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Play as a perception problem: this week's provocation post

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Since the Senate passed the Jobs for Families legislation I’ve been thinking a lot about how early childhood education and care (ECEC) is both positioned and perceived by government, and in the public eye.

I’ve been in the sector in one way or another for over 35 years, so I’ve seen plenty of changes in policy and funding, in response to changing governments and priorities.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that the current government has two key drivers – productivity and privatisation. ECEC is viewed by the government as necessary for workforce participation (hence the phrase Jobs for Families on a childcare reform package).

The absence of the word child in this bill speaks volumes. The Productivity Commission Review, on Childcare and Early Childhood Learning, reviewed the terms of the National Quality Framework for Education and Care Services. See what happened there?  The word education magically disappeared.

Now on to privatisation.  The significant increase in private for profit provision of ECEC services is testament to the free market approach of the current government. Workforce participation equals demand for ECEC services, creating a market that the government leaves providers to sort out.

Convenient, isn’t it?  But again, where does the child fit in to all of this – and if we can’t see the child in the big picture, then arguing for ECEC as anything more than just a service for families becomes problematic.

I know that early childhood teachers and educators have a strong body of professional knowledge and skills.  They learn this in their studies and on the job.  I see it every day in my work.  They know that children are learning from the day they’re born, and that play based pedagogy supports children to make sense of their worlds, or in other words, to learn.

However, I can’t help but wonder whether our staunch adherence to play based rhetoric is secretly celebrated by governments, giving them a platform from which to argue that play doesn’t require ‘teaching’. In other words, that play doesn’t equal education.

If play is children’s innate way of learning, then what as teachers and educators do we need to do, apart from step back and let the play happen? How very convenient for governments again!

And if teaching isn’t required because children are ‘just’ playing then the pay parity case becomes irrelevant because educators are seen as ‘just’ child minders – oh, how easy it is to slip into conspiracy theories then!

So, my first pondering in a series of ponderings for CCCC is this:

“Is the elevation of play based curriculum a strategic position that minimises the ‘education’ in ECEC, diminishing the case for pay parity with other education professionals?”

If you subscribe to this theory, then the case for raising the educational profile of the work of early childhood teachers becomes an imperative.

What do you think of Jennifer’s first provocation for the Amplify! blog? Tell us in the comments below or use the Facebook or Twitter buttons in this post and add the tag #amplify in your response.

Does the use of the word ‘play’ make it even more difficult for early childhood educators to gain wider respect as a profession? Agree or disagree, or give us a completely different view: we’re listening!

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Jennifer Ribarovski

Jennifer Ribarovski has over thirty years experience in the education sector, including playing a key role in the implementation of the National Quality Framework for both the NSW Regulatory Authority and the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA).

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8 thoughts on “Play as a perception problem: this week's provocation post

  1. There is not a simple answer here because as early childhood educators we know that the seemingly simple four letter word ‘PLAY’ holds a number of dynamic complexities that are often difficult to notice, describe and make visible. I think that if we are to earn the right of passage to pay parity we must get better at attuning to children, knowing about development and a variety of perspectives on how children learn through play to be able to articulate this, document this, assess this and advocate for this. As with any vulnerability associated with the well-being of children governments and businesses will capitalise! Great provocation Jennifer.

    1. Hi Rebecca. Thanks for your comments and feedback. I agree that there’s much more work to be done on articulating the learning and development benefits of play. This needs to be an essential component of early childhood teachers and educators tool kits in my view. I’m about half way through writing a book on raising the professional profile of ECEC services, and all of the points that you’ve raised above are captured in various chapters. I do hope that one day we’ll get to meet and chat about the complexities and challenges, over a long cuppa or something more sustaining!

      1. Oh fantastic! A much needed book if you ask me. I am worried that we have lost our way, getting led down the various shiny paths of other disciplines that claim to help us feel better about ours, when in fact we need to spend more time IN ours, mastering ours.

  2. This article is a great provocation!!!! I find myself advocating for play based learning more and more now and aligning it with my professional knowledge and benefits for learning and future ‘educational’ success. Our families are still open to play as the driving force of our curriculum. They still understand its value, however there is such pressure in the community for something else. This pressure I believe is coming from an outdated education system and economic model that is striving to cling on tightly. There is a huge downward push of ‘academia’ or ‘school readiness’ which is morphing into an expectation on children, even our little ones to perform and meet expectations. To know ‘school work’ and be ‘ready for school’ in an academic, achieving way rather than a social/emotional and life skills, love for and enthusiasm to learn, kind of way. Teacher led, closed experiences are resulting, moving further and further away from play! Educators are having to advocate strongly as to why play based learning is appropriate and necessary and some of them have felt the pressure and are beginning to follow the new movement. Has anyone talked to a Primary or Secondary teacher lately? How are they and their students coping with these new curriculum models that strive for better outcomes?
    I don’t think it’s as simple as using the term ‘play’ in our sector as opposed to ‘education’. As we strive to communicate the ‘professionalism’ of our sector we are becoming more and more regulated. Our tertiary institutes are also becoming accountable to policy that requires uniform ‘tick a box’ specific marking criteria. There is little room for open ended curriculum, reflective thinking, divergent thinking and awareness of individuals and the context in which learning is taking place and the communities it’s belonging to.
    I attended a conference last year where Margaret Sims talked about Driving Change vs Following the Rules. She discussed the changing face of ECE as we drive to ‘professionalise it’. Her focus was around us thinking about where we want ECE to be as opposed to where it is being forced to be. She talked of the most dominant political discourse being Neo-liberalism…we take for granted what they set up as ideals. We simply assume they are realities…The best way that we make sure there is quality is a top down process and a marketisation of services.
    Neo Liberalism is about corporation, standards that you are measured against. Competition is important.
    What does this mean for ECE. It means that education’s point/ purpose is for people to get jobs. To read and write and get jobs. It’s our job as EC professionals to get the process started and for the school system to continue it. Employers are on boards that do assessment, so they too are driving what education is. There are now restrictions on what students, in all levels of schooling, can be taught. There’s really top down control of what you as teachers should have and what you can teach children. The focus is on compliance. ECE is the last strand of the education system to attach to this model. Do we want this?
    Push down curriculum is pushing literacy and numeracy targets into early childhood.
    Also there’s an increase presence of profit entities in ECE.
    There’s more industry involvement in curriculum…training is not about education, it’s about training them to learn what they need to learn to get a job. The key aim is to improve children’s test scores. Teachers are teaching to the test because the test scores matter. It no longer is important to teach children to learn!
    Teachers are no longer trusted to teach autonomously.
    Outsiders are involved in the development of the curriculum, not those involved in the field.
    EC is buying into it now as we all strive to that illustrious shiny bright button that is ‘professional’ with undertones of value. Current Government policy prioritises women/families getting back into the workforce faster and for longer. They recognise the benefits of ECE as a way to seek investment from families and the private sector. Children are the investment for the future…children are not being valued for now and who they are and need to be. It is more focused on them becoming productive citizens.
    So as you can see, I give it a voice. I still make choices about where I comply and where I don’t and why. I have the conversations with my fellow professionals and test the boundaries always. Play is important. Yes we are professionals. Yes, we are the initial starting point for our education system. What do we want to give up for it though? Are we willing to lose play and the freedom to question and be autonomous in our learning with children? What is it that we will end up with in our sector in our strive to be seen ‘professional’ and ‘Educational’?

    1. Hi Marnie. Thanks you for your feedback and response. You make so many important points here, and there are two of them that really resonate with me. The downward push of academia in the early childhood space is something that I come across consistently in my consulting work. It’s a question from educators that never fails to be asked when I’m talking about the value of play, and flexible, responsive curriculum. When they worry about children being ready for the perceived structure of school environments, I ask them to think about what a ready school would look like for the children that they work with. It’s an interesting exercise in framing that puts educators in an advocacy space, when we ask children to be at the forefront of their thinking. Your other point about teachers not being trusted to teach autonomously is one that’s also been on my mind. In fact, its the subject of my next provocation for Amplify! We must have some parallel thoughts going on!

  3. Thank you for such an insightful provocation. I think that you are absolutely right about the governments agenda and the problem with the language of ‘play’ being perceived as something that doesn’t require a skilled professional to provide space, enriching environments or interactions to support and enhance early childhood development. After 30 years working in many different services within the early childhood sector, this continues to be a misconception, not only by government but also by the wider community. I hope that continued advocacy will one day change this understanding. I look forward to reading your next provocation.

    1. Thanks Michelle. We certainly have a lot of work to do in advocating for the work of skilled early childhood professionals, and the difference that they can make to a child’s learning and development. Persistence and keeping children at the forefront is what’s needed. Sounds like you and I have been around for a while, and we’re still hanging in there, so there’s hope!

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