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Don't turn your nose up at weans playing

Early years teachers were told last week by two experts in their field not to be "snobbish" about play or to disregard the importance of imparting confidence, in contrast to more formal learning.

According to Helen Fraser, a former senior lecturer at Moray House and a key figure in the development of the early years curriculum since 1996, it is more important to concentrate on giving young children confidence and mental resilience before they reach the age of six than to rush ahead with literacy work.

"That will stand them in better stead than knowing all the letters of the alphabet before Christmas," she said.

Kate Cherry, assistant chief inspector responsible for early years education, underlined the point by urging teachers not to be "snobbish"

about play. Children should be active and engaged all the time, with active and experiential learning taking place beyond P1 right up through school, Ms Cherry commented.

Both were addressing an early years conference in Edinburgh (page seven) on the implications of A Curriculum for Excellence, which defines the three to six age group as the early stages.

Maggi Allan, who chairs the programme board for the curriculum review, has already said that the changes would bring P1 more into line with the pre-school setting (TESS, March 31).

This is likely to be reinforced by the revelation from Ms Cherry that HMIE is to return to its former approach of carrying out joint inspections of nursery and primary classes where a school includes a nursery class.

Ms Fraser provided a rationale for these reforms when she cited a Sheffield University study which stated: "A premature focus on literacy at the expense of oracy has a deleterious effect on spoken language, and therefore on subsequent academic progress."

Ms Fraser stressed the need to focus on spoken language as well as children's ability to negotiate with others and solve problems.

"It concerns me that some children can certainly learn the rudiments of reading and writing and get the box ticked, but their fundamental capacity to comprehend that and all that comes later has not been shored up sufficiently by talk," she said.

She acknowledged that it was difficult to provide evidence about children's ability in talk and how that ability is measured. Nevertheless, teachers should consider putting a poster up on the wall saying: "Your child said this . . ."

Her remarks were echoed by Ms Cherry, who gave an assurance that HMIE would not expect P1 children to sit in a row doing maths or language. "We would rather see children doing maths through contextualised learning - taking maths into a travel agents or a grocer's shop," she told the conference.

Her main worry was that, if the new curriculum's requirement of improved coherence between nursery and P1 was not handled carefully, some teachers might misunderstand it and go back to the "bad old days" of 20 years ago when "play was pretty dire in the P1 classroom".

The only play equipment then might be a sandpit and a few old jigsaw puzzles scattered around the periphery of the classroom.

The inspectorate clearly anticipates that early years professionals will embrace these changes. "Of all the sectors in education, this is the one that I feel is the 'can do' sector - you are always up for it," Ms Cherry said.

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