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Free to do as they please

I've just spent a glorious three days celebrating the achievements of early childhood educators at the Northern Ireland Pre-School Playgroups Association's annual meeting. It was clear that workers there have a strong philosophy and are passionate advocates for children.

I visited a playgroup in rural Dungiven where the staff had achieved the optimum balance between free and guided play. They combined a healthy respect for the right of children to play with friends or alone, with the need of adults to intervene at times to support and extend learning.

The videos that accompany Climbing Frames, Birmingham City Council's framework for learning from birth to five celebrate the same sort of good practice. Designed for use in nurseries and playgroups, these lively video clips show how sensitive and challenging interventions by teachers, parents and playgroup workers can enhance children's learning.

The material has been taped in a range of settings, all of which celebrate the rich cultural diversity of Birmingham schools and the strengths of a bilingual upbringing. We see parents who are encouraged to speak out and demonstrate their understanding of their children's needs.

The text, which deals with the Government's "desirable outcomes" for under-fives' learning, is the result of a successful collaboration between nursery staff, health workers, social workers and the voluntary sector. It is well researched and relatively jargon free, opening with a strong statement of principles, and includes useful key quotations from European studies, the Department of Education and Science's 1990 Rumbold report on under-fives' provision and the work of Susan Issacs.

The authors see play as central to children's learning and include many wonderful photograph s of good practice. Their pack will be a useful resource for workers in a wide range of settings, particularly those who are unfamiliar with the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's requirements.

My main concern is that the material seems to focus rather too much on teaching and too little on how children learn. The videos rarely show examples of children playing alone or enjoying personal space, experimenting freely or learning by making mistakes. We see caring adults planning in great detail for children with perhaps, "a little over concentration on formal teaching and the attainment of a specific set of targets" (HMI Starting with Quality, 1990). We rarely see adults, as I did in Northern Ireland, respectfully watching children and observing what they were doing to inform planning.

I'm not advocating a passive role for the adult or a laissez-faire approach, but I am concerned that a narrow somewhat reductionist approach to the early years curriculum can lead to an inappropriately didactic pedagogy.

Learning for a Lifetime - the early years curriculum guidance for East Sussex - has been written by and for teachers in nursery and primary schools. This weighty pack contains four sets of documents dealing in depth with key principles and processes. It also offers additional support materials and a brief concluding document with quality indicators and a detailed bibliography.

Unfortunately the loose-leaf pages are unmanageable, and at times the language is dense. Like the Birmingham document, this pack is unclear about the right level of adult directed time. It refers to children as "autonomous, responsive self-motivated learners", but it also talks about offering children only "an element of choice". We should not fudge this issue of choice. (Somerset's pack on nursery education for four-year-olds states quite clearly that about half the child's time in nursery or reception class should be teacher directed and half spent in self-initiated activity).

The strength of Learning for a Lifetime is that it can be used by staff for debate and in-service training. It explores many of the issues surrounding learning through play and offers helpful advice on choosing equipment. The child's need to be private and quiet is recognised, as is the central importance of the transition between home and school and practical partnerships with parents.

Climbing Frames: A framework for learning from birth to five Birmingham City Council Education Department and NFER Nelson

#163;75 plus VAT

Learning for a Lifetime: Early Years Curriculum

Guidance East Sussex County Council

East Sussex Education Department #163;60 (#163;45 East Sussex Schools) from Advisory Inspection and Training Service, County Hall, Lewes, East Sussex BN7 1SG

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