“In a previous life, I was a buyer for Boots,” starts Samuel Johnson, now the Head of Key Stage 3 Alternative Provision at the Bluecoat Academy Trust.
“I had a genuine passion for what would make children excited about products and having two young children of my own, I could really see the impact that toys had on them growing up.”
Johnson has been part of a team responsible for introducing a new concept to Bluecoats Academy, part of an academy of schools that works specifically with children with behavioural needs, in which play has been championed as the key to building confidence among some of the most vulnerable.
The concept has been built around a series of sessions in which kids play with games donated by the likes of Asmodee and Gibsons Games, before reviewing each title in a series of videos and write-ups.
“I approached several companies about the project but I was so pleased that Gibsons Games and Asmodee got back to me, and this feels so right as they are companies who focus on getting kids and adults to be more hands-on and creative with play, which is great,” Johnson continues.
Johnson’s Key Stage 3 unit is made up of children from year’s seven to nine - kids aged 11 to 14. Most of the cohort are students who struggle in mainstream education because of ADHD, abuse at home or they struggle to fit into a mainstream setting or have been excluded for their behaviour.
The role of Johnson and his team, is to “help them hit the reset button and then re-integrate them back into a mainstream school setting.”
“It was really easy, once I had a role in education working with children with behavioural needs, to see how they interacted with products,” he explains.
As part of the school’s LifeSkills sessions, his group evaluate toys and games. Students are put into groups and each group assesses the game or toy and gives feedback.
“What we notice with these sessions is that certain games will get students who had no academic interest suddenly interested in taking part in their English lessons,” says Johnson. “They have to write reviews, and as a result, they are articulating more when expressing a like or dislike, and for those who give a video interview - which they plan to include on the YouTube channel - they are more confident answering in class.”
Johnson has seen a sweeping change in the confidence and attitudes of a large number of his student since the initiative was implemented.
“We have students who hate being photographed, however, these same students are the first to come and see us when they have achieved a fantastic piece of work, so naturally they can’t wait to be the first ones to be photographed completing a game or even being filmed explaining their thoughts and views on these games.
“Another massive benefit is most of our students don’t have the best home lives, some of them have never experienced opening a product from new so they were really impressed with some of the clever packaging. One of our students was heard saying ‘This is amazing, they have even included a slot in the box to post the pieces back in…”
Asmodee’s Dobble has been a particular highlight in the session.
“There are so many things we don’t realise that can be picked up on by children from disadvantaged backgrounds,” continues Johnson. “For example, the game Dobble, they all agreed, would be top of their Christmas list because it was the one thing their parents could afford then it was value for money because there are five different games to play… great feedback.”
Such as it is, there is currently no Government backing for concepts like this one devised by Johnson and he and the school must rely on donation from companies in order to present children with new games.
“This really is something the government - or toy companies - should be backing,” he tells us. “Our kids have the option of playing on PlayStations and Xbox as a reward for good behaviour, however, since doing this they have re-discovered a love for board games, puzzles and toys.
“I genuinely believe that technology has massively impacted children’s views of toys, but if schools focused on using un-structured time to play with toys or board games, there are so many facets that we would bring back into the family home, genuine teamwork, puzzle solving and fun.”