The idea behind Aistear, in a nutshell, is that children will learn through play. I have no problem with learning through play. I have no problem with play as a spontaneous, child-led activity – where children set their own rules and decide on what they want to do. I have no problem with developing skills through play – as children have always done this. I have no problem with facilitating an infant class at the beginning of the school day (reception time) with a selection of toys and activities, where they can choose what they want to do with them and pretend on their own terms – or not pretend at all.
The issue I have with Aistear (the thematic and play-based learning approach in Ireland) is that it is, at its core, an imposed form of play. The teacher or preschool facilitator sets the basic rules and sets the language. This sort of interference immediately limits what children can contribute to the play setting. A significant part of the play will no longer be on their terms. As a result, opportunities for certain types of spontaneity are now no longer afforded. If the teacher sits with the children during socio-dramatic play in order to influence the language used or to keep them on task, this results in interference. Children are experts at their own play – they know what they want to do and they know how to enjoy it.
A look at some of the background research that led to the development of Aistear and its incorporation into early childhood educational settings shows references to a debunked educational idea – learning styles. I don’t claim that the research behind Aistear relied heavily on the concept of learning styles, rather I would contend that the quality of the initial Aistear research must be further examined, due to the researchers’ acceptance of the idea of learning styles without any sort of examination, vigorous or otherwise.
What I haven’t been able to figure out is if the Aistear approach to oral language development is proven to have better outcomes than what came before Aistear, or what is done outside of the confines set by Aistear. Have primary schools been directed to implement a specific practice that lacks rigorous and longitudinal research in an Irish educational context? Some might say that Aistear gives opportunities for oral language development, but surely this happens throughout the day anyway? Aistear may give an opportunity to practise the new vocabulary, but new language does not need to be forced into a playful setting – if so, the idea that children are the authors of their own play is immediately compromised.
I’m not claiming that Aistear is a waste of time – that hasn’t been firmly established yet, one way or the other. What needs to take place now is a discussion between the various practitioners involved with Aistear – can we establish its effectiveness as a methodology or can we establish otherwise? Most importantly, such a discussion should place evidence at its core.
If there’s something you’d like to contribute, either side of the Aistear debate, please feel free to leave a comment below.