The take up of free nursery places for 3 and 4 year olds is 95% and many parents will be alarmed that its benefits are being questioned by the government’s spending watchdog, The National Audit Office.
Last week the N.A.O. explored the outcomes of making 15 hours of nursery education available. The good news is that 59% of children had good development at age 5 in 2011 up 14% up on the 2005/6 figures. However the test results in English and Maths at age 7 have remained static.
Evaluating the value for money of nursery education is complex and using the English and maths results of 7 year olds is less straight forward than it might appear. Most of Europe, Scandinavia, the US and Canada all start formal schooling later. They take a radically different approach to the UK and focus on promoting a child’s development so that they are ready for formal learning later. The emphasis in kindergarten is nurturing the skills which children need to play and learn. Learning to read starts later and progress is more rapid with children becoming fluent with less of the painful struggle which many British children experience.
Early education in other countries is allowed to continue for longer with school delayed until age 6 or 7. In the UK it is assumed that an early start on reading and maths creates an advantage. Many summer- born children start school at 4, and may still have a way to go before they are ready for formal learning. What we should be researching is what our 3 to 7 year olds need from early education.
While Maths and English are vital skills we are one of the few countries who start formal schooling so early. By seeing early year’s education as an optional extra, rather than the very beginning of education, we have not been rigorous enough about what should be happening there. The Early Years Foundation Stage list desirable developmental outcomes for children but how they get there is less detailed. It is assumed that a child’s spontaneous play is always effective and should not be constrained. While children enjoy the freedom to explore and use their initiative, it is not always without problems and has limitations in how well it helps a child to learn to learn.
Early Year professionals are required to make detailed observations and record progress which cuts down on time free to be with children to enrich their play. Play gives children immense satisfaction, but they often meet hurdles which they cannot get over, or they become frustrated when they run out of ideas and abandon what they are doing and move on to something else. Certainly at age 3, a child will be easily distracted unless adult support is there to help them find a way forward. Playing at the limit of your knowledge and experience is both frustrating and less effective than adult-supported play which gently adds a little stretch.
Learning to Learn
Helping children to inch forward with adult support to scaffold their learning was first described by Lev Vygotsky. He identified the existing boundaries of a child’s knowledge and competence as the zone of proximal development. He saw this zone as a potential sticking point unless adults could help a child expand their understanding and move forward. He made a distinction between formal teaching which is not effective with young children and scaffolding which supports the child to make their own discoveries.
A young child working at the limits of their knowledge may only need a small pointer to make that leap of understanding. The adult only needs to direct the child’s attention at the right time and place to move them on, little by little, without taking over control. Play provides the zest and enthusiasm to learn while sensitively managed adult support gives the child the impetus to move forward.
Inspiring play with a purpose
A project originating in ClevelandOhiois an interesting example of how adults can help children get more from their play. The Tools of the Mind Curriculum is developed from Vygotsky’s model of learning. This approach cleverly combines the opportunity to play with gentle adult support which keeps children engaged and enthusiastic. Children learn to plan and organize their play and are helped to take things on a stage with adult support when they get stuck.
Children play together in a themed area with toys and equipment available. The room will be set up to represent a place such as a hospital, fire station or shop. Each child has to plan their role and what they will do in their play. How this differs from free play in that the period of play is set at a challenging 45 minutes. Before they start children have planned their role by drawing and talking about what they will do.
In reality 45 minutes is a stretch for a 3 year old, and deliberately so. In order to stay engaged, the child is likely to need to adapt and create new ideas as they are playing with their peers. They will need adults to help them think through any challenges and to work out how to adapt what they are doing. They are actively discouraged from wandering off task to do something else and the adult will help them refocus and carry on. Children are encouraged to talk about what they have done and how this went after the play session is complete.
Results are good improving both behaviour and learning as children become more able to plan and manage their time effectively. As children learn to focus their attention, and carry out what they have planned, their confidence grows and their frustration reduces. Episodes of disruptive or aggressive behaviour fell significantly, and children became happier and more confident. The effect had sticking power over the long term too, with educational progress being stronger in both Maths and English.
Early education is not just about giving children somewhere secure and pleasant to play. It is an opportunity to give children quality play experiences which boost their early development and teach the tools required for learning for life. If we help children become motivated, engaged and enthusiastic learners with good communications skills we will find our maths and literacy results improving rather than staying static as they are now.
For further information on the Tools of the Mind Curriculum visit www.thetoolsofthemind.org