How can we engage young children in activities that boost their language skills? Helen Amass discovers an innovative scheme run by a Bradford nursery school that has given children and parents something to talk about – 50 things, to be precise
At St Edmund’s Nursery School and Children’s Centre in Bradford, a class of three-year-olds are discussing their bucket lists – not things to do before they die, but things to do before they turn 5.
“I want to make a mud monster,” says one.
“I want to do that, too!” exclaims another. “And I want to high-five a police officer.”
Noises of approval sound from the rest of the class. It turns out that high-fiving a police officer is something that several are eager to tick off their lists.
The children are not putting these ideas together from scratch – they have some help from an app created by their teachers. It’s part of the “50 things to do before you’re 5” project, which the nursery school launched in June last year (you can access the list here). The aim is to get parents involved with their children in a range of low- or no-cost experiences that would help to develop children’s oracy skills and confidence, while also enriching their lives more broadly.
The idea was that of executive headteacher Anne-Marie Merifield. After a decade of leading two “outstanding” schools, Merifield decided to use what she had gleaned about activity-based learning to drive speech and language development in children aged under 5 via a format that was accessible to all in the local community.
“Simply put, many children develop language skills behind the level of their peers nationally because of their lack of [worldly] experience. If you haven’t done that much, then you haven’t got much to talk about,” explains Christian Bunting, teaching school director at St Edmund’s, who has been involved with the project from the outset.
“If you’re going out walking in a wood in autumn and seeing all the shapes and colours of the trees, then you develop your language around colour, shape and sound much more effectively than you do sitting in your living room.”
Filling the bucket list
For children who do not get these opportunities, the consequences can be dire. Research suggests that children with poor language skills are much more likely to experience negative outcomes at school and in adulthood. These findings particularly resonated with Bunting and his colleagues because evidence also indicates that the problem is compounded by living in an area with high levels of deprivation, such as Bradford.
According to a 2013 report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Speech and Language Difficulties, although about 7 per cent of children aged around 5 have speech, language and communication needs (SLCN), there is strong evidence to suggest that the prevalence of SLCN is much higher in socially disadvantaged areas, with some small-scale studies suggesting that about half of children in these areas may have “significant language delays”.
The team at St Edmund’s knew that school provision alone would not be enough to tackle these statistics. To address the problem, they needed to increase the diversity of experiences that children were having at home. By providing a list of activities, along with explanations of how to do them, the team hoped to provide a valuable resource to help parents give their children opportunities to develop their communication skills. And their plan was to make this list available not just to the children attending their provision, but to every child in Bradford.
How did they come up with the 50 activities? The process was very thorough.
First, the main aim was to make the list achievable. “In many instances, [the suggestions] are just trying to give parents confidence to do some of the things that they might well have done [on their own volition],” Bunting explains. “Some of them have felt disenfranchised from their role in [the] early education [of their children], or they have not understood the value of walking to the park and having a serve-and-return conversation with your child as you make little houses out of sticks.”
Crucially, Bunting says, all of the suggestions are tailored to the local area: they are within easy reach geographically, and take local cultural and religious sensitivities into account, while also still providing a really “positive offer”.
The second key factor is parental buy-in: the list was initially compiled with the help of local families. The team conducted a parental consultation across the city to find out which experiences parents believed that children under the age of 5 should be having.
“We had consultations in every ward in Bradford and our parents came back with about 600 things that they were suggesting we should do,” says Bunting. From there, the team whittled the list down to the top 50. As part of this process, they had to weed out some of the more “wild and exciting” suggestions that didn’t adhere to the criteria of being low- or no-cost, such as “everyone should go up in a hot-air balloon”. They also had to ensure that the final selection was respectful of ages and stages, and included activities for every season of the year – something that Bunting believes is particularly important.
“There are some views that you really shouldn’t go out when it’s raining or it’s cold and wet because you will get sick, when actually that’s not true. That’s when puddles are particularly good to jump in,” he notes.
Finally, the list underwent a screening and quality-improvement process with a speech and language therapist and experts from special schools to ensure that the 50 things were fully inclusive for children with additional needs.
“You have to be quite careful around using language like ‘look at what you can see’,” Bunting points out. “That’s not much good if you have a visual impairment.”
Scheme carries water
So, does the initiative work? Although it is still in its infancy, uptake has been good. Of the circa 40,000 children under the age of 5 in Bradford, Bunting estimates that about 10,000 have been engaged with so far.
Outcomes around improved academic achievement will likely not emerge for some time. However, Bunting is keen to stress that while education outcomes are important, they are not the sole measure of the project’s success for the team at St Edmund’s.
“As somebody who works in a nursery school, I think it is about a way of trying to enable children to have a much more fulfilling, exciting life at the ages that they’re at,” he says. “It’s about providing a really rich set of exciting opportunities for young children, which are extremely easy to access, and will make parenting easier and make family time a happier, more positive experience for many.”
When you look at it that way, it is not surprising that developing a local version of “50 things to do before you’re 5” has already made it onto the bucket lists of many other settings. Schools based in Leeds, East Sussex, Kirklees and Calderdale have created tailored versions and several local authorities are keen to develop their own offerings.
So expect to see young children stepping away from their mud monsters to high-five a police officer in a park near you soon.
Helen Amass is Tes’ deputy commissioning editor
This article originally appeared in the 24 January 2020 issue under the headline “The bucket list…for under-fives”