English language through stories

Experiences Pre-primary education Erasmus+ Erasmus+ for general education
The Playing Ever After project brought schools and day-care centres teaching English together to develop the teaching and learning of languages through stories and play. At the same time, it managed to provide a genuine international experience even to preschool-age children. The follow-up project Ready, steady, play! has spread the idea more widely in many different countries.
In the picture, there is a drawing of a monster that sings in Finnish.

When pre-school teacher Jo Jackson visited the Slovenian partner school, she was greeted by hundreds of children wearing a T-shirt with a picture of a familiar monster on her arrival. The children came to talk to her as if she were Sisu, the monster that is the symbol of a day-care centre in Oulu. 

-    That’s when I felt that we had created something bigger than we ever though we would, Jackson says. 

-    All those children were genuinely engaged in the world that we had created. 

But let’s go back in time a little. In the beginning, there was the desire of the English Speaking Playschool of Oulu to engage in international cooperation, which is why Jackson, the playschool’s pedagogical director, was sent to Turku to a European networking event.  In the event, she found partner schools that were also interested in teaching English through stories and play. A Dutch, a Portuguese and a Slovenian school, all of which taught English to pre-primary or primary-age children, came along. 

Jo Jackson did not want to lose contact with them, so she created a group on Facebook for the developers of the project to keep in touch. She made sure that brainstorming continued in the group and everyone participated in planning the project. The enthusiasm paid off as their Erasmus+ application was accepted in spring 2017 and they could launch the project in autumn 2017. 

Learning by means of play and stories

Monsters were introduced in the project when a symbol was created for each school and day-care centre. The children designed and named the monster of their own school.  The teachers convened to international workshops and Skype sessions to write short stories enabling the children to learn about the vocabulary related to different themes and to life in the partner countries.  

A virtual booklet was compiled on each of the four stories and illustrated by members of the team. The stories inspired children to engage in games, play and other activities, such as experimenting with cooking. The activities as a whole promoted the use of English both in the classroom and in unstructured play and games. In the Netherlands, the children also prepared plays as the school specialises in theatre.

In Slovenia, the teachers themselves performed a play in conjunction with a pedagogical workshop, and the media also attended the event. 

-    I have never felt as professional as I did when I was performing to the Slovenian television dressed up as a white furry monster, Jo Jackson says and laughs. 

All the material, including the instructions and the teaching tips, was compiled on the project website and made freely available to other educational institutions.

A new attitude to studying a language 

The English Speaking Playschool of Oulu offers day-care and pre-primary education to children between the ages of 3 and 6. In the beginning, English comes along as individual words, but gradually it becomes the principal language spoken in the playschool. Storytelling and play have always been part of learning the language in the playschool but in the partner schools, teaching methods were considerably more traditional and the weekly teaching time short. They therefore learnt a lot of new things from the project.  

-    With the new teaching method, a big change took place especially in the other schools. The children’s attitude to learning English had become a lot more positive. The difference was like night and day.

According to Jo Jackson, the English Speaking Playschool of Oulu was not just a contributing party, it also learnt a lot from the project. Her Finnish colleagues became more confident in speaking English. With their Finnish education, they can also feel they are experts in learning through play when participating in international seminars.  It strengthened their professional self-esteem.

Internationalisation and sharing the daily life in each country played a central part in the project.  

-    It was important to share different, quite basic experiences, such as food, the landscape, and play and games. The children also learnt a great deal about their own culture. They could experience the wonderful thing that different countries exist in the world, and they have many differences but also something in common.  

Although today, we often think that the internet and travelling have already dismantled all the boundaries between countries, according to Jackson, it is still rare and valuable that children can share common experiences naturally.

“We must tell others about this, too”

After the first project had ended, the project partners felt that together, they had created something that was worth sharing with other people. In addition to a ready-to-use material package, this was a new kind of methodology for learning a language. The second project – Ready, Steady, Play! – was meant to focus on introducing the results in a workshop held in each country and produce more material for the website so that it would serve different age groups and ways of teaching as well as possible. 

Like in so many European projects, COVID-19 changed the plans. They were able to organise the first two workshops in the Netherlands and Portugal as planned, but then had to continue with meetings online. A positive side of the digital leap was that the final seminar of the project in spring 2021 had participants from all over the world, for example, from Brazil.  

Videos, songs and interactive exercises were produced for the children online because especially in Portugal and the Netherlands, children were learning remotely from home for long periods of time. 

The project results were not presented only in the workshops as the team members have also been asked to talk about their experiences in many local and international seminars. 

The website with its material has been in active use and it is not even possible to get an overall picture of the users. However, many of them have left positive feedback and compliments to the team, and there has been no criticism whatsoever. 

Paperwork is not exhausting

Jo Jackson does not share the concern of those who fear that the paperwork of an Erasmus+ project will be laborious.

-    The application is fairly clear and systematic. If the applicants know what they want to do and what results they want to achieve, writing will not be hard. If the idea is vague, the form may feel difficult to fill in. Of course, you need to reserve time for reporting. 

Jackson also summarises the keys to a good project: a good team in which tasks are divided between all the participants, planning together and a clear vision of the goals. That will help the project to go a long way. 

Playing Ever After project

  • Project type: Erasmus+ for General Education, Strategic Partnerships for Schools Only
  • Project period: 09/2017 - 08/2019
  • Coordinator: Oulun Englanninkielinen Leikkikoulu / English Speaking Playschool of Oulu
  • Partners: Vrtec Mavrica Trebnje (Slovenia), Colégio Do Ave (Portugal), Kindcentrum Caleidoscoop (The Netherlands)
  • Funding: 77 300  €

What is the Erasmus+ Project of the Month?

This article is part of our Erasmus+ Project of the Month series. Every month in 2022, we will highlight impressive activities and projects funded by the Erasmus+ programme. The Project of the Month celebrates the 35th anniversary of the Erasmus+ programme.

Text: Päivi Kärnä