Alex looked back up at his teacher with a smile.

Alex struggled for words. Under the gaze of 23 others, standing at the front of the room, with the show-and-tell toy in his hands, the pressure was too much. He was expected to explain clearly why this toy meant so much to him. The minutes as we waited for the bell to ring at 3.30pm seemed long as the teacher prompted Alex to explain a little further where the toy was from and why he took it to bed every night. But the tension came abruptly to an end when the teacher simply said ‘well done’ to Alex and he sat down, grinning to himself and holding the toy tighter than before.

From the start of my time with Penguin reception class, Alex seemed uncertain of himself. I was there to watch his play. Could what he did away from the gaze of the teachers and the laser eyes of his class reveal something more about Alex and how he loves to learn? In writing exercises, which took place almost every day in the reception classroom, Alex did not stand out as presenting particularly neat or controlled handwriting. He was often asked to rewrite his line of B’s or cluster of 4’s so that they stayed on the lines and did not droop sadly off or float into the top of the whiteboard. It was a considerable effort to keep those letters neat. But he would do it again, keen to finish the task and get on with the important business of the day: playing in the construction bricks or checking the stock of his shop in the role-play area.

The last day of term was free play day – an entire day when the class got to choose exactly what they did and who with. Amongst the small groups of children gathered around miniature fire engines and play dough covered tables, Alex sat on his own. His back was turned to the class and he was absorbed in something. A few minutes passed. Suddenly, above the warm chattering came the voice of the class teacher.
“Oh Alex!”
It was an exclamation of surprise and delight. The class teacher stood over Alex looking down at him. Then she called over the teaching assistant.
“Look at what Alex’s done!”

The teaching assistant looked down at Alex. On the last day of school this was too much – the teaching assistant’s eyes welled up with tears as he smiled and left the classroom. Alex looked back up at his teacher with a smile. In his hands he held a whiteboard, on which he had written the entire alphabet. Each letter was neat, not perfect, but legible and tidy.

When members of Penguin class had to sit down and write out the letters of the alphabet until they were all facing in the right direction, it seemed to be the most stressful moment of the 5 year olds’ lives. But on this day, when children were given the luxury of free play, Alex chose to prove his skills in what could be seen as a very academic manner. Once he was not constrained by the boundaries of a formal writing environment, he showed that he could achieve what he had been attempting for the last year. He had a desire, at that moment, to write. He had space and freedom to do it. Of course, he had been taught the essential skills needed to master the alphabet, but it was in a moment of playful spontaneity that he demonstrated what he had learnt. Alex was given this opportunity to play and for him, his play was to produce something of beauty. That day, the teaching staff were overwhelmed with Alex’s achievement and heaped praise onto the shy boy. The grin on his face was like none ever seen before. Something he had chosen to do himself was the result of such extravagant joy in the adults around him. I won’t forget his look of pride.

At Glow, we believe that every child loves to learn. They are naturally predisposed to do so. We have to note the tiny moments when children’s eyes light up and they grin to themselves as their own private audience because, at that very moment, they deserved a full applause and a standing ovation. Come and join us in this celebration as we learn, light up and Glow together.

By Tilda Stickley, Education Consultant and Head of Curriculum Development at Glow

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