Case study:

Trial of the Young Writers’ Role Play Pack at Haveley Hey Nursery, Wythenshawe, Manchester

Between March and April, 2011, the Young Writers’ Role Play Pack (YWRPP) was trialled in the nursery at Haveley Hey Community Primary School, Wythenshawe, Manchester. The Pack notes have been fully updated in line with the Revised EYFS Framework, 2012.

The YWRPP consists of eight films, on DVD, about ‘people who help us’, each film highlighting how adults write as part of their work, for example how the name of each firefighter on a particular fire engine must be written on a roll board, kept on the dash board of the vehicle, and how police officers write in notebooks. The films also show children emulating the grown-ups, in role play. ‘Official’- looking, but child-friendly role play sheets, just like the ones in the film, are included in the Pack, along with authentic-looking outfits and teachers’ notes.

The Pack was trialled over a seven week period with seven children aged 42 to 44 months. When the trial began, most of the children were working within the EYFS Development Matters age band between 22-36 months. At the end of seven weeks, almost all the children were working securely within the development band 30-50 months in all Communication, Language and Literacy scales, reflecting significant progress in a very short space of time, and well beyond what could be solely attributed to maturation levels. In addition, the children had made the all-important cognitive and emotional leap of now seeing themselves as writers and communicators. By the end of the trial, too, the children had clear ideas about what they wanted to be when they grew up. The nursery staff also reported that the trial had had a very positive impact on professional practice, leading to some innovative and successful ways of working, and on parents’ involvement in their children’s work. This case study describes some of these impacts.

Concurrent role play areas

The films chosen for the project were about vets, firefighters and postal workers. Because the staff were keen to use the Pack to the full, they took the unusual, but very successful decision to ‘run’ more than one role play area at a time. From week 1 to 6, inclusive, there was the Pets' Hospital, and in week 4, a large outdoor Fire Station was introduced, complete with suspended cardboard ladder. The Fire Station ran concurrently with the Pets' Hospital. The Post office was set up in week 6 and proved so popular that the staff decided to enlarge and relocate it to the middle of the nursery, where it became a focal point and a hub of activity, attracting children to communicate readily on paper.

The use of concurrent role play areas resulted in greatly enhanced opportunities for imaginative role play, collaboration and problem-solving. As children could play a variety of roles within the ‘people who help us’ theme, the potential for interplay between the areas was maximised, leading to an enriched play environment. For example, the ‘firefighters’ rescued a cat from a fire outside and took it indoors to the Pets’ Hospital, and a ‘postperson’ posted a letter to the real firefighters to say thank you for their visit.

Literate role play provision

Inspired by the detailed scenes in the DVDs of a vets’ surgery, fire station and post office, three irresistible role play areas were created, each featuring a display of carefully labelled photographs, signs and notices. It was noted that several children would scan the labels, saying, for example, ‘I need a ‘m’’, and attempt to copy the letter in their writing. One girl pointed to the picture of a woman firefighter and mimed taking the firefighter’s uniform off the wall, carefully stepping into the trousers and putting on the jacket and helmet, just like the firewoman in the film. Another girl then rushed in, saying ‘The tree’s on fire! We need water!’ A third girl pointed to the sign showing a fire extinguisher, saying ‘There you are!’ The first girl then ‘took’ the ‘extinguisher’ and mimed using it.

Mind Maps

The project revealed how useful Mind Maps are as an indicator of pre- and post-theme development. Mind Maps were created with the children before and after each of the three themes. They revealed that children’s levels of awareness and understanding of the roles of vets, firefighters and postal workers had increased, together with the children’s vocabulary and use of expressive language and extended sentences.

Circle times as opportunities to feed in specific vocabulary

Group circle times were used very successfully to feed in specific vet-/firefighter-/ post office-related vocabulary. For example, on one occasion the staff demonstrated creating a fire engine from junk materials, taking their lead from the children’s ideas. The session was introduced using a book about firefighters, with the teacher relating this to the film about the firefighters. The children were very keen to talk about what they had seen in the film, too, within a shared visual context. One teacher said ‘The children showed greater engagement at group times, remembering and talking about the films’.

Young Writers Role Play Pack

Props and clothes as stimuli for literate role play

The nursery staff gave careful thought to the number and type of props provided in the role play area. Just the right amount of items were provided, so as not to overwhelm the children, and to encourage sharing and careful handling. The props reflected those in the films, such as a soft toy cat in a flea collar, and from time to time items were replaced with others to create maximum interest. All children handled the props with great care and respect, especially the ‘poorly’ soft toy animals, and children could be seen holding them expertly, just like the vet in the film. Similarly, the children took great pride in wearing the outfits, and some children felt that they could not ‘be’ a vet, firefighter or postal worker unless they wore the outfit. One boy postperson was busy transferring letters from the post box into his bag when another boy approached and said ‘You’re not a postman. You haven’t got a hat!’ This careful setting up by the staff of each role play area paid great dividends, resulting in high levels of sustained, imaginative, child-initiated play.

One staff member said ‘Children were more eager to role play, particularly with the fire station, creating their own scenarios and developing story lines.’ One boy vet recounted what had happened to an injured dog: ‘The dog’s got a poorly leg and hurt his eye by accident. He ran into the road and a tractor came. He needs carrots to make it better.’

Much co-operative play between boys and girls was noted. One girl pretended to be an injured cat. ‘I got run over,’ she said, miaowing. A boy vet put his arm around her and said ‘Yes, the wheel pushed your arm and broke it.’ Another boy carefully put a ‘poorly’ dog on a chair, dashed over to the book area and brought back a copy of ‘Harry the dirty dog.’ He then told the dog what happened in the story.

Writing props

The Pets’ Hospital had its own ‘reception desk’, with role play sheets, telephone and pencils. The Fire Station also had an office, with role play sheets, pencils and a ‘turn out printer’, just like the one in the film, to receive ‘fire call out’ messages. The Post office was equipped with easily-accessed stationery, stamps and a range of greetings cards, role play sheets and pencils, as well as scales and parcels for delivery. Children were very enthusiastic about including writing in all their role play. In the Pet Hospital and Fire Station, just after a role play scenario, the children would go and write, for example, about how they made a pet better or rescued an animal from a fire. One boy vet was giving ‘medicine’ to a snake, using a syringe. He said, ‘I made it better!’ Then he wrote a prescription, saying ‘the snake has 30 tablets on Tuesday and Wednesday and it begins with w.’ One girl and boy drew a picture story together about their fire rescue. A member of staff noted that in the Post office children were keen to express their feelings on paper. Two girls wrote to their mothers, saying ‘I love you,’ and a girl wrote to a boy, ‘Thank you for sharing your toys with me.’ One girl wrote to her mother, ’Thank you for dropping me off at school.’ Sarah Murray, Deputy Head of the school, said: 'The acquisition of the Development Matters statement around ascribing meaning to own marks is significant, as it marks a real  shift in understanding on the part of the children from the stage of recognising and spotting print in the  environment, to the all-important seeing themselves as writers/ communicators'.

Home-school links

The project proved very successful in involving parents in their children’s learning. A talk was given at the start of the project to explain its purpose to parents. Sarah Murray said: ‘From my perspective, the meeting that was held for parents and the discussions that happened during it, were a great vehicle for parents understanding the significance of talk, and how day-to-day experiences can fuel this talk. There was a great example of a child being involved in a routine home check with the Fire Service to fit a smoke alarm. The parent shared a lot about what the child noticed and how the child used the language and ideas that they had learnt within their play. I don’t think that this kind of conversation would have happened without this project, and the conversation shows how this kind of sharing with parents can deepen the understanding of what is important in developing young children’s language.’

The offer to parents to borrow the DVDs to watch with their child was taken up, and parents reported that they enjoyed watching with their children and talking about the films. One parent who worked for the Post Office offered to visit the nursery to talk with the children.

The trial of the Young Writers’ Role Play Pack showed that it had a significant impact on children’s CLL progress in a very short space of time. The Pack served as a catalyst to the children’s imagination about what they want to be when they grow up, and seeing themselves already as writers and communicators. The project also served to highlight innovative areas of good practice, and was shown to be an accessible way of engaging parents in their children’s learning.

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