Bustling activity that's carefully choreographed

Stirling's Guidelines for an Early Years Curriculum spring from a philosophy of treating youngsters with respect, consulting them, supporting their needs and constantly observing to find out what curriculum provision is appropriate.

"At one time the child had to adapt to what we were offering," says Pat Wharton, the lead author of the guidelines. "Now we know much more about young children's learning and how their brains develop, so we need to be looking for ways to accommodate their needs."

This child-centred approach is evident at St Ninian's Playgroup, where playleaders Fiona McIntyre and Lynn Burns, a new assistant and one or two mums are overseeing the activities of a busy swarm of two and three-year-olds. Around the church hall, areas have been laid out for gluing and painting, construction activities, reading and eating snacks. There is a large space for physical play, which seems very popular, with an orderly queue waiting to get on the slide.

Noise levels are moderate and the children are engrossed, busy, purposeful. Occasional flurries of discord are quickly smoothed: "Not round your neck, Ewan"; "You go down the slide not up it, Douglas."

The scene is similar to a bustling street set in a musical or opera, with a great deal of improvisation by individual performers within a carefully choreographed structure.

As the morning progresses, groups of half a dozen children at a time are taken out of the hall to an adjoining room to be read to. "Research has shown that learning to read easily is closely linked with being read to early and often," says Ms Wharton.

St Ninian's is one of many playgroups that were private but now are run in partnership with Stirling Council. The new guidelines, together with systems set up for training, monitoring and inspection - a duty about to pass from the HM Inspectorate of Education to local authorities - means that parents are now entitled to expect a similar curriculum and comparable standards at any of the 53 playgroups and nurseries in the Stirling area.

There is, however, a price for raising standards and ensuring quality. One of the most dramatic changes since government began taking an interest in playgroups and nurseries is increased paperwork. Development plans, standards and quality reports, staff development plans and self-evaluation forms must all be completed on a regular basis.

"One of the most important records the council asks us to keep," says Ms McIntyre, "is a shared profile for each of the children, which details their progress and goes with them to the next stage of their education.

"We now have to set aside several hours a week for paperwork and planning. That's probably the most challenging part of the job these days. The most rewarding part is working with the kids.

"At this age you can't force them to do anything because their attention spans are so short. But that doesn't mean they aren't learning. What you do is prepare the resources and activities, help them get on with what appeals to them and stay alert for opportunities to extend them, get them to talk, to think about what they are doing and to learn new skills."

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