Play not tests in Primary one

Have you noticed any groups of young children out to play in your neighbourhood recently – running around, climbing trees, making dens, playing ‘let’s pretend’? Until about thirty years ago, you’d see them most days. Now, apart from the odd supervised visit to the play-park, most children spend their spare time indoors, often in solitary screen-based activities. 

Indeed, Scottish children are now among the least active in the world – one survey found that three-quarters of them spend less time outdoors than prison inmates! Which is extremely worrying, because active, social, self-directed play is vital for their overall development and long-term physical and mental health.

This is why Upstart Scotland is campaigning for a change in the ethos of early years education. We want to see children learning through play (especially outdoor play) until they’re round about seven years old, as in other Northern European countries.  

Scotland is one of only 12% of countries worldwide that start formal schooling before the age of six. However, research has now shown no educational advantage in children cracking on with the 3Rs at such an early age. And countries that start later consistently out-perform us in international surveys of literacy and numeracy – especially those with a play-based kindergarten stage between ages three and seven. 

Children’s health and well-being is better in these later-start countries too. Perhaps that’s because the decline of free play (especially outdoors) is now associated with long-term mental health problems. Play in early childhood helps build emotional resilience – essential for dealing with stress as children grow older. 

In fact, Scotland could be taking a more ‘kindergarten-like’ approach to education in P1 and 2. Our Curriculum for Excellencecertainly gives permission – but most primary schools haven’t taken it on board. Scotland has been teaching four- and five-year-olds to read, write and do sums for 150 years so that’s what parents and schools expect. 

Politicians expect it too. This year, as part of the government’s drive to close the poverty-related attainment gap, national standardised testing of literacy and numeracy has been introduced in primary schools – and the tests start in P1. 

And this means the problem’s going to get worse. We’re already seeing the sort of educational changes that always accompany national testing regimes: more concentration on the 3Rs, less time for play and creativity, and increasing pressure on teachers and children to improve results. 

Upstart believes that – as outdoor play has declined – this increasing emphasis on the 3Rs at P1 will be disastrous for our children’s long-term health, well-being and educational success. Please don’t think we want to ‘hold them back’ – children who show interest in aspects of the 3Rs should be encouraged and supported. But until they show interest, it’s counter-productive to teach phonics, handwriting and sums before the age of six or seven. 

What’s more ALL children would benefit – physically, socially and emotionally – from more opportunity to play during their vitally important early years. Please check us out on  and join us in promoting Play Not Tests in Primary 1!