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Is non-attachment the answer to too much testing?

Is non-attachment the answer to too much testing?

Learning to read and write are important.

Children in England arguably have to start too soon. And the culture of testing makes things worse.

But is there another way? What if we - as parents and teachers - approached learning in a spirit of non-attachment, like a Buddhist monk?

Just like eating well, taking exercise or learning the piano, good habits compound. They get results over time.

Instead of saying we'll test all children on their spelling at 6, for example, with all the distorting effects that that would have on teaching, what if we simply committed to doing 10 minutes of focused phonics work every day and created a regular slot for practising handwriting? Do it every day. No pressure. Keep it fun. See where you get to.

When a teacher feels pressure to get results, she spends a disproportionate amount of time trying to achieve them. Some of the fun, the really valuable stuff, has to make way.

This is not an argument for lowering standards. Simply that by trusting teachers (and ourselves) to do a good job without constant testing, we free up so much time for richer experiences.

Is there anything you are trying to teach your child that could benefit from a similar approach?

Try not to focus on the results. Less pressure = more fun = deeper learning.

Little and often.

Slow and steady wins the race.


February 13, 2019 By Alexis Ralphs
Where are you trying to get to?

Where are you trying to get to?

We enjoy visiting Kew Gardens, a beautiful botanical garden here in London. Theres a log trail at the far end that the children love but its half-an-hours walk.

We try to take the straightest route to the logs because the children get very tired by the end. Its not much fun carrying two exhausted children for over a mile back to the car, with two more in the buggy complaining that theyd rather be held. 

On this occasion, as often happens, we are waylaid by Interesting Things. 

It takes twenty minutes just to get inside. The children decide that the base of the tree next to our parked car makes a wonderful bath for snails, so they spend twenty minutes digging around in the mud with sticks. They could stay there all day.

No sooner are we inside than we discover badgerssetts, trees to climb and sticks to collect. Weve been there an hour and we are less than fifty yards from the entrance.

What to do? The logs are on the far side of the gardens. Do we remind the children that they'd like to get to the trail, cajole them to keep walking and insist that they avoid distractions along the way? For what? So that they can do exactly the same thing when they reach the log trail (i.e. have fun and do something interesting)?

What do we gain by uprooting them from their play and insisting we get going?

And what do we lose?


January 31, 2019 By Alexis Ralphs
Do schools kill creativity?

Do schools kill creativity?

Many children, who may be brilliant, grow up thinking they are not because the school system does not recognise their strengths. Not only is this approach damaging to our children, but it is not fit for purpose in the modern world. 

Today's education system has its roots in fulfilling the needs of the 19th century's industrialists. The focus is on a few academic subjects. Factories needed workers and the requirements were basic: literacy, numeracy and obedience. There was no room for creativity.

But what if your child loves to build with blocks? Or devises ingenious experiments? Or has a talent for drawing? As adults we can see where these skills might lead, but they are harder to spot and to celebrate in a school setting.

And league tables make things worse. For schools, results are everything. And the the results that matter are maths and English.

Does your child have any non-academic interests? What could you do to foster them?

Where could it all lead?

When we value their interests, children thrive.

January 29, 2019 By Alexis Ralphs
Should there be less play at school?

Should there be less play at school?

How do you feel about five-year-olds spending most of the school-day playing? How about at six?

I'm certainly against testing for young children. But I'm not sure I have an answer to the play vs. work conundrum in UK schools.

Testing is wrong. More play is better. But do we really want our children still playing all day at 7, which is the model in some countries? Finland, for example, regularly tops league tables with this approach. It's a great way to learn, and it can even work with teenagers, but sometimes formal teaching is best.

Play-based learning is hard to organise. It requires a lot of skill on the teacher's part and backing from government that we don't currently have.

Maybe it's a failure of imagination on my part. Maybe I've become institutionalised by all those years working in the school system: I can't see another way of working. I love the idea of more play. But I look at my eldest son, who is now nearly six, and can't help thinking that he'd go out of his mind if he had to go back to the sand pit for another year. He loves reading, and stays up for hours after bedtime with a pile of books, feeding his fascination for Ancient Egypt, the Romans and the Greeks. Do I really want to take that away from him?

I'm presenting this in a provocatively binary way. There is some middle ground. I certainly don't want to remove play altogether. But is the trend for more play wholly positive? What do you think?

January 27, 2019 By Alexis Ralphs
Rainy days

Rainy days

Rainy days spent indoors needn't lead to boredom and grumpiness.

Children like to move and space is in short supply at home.

What could you do to get them moving that wasn't too boistrous? You don't need any special equipment.

Put on the radio and dance.

Scatter stepping-stone cushions across the crocodile-infested rug.

Play Simon Says.

Sing 'Heads, shoulders, knees and toes'.

Have a living-room Olympics: see how many star jumps you can do in a minute; count how many times you can throw a balled-up sock into the wastepaper bin.

Whatever you do, make sure it's different and make sure it's fun. Soon enough your children will get the idea and start to invent their own games.

There's something in the room with you right now that is waiting to be played with in a new way. Can you see it?

Time for a well-earned cup of tea.

September 15, 2018 By Alexis Ralphs
What was the first game you ever played?

What was the first game you ever played?

You played it in the womb.

It was right there at the very beginning, millions of years ago, when life began.

Without it, no other learning would be possible. It's the most fundamental skill. Pre-schoolers love to play it. You'll find it in every children's magazine.

Have you guessed?

Spot the difference.

Light and dark; sound or no sound. A foetus is aware of so much.

From birth, babies can distinguish between mother and not-mother. Toddlers prefer two biscuits to one. Preschoolers look for what's unique about 'b' and 'd'. All learning is about difference.

A child will think, How does this new thing fit into what I already know about the world? Can I put it into one of the existing pigeon holes in my mind? Or do I have to pay attention and investigate further?

Next time you’re sitting with your child, try to put yourself in their shoes. What do they already know? Now, focus on what’s different, what’s new. Ask them to notice this.

They’ll draw their own conclusions. You can’t make them learn. But they will have moved forward on the road to greater understanding. 

Spot the difference drives all learning. It's the most powerful game in the world.

September 13, 2018 By Alexis Ralphs
Going to nursery vs. staying at home

Going to nursery vs. staying at home

Research suggests that high-quality early years education is good for all children, regardless of the family's income or social background. And the benefits last into adulthood.

Some children benefit from going to nursery because the alternative is to be at home, where their needs are not being met. For the rest, it's simply the case that a well-run pre-school offers a richness of experience that is hard to replicate at home (although that doesn’t mean children should go for five days a week).

That's not to say that it can't be done, only that parents need the time, resources and dedication to make it happen.

How do your skills measure up? Do you feel you have the knowledge it takes to offer a full range of learning opportunities at home?

For inspiration, why not take a look at The 100? It's our guide to the toys, games and fun things-to-do that we believe all pre-schoolers should experience.

September 13, 2018 By Alexis Ralphs
Play is the child's work

Play is the child's work

Play is the child's work, or so it is said. But how much, and for how long? Formal schooling doesn't begin until seven in many countries in stark contrast to the early focus on reading and writing we have here in the UK. Are our children missing out? Is our approach wholly negative?

Perhaps you know of a child who would have benefited from an extra year of play. Maybe they were diagnosed with learning difficulties when all they needed was another year to mature. What a shame that a bright child, so young and enthusiastic could be branded a failure - a stigma that can last a lifetime.

But what of the child who arrives at school able to read and write? Doesn't she also deserve to be somewhere that stimulates and challenges her?

The system is not going to change anytime soon. We can disagree with it. We can even fight it. But for our children who have started school this month, we also have to accept it.

If schools won't offer the experiences our children need, we must provide them ourselves.

What could you to to keep the spark of play and creativity alive at home?

September 13, 2018 By Alexis Ralphs
What's so good about wooden toys?

What's so good about wooden toys?

We love wooden toys. But there's nothing magical about them.

They feel wholesome and timeless. And unless they've been treated with unpleasant chemicals (rubberwood toys can contain insecticide), they are also overwhelmingly safe.

So what's the problem?

You can have too much of a good thing.

Once you've got one set of wooden blocks, what do you gain if you buy a second? Why not buy something different instead? Wooden figures, wooden balls, wooden stackers. All have an honoured place in the toy box.

But after that? Children learn from new experiences. There's only so much you can learn if you only ever play with wood.

You have to offer a variety of materials.

We may frown upon plastic now, but it has unique properties that make it ideal for certain kinds of play. Think Lego or bath toys.

Each material poses its own set of challenges. And overcoming these fosters creativity and encourages problem-solving.

Stone, metal, fabric; water, sand, or acorns.

What new experience could you offer today?

September 12, 2018 By Alexis Ralphs
Down with Pinterest-friendly craft ideas!

Down with Pinterest-friendly craft ideas!

Play is the most important thing a child can do. Bringing home a paper plate face with button eyes and a piece of string for the mouth might make you feel like your pre-schooler has achieved something today. But it was accomplished at the expense of freely-chosen activities. Author Erika Christakis argues in her book, The Importance of Being Little, that we should allow more time for unstructured play, both at home and in the nursery.

At One Hundred Toys we say, down with Pinterest-friendly craft ideas! Children need access to open-ended materials - when you absolutely have to be at home - and lots of time to explore nature.

Do you agree?

September 04, 2018 By Alexis Ralphs
How to choose a school for your child

How to choose a school for your child

Have you thought about which school to send your child to? Did you turn to the league tables for guidance?

The pressure on schools to maintain or improve their position in the league tables creates an intolerable pressure to achieve results.

Teachers sometimes even cheat to improve test scores.

In that context, what do the league tables really mean? Can you trust them? Can they tell you what kind of experience your child will have? Even if you could trust the tables, a school is about so much more than results. Is it supportive? Inclusive? What are the other families like? Do they value education as much as you do? Does the headteacher emphasise results or focus on the whole child? Which of the two do you value?

It's not enough to find a good school. You have to find the right one.
August 25, 2018 By Alexis Ralphs
Babies learn by looking for the unexpected.

Babies learn by looking for the unexpected.

Just like us, babies have a mental model of how they think the world works. When something unexpected happens, it challenges what they'd previously believed. So they have to take in new information that will enable them to piece together a more accurate picture. It's why you'll see them repeat actions many times. They're testing to see if their understanding was correct.

You'll also see them modify their actions to see what difference it makes. They drop food from a high chair. How did it land? What was the impact like? Did it bounce? What sound did it make? How do those outcomes change if I drop it from higher up or lower down? If I throw instead of drop?

The longer they stare at something, the more interesting they find it. The more interesting it is, the more unexpected it must have been.

It's why they like to drop food from their highchair. They want to see what happens.

And there you were thinking they did it on purpose to annoy you!

Look around the room now. Is there something that works in an unexpected way? Or that has a new texture or sound or taste?

What would your baby delight in discovering? 

(Clue: it's not another toy.)

August 25, 2018 By Alexis Ralphs

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