Play to Learns is a gross motor activity program CirQuest Circus has developed collaboratively with our experienced early childhood circus teachers and myself, CirQuest director and an occupational therapist. The curriculum has been specifically designed to include tasks which build the skills required for school.
We don’t just teach gross motor skills, but also verbal communication skills like understanding receptive communication, active listening, and expressive communication, as well as the fundamental skills required for formal education such as following instructions, watching a demonstration, and taking turns. These skills are taught in a gradual, progressive way, not all at once though!
Our program is strongly informed by the theory of sensorimotor adaptation (Gilfoyle, Grady and Moore, 1990). This theory is developed on the fundamental principle that children are driven to explore movement and their environment. Children encounter challenges which their existing skills are not yet adequate to overcome, which causes them to adapt to the new challenge and develop a new level of skill. This theory informs our whole program and the way in which we teach all the activities it includes. We present opportunities to explore and develop and the children make the most of those opportunities. The art and skill of the teachers is evident just as much in what we don’t do and say as it is in what we do.
Pretending is a massive part of every lesson and the development of pretend play skills is an area of focus of our Busy Bodies program. Pretend play is predictive of the later development of communication, literacy, social cognition, abstract reasoning, problem-solving and planning skills. Pretending in play has an important function for mental health as well, as when children play the roles and stories they see in real life, they process these in a way that enables them to make sense of what they see. It’s also one of the best ways to make the repetition and practice that is needed for motor skill acquisition more fun and engaging, for children and adults alike.
Waiting is a skill! It has to be explicitly taught and practiced. A huge part of our Play to Learn program is concerned with teaching children how to wait and our teachers draw on extensive experience to make sure that children are challenged to wait just the right amount that each child needs to develop this skill further.
Another huge part of our program is the development of core strength and endurance. In a world of soft furnishings, comfortable couches, more time spent sitting, lots of devices, and smaller backyards, children are 15% less physically active than their parents were at the same age. This has huge ramifications for postural tone, and the majority of the activities in our Play to Learn classes which may appear to be “just for fun” are actually devised to develop children’s postural muscles to facilitate better endurance.
Our program is designed to develop these skills in a spiralling continuum and a gentle progression in which the child has lots of choices. It’s developmentally-appropriate for children who are aged 2-4 years to do a lot of refusing and protesting. This is important for them to learn to be assertive. Usually the best way to handle this stage is to allow them choices when appropriate, respect their decision when you can, and assert boundaries when refusing or protesting is not acceptable. We find this stage usually passes much faster this way.
Verbal comprehension, working memory, and sequencing are all developed through specific tasks as well as incidentally throughout the lessons as part of other activities. Academic skills like colour recognition and counting are also incidental to other tasks; we use counting as a way of teaching children to pace themselves and self-regulate, rather than focusing on teaching number, and colours are used as a way to vary activities and stimulate motivation rather than taught by rote.
It is now broadly recognised that the best activities to promote school readiness in the community are early childhood programs that provide opportunities for family involvement, rather than childcare settings where parents do not participate. When you join in alongside your child, you have a wonderful opportunity to model learning and social behaviour, to provide additional scaffolding as required by your child to better ensure their successful learning, and to learn some of the tricks and tips that experienced teachers of young children need to have in their toolkit and that many parents find so useful.
We’ve learned from the Circle of Security program that the best way to promote independence in young children is to provide opportunities to explore the social and physical environment while maintaining access to the safe base that is the unconditional acceptance of their primary caregiver. So our Busy Bodies program supports and encourages the development of children’s independence with you, to enable the two of you to gradually navigate your young child’s moving out into the world and forging their own identity as a social being.
Playing alongside your child is a delightful way to learn together, and enables parents to take a break from being in charge and thinking about meeting the child’s, and the family’s, basic and instrumental needs. You can relax and enjoy the play and be totally present in the game, knowing that our lovely teachers are looking after the boundaries for safety, time-management and programming. You’ll also experience being a part of a community of parents and children who are motivated by the same thing as you.
To find out more about our Play to Learn classes, click here.
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References and further reading about school readiness:
Centre for Community Child Health (2008) Policy Brief No 10 2008: Rethinking School Readiness The Royal Children’s Hospital Flemington Road PARKVILLE 3052 Victoria Australia www.rch.org.au/ccch/policybriefs.cfm
Connor, J., & Linke, P. (2007). Your Child’s First Year at School: A Book for Parents. Watson, ACT: Early Childhood Australia.
Dent, Maggie (2012) Is your child ready to start school? https://www.maggiedent.com/blog/your-child-ready-school/
Dockett, S. & Perry, B. (2014). Continuity of Learning: A resource to support effective transition to school and school age care. Canberra, ACT: Australian Government Department of Education.
Gilfoyle, E., Grady, A. and Moore, J. (1990) Children Adapt: A theory of sensorimotor-sensory developmemt. SLACK Inc, Thorofare USA.
Owens, A. (2008). Family Factsheet: Transition to School. Retrieved from http://www.ncac.gov.au/factsheets/ transition.pdf
Powell, B., Cooper, G., Hoffman, K. and Marvin, R. (2013) The Circle of Security Intervention Guilford Publications, USA.
Stagnitti, K. (1998) Learn to Play: A Practical Program to Develop a Childs Imaginative Play. Co-ordinates Occupational Therapy Service, Melbourne.