community. Holy Cross has a significant Romanian and Slovakian pupil population, and there are a large number of children with Pakistani heritage, many of whom speak Urdu and Punjabi. Overall, 80 per cent of pupils speak English as an additional language – something that proved challenging for Rebecca Meighan and Claire Scally when they were both teaching P1.
So, what are they doing that has struck such a chord with teachers around the world?
Meighan and Scally quickly realised that before they could push on with reading and writing skills, they needed to first build up their pupils’ English vocabulary. But they didn’t want to simply show pictures – they wanted pupils to be able to “see and touch and feel these objects”. The solution was to enable them to acquire language in a more natural way: to let them play.
“When we got to teaching phonics, initial sounds and word blends, we were finding it really difficult because the children were coming either with little English or no English at all,” explains Scally. “You always start with the letter S – the ‘sss’ sound – but when we were trying to get them to think of words that start with the letter S, they were just looking at us blankly.”
Meighan and Scally decided to change tack. After brainstorming words with the sound they wanted children to learn that week, they set up play activities related to that sound. For instance, with the “V” sound, one activity was to make a volcano erupt (with lava produced by combining vinegar and baking soda). The children were also given the chance to role-play being a vet; one of the suggested activities was taking a pet dog for a vaccination.
The plan achieved the desired result: instead of looking blank when they were asked to give examples of words featuring the sound they were working on, the children were able to reel off a list. And, importantly, they remembered these words because they had been immersed in a world (albeit an imaginary one) where they were relevant.
“We knew that if we gave children the chance to interact with these objects – to do and not just see – they would remember them and gain some more language from that,” explains Meighan.
Meighan and Scally set up The Power of Play Facebook page to collaborate with teachers outside their school (bit.ly/PowerPlayGla). They quickly discovered that teachers across the UK – as well as from Finland, Norway, Australia, Canada and New Zealand – were on similar journeys and wanted to introduce more play into their classrooms.
At the time of writing, the page had attracted more than 17,000 followers and 16,000-plus likes. Some of Meighan and Scally’s posts, meanwhile, have attracted hundreds of comments.
Many Facebook commenters ask them where they get their resources from, including the miniature apples decorating their cardboard apple trees, brightly painted numbers with googly eyes and “bones” (dog biscuits) used for Halloween activities.
What they have created is a community of teachers helping each other. The ideas that go down well, they say, are the ones that are relatively easy to do, and which feature resources that can be adapted and used again.
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