Let’s talk about developmental readiness for school instead of ‘school readiness’

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School Readiness – An insight into the usefulness of the term school readiness in relation to the emotional and learning needs of children approaching school age, together with strategies for supporting their development and key messages to practitioners, teachers and parents.

I was delighted when I was asked to speak on the subject of ‘school readiness’ at the Nursery World North Conference in Liverpool last week as this is a subject that is dear to my heart and one which makes me climb up onto my soap box very quickly.  If you joined me in Liverpool you will know that I didn’t manage to fully cover all the things I had planned to talk about and because of that, I promised everyone there that I would publish my full talk as a blog – so here it is.   Everything which follows are my own thoughts, but I have linked them to long-standing as well as contemporary research and my own practice wisdom and that of many others in the field of education and care.  I’ve also linked my thinking into the Early Years Foundation Stage framework so you can easily see that the possibility to put theory into practice is already there for us.

In the rush for ‘school readiness’ I fear many of us who work with young children are in danger of focussing too much on a prescribed set of outcomes and forgetting what we know about children’s natural development and learning processes and how best to tune in to them to ensure every child does become a successful learner, reach their full potential and eventually become fulfilled, balanced and productive adults who are capable of achieving any goals they choose, or others define.  This blog looks at some of the areas which I see as crucial to this process, namely physical development and movement, emotional well-being and creativity.

I’m nailing my colours to the mast straight way when I tell you that I firmly believe if everyone working with children really takes account of what is known about their development and learning, we will be able to offer each child the absolute best chance to reach their full potential as they move through their early years and onwards to more formal education.  That isn’t to say that this isn’t happening already – I have worked with some inspiring practitioners in Early Years and beyond and witnessed some truly amazing practice, but I fear that this is not the case for all children and that many practitioners in Early Years and in schools are under pressure to move away from what they know to be good practice to chase the necessary goals and generate the necessary statistics which seem to have taken centre stage in some thinking about educating children and the push for ‘school readiness’ which now seems to be about reading and writing earlier and earlier rather than equipping children with the skills they can build on to do these and all the other things which come with formal education.

The fact remains however, that according to the recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development survey in 2016, https://www.oecd.org/unitedkingdom/building-skills-for-all-review-of-england.pdf, England ranks lowest in the developed world for literacy, and second lowest for numeracy.  In addition, England has three times more low-skilled people among 16-19 year olds than the best-performing countries like Finland and the Netherlands and one in ten of all English university graduates have low literacy and numeracy skills.

So, I would suggest and you may well agree, that the thinking must be wrong somewhere along the line and a re-think is needed.  I guess what follows is a plea for all of us to try and make all educational provision for children from their earliest days as developmentally appropriate and fair as possible and in addition not allow Early Years education to be overpowered by the National Curriculum and the desire for getting children ready for it.

A great video to watch on this subject is the Dispatches Too Much Too Young documentary on Teachers TV.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iUum1w8s5ew

Made in 1998, it’s as true today as it was nearly 20 years ago and definitely provides food for thought as does the excellent book Too Much Too Soon? edited by Richard House, containing some really interesting chapters by the likes of Lilian Katz, Sue Palmer and Tricia David.

So – the phrase school readiness and why I dislike it so much.  As I said in my article in Nursery World last September, the term, ‘school readiness’, implies, for me, that children are essentially ‘imperfect’ and need to be standardised to fit the system.  It reminds me most of ‘oven ready’ chickens which are processed according to a pre-determined method, probably on an assembly line, to be easy for us to cook and eat.  They all end up looking more or less the same, even though when pecking in the dirt before their demise, they each had characteristics which made them recognisable as individuals.  Those differences might have been too subtle for me to notice, but I’m pretty confident chickens could recognise them in each other.

In the same way, each child is also a unique individual with their own particular characteristics, needs and interests. I believe these amazing and individual small people are not suited to being constrained into an education system which often seems to have a ‘one size fits all’ approach, in that there are a prescribed set of outcomes which, if children do not achieve, will be deemed to be failing, falling behind or struggling, when in fact they only appear to be doing these things when measured against these narrow expectations.  Every child has an inbuilt and enormous capacity to learn and succeed in the world in which they find themselves and it is up to us to support them to do this in tune with their natural developmental processes.  To this end, it is vitally important to keep the child as an individual at the centre of our thinking in order to tailor the experiences we offer to their needs rather than trying to fit them into a system which may not suit them as an individual.

So what happens when you are fitted into something that isn’t the right size for you?  If it’s too small, it will inhibit movement and growth.  If it’s too big it will chafe and get in the way.  I believe this is the experience for many children in our current education system.  However, I also believe that if we get the fit right and ensure every setting, including schools, is ‘child ready’, then every child can be nurtured to reach their full potential.

Given that we currently have to deliver the National Curriculum from the age of 5 years, and the Early Years Foundation Stage before that, we have to work with these frameworks in the best way we can to ensure as perfect a fit as we can achieve for each child we work with.  I think there are two things to consider here.  The first is about how we work with children in the early years to ensure when they are four, going on five, they are in a position to take full advantage of the learning on offer in school; it is well known by anyone who works with young children that what goes on in the Early Years, whether in settings or in the home, underpins the learning that subsequently takes place in school.

The second aspect concerns how we think about and deliver KS1 in a developmentally appropriate way in order that children enter KS2 as confident and capable learners – the age, by the way, at which children in many other countries, including those with much higher adult literacy and numeracy rates than us, start formal education.

I am going to look at the Early Years part of the equation more closely, but suffice to say I believe that KS1 (and a lot of which follows) can be delivered in a developmentally appropriate way and feature play, creativity and exploration.  My own experience of teaching Year 2 children in the 1990s demonstrated that this was possible (and yes, we were working to the National Curriculum, which was then a vast document comprising about 17 large folders with lots of words!)

I would like to share an anecdote with you which illustrates the amazing capacity of children to learn new things when they are developmentally ready.  When I was teaching in college, I used to visit Early Years students on placement in a variety of settings.  On one occasion, I was visiting a student who was working with the teacher in a Year 2 class.  It was just before the Spring half term.  I sat with the student and the small group of children she was working with.  They had to do a task (which was rather dull I have to say), which involved reading a sentence from a worksheet, working out what was wrong with it (it was the same for every sentence – the capital letter at the beginning  and the full stop at the end were missing) and they then had to copy the sentence out and correct the mistakes.

The little boy I was sitting next to attacked the task with gusto and kept going until he had finished, even though he did flag a little towards the end (unsurprisingly!).  The finished product was almost perfect, so I gave him lots of positive feedback, as you would.  The teacher spoke to me later, having heard my enthusiastic praise, and told me that this particular child had only started at the school in the previous Autumn term, having returned to England from Germany where his parents had been in the Forces.  When he started, he hadn’t yet learned to formally read and write, but in Germany he had been to Kindergarten.  The teacher said that as far as she was concerned, his current ability to read and write had very little to do with her teaching, but much more to do with the fact that he had all the necessary skills in place to learn these things.  I know we can’t generalise from one child to all children, but it certainly made me think at the time.

Although I am sure many people feel under huge pressure about inspection and ‘getting it right’, Ofsted state very clearly on their Early Years good practice video 1, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IwbeNvTXJuw, that they do not dictate how the EYFS should be delivered, and tell us that this is up to individual settings who, they say, are best placed to observe the children they work with, assess their levels of development and decide how to move children forward along their developmental journey.  So, for me, we are able to make choices about how we work with children in order to give them the best possible start to their learning journey – and this is surely the key to getting it right.

To help with this thinking, instead of the phrase school readiness, I prefer the term “developmental readiness” mentioned by Sally Goddard Blythe in her interview with Kathy Brodie as part of the recent Early Years Summit on the internet.  This phrase gives us a whole different perspective on what we need to be thinking about as children approach the age of five when they formally enter the education system and this phrase alone automatically places the child at the centre of our thinking.  No amount of ‘school readiness’ – whatever that actually is – will work if it’s out of step with natural development.

So, what can practitioners, in all kinds of Early Years settings and in schools, actually do to promote developmental readiness?  Firstly, we always need to bear in mind that, as it states in the EYFS, “every child is unique” and that “children develop and learn in different ways”.  You know how it feels when someone treats you as an individual, takes account of your needs and preferences and tries to see things from your perspective – it feels good – you feel thought about (what psychologists would describe as held in mind), you feel respected and it makes you feel as if you count.  It’s no different for children and this positive regard leads to feelings of self-worth, confidence and courage.

Secondly, we need to be really knowledgeable about development – how babies and young children develop and learn from the very beginning of their lives and to be aware of the natural milestones along this journey which occur in the same order for every child, but not necessarily at the same age – milestones which are described from many years of observing and working with babies and young children and which are extremely useful as a yardstick rather than some of the less realistic Early Learning Goals which currently appear in the EYFS.  I find the “What to expect when” document – now aimed at parents – much more useful, but there are many other publications you can use which give detailed information on children’s development across the board.

We also need to understand how we can provide for and promote all round development, building on our observations of what children are able to do now, rather than what they can’t do yet (which I believe represents an unhelpful, deficit model), and support children to develop their knowledge, skills and understanding – Vygotsky’s ‘teaching to the child’s tomorrow’.  We also need to understand what the implications are for children if development is inhibited or delayed.

Thirdly, I believe we need to be courageous advocates for children and to protect them from ill-informed and inappropriate ways of working which are not in tune with natural development and learning and which can have extremely harmful effects on the child and the adult they will become in terms of their emotional well-being and their confidence in themselves as capable learners.  There has been much in the press recently about increasing incidents of mental ill-health, tragically some of it in young children.  A report for the Institute for Public Policy Research called Learning to Trust And Trusting to Learn: How schools can affect children’s mental health,  http://www.ippr.org/files/uploadedFiles/projects/learning_to_trust.PDF?noredirect=1, identified as long ago as 2001 that over 1000 primary aged children were being treated for psychoses, severe depression and eating disorders.  We all need to be aware that many things can affect growing minds in a negative way, one of which could surely be our education system.  We must have the courage to speak up and not to defer to others who possess authority but are not in possession of the depth of knowledge and understanding about how children learn and develop that those of us who work with young children do have.

I would like to give you food for thought about some important aspects of development that may be being overlooked in the desire to achieve ‘school readiness’ rather than developmental readiness, together with the pitfalls that can occur when this happens.  I believe if these areas are neglected, it will be at the expense of that readiness as well as the inclination and motivation to learn and crucially the joy of learning.

Firstly, I’m going to look at brain development.  In recent years, there has been an astonishing amount of research into how our brains develop and function and how our actions as pedagogues impact on children’s developing brains.  Brain development is of course an integral part of overall development, with the brain being the ‘control centre’ for the rest of the body.  You will be aware that in babies and young children, the brain is growing at a tremendous rate as the child interacts with their environment – that is the people they find themselves with, the places they find themselves in (and whatever is in that place) and the experiences they have.  These all provide stimulation through the senses which lead to brain function and growth, allowing the development of neural pathways in the cortex of the brain which expands rapidly from 0-3 years, but which continues to grow through childhood and beyond.

When we are working with young children, they are relying on us to provide them with all the appropriate experiences and interactions they need to ensure optimum brain development – wow – what a massive responsibility we have!  That’s why we need to fully understand the developmental processes of growing and developing to ensure we get it as right as we are able to.  So, everything which follows is an integral part of a child’s brain development and I believe if we always keep the idea in our minds that brain development is what everything links into, it helps us to always see all the developmental areas as intimately linked and therefore all vitally important.

One of these crucial areas is physical development and movement which is so vital to healthy brain development.  The mind and the body are intimately linked – there is nothing new here – Piaget discussed this.  He observed that a child’s physical movement is the basis for cognitive, social and emotional development. The EYFS identifies physical development as one of the prime areas of learning and states that it: involves providing opportunities for young children to be active and interactive; and to develop their co-ordination, control, and movement.

The important word here for me is movement – something young children are programmed to do from their very first moments as part of their developmental processes, as this wonderful quotation from Sally Goddard Blythe illustrates:

“From the very beginning of life there is movement…..early movements become the dance of development”.

Sally Goddard Blythe is a must read author if you want to find out more and enhance your practice in this area:  The Well Balanced Child: Movement and early learning     Sally Goddard Blythe 2005, The Hawthorn Press.

This dance of development is something we need to understand and nurture as well as understanding the major implications for a growing child if adequate opportunities for the movement they need to support this development are not part of their daily experience.

The various stages in physical development reflect development within the brain.  Normal development progresses from head to toe (cephalo-caudal) and centre outwards (proximo-distal) meaning that gross motor skills are developed before fine motor skills.  Each stage of development is a necessary foundation for the next stage, so it is not possible to fast-track physical development by trying to get children to do things before they are developmentally ready – for example writing.  If children are introduced to formal writing too early in their development (before their fine motor skills are fully developed), they often adopt a grip with their thumb curled over the forefinger, which makes writing difficult and often uncomfortable as this grip does not give the flexibility in the wrist that a pincer grip allows.  If your writing doesn’t flow, it is very difficult to keep your thoughts flowing, so creative writing can be severely limited by the difficulty and discomfort experienced when writing.

Learning and development begin through movement, firstly through innate primitive and postural reflexes which in turn kick start other movements in a fixed developmental sequence.  One of the first primitive reflexes is the rooting reflex – as a baby’s cheek is touched it moves its head towards the breast or bottle and as this happens connections are formed within the brain.  After a few days, sight of the breast or bottle will cause rooting so learning and brain development has taken place as a result of the rooting reflex.

Children who have had insufficient movement, for whatever reason, may not have lost behaviour associated with primitive reflexes; for example the Moro or startle reflex which is linked to the fight/flight response and is the starting point of selective attention and paying attention.  If this reflex persists it can be manifested as impulsive and inappropriate behaviour – children who react first and think afterwards when they encounter unexpected stimuli – which basically means anything which is unusual to them.  You will all have worked with children like this.

There is a postural reflex called symmetrical tonic neck reflex (STNR) which is seen just before a baby starts to crawl.  Each time the baby puts its head down when on its front, the arms bend and the legs try to straighten – if this reflex is retained, children lack muscle tone related to gravity and they struggle to maintain an upright posture and can experience real discomfort when sitting – adults often complain they won’t sit still.  Ringing any bells?

The bad news is that these behaviours are often misinterpreted or misunderstood by adults. The good news is that they can be addressed through planned movement activities.

Through the innate reflexes, each new movement which happens as part of the developmental sequence, creates new neural pathways which are strengthened by repetition of the movement which leads to the process of myelination making the neural pathways permanent.  So, you can see that physical movement is essential to brain development and learning.

Movement is also vital for what is called sensory motor integration of the developing brain –  when connections are made between the brain hemispheres – this is what Piaget called the sensory motor period of development.  Amazing how contemporary research is completely in line with Piaget’s work all those years ago.

There are several important aspects of this sensory integration which need to develop through movement, one of which is the vestibular system which processes information about movement, gravity and balance, primarily through the inner ear.  Balance (which Sally Goddard Blythe calls the forgotten sense) not only keeps us upright, but also gives us our sense of direction which the higher cognitive skills of reading and writing require.  It takes up to about 7 years of age to achieve full control over balance.  Remember this is the school starting age in other countries with higher literacy and numeracy rates than ours.  Without directional awareness, a child is unable to know where to start reading or writing, so reading words like was and saw can cause major problems.

Another aspect of the vestibular system is proprioception which is about knowing where the body is in space – the brain receives information about this from the muscles, ligaments and joints.  Proprioception is part of the development of the sense of balance.  It is believed that if the physical sense of balance is not developed there is likely to be a problem with mental equilibrium too.  Research by Paul Schilder demonstrated that many symptoms of neurosis and psychosis could be traced back to a fault in the function of the balance mechanism of the brain.

Together with balance and proprioception, touch and also hearing and vision support sensory motor integration.  The information the brain receives through the senses gives the child’s brain information about the outside world.  Remember the rooting reflex I mentioned earlier – that was stimulated by the sense of touch.

In order to develop their vestibular system and thus their sense of balance, children need to experience rocking, spinning, rough and tumble play, rolling, etc.  When children have had insufficient opportunity to explore these movements, you will see them doing things which drive adults mad, like constantly rocking on their chairs or fidgeting.  These are often interpreted as inappropriate or disrespectful behaviour, but are probably in fact, children trying to move in the way they need to in order to make sense of what is going on around them.

So what does this tell us about being ready for school?  It tells us that if children have not yet achieved sensory integration or developed fine motor skills, they will not be developmentally ready for some of the learning expected in school.  When children are at school, even if they are developmentally ready, it is essential that movement remains an integral part of their experience.  Movement enhances visual processing, auditory processing, bi-lateral co-ordination, hand eye co-ordination and motor planning (the ability to think through and then carry out a task which is linked to problem solving and creativity – more of creativity shortly).  Also, movement pumps blood to the brain to keep it well supplied with oxygen and glucose – things the growing brain needs lots of – too little impairs learning and attention.  In addition, sensory motor experiences feed directly into the brain’s pleasure centres, so movement feels good – and we all want to feel good, especially about learning!  Of course, movement also keeps young bodies exercised and healthy which in these days of ever increasing rates of childhood and adult obesity, can only be a good thing.

So, we need to make sure that movement is very much part of early years and school provision and that children are not sedentary for long periods of time when they are in our care.

“Children under 5 should not be inactive for long periods except when they’re asleep.”

NHS Physical activity guidelines for Early Years (under 5s) – for children who are capable of walking.    http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/fitness/Pages/physical-activity-guidelines-for-children.aspx

In the modern world children are already more sedentary than in the past – they are often wheeled about in buggies and transported in cars instead of using their own two feet, so having the possibility to move when they are with us is vital.  Canadian research in 2011 published in the International Journal of Nutrition and Physical Activity found that sedentary behaviour for more than 2 hours a day in children and young people from 5 to 17 years, was associated with unfavourable body composition, decreased fitness, lowered scores for self-esteem and pro-social behaviour and decreased academic achievement.  https://ijbnpa.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1479-5868-8-98

I would urge you to look at the Brain Gains video which is based on the work of Dr John Ratey – in particular his book called Spark! How exercise will improve the performance of your brain.  You will find several videos featuring him on YouTube.  The Brain Gains video is about older children, but the message relates to all. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Rivxc5-2C0

In essence, we need to think about less sitting and more movement, activity not passivity.  The obvious way to ensure plenty of movement is through play based learning where children can freely move about and use the range of movement in their bodies.  Not all activities need to take place seated around a table – think about how many activities you automatically set out at tables with chairs around.  Of course, children won’t be on the move continuously, but equally they won’t be constrained by environments or resources that place huge restrictions on movement.

So, here are a few simple ideas for creating opportunities for movement.  It’s not rocket science – we just need to reflect on the way we do things and not necessarily do them because we’ve always done them that way.

Lego and similar products have their place, but larger wooden blocks and other construction materials require much more physical movement to manipulate and move.  The bonus is that they are open ended, so can represent anything in play.

Sitting at a table to write is the conventional thing to do, but being in the seated posture for long periods is not conducive to optimum brain development.  How much more comfortable to find a position and a location that suits you where you can let your thoughts run freely, for example lying on the grass outdoors.

, We give children the chance to be creative using paint and other media, but then sometimes constrain their bodies and thus their minds by offering tables and chairs in a ‘painting area’.  Creativity, particularly for young children, often involves the whole body, so let’s offer them choices about where and how they explore their creativity, for example painting outdoors on paper mounted on a wall or laid out on the ground.

I can’t see much merit in providing copies of real utensils and other everyday objects such as toy plastic saucepans – surely it is better for children to have the real thing.  It’s often just a case of finding smaller items to fit small hands – but real objects like metal saucepans are more weighty than plastic ones and require more skilful manipulation.

Of course, outdoors is where free play and gross motor activity are most likely to occur, so the more access children have to outdoor space the better.  However, we want to encourage a wide range of movement, not just pedalling – so we have to think carefully about how this space is arranged, resourced and supervised, including the important aspect of careful risk assessment.  We also have to be good role models, enthusiastically joining the children in outdoor activities whatever the weather – children generally only avoid what we avoid! 

Have a think about your setting.  Are children sedentary for longer than they need to be?  Do your schedules and routines need thinking about?  What could you change to support more movement?

I’m moving on now to the subject of emotional well-being.  We all know from our own experience that when our emotional well-being is high, we can take on whatever life throws our way, but when our well-being is low, for whatever reason, our rational thinking often fails us and we can’t take information on board, make decisions or indeed even be bothered to focus on anything other than the fact we don’t feel so good.  Of course, it’s no different for children.  It is essential that we take care to ensure their emotional well-being is nurtured and promoted in order that they can take advantage of all the opportunities we offer them when they are with us.

It’s not just about that though is it?  Emotional well-being is part of the whole picture of children’s emotional lives and the emotional lives of the adults they will become.  It’s about being confident in your abilities, self-assured, resilient, assertive and crucially happy in your own skin – things that if children have, (or adults for that matter) they will be in the right frame of mind and ready to learn anything.  Of course, you know that all these things can be dramatically affected by the people around us and how they think about us and respond to us.  The good understanding of children’s developmental processes I mentioned earlier, together with developmentally appropriate and sensitive practice will of course support children’s emotional well-being, but there are aspects I feel we should give particular importance to.

One of these is transition – the psychological aspect of change – which adults and children alike can find disconcerting and disorientating.  Children undergo major transitions when they start at a setting or move to a new one, but we are also asking children to make smaller transitions daily, sometimes at lightning speed which can mean that the time to understand and deal with the change is insufficient for young minds.

Even when a change is desirable, transition can be a very unsettling time because it is not just about new beginnings which can feel very exciting, but also about endings which can feel extremely worrying.  During times of transition feelings of loss, fear and anxiety can accompany the positive feelings of excitement and anticipation.  Unless transition is understood and sensitively managed, changing to a new nursery, school or other situation can be a very difficult experience for many children and particularly for children from disadvantaged families. http://www.rch.org.au/uploadedFiles/Main/Content/ccch/PB11_Transition_to_school.pdf  Research from Bath University shows that children’s levels of the stress hormone cortisol increase significantly during the transition to school: http://www.bath.ac.uk/schooltransition/home and these increased levels can affect attention and brain function, particularly for vulnerable children: http://www.inspiredbybabies.org.uk/Page4Scientificresearch%20esources/Watch%20Cortisol%20and%20the%20early%20years%202006.pdf

Key protective factors, which ensure children’s well-being in the learning environment, have been identified which are:

security, which includes feeling physically and emotionally safe

significance which is perceived by feeling special to someone and

connection which is achieved through being and feeling accepted.

The practice of each child having a key worker will clearly be very important here and these protective factors of course link back to being understood and responded to as an individual which I mentioned at the beginning.  For me there is a further part of this story and one which I feel is often overlooked and that is use of language (like school readiness for example) – something that children and their parents hear us using all the time and take messages from, including the hidden messages we may not always realise we are sending.

In the current climate of measuring outcomes at every turn, we can easily fall into the trap of using language which paints a negative picture of the child.  In conversations about children, I often hear the word strengths – no problem there except that it is usually paired with the word weaknesses, as if aspects of a young child’s development are automatically one or the other.  It’s as though the language of the school test has been transferred to children’s development.

These words don’t work for me.  I don’t mind acknowledging my own weaknesses such as a weakness for a nice cold glass of Sauvignon Blanc or a large slice of cake (possibly together), but children don’t need these labels attached to their developmental progress – they’re all on the same developmental path and some will reach the milestones along the way sooner or later than others, but it’s not a weakness if you haven’t reached a particular milestone yet.  Of course, it’s good for us to know where children are along their individual journey, but we can use much better words to indicate their progress, talking about which milestones of development have been reached and when, so we can build up a good picture of where we, as adults, need to focus our attention to ensure we offer children the possibilities to continue their developmental progress.

When we use this negative language it alters our viewpoint too and can change our perspective on children’s learning and development making it seem as if we have to somehow work with these imperfect little people so they ‘do better’, with us having to support them because they’re failing to achieve the prescribed outcomes – but the fact is you can’t ‘do better’ developmentally – you just develop according to your genetic make-up, sooner or later according to your environment.

Now this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t take care to ensure that every child, whatever their individual circumstances has fair and equal access to the kind of experiences that promote optimum development, those enabling environments mentioned in the EYFS – this is of course essential as everyone deserves the chance to reach their full potential – however, we must never forget that every child is a natural learner and is more than capable of taking full advantage of what comes their way if they are in the right frame of mind emotionally.  We can’t influence what affects emotional well-being when children aren’t in our care, but when they are, we must strive to create the right emotional climate for them to flourish.

If a child (and of course their parents) learns from us that they have a weakness, (even though they don’t), this is very likely to give them a negative view of themselves and is more likely to promote feelings of failure which don’t do anything for emotional well-being or for a child’s confidence and enthusiasm to learn.  It’s the start of building a negative view of one’s inner learner and of oneself – perhaps a frame of mind that may lead to emotional difficulties later in life.

Part of what I do is teaching early years students and I am constantly astounded by the number of articulate and knowledgeable people who have extremely low opinions of themselves as learners – whose emotional well-being plummets when they find themselves in a formal learning situation.  I also know from reading the research of others and of doing my own small scale research project, that this is not an uncommon thing and very often relates back to negative experiences of being in the education system, of people feeling like they weren’t capable of learning things, weren’t good at things, being openly told this or deducing it because of failing to ‘come up to the mark’ in some way or other – the whole process of learning – the learning how to learn – having been hijacked by focussing on the product or outcome at the expense of amongst other things, emotional well-being.

Crucially children need an emotionally supportive environment where tuned in adults understand and nurture their emotional development.  As part of this, children need the possibility to try things for themselves, not only to experience success and the pleasure that brings, but also to experience a degree of failure, not failure from an externally imposed test of some kind, but failure at a project of their own choice – that whole thing about taking risks and learning from mistakes which develops understanding, resilience, self awareness, self confidence and the joy of learning.  All qualities needed to be developmentally ready for school and more formal learning.

Taking these risks is an aspect of emotional development which isn’t always encouraged in our increasingly risk averse society.  The natural desire to take risks is part of the developmental process and having ample opportunity to explore risky situations in the early years will nurture the ‘have a go’ attitude that will be a vital ingredient for more formal learning later.  In addition, without taking a risk we can’t learn how to manage risk and we can’t develop the emotional strength to deal with new risks and possible failure.  However, for many adults who work with young children risk can often just feel too risky, with the thought of risky play conjuring up negative aspects first and leaving us in danger of forgetting the many benefits risk taking offers.

So, back to use of language, to enrich our practice we need to distinguish between hazardous play (something we would want to avoid) and risky play (something we would wish to make provision for and to support).  Cheryl Greenfield has written extensively about risk. http://www.safekids.nz/Portals/0/Documents/Safekids%20News/2008%20&%20Older/2003SafekidsNewsJUNE.pdf

She defines a hazard as something a child does not see and describes a risk as something a child does see, where the outcome is uncertain and where the child has to choose whether or not to take the risk.  In this way we can think of the risk as presenting a challenge to the child, something which we would be hoping to do in order to foster motivation, creativity and self confidence.

There is an enormous amount of knowledge, understanding and skills which children (or adults for that matter) use or develop when taking risks.  In order to make choices about what to do in a particular situation, a lot of brain work has to happen – children use their imaginations to hypothesise, they make judgements and take decisions, they find out ‘what happens if’ I do this or that, they are often fascinated by things that don’t happen the way they expected and develop new strategies to have another go, often repeating something many times to achieve mastery and thus acquire a new skill (think schemas and brain development here).

Children build up their picture of the world and the people in it, they discover important boundaries, test limits, understand and develop their own many capabilities, overcome their fears and build resilience.  When we give children the opportunity to take the responsibility to make choices and take decisions for themselves in potentially risky situations, we enable them to develop their independence and their confidence, to take responsibility for their decisions and to keep themselves safe.  In other words, children learn about risk taking through experiencing risk and this has the added effect of naturally endowing them with an infinite amount of knowledge, skills and understanding about their individual worlds.

There are important consequences for children, and the adults they will become, if they are not given sufficient opportunities to explore risky situations, not least of which is being denied all the benefits just described.

Risky play is also thought to be a mechanism for children to come to terms with the inborn fears which kept them safe when they were very small. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/230796912_Children%27s_Risky_Play_from_an_Evolutionary_Perspective_The_Anti-Phobic_Effects_of_Thrilling_Experiences   A lack of exposure to risky play could mean that these fears may continue long after they are needed for protection, causing anxiety.  This anxiety can, in turn, lead to over-protective behaviour from adults which is likely to further exacerbate anxiety.  So, by trying to protect children too closely, we may well be hampering their ability to experience risk, overcome fear and gain confidence in themselves as capable individuals.

Importantly, limited exposure to taking risks can also adversely affect how children are able to manage risk as they grow and become adults.  If children do not learn how to handle risk through their everyday play, interactions and experiences, this can lead to inappropriate risk taking, particularly in adolescence, through seeking thrills in a fearless or a destructive way.  The confidence, self-awareness and common sense fostered by confronting and understanding risk will be strong protective factors as children grow and are exposed to the risky situations everyone faces from time to time where the ability to make appropriate choices is vital for keeping themselves safe.

So, what can we do in practice to make sure children have the opportunity to take risks?  I would say, question your own personal attitudes to risk – are these affecting your practice in a negative way?  Stop and ask yourself if things you are concerned about are risks or hazards.  Hazards need eliminating, but risks need assessing to ensure situations are well managed and crucially, developmentally appropriate – I don’t want you to start letting children swing from the chandeliers or leap off the climbing frame, but developmentally appropriate risk isn’t like this.   A baby takes a risk when they pull themselves up on furniture in the process of learning to walk; a toddler takes a risk when they explore a new place; older children often enjoy physical risks like jumping, running and rolling.  Ask yourself if you are intervening in risky play too soon and preventing children from confronting and dealing with risk.

The important thing is that risk is a natural part of development and needs to be provided for.  If you are already weak at the knees thinking about it, always start in your comfort zone and you will be amazed at how quickly you learn to trust children’s judgement as you see them confronting, making choices and successfully managing developmentally appropriate risk, whilst at the same time feeding their emotional well-being.

If you want to know more about risk and get some ideas about risky play, have a look at my book, We’re OK with Risky Play, which I have written with my colleague, Gaynor Rice. https://www.yellow-door.net/products/were-ok-with-risky-play/

The idea of choice, which I have mentioned several times, is another vital part of emotional development, nurturing self-regulation as opposed to creating compliancy which leads to a culture of dependency.  We want children to become independent thinkers and learners who will be able to approach any subject or situation with confidence.

You may wish to reflect on the following questions, based on the things I have written about.  What are the key issues for you around nurturing emotional well-being in your setting?  Are there any areas you would like to think about and perhaps make changes to, particularly around use of language, risk taking and offering choices?

The final area I would like to talk about is creativity.  There will be nothing that I talk about now that you are not aware of, but I wanted to emphasise this crucially important part of children’s learning.  Piaget saw children as ‘little scientists’ continually exploring their world and being creative in their thinking and actions – the ‘I wonder what will happen if’…. approach which children naturally adopt.

All children, irrespective of their individual needs, preferences and abilities are capable of creative thinking and creative action.  The beginnings of literacy and numeracy are in the natural actions of creativity such as mark making and manipulating objects.  Creativity in childhood leads to creativity in adulthood – something which helps us to do all sorts of things from managing on a small budget (creative accounting), to writing a new computer programme (creative thinking) or even getting ourselves out of a tight corner (being creative with the truth!).

In the modern world, which moves at a fast pace, people need to be creative in their thinking to deal with new and changing situations, so we need to nurture this natural creativity in children, not stifle it with closed activities and knowing the ‘right answer’.  It is astonishing to me that so many of the amazing students I work with often ask – Is that the right answer?  My response is always, ‘there is no right answer – some answers may be better than others but all answers are important’ and we all know that those ‘curved ball’ answers (which children often give) can lead them and us to new ways of thinking.

There is a great TED talk video about creativity by Ken Robinson called ‘Do schools kill creativity?’  Well worth a look if this subject is grabbing your attention: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iG9CE55wbtY

In the EYFS, creating and thinking critically are included in the characteristics of effective learning.  These characteristics apply across all areas of learning and development, so creative development is about more than being creative through activities such as painting or block play, it is about thinking, having your own ideas and trying them out, making connections, problem solving and so on.  However, creativity isn’t just about thinking, it is intimately linked with a child’s personality and their emotional life.  In fact, creativity and creative thinking link to all areas of a child’s development and particularly support and extend children’s concentration, persistence and determination to succeed.  So, if we foster creativity, which is innate, we will also foster the much sought after (and needed) literacy and numeracy and indeed all aspects of learning.

It is also important to remember that creativity is not really about a finished product – although there may well be one.  Rather it is about the creative process  – thinking, imagining, exploring, speculating, predicting, experimenting and much more.  This process not only grows the brain but is the source of much learning about the environment and about oneself.  So, nature has endowed children with creativity which they will use spontaneously.  We need to be aware as adults that we can nurture or stifle this amazing gift of creativity depending on our understanding and approach.

Providing (or indeed creating!) an enabling environment, both indoors and outdoors, where this creative process can happen, is vitally important.  Children need places where they can think and be creative without too much disturbance and distraction – I’m not sure this is always the environment we provide – nurseries, pre-schools, the home context and classrooms can be noisy, busy places so perhaps we should re-think our layouts and create smaller, more comfortable spaces for creativity to flourish.  There is an inspirational approach to environments called Communication Friendly Spaces, the brainchild of Elizabeth Jarman which is well worth investigating to help you think about the environment in your setting: http://www.elizabethjarmantraining.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2

Children also need surroundings and resources which provoke ideas – resources which are open-ended, varied and interesting to engage children’s interest and imagination.  Proprietary toys and resources can be very limiting and mono-purpose and can therefore have limited creativity potential.

I love the idea of Loose Parts, proposed by architect Simon Nicholson in the 1970’s, who believed that it is the loose parts in our environment that empower our creativity.  Loose parts are materials that can be moved, carried, combined, redesigned, lined up, and taken apart, put back together, etc. etc. ad infinitum.  They are materials with no specific set of instructions and can be used alone or combined with other things.  Children can be as creative with them as they want to be and create whatever they want to, in whatever way they choose.  Loose parts are natural, every day and recycled materials, so don’t cost a fortune.  Things like stones, sand and gravel; logs and twigs; rope and string; tyres; cardboard tubes and boxes; fabric; shells, conkers and corks; crates, etc. – in fact any old bits and pieces which are safe to use – and most things are!http://www.letthechildrenplay.net/2010/01/how-children-use-outdoor-play-spaces.html

Together with the right environment and resources, children also need time to follow their interests and to experiment over and over (think schema theory and brain development again), to experience success and failure and to discover their capabilities.  Again, I’m not sure we always offer this time – sometimes our schedules and routines cut across children’s creativity which must surely create frustration but also give the message that what they are doing is not important.

I would like to offer you some ideas for fostering creativity – I really hope these are things you are already doing and that I’m preaching to the converted.  If this is the case, I hope there may still be a few new ideas to feed your creativity.

Places and resources to construct (and destruct) structures, dens and different worlds, both indoors and outdoors, e.g. under tables, in a quiet corner, in the bushes.

Media of all kinds: paint, dough, clay, chalk, corn flour paste, mud, anything which can be explored, manipulated and enjoyed.

Musical experiments and experiences: real and ‘home-made’ musical instruments;  hearing, making and moving to music.

Exploring roles and identities: places and resources to dress up and experiment with being someone different and to explore different emotions.

Creativity with words:  Playful interactions with adults and peers through rhymes, stories and poetry or just cosy conversations.

Experiencing new and exciting places, activities and resources:  visiting the woods or the market, making and trying new foods, seeing and investigating unusual and interesting artefacts – everything from a beautiful picture to an old record player.

And of course being creative with movement……. for example dancing, ball games or just good old fashioned spinning, rolling and jumping (we’re back to physical development again!).

Children of course need adults around them who don’t shy away from creativity, who are prepared to have a go themselves and don’t express negative opinions of their own creative ability – something we often do, probably as a result of our own experiences as children.  If we have a positive, ‘up for a challenge’ attitude, children will, of course, pick up on this.

As before, you may wish to consider how creativity is supported in your setting and if changes could be made to enhance children’s experiences and possibilities.

So, to bring this all together – my wish is that all children and young people are nurtured and supported to be confident in themselves, to be up for a challenge and to be able to fully develop their individual abilities so they are thus, developmentally ready for formal education.  I believe many others wish this too, both within and outside the education system.  When the policies that shape our education system take account of children’s natural developmental processes, the system itself will become ‘child ready’ and be capable of ensuring everyone, whatever their individual differences, reaches their full potential.

If you need convincing further, have a look at the video Alike  – it’s short but very powerful and for me, says it all.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kQjtK32mGJQ

In addition, it seems that in Australia too, there are similar pressures on Early Years provision.  The following paper highlights the same concerns that I have outlined and suggests a strategy for the future.  Well worth a read. http://www.earlychildhoodaustralia.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/2016-ECA-WA-Play-Strategy-Discussion-Paper….pdf

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Why I find the term ‘school readiness’ so distressing.

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This phrase has very quickly established itself in every day dialogue in education and in the media and for me it just slips too glibly off the tongue, considering the huge hidden agenda (deliberate or not) behind it.  It reminds me most of ‘oven ready’ chickens which are processed to be easy for us to cook and eat, rather than having to draw, pluck and dress a bird as we would have had to do many years ago.  The point here is that those chickens are prepared according to a pre-determined method, probably on an assembly line and they all end up looking more or less the same, even though when pecking in the dirt before their demise, they each had characteristics which made them recognisable as individuals.  Those differences might have been too subtle for me to notice, but I’m pretty confident chickens could recognise them in each other.

What has this got to do with school readiness?  Well, I think it has everything to do with it and I think it is the education system, not individual schools or teachers (many of whom do an amazing job against all the odds) which is causing the problem.  Children are all born as perfect little beings with their own unique individual differences.  They may have different hair, eye or skin colour; they may be chubby or skinny; some may have a disability, but essentially they are all unique little individuals who are already able to intuitively discover, learn about and adapt to the world they find themselves in.  Rousseau and Piaget talked about this many years ago and now contemporary research into brain development is showing this to be absolutely the case.  So why then, as soon as children reach the age of five (not many years of lifetime, even though children have learned an extraordinary amount in this short time) does it become necessary to forget about their amazing individual talents and fascinations and to begin to ‘pre-pack’ them for the school system they are about to join?

The term, ‘school readiness’, implies, for me, that children are essentially ‘imperfect’ and need to be standardised to fit the system.  It seems to me that the child is not at the centre of this thinking – probably nowhere in it at all.  It is as if we are preparing children to fit in to a system which isn’t actually designed to nurture and support them as individuals to reach their own chosen goals, but rather to get children ready to become passive receivers of facts, be good at sitting still, to know how to queue up quietly and above all, pass the required assessments in order to ensure that the school is meeting its targets – the school, not the children!

So what happens when you are fitted into something that isn’t the right size for you?  If it’s too small, it will inhibit movement and growth.  If it’s too big it will chafe and get in the way.  For me, that’s what is happening to children who are in a system which isn’t developmentally attuned or developmentally appropriate.  It seems that all the well-founded theory about children’s development has been conveniently forgotten and the mantra of ‘raising standards’ has become the order of the day.  Of course, in order to raise standards, we are told that children need to be ‘school ready’.  I would certainly agree that in order for all children to reach their full potential, they need a wide range of well thought through and well delivered, developmentally appropriate, play-based experiences.  If every child had access to this, either in the home or in a pre-school setting, then children would certainly be very likely to flourish when they started more formal education.  They would indeed to be ready to take on the challenges that formal schooling has to offer.

The question for me is – are schools ‘child ready’?  I fear they are not.  The National Curriculum seems to be bearing down onto Early Years, creating the pressure for reading, writing and mathematics to be formally taught at an increasingly younger age.  This will not have the effect of raising standards – just the opposite in fact.  Children need to develop a conceptual understanding of the world before we start to introduce formal systems.  These formal systems will of course be absolutely essential for future success, but only if children learn them in a way that makes sense, enabling them to be used naturally for future learning.  You only have to look at the literacy and numeracy rates in the UK (about 1 in 5 adults functionally illiterate and/or innumerate) to realise that our current system has flaws.  There are many things which can be done to change this but focussing on ‘school readiness’ in our current system isn’t going to help.  We shouldn’t try to ‘pre-pack’ individuals to fit into a flawed system – we should be looking closely at the system itself and asking if it is fit for purpose in the modern world.  We need children to grow into flexible, free-thinking and innovative individuals in order to succeed in a fast changing world – they are already equipped with the possibility to do this – our education system should nurture these abilities, not close them down with narrow, production line thinking.  

I believe, the more we constrain young children through an inappropriate system the more unnecessary pressure we put on them (whether intentional or not), leading to a generation of young people who are worried about their ability to succeed and who feel they are failing to come up to the mark.  Feeling like this is not good and can only be damaging to the individual’s emotional health, both in the short and the long term. Surely we want children and young people to be confident in themselves, up for a challenge and able to fully develop their individual abilities, together with the emotional well-being this would bring.  I know this is what I wish for children and young people and I believe so do many others, both within and outside the education system.  When the policies that shape our education system take account of children’s natural developmental processes, the system itself will become ‘child ready’ and be capable of ensuring everyone, whatever their individual differences, reaches their full potential.

Shout it Out

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Shout it out

Last weekend I went to a truly amazing gathering at The Studio in Birmingham called Networking, Sharing, Making Connections which had the strap line, “together we can make a difference”.  The event was organised by Penny Webb to mark her retirement from childminding as well as to facilitate the day’s title.  Various speakers contributed to the day to illustrate and illuminate Penny’s personal and professional journey to date; they were Richard House, Sue Palmer, Beth Thomas, Kathryn Solly, Liz Bayram, Sally McGeown, Jennifer McQuillan, Laura Henry, Wendy Ellyatt, Sue Allingham, Rebecca Martland and Tricia Wellings  I was privileged to be asked to be the first to speak and talked about resilience which I believe is such an important asset for children and adults to have and which is a word which springs straight to mind when I think about Penny.  For those of you who don’t know Penny, she is an amazingly resilient woman who really understands what individual children and families need and is a very vocal advocate both for children and their parents and carers and for holistic, developmentally appropriate early years practice.

 

As the day unfolded and I listened to Penny and the other speakers it was very affirming and heartening to know that everyone present held similar views about the nature of childhood and the needs of children and how these should be thought about when working with children and their families.  There were key themes which emerged during the day – here are some of the ones which resonated for me:

  •  The importance of children’s (and their parents’/carers’) emotional lives which form the bedrock for healthy development and joyous and meaningful learning.
  • The holistic nature of learning and development and how it is supported and nurtured by practice which is truly in tune with it.  This encompasses the need for children to have the freedom to explore, experiment, be inquisitive and creative in their own ways, all things which they are biologically ‘programmed’ to do, in order to learn about themselves and their world so they will become balanced and knowledgeable people who are able to lead fulfilling and happy lives.
  • The setting of arbitrary objectives and constant testing has no place in informed early years practice and is detrimental both to children’s emotional well-being and their learning.
  • There are many early year’s practitioners who are extremely well equipped to deliver developmentally appropriate, evidence based and effective practice which will nurture and support individual children to learn and develop to the best of their ability and importantly to be well adjusted and contributing members of society.

 

It was clear, both from listening to the speakers and the attendees, that as a profession we are really good at articulating what we know is good practice and also at recognising and exposing inappropriate policies and unhelpful (and sometimes damaging) practice.  We are good at observing and – dare I say? – assessing children’s needs.  We are able to use our observations, assessments and knowledge of the child and their family to plan and organise enabling environments where children can grow, develop and learn in line with their individual needs and current fascinations.  We know that if we do this that children will achieve everything they need to in order to go on to learn to read, write and reckon (and many other things) when the time is right, because they have become confident in themselves and their ability to learn.

 

When reflecting on the day, what I realised was very important to do is to articulate how we do the things we do to the world at large – we need to Shout it Out!  There are, of course, many people who already ‘get it’ and are completely in agreement with our thinking and pedagogy.  However, we also know from current education policies that there are many people both in government and elsewhere who have a very restricted and uninformed view of what meaningful education, in the early years and beyond, looks like – a view it seems to me which is rooted in past history and bears no relationship to current knowledge and understanding of how children develop and learn (the stuff which is the bedrock of the kind of early years practice I have talked about) or indeed to the needs of a fast changing 21st century society.  In my role as a trainer and tutor, I often ask delegates and students “Why”, “What” and “How” questions – Why do you do that? What is the reason for what you do? How does your action benefit the child?  These questions, and more importantly the answers, are what we should keep shouting about.  We need to do this in order to show that we are not simply well-intentioned people who enjoy working with small children (as we are often portrayed), but rather an extremely knowledgeable group of professionals whose pedagogy is based on sound theory, contemporary research and a wealth of experience which is continually being critically reflected on to keep practice at it’s very best.

 

I am the kind of person who climbs up onto my soap box at every opportunity to Shout it Out and intend to continue to do so (probably why Penny asked me to kick off her event).  However, as I am writing this I am wondering why it is that many of the truly amazing early years practitioners I come into contact with don’t always feel they have the right to Shout it Out and sometimes feel they have to defer to others who they perhaps see as more knowledgeable (which is generally not the case – go back to those historical perspectives).  I suppose this piece of writing is really about encouraging all those skilful and knowledgeable practitioners to take courage and stand on their good practice and take every opportunity to explain the how, what and why of what they do.  This can be a frustrating exercise (the phrase blue in the face springs to mind), but if we do this it can only benefit those children and families we work so hard to nurture.  I take you back to the strapline “together we can make a difference”.  I truly believe that we make a difference to individual children and their families through our practice, but the more of us that stand shoulder to shoulder and Shout it Out, the more chance we have of influencing policy makers at all levels and defending the rights of children to have their needs met.  We have a great role model in Penny who has taken her courage in both hands and spoken out in many arenas, including Westminster, so let’s follow her lead, let’s Shout it Out!