Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector of schools, famously said that education is "not applied child development". He was trying to make the point that content matters, and that its teaching should be structured and rigorous.
Of course what children learn is important, but how they learn is crucial, too. Mr Woodhead and a succession of Tory ministers thought "child-centred" were dirty words. It is time to clean up the concept, especially where the youngest children are concerned.
Research suggests that the boundary between "education" and "applied child development" is a very blurry one when it comes to the under-fives. This becomes clear in an amazingly terse summary of early-years research over the past decade, What do we know about teaching young children? by Tricia David, professor of early childhood education and care at Canterbury Christ Church University College. It has just been published by the British Educational Research Association.
Brain research, the report says, shows that babies and young children learn best when they co-operate with people they trust in making decisions, thinking things through and making things happen.
Rich experiences in particular areas of learning - those that are really engaging - are related to growth in associated parts of the brain. For example, there is a relationship between a "language-rich early environment", in which parents and carers regularly talk with and read to their children, and the growth of connections in the brain's left hemisphere. It is also important for children to make connections between different areas of learning, such as language and science, and to have the chance to explore, experiment and collaborate.
However, there is evidence that, in reception classes, there has been a shift away from integrating the six "areas of experience" set out in the foundation stage curriculum. Instead, teachers focus on individual subjects towards the end of the year.
There has also been more grouping of four and five-year-olds by "ability" because of pressure for performance from higher up the school. The trouble with ability grouping at that stage is that, as research on key stage 1 suggests, teachers' expectations affect children's progress. "There are worrying patterns of differential achievements linked to gender and ethnicity," the report says.
When reading through this research review, other political issues also emerge. The Government has declared that education and care should be inseparable for young children, but there are inevitable conflicts between the standards agenda and the care agenda as set out in the Green Paper, Every Child Matters.
Research studies from the late 1990s, cited in the report, have shown that "despite their general commitment to integrating play into the curriculum, teachers find a play-based pedagogy difficult to sustain, because precise learning outcomes can be difficult to achieve or measure, and progression in learning difficult to demonstrate".
Brain development is helped by emotional support, stimulation of the senses and new challenges. On the other hand, it can be hindered by a seriously deprived or stressful early childhood.
"Play with other children provides challenges which cause important 'reprogramming' of the brain," says the report.
There is a great deal of evidence that children learn through play, but actually nurturing valuable play activities in school is not that easy.
"Practitioners working in the foundation stage tended to lack the confidence, knowledge and training to teach aspects like early literacy through play and they have been influenced by their fear of the assumed expectations of Office for Standards in Education inspectors," says the report.
It also raises other concerns:
* many staff do not know how to help children develop their play;
* some practitioners do not realise adult support and intervention are needed for effective play;
* not all children know how to play, because of their experiences.
Research shows that the most effective early childhood settings - which are often state nursery schools and classes, and centres which combine nursery education and care - strike an equal balance between adult-led and child-initiated activities. Adults have an important role in helping children develop ways to resolve conflicts.
When children talk through ideas, co-operation is linked with intellectual stimulation and development, says the report. Other conditions which help include:
* allowing children to share the initiative about what is learned;
* enabling them to take risks;
* well organised space and resources;
* good assessment and recording.
What do we know about teaching young children? costs pound;4 from email@example.com
Kathy Sylva, professor of educational psychology at Oxford, gives these examples of effective play:
Susan Isaacs, an inspired nursery teacher at Malting House school in Cambridge in the 1930s, believed that children learned through their own play. She provided opportunities for children to work on a large scale, making bridges over ditches out of planks for instance, and working on technical problems - often in groups - by returning to their constructions day after day until they had solved them.
A video from the HighScope nurseries organisation shows how a teacher helped three children, squabbling over who would get to play with a set of keys, to resolve the conflict.
The teacher sits with them and gets down to their level. He comforts the child who is crying. He neutralises the situation by taking the keys himself, "until we can find out what happened". He asks each child to say what they thought had happened, along with their feelings about it. He re-states each child's feelings in a neutral way, saying something like:
"Natalie wants to play with the keys but Tommy has taken them away from her and has hit her. But we have a problem because they both want the keys." He turns to the three children and asks: "What do we do now?" The children resolve that Natalie can have the keys for a three-minute egg-timer, and then the boy can do the same.
"The children wouldn't have learned anything positive from their play without the adult," says Professor Sylva.
The video Supporting Children in Resolving Conflicts is available from HighScope, www.high-scope.org.uk