How this oppressive test is killing the magic of childhood

By Pauline Roberts

NAPLAN is taking the fun out of early childhood learning. Early childhood learning encompasses education for children from birth to eight years of age and it is widely known that play-based programs planned with intentionality are the best way for teachers to engage young children in learning. Unfortunately, a focus on NAPLAN scores has resulted in many schools paying more attention to literacy and numeracy programs for children in primary school to perform better in tests in Years 3 and 5. This is impacting on the learning engagement of children in the earlier years. 

Research over decades has shown that play is how young children learn. Through interacting with their environment and their peers, children are making sense of the world and their place in it. These ideals are reflected in the Early Years Learning Framework for Australia that sets out what children aged up to five should be engaging with: “Play-based learning with intentionality can expand children’s thinking and enhance their desire to know and to learn, promoting positive dispositions towards learning” (p.21). The Early Years Learning Framework document applies for all children in the early years of school across Australia, yet the focus on Literacy and Numeracy is narrowing the curriculum and taking away the opportunities for children and teachers to engage in play-based learning.

Although NAPLAN does not happen until Year 3, when children are about 8 years old, it has been identified that teachers in the lower grades are being asked to teach Literacy and Numeracy in more formal ways. The concentrated focus on these two subject areas has led to an increase in the use of whole school commercial programs, some of which are specifically scripted. This practice reduces the autonomy of teachers to make decisions about their teaching based not only on their training but their knowledge of the children in their class. This raises concerns for the teacher and their practice, as well as the engagement of the children through more formalised learning practices earlier in their school experience.

With the publishing of results on the MySchool website and other unintended consequences of the standardised tests, including principal’s performance in some states being measured by these results, NAPLAN has become high stakes. For school leaders, there is pressure to do well, and this is being transferred to teachers and sometimes children and their families which may negatively impact on wellbeing. Even in schools where children traditionally perform well and there are programs focusing on wellbeing, some children are still feeling stressed about doing the tests and what the results will mean for them. This pressure is leading to children doing more formalised learning in literacy and numeracy from an earlier age and ‘play’ is often relegated to Friday afternoons if all other tasks are completed.

Play, or more specifically play-based learning, is often misunderstood within education, despite the evidence of its value. Play is often situated at one end of a continuum with learning at the other when in fact, intentional teachers can implement programs across this continuum to engage children in learning across multiple and integrated subject areas. When children are enjoying their learning through the play, they are often unaware that they are learning science, mathematics, and engineering in the block corner; or geography, history, and science when they are exploring gardening, including investigating how it was done by their grandparents.

Teachers who do not understand play and play-based learning approaches may be uncomfortable with the reduced control that comes through children learning in this way. Research conducted in both the science and technology domains, however, have shown that children often are more engaged and learn more than expected when they are interested in the learning and it is happening in a way that is authentic to their experience. Not only are the children in these research projects learning specific content, but they are also learning Literacy and Numeracy when they plan explorations, calculate results, represent findings, and use technology to create, research, record and share information. The multi-modal options that play facilitates, ensures that all children can feel a sense of accomplishment and can learn from their peers as well as their teacher.

Children do need to be literate and numerate, but NAPLAN scores are not showing improvement despite the increased focus on these two specific learning areas over recent years. At the same time, children are becoming increasingly anxious and disengaged from school from an earlier age. Research in early childhood continues to identify that children engage with and learn through play-based approaches, and through the intentionality of the planning, teachers have autonomy over their programs to suit the needs of the children in their classroom. Perhaps it is time that the fun is brought back to classrooms, not only for children under five but for all children in schools, so that they can engage and enjoy their learning. Engaged children may be less likely to resort to negative behaviour to gain attention, and a reduction in the use of prescribed programs and a little more fun may also help teachers feel valued for their knowledge and expertise. The potential is there for broader approaches and happier children and teachers through increased fun, perhaps helping to bring some teachers back to the workforce – a win all around!

Pauline is a senior lecturer in the Early Childhood program at ECU. Her teaching and research are focused on a range of issues in early childhood education including assessment, curriculum, workforce and reflective practice.

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

5 thoughts on “How this oppressive test is killing the magic of childhood

  1. The aim of NAPLAN was to take the fun out of learning, and force schools to focus on literacy and numeracy rote learning, so students perform better in international league tables. I suggest flipping the argument around, and focusing on the last point first: the tests have not improved scores. Then suggest the way to do that is with play based learning.

  2. Pamela Snow says:

    Hi Pauline, your post is about some critical aspects of children’s education, and it’s important that education and community stakeholders engage in discussion about the issues you raise around the role of play and also the role of formal assessment, such as NAPLAN. I am concerned though, about the notion that our thinking needs to be polarised at one extreme or the other on these things. So,
    I’d like to offer some different perspectives for consideration and discussion. For purposes of clarity and brevity, I’ll dot-point these below:
    1. Play is fundamentally important for all children and we should never be talking about play and explicit teaching as an “either-or” in terms of how we allocate children’s instructional time. This is an unhelpful dichotomy. We need to make room for both, in a considered way.
    2. Literacy (by which I mean reading, writing, and spelling) is a set of biologically secondary skills, where oral language is biologically primary. This distinction is critical to consideration of how children learn in the first three years of school and beyond. David Didau has written a succinct blogpost about the notion of biologically primary and secondary skills (drawing on the work of Professor David Geary). It can be accessed here:

    3. Play is biologically primary, but it is not necessarily the optimal way to learn biologically secondary skills, which in many cases, if not taught are also not “caught”, i.e., they go unlearnt.
    4. Stephen Pinker has observed that humans have a language brain, but they don’t have a “reading brain”. A reading brain can be developed through explicit teaching of the ways in which speech and print map to each other. Developmentally, this is best achieved in the first three years of school. The work of French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene has shown that
    this “re-wiring” becomes harder to achieve, the more time that passes. It’s one of the reasons that low literacy skills in secondary students are harder to turn around than difficulties that are identified and responded to in the early years.
    5. When children are struggling with literacy in Year 3 (and often unfortunately beyond), what changes their trajectories is not more time spent playing, but time with tutors (if they are fortunate to be able to access them), who unlock for them the mysteries of how their writing system works.
    6. Being unable to read, write and spell is a major correlate of emotional and behavioural difficulties. I’ve been researching the school-to-prison pipeline for the last two decades and the link between low literacy, behaviour problems and school disengagement is one of the most robust and immovable findings. Again, it’s not play-based activities that youth offenders need to give them a chance at educational, vocational, and economic engagement. It’s having the mysteries of the English writing system unlocked for them – as efficiently and painlessly as possible. US APM reporter Emily Hanford has written about this
    7. Becoming a proficient reader (one who can efficiently and fluently lift words off the page and derive the meaning of connected text) is fun for children. They love being able to “crack the code” and apply their reading skills to printed books, screens and environmental print. There seems to be an assumption in your post that explicit teaching and enjoyable, productive learning are mutually exclusive.
    8. Many schools are adopting a Multi-Tiered Systems of Support approach to early literacy, numeracy and positive behaviour support and are seeing pleasing shifts in both academic success and wellbeing. These schools still allow time for child-led, play-based learning, but not at the expense of explicit initial teaching of complex, biologically secondary knowledge and skills in the literacy and numeracy domains.

    9. We shouldn’t blame the bathroom scales if the diet isn’t working. We have to go back and look at the quality of the diet and our fidelity to it. NAPLAN may be imperfect in all kinds of ways, but I am quite sure that if the data was trending upwards, calls for its demise would fade, and we would be asked to celebrate the work of teachers. We can’t have it both ways. It’s NAPLAN data that tells that 13.5% of Year 9 boys are not at the minimum national
    standard for reading . In an economy in which jobs for unskilled workers are being replaced by AI, how are these young men going to be part of the social and economic mainstream after they (inevitably) exit school early? This, rather than the test itself, is what I think of as “high-stakes” for life-
    I look forward to some fruitful discussion.

  3. James Forayter says:

    I grew up in California USA. We also had tests to see how we were students were doing as to our grade level. However our names were not on the test paper and we were told this did not affect our grades, do the best you can and enjoy the test.

    The second thing was the school that the test was given was also not known. This made the test easy on the students and the school as no one was graded including the school.

  4. Susan Mahar says:

    Thankyou for this refreshing article. You are so right about the negative impact of prescriptive instruction and measurement on young learners. It is a reminder that the health and well being of students is not an optional extra but intrinsic to an engaging classroom program.
    Teachers must reclaim what has been lost by the shocking influence of single focus groups outside the field of education. It is classroom teachiers who are have the responsibility to meet the social. emotional and intellectual needs of every child. The joy of learning is in their hands.
    I hope this inspirational article is shared widely.

  5. Spot on Pamela Snow. This false dichotomy causes children harm by casting quality explicit teacher led instruction on early critical skills as something to be seriously avoided if not prevented and definitely not assessed. And who’ says it’s not FUN! Like many things in education (and life) there are examples of poor teacher led early reading programs, “canned programs” (sic), “drill and kill,” that none of us endorse, just like there is unproductive play. Time to be specific in what practices (and outcomes) we criticize because we all share the same goals.

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