Arne Trageton

TASP Conference

Anny Hagesæter

February 3-7 1999

Solveig Helming

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Stord/Haugesund College,5414 Rommetveit
Norway tlf +47 5349 1300 fax +47 5341 0477

Theme-organised learning, play and physical environment in lower primary school (6-10-year-olds) 1997-2000


Norway lowered school-starting age from 7 to 6 years in 1997. We got a new National Curriculum (L97) for primary/secondary school. For grades 1-4 (6-10 year-olds) the new situation has three main challenges:

1. Theme-based cross-subject projects should dominate the learning process (at least 60% of lecture time) Theme-organised learning should inspire to play, and play should inspire to themes.

2. Play should be given a central role in school, both as «free play» and as a dominant learning method for children aged 6-10, besides creative activities and work.

3. In the last 4-5 years new school-buildings have been raised for several billion Norwegian krones to suit the new school reform, especially for grade 1-4. The physical environment in the new-built schools should be designed to stimulate more laboratory learning for play, creative activities and work. The traditional lecture auditory model of a classroom structure is definitively unsuitable in relation to the reform.


1. How are 7 of the 19 counties in Norway implementing the new curriculum (L97) at school in grades 1-4?

2. Theme-based learning

  • To what degree do the counties meet the demand that themes are to fill 60% of total school time?
  • Do schools use many short themes, or few long-lasting themes?
  • How are themes planned?
  • How do schools practice theme teaching?
  • What sort of cross-subject themes are chosen?
  • How are traditional subjects cowered within cross-subject theme-teaching?
  • To what degree do different teaching materials (laboratory materials, texts, sounds, pictures, library, IT, textbooks,) stimulate or hinder theme-organised approach?
  • What are the learning results of theme teaching?

    3. Play

  • How do schools organise for play?How do schools practice learning through play?
  • What competence do school-leaders have in play-based education?
  • What attitudes do school-leaders have about play and learning?
  • (later project)
  • How to document the learning benefits of playing?
  • Does play pay?

    4. Physical milieu

  • How has the new curriculum reform (L97) influenced the structure of new school buildings?
  • What are the pedagogical demands of the theme-based and playful learning processes in the new curriculum for grade1-4?
  • How do schools and classrooms built according to the norms of L97 function in relation to old schools and classrooms?

    Research plan

    1. A common questionnaire has been sent to all primary schools in 7 out of 19 counties in Norway before the summer of 1998 to get some quantitative results from the first year of the reform. The questionnaire can be repeated in 1999 and 2000 to follow the development over a three-year period.

    2. Theme-based learning:

  • A qualitative analysis of the theme-plans for grade 1-4 from 40 schools in Rogaland/Hordaland.A qualitative analysis of theme learning processes in grade 1-4, documented by students taking further education in 6-10-year pedagogics. (about 20 examples)
  • A qualitative analysis of 5-6 project reports done by students who specialise in theme-organised learning in school (the student report is a 5-credit course)
  • 2 video productions of «good» theme projects in schools, led by students taking further education in 6-10 year pedagogics.
  • Shadowing 2 schools in more detail as observer and consultant in relation to theme-organised teaching. Video productions.

    3. Play:

  • Analysis of play observations and practice reports written by students in 6-10 year pedagogics (about 40 examples)
  • Analysis of 5-6 project reports done by students who specialise in play in school (the student report is a 5-credit course
  • Interview of students/headmasters for additional data about play in school and the role of the headmaster.
  • Two schools are contact schools where interview and observation will be used to get additional data.

    4. Physical environment:

  • Analysis and evaluation of plan drawings of school and classroom, made by students on 6-10-year pedagogics as the normal part of their practice report (about 20 examples)
  • Analysis of student evaluation of classroom organisation in relation to the impact on theme-based learning and play.
  • Analysis of 5-6 project reports done by students who specialize in physical environment in school (the student report is a 5 credit course)
  • Analysis and evaluation based on qualitative observation and interview at 3 newbuilt and 3 old schools in the Bergen, Stord and Stavanger area.

    Results of the questionnaire 97-98

    Point 1 in the research plan is finished. Report was published Nov. 1998. The questionnaire was sent to all primary schools in 7 out of 19 counties in Norway before the summer of 1998. 531 schools answered, 49 % of all schools. The results about themes, play and physical environment are very interrelated, but I will focus on the play results more in detail.

    Question 2: How much of the lecture time was theme-organised? (Theoretical demand in L97)

    Grade 1 69% 75%
    Grade 2 57% 65%
    Grade 3 41% 55%
    Grade 4 37% 45%
    Mean: 51% 60%(minimum) 

    The mean score is surprisingly high. Research only two years earlier indicated that only 5-15 % of lecture time was in themes. The dominant teaching was based on traditional subjects without any reference to other subjects. The theme percentage is highest in grade 1, lowest in grade 4. This is in correspondence with L97. The main reason that the theme-percent is so high in the new 1. classes, may be that these children still are considered to be pre-school children, and are taught by pre-school teachers, who are familiar with theme teaching without underlining the different subjects within the themes.

    Variations between schools were wide, from 5-100%, but in:

    Grade 1: 3/4 of the schools answered 50-80 %

    Grade 2: 2/3 of the schools answered 50-70%

    Grade 3: 2/3 of the schools answered 30-60%

    Grade 4: 2/3 of the schools answered 20-60%

    Schools reporting 100% themes have perhaps forgotten that free play also should have their part. And some hours we think should be reserved for subject knowledge without reference to the chosen theme.

    Question 3: How many themes per year?

    Grade 1 9.0
    Grade 2 9.0
    Grade 3 7.7
    Grade 4 7.3

    The mean score is 7-9 themes a year, about a month per theme. Broad, long-lasting themes are very stimulating for concentrated work, and it is easier to give play a central position in the curriculum, the way the government has demanded. In the great experiments with 6-year-olds from 1986-90, 42 communities in all counties; the recommendation was maximum 6 themes a year. This argument was based on the philosophy that with very broad, long-lasting themes it would be easier to make room for flexible planning, more pre-school informal schooling, the local environment should be more used as a source for different subjects, and the spontaneity , play and playful activities of children could easier be included in the learning processes

    But variations from school to school were wide, from 2-42 themes per year. The large quantity of short themes reflects a tendency to detailed planning, strong single-subject thinking with textbooks in the traditional subjects, which all had 6-8 proposals to cross-subject themes favouring their own subject. To follow the textbooks page for page in all 10 subjects, schools were forced to construct extremely many themes. This will give a rigid, detailed planning, and therefore hinder the extended use of play as prescribed in the general part of the National Curriculum. The play debate in Norway has been the crucial point before the political decision about lowered school start. The two big parties Labour and the Conservatives, were for lowering school start for different reasons, the other parties were against and wanted to have the six-year-olds in pre-school as before. As a compromise, it was underlined that pre-school informal teaching should dominate, not only for the 6-year-olds in school, but for the whole lower primary school (Grades 1-4). The National Curriculum therefore says much about play both as expression (free play) and play as learning method (structured play or learning-centred play). But one thing is what is in the Curriculum, another thing what is been practised. We therefore asked the following question:

    Question 4. How many hours of lecture time is devoted to play each week?

    Free play Play as learning method Total

    Grade 1 4.8 hours 5.7 hours 10.4 hours
    Grade 2 2.7 3.8 6.4
    Grade 3 1.6 2.5 4.0
    Grade 4 1.3 2.1 3.3

    The total lecture time in grades 1-4 in Norway is about 20 hours a week. It is important to underline that these hours are lecture time. The time for play in leisure time at school comes in addition. As expected the time devoted to play was highest in grade 1. (before 1997 these

    6-year-olds were pre-school children).

    For free play this is in correspondence with the demands in L97. This plan has quantified free play on the time table to 247 hours in the first 4 years in school. This is the first time that play has been quantified in the time table. Play has become «subject» number 4 in school (after Norwegian, Mathematics and Religion). This is a new situation. Surprisingly enough the mean score amounts to about 350 hours a year! The sensational headline in the leading conservative paper «Aftenposten» in Oslo was:

    «Play 100 hours too much!» This was followed by a radio discussion in Norwegian broadcasting the same afternoon where the leading conservative MP found the results very alarming, but our minister for education and research found it happy news, and gave compliments to the teachers, who had responded so quickly to the new demands.

    Play as learning method (Hall &Abbott 1991, Moyles 1995) has only a minor tradition in the Norwegian school. And in the Norwegian pre-school this is hardly inside their definition of play at all. In pre-school «play» means only «free play». Play is good for play, and it is somewhat suspicious to use play to subject goals, for instance. Therefore there are many unsure attitudes how to react to these new definitions and demands from the National Curriculum. But the results show that the amount of «Play as learning method» is on the same level or more than «free play». In the National Curriculum there is no indication that this should be less important in grade 4, but we think this decline is due to the unsure situation and lack of knowledge by the teachers. Today pre-school teachers in Norway are qualified to work in grade 1. Grades 2-4 are dominated by classroom teachers who hardly have heard about play in their teacher education up to now. Luckily this will now change. And pre-school teachers can take one year of further education in 6-10 year pedagogics. They are then qualified also to teach in grade 2-4. So in some years we will predict that play as learning method is more usual also in grade 4.

    Adding «free play» and «learning-centered play» shows that about half the time was devoted to play, in this wide definition. That is in tune with earlier research on 6-year-olds in pre-school in Norway (Haug 1991, Heggstad, Knudsen, Trageton 1994)

    Variations from school to school were wide, from 2-20 hours a week. But for 70% of the population the intervals were about as follows:

    Grade 1: 6-16 hours

    Grade 2: 3-8 hours

    Grade 3: 2-6 hours

    Grade 4. 2-4 Hours

    This tells us that the National Curriculum can´t control what the different schools are doing. Schools with «playful» heads and teachers, and a lot of new pre-school teachers coming in, buildings and out-door areas constructed for play, and parents who think play is good, find very strong arguments in the National Curriculum for more play than the mean score.

    Other schools with little interest in play, old teachers, no pre-school teachers, and minimal competence in the play area, skeptical parents, argue with reference to the subject spesified demands in the same National Curriculum. Because our school shall reach the specified academic goals in 10 different subjects, we have little time to both play and cross-subject themes.

    Question 5: How is the percentage balance between various play forms?

    Construction play Role play Rule play

    Grade 1 34% 36% 29%

    Grade 2 32% 31% 37%

    Grade 3 26% 27% 47%

    Grade 4 22% 25% 50%

    When we made the questionnaire many persons commented that this question would be too complicated to answer, because teachers would not know anything about play forms! By way of instruction we therefore gave some simple examples of the different play forms. We omit «rough and tumble play» and «play fighting» to simplify the question.

    In pre-school in Norway the dominating play forms for 6-year-olds have been constructional play and role play. Now these have become the dominating play forms also in the school environment. Rule play had a minor role by 6-year-olds in pre-school (Heggstad, Knudsen,Trageton 1994). But among the 6-year-olds in grade 1, rule play has got a broad position. I think the main reason is that this play form has been considered the main play form for 7-10-year-olds in school, so here the school tradition, following Piaget`s theory, has influenced the results. (Otto 1990) If we look at the development to grade 4 we see a gradual dominance of rule play. But it is not so dominating as earlier research indicated (cf Opie &Opie 1969) Construction and role play have a considerable part, and according to the criticism of Piaget by Sutton Smith (1967) and Gardner (1983), rule play is perhaps not the most advanced play form. Perhaps dramatic role play is the most advanced? My results go in the same direction. When schools change their focus from rule play to constructional play (Trageton 1994,1995) and role play (Trageton 1997a, b), very complicated play forms develop in school which earlier had a minor place.

    School variations were again wide. Some schools had almost only rule play. This school had also fewer play hours, and a less amount of theme-organised teaching. The schools with high scores on role play, were often the schools with a high amount of play hours and and themeorganized teaching.

    Physical environment

    Timetables, areas, the physical organising of classroom and of school-yard are important factors both for theme and play. We asked:

    Question 6: How many square metres is the learning area for each class?


    Grade 1 102 m² (approximate 1060 sq. feet)

    Grade 2 83 m²

    Grade 3 76 m²

    Grade 4 75 m² (approximate 820 sq. feet)

    (These results are from schools with at least one class on each level. 20 % of Norwegian pupils go in small multigraded schools in the countryside. They have often a better area ratio per pupil, because of few pupils).

    In Norway the national standard has been 2 m² per pupil, maximum 28 pupils per class = 56m². But in pre-school the standard has been 4 m² per child. When 6-year-olds became school children, the standard was set to 3 m² per pupil for grade 1= 84m² In addition there is area for group work, wardrobe, toilets and so on. There has been intensive school building activities the last 2-3 years to get class-rooms for this new grade 1. When pre-school activities, creative activities, play and work are to dominate, we need much space. Many people say that they have not space enough for such activities. But the results show that the mean score is quite acceptable. In relation to other countries, I believe we are in the top layer.

    Question 7: Where are the classrooms located in relation to each other?

    1/3 of the schools reported that grade 1 was isolated, often in a separate building. This, we think, is a reflection of the fact that we in Norway still look at the 6-year-olds as something special, not pre-school child, not school child. Bridging the gap between the new grade 1 (pre-school) with grade 2 (earlier the start of school) demands that these classes are physically located next to each other. 2/3 of the schools have succeeded in that.

    The classroom

    Question 8: Place an x under the structure of the classroom who reminds you most about the structure of your classes 1-4 grade.

    Individual Pair 4-group 8-group Work/play corners

    Traditional school Group Work/play corners

    Afterwards we merged the original categories into three groups. Work/play corners dominated in grade 1 (95%) In grade 2 Work/play corners and group were reported by 50% of the schools, while 30% reported «traditional school» as dominating. In grade 4, 40% reported «traditional school» as their classroom structure, but 50% had «group», and 10% «work/play corners».

    These results show that the traditional auditory school in Norway already after one year of the school reform is under attack, and is replaced especially for grade 1 and 2 by work/play corners and group. Both of these trends will stimulate and make the groupwork and play philosophy of the new National Curriculum easier to realise.

    Question 1: The time table

    The alternatives were single lessons (45 minute), double lessons or flexible periods (often longer, a whole day. Single lessons were very rarely reported in grade 1 (5%), flexible periods being the dominant set-up.


    between the results on themes, play and physical environment gave many interesting results. Here I will mention some central results.

    Play and themes

    In grades 1 and 2 there are strong correlations between schools reporting high score in play hours and high scores on the lecture time used for theme-organised teaching. On contrast, schools with few hours of play per week had a low percentage theme-organised cross-subject teaching. Is a high amount of play stimulating for theme-teaching? Or does a high amount of theme-teaching make it easier to bring play into the curriculum? Does the conscious implementations of a play curriculum lead to longer and more time-consuming themes? Does the conscious implementations of theme- thinking make teachers see the possibilities of bringing play into the curriculum?

    Work/play corners and themes

    The schools where work/play corners dominated, reported 40% more theme-organised teaching than «traditional school». Is it the structure of the classroom that encourage more theme-organised teaching, or is it theme-organised teaching that forces work/play corners?

    Lesson periods and themes

    Schools with flexible periods reported 50% more time for theme-organised teaching than schools with a single-lesson structure (45 min). Do flexible periods stimulate more theme-organised teaching? Or does more theme-organised teaching demand longer and more flexible periods?

    Play and lesson periods

    Schools where flexible periods dominated, reported 30% more time for play than schools with a single-lesson structure on all steps grade 1-4. Do flexible periods stimulate play? Or has the school understood and planned for much play, and the consequence, longer, flexible periods? In my earlier research (Trageton 1997), we recognised that 45 min periods may be enough for rule play, but often too short to for developing high-quality constructional and role play.

    Play and classroom set-up

    When the school used work/play corners as organisation form for the classroom, the time reserved for play was much higher (30-40%), than in «traditional school» classes. Is it work/play corners that force more play? Or are schools who choose to spend much time on play forced to restructure their traditional classroom to corners? Does «traditional school» organizing of the classroom reduce play? Or does the auditorium function dominate, and consequently individual desks in rows most suited to this, and prevent disturbing playing? «Traditional school» is constructed for teacher talk to whole class, but work/play corners is much more in tune with the demands of L97, with creative activities, play and practical work as the main learning methods, where the role of the teacher is to lead and structure the learning processes and activities of the children.

    Play and area

    Our hypothesis was that bigger area gave more play. Surprisingly we got the opposite results. Schools with 56m² or less total area per. class had 30% more play than schools with 84m² or more per class! What could be possible explanations? In Norway, there is an increasing interest in out-door school. Will a narrow in-door area stimulate more out-door school, and in consequence more possibilities for play? Or do the teachers in narrow classrooms use more imagination to divide the classroom into smaller work/play corners? Are the spacious classrooms so big that the teachers do not need to divide them into small corners, and therefore less stimulating for constructional and role play? The experiences from earlier research show that narrow work/play corners are more stimulating for play than wide and undefined. (Brown/Precious 1969, Hartmann 1988, Moyles 1989,Trageton 1997,

    Christie et al 1999)


    The questionnaire give us some unsure, quantitative survey data. It is important to stress that the results are the opinions of the heads and teachers. All answers are based on approximate evaluation, not systematic observation. Only 49% of the schools have answered. It would be a good guess that the rest have lower scores on theme-organised teaching and amount of play. But the results from the 7 counties, representing 1/3 of the schools in Norway are amazingly uniform, in spite of great variations in percent answers (83-24%). Variations from school to school is wide in most questions. This indicates that some schools have newly started the implementation process of realising L97, others have worked along such lines for many years, and for them it is easier to meet the requirements. Some schools are in tune with the reform, some schools are sceptical. The schools may also have interpreted the questions differently, in spite of a instruction declaration following the questionnaire.


    After the first reform year with L97 our survey evaluation shows very positive results, as far as the demands of the National Curriculum are concerned. Already the first reform theme-organised teaching fills 51 % of the total lecture time in grade 1-4. (L97 says at least 60%). Already in the first reform year play has got a solid position, not only in the new grade 1, but in the whole lower Primary school (Grades 1-4).

    Further research plan

    We have documented that the quantity of theme-organised learning will soon be on the planned level. We have documented that the amount of play is more than the demands in L97. We hope that the report sent back to all schools in the 7 counties, will stimulate a far more important debate: What is the quality of the theme-organised learning? What is the quality of the play? In the chapter on correlations we raised some questions only qualitative research can give the answers. Some more questions: What is the preferred relation between theme and play? How do the teachers understand theme-organised teaching? Free play? Play as a learning method? Will theme-organised teaching give more effective knowledge in all subjects? How do the schools make 4-year plans for theme-organised teaching? What themes are good for what play? What type of play is good for what theme? How should creative activity, play and practical work be balanced in learning the curriculum? How raise the quality of «free play»? How organise the environment in-doors and out-doors for different play forms? What is the ideal balance between the different play forms? Within what subjects is it easy/difficult to use play as a learning method? What sort of environment stimulates and hinders these methods in school. What sort of training is necessary for teachers to master this new school form? We believe that a key element to raise the quality of play in school is to improve teacher education (cp.Christie 1992). Such questions, and many more we want to study through qualitative studies in a few schools over the next few years. My textbook on play (Trageton 1997) discusses a lot of these questions, but the research was done before the reform L97 started. Lillemyr (1998) give an analysis of play in L97 and give some advice, but too general. We need therefore supplementary research, and also discover new areas worth research. Some of these studies will be done in collaboration with teachers taking further educational study for the 6-10 year-olds. The research group are all teachers in this further education and combine teaching and research. We will ourselves follow a few schools in depth after the plan mentioned earlier. We work together, but divide the project in three:

    Arne Trageton: Theme-organised learning

    Anny Hagesæter: Play

    Solveig Helming: Physical environment


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    (The National Curriculum for Primary/Secondary School in Norway 1997)