From the three Rs to the three Ss

Earlyarts Director, Ruth Churchill Dower, responds to recent comments by Childcare Minister Elizabeth Truss in the Guardian and outlines why they could lead to a shift from the three Rs back to the three Ss.  

According to Childcare Minister Elizabeth Truss in the Guardian this morning, structured play 'teaches children to be polite and considerate through activities which the teacher is clearly leading' and any unruly behaviour where 'children are running around with no sense of purpose' - should be stamped out. Truss says, ‘Chaotic nurseries are breeding … a generation of children with no manners. We want children to learn to listen to a teacher, learn to respect an instruction, so that they are ready for school… In French nurseries, children pay attention to the teacher and develop good manners, which is not the case in too many nurseries in Britain.’

I would certainly agree that nurseries want to avoid constantly chaotic environments, but there is a danger that periods of free play can be misunderstood if an observer hasn’t developed a relationship with the children concerned and, worse, that we’re back to the principle of early education being solely about preparing children for school rather than helping them develop their dispositions for learning through play, which is, in fact, what they do best at this age.

I don’t know any toddler who doesn’t run about with great purpose, whether it’s to discover how to fly, to communicate with their bodies what they can’t put into words, or simply for the sheer joy of satisfying the physical drive within them. It all makes plenty of sense to me and, I suspect, to the myriad of purposeful connections happening within each ‘unruly’ child’s brain.

So, I am trying to see things from Truss’ perspective as she is obviously in a position of great authority on these matters. However, I’m struggling.

In the professional practice that we would respect and endorse, structured play is about leading children’s learning from a perspective of knowing where their interests are (and aren’t) and what experiences will best motivate them to want to learn more. Structured play is not the same as play in its strictest sense, because it is planned with specific objectives in mind that are not the choice of, or controlled by, the child. However, it still can and should be playful, relevant to the child’s experience, highly creative, imaginative and as open-ended as possible so that a child can take the ideas and build their own learning dispositions, whilst still achieving specific learning targets. Structured play still enables a professional to listen to a child’s ideas, respond to their feelings, and shape their learning experience to be the most developmental experience possible.

There will of course be elements of teaching and learning that require the children to sit and listen, and in some cases, giving instructions is absolutely essential to ensure a child is safe from harm and understands the boundaries of an activity. But I get a distinct sense from Truss’ comments that she would prefer this to be the predominant focus of contact time with very young children, no matter what teaching or learning style or environment suits them best.

We know from many years of excellent research into the way children learn and how their brains develop that all children learn in a slightly different ways and may need different stimulus. For many boys, for instance, their bodies develop an energetic exploratory drive earlier on and this physical development needs to be recognised and supported, rather than misinterpreted, in order for them to be as engaged in their learning as possible. This might mean their activities need to be very physical and often emotional, but not without purpose.

In fact, neuroscientists Shonkoff and Philips in their seminal research, From Neurons to Neighbourhoods (2000), show that the physical and emotional development of young children is a ‘critical aspect of the development of overall brain architecture that has enormous consequences over the course of a lifetime’.

Personally, I would leave the judgement of how to teach children to the professionals who are caring for them, observing their progress on a daily basis, liaising with their parents on their needs and best interests, and qualified to progress their learning in the best possible way.

I have seen a number of French nurseries, in none of which were the children being groomed for politeness and manners. The predominant underlying practice in each French nursery was providing care and love for each individual’s own progression through childhood, just as within most of our nurseries in Britain, who consistently model politeness within their daily care. Indeed, the OECD’s research into international early education provision, shows the most successful countries providing play-based curriculum models that recognise the needs of the individual over regimented, highly structured, universally measured approaches.

Which may give us some clues as to why the United Kingdom is ranking poorly in OECDs recent research in terms of the increasing divide between the better and the less educated. Interestingly this report, Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators 2012, shows that, despite the UK having one of the highest intakes of four year olds into nursery and primary education in 2010 (96.7% against an international average of 81.4%), coupled with a rapid growth in investment in education over the last ten years, the UK’s current annual investment in education as a percentage of our overall GDP is still one of the lowest at 0.5%.

To be honest, I’m feeling a little betrayed by a government who claimed, amid the uproar during the revised EYFS consultation, that early education was not about preparing children for school at any cost but about enabling them to become school ready, i.e. able to meet certain learning targets by the age of four. A veritable objective. Truss has now stated clearly the position we suspected she really occupied, seeming to forget the original party line, and disappointing several generations of early education professionals, practitioners and parents yet again.

I don’t know what qualifications a Childcare Minister needs these days, but I guess reading the latest research by scientific and educational experts is not one of them.

Author Ruth Churchill Dower is the Director of Earlyarts