Aistear….for Infants Only?

Nov 1, 2022 | Education

In 2020, pre Covid-19 I interviewed twenty 1st Class teachers around the country to gain a greater understanding of how much play takes part in their classrooms. I am passionate about play and how it can benefit everyone to be more playful in life (The theory of it can be found in Blog titled ‘The Non-Playful Side of Aistear’). Although, due to extended free ‘ECCE’ places, Junior Infant enrolment has seen more and more children waiting to begin school until the age of 5 or 6, many children still begin school aged four. It intrigued me that there could be so many children in 1st Class aged 6 who were not experiencing daily free play in the classroom setting and I could not understand why Aistear was not an encouraged or even recommended part of the 1st Class curriculum and beyond to a whole-school philosophy. In my opinion free play should not be limited to Infant classes.

In my experience children in 1st Class rarely have opportunities to play freely in the classroom setting, to act out situations through play or to learn through holistic hands-on experiences. Most children in 1st Class, who are as young as 6 years of age, are still very playful, adventurous and often unable to cope with the strict routine of a full academic school day; however curriculum overload, parental expectations and teacher training and responsibilities tend not to allow for deviation from Department of Education Guidelines.  

As a Special Educational Teacher (SET), most of my teaching obligations lay in Early Intervention; including Team Teaching in Infant Aistear, small group teaching of phonological awareness from Senior Infants to Second Class level and Collaborative Station Teaching in Literacy and Numeracy from Junior Infant to Second Class.

Although most of my work, under the ‘New’ Model of Support, is now spent in-class teaching, I still have a number of children throughout the school who are withdrawn in small groups. These children, who generally require an intensive phonics or literacy intervention, without fail, are drawn to learning through play and active learning in the SET setting. Even children in Fifth Class ask to play in the ‘Home Corner’ of my room. It is my belief that most typically developing children have a desire to play and will follow through with playful behaviour when boundaries of education, expectation and shame are no longer in affect. The continuation of an adapted Aistear Curriculum Framework to 1st Class would, in my belief, change my current teaching, and Early Intervention learning, for the better.

Considering the views of various experts on play ascertained during a Literature Review I had completed, I designed the survey questions in order to gather data specific to 1st Class children and play in their class, whilst collecting information from a wide variety of school and class types; both urban and rural, Deis and non-Deis, co-ed and single sex schools and single and multi-grade classrooms.

A total of nineteen of the twenty teachers’ schools had implemented the Aistear Framework in Infant classrooms; an excellent result considering it is not mandatory. I was most surprised that two 1st Class teachers had indeed incorporated Aistear into their daily timetable. Two of twenty teachers responded negatively to the introduction of Aistear to 1st Class, pointing to curriculum overload as their main reason; a common concern in the teaching sector, which reflects on top heavy academic outcome-based learning. All other teachers were keen to further research the introduction of Aistear to their settings and agreed that with adequate training and support by DES Aistear could develop, amongst many other skills; oral language, socialising, problem-solving and creative thinking.

I was surprised by the sense of guilt or regret on reading teachers’ responses to the question- ‘Do your 1st Class pupils have opportunities for free play inside the classroom? If so, please give examples. If not, why not?’. Several teachers mentioned feeling bad that they didn’t have time to include more play or that they didn’t go beyond opportunities for play in Golden Time, if time allowed. It seemed that play on these terms becomes a reward rather than the norm.

The benefits of play in Early Childhood are clear and I believe the majority of teachers are fully aware of the effects of play in promoting a rich, diverse and inspiring learning environment. I feel teachers are very open to continued professional development to introduce Aistear to the 1st Class setting, but DES curriculum demands need to be altered to reflect a more holistic approach to learning.

I would like to see further research being carried out in this area, with active research checking the effects of Aistear in 1st Class over an extended period of time; the effects on child, teacher, school and home. I would be interested in the results of a year-long pilot study, comparing childrens’ learning, behaviour, attitudes and skills, between two 1st Class groups; one using Aistear, one without. I would then love to see that research expanding to classes right up to 6th.

As Aistear celebrated its 10th birthday, on February 5th 2020, I believe it is time for various agencies to align in their concepts, values and implementation regulations of Aistear in primary schools. It is important for schools to look at the age range within particular classes and remember 6 year olds are still considered ‘Early Years’. For example ,in my own setting, 19 children from a class of 29 began 1st Class aged 6. By the end of the school year 2 of the 29 children in 1st Class will still be aged 6, turning 7 in the summer before entering 2nd Class. Is it, therefore, not time to consider a more structured Aistear framework to include 1st Class and let children be children and play?