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It is better to travel...

Early-years practitioners value children's voyages of discovery.

Parents want results. Kate Lee explores ways to achieve both

It's going-home time. The table by the window is a patchwork of colour, predominantly red and black since, today, the children have been making ladybird pictures complete (in some cases) with a rather alarming number of goggly eyes. There are 24 children, but only 20 "results" on the table.

It's a common enough scenario, with a predictable outcome. Some parents won't mind the fact that their child "hasn't done anything today"; some will be relieved that they don't have to carry a dripping mass of paper home; some won't even bother to look; and some will be disappointed, even annoyed.

From a professional point of view, it is the quality of experiences and development of good attitudes to learning that matter most in the early years, not the outcomes. But it is easy to see why parents may not share this perspective. In our results-driven society, parents want and need to see tangible evidence of learning.

How can practitioners meet parents' expectations while still following a play-based approach appropriate for under-fives?

One simple but effective idea is to use a whiteboard to describe what children have been doing during the day, with reference to possible parental concerns, curriculum planning and the current theme.

Propped up in the waiting area where parents can read it, undistracted, before collecting their children, it creates a talking point and offers informal reassurance.

In this context, language is the early-years practitioner's secret weapon: used with imagination and care, it can help communicate the setting's ethos, in addition to sign-posting specific learning opportunities brought about through play.

So, rather than just putting "water play in the garden", you might put: "We had lots of fun with water today. We explored capacity and volume, and practised taking turns." This reassures parents that you are offering valuable experiences and helps to get across the idea that fun is a springboard to learning, not an alternative to it. Using words like "thinking", "practising" and "exploring" helps suggest that consideration, reflection and the consolidation of skills are desirable and valuable.

There are other more formal paths worth exploring, such as offering sessions for parents where issues such as play or the development of communication skills are discussed. This gives practitioners the time to listen to parents' views.

Inviting specialists, such as a play therapist or author, adds weight, but there is also a strong argument for using the expertise of the staff to emphasise to parents that their children are in skilled as well as caring hands.

The National Children's Bureau website is a good place to find up-to-date information on the role of play (go to and hit the "resource" button).

If space allows, creating a book corner for parents is helpful too.

Magazines offer a good range of information presented in an accessible way, while Playtoday, produced by the Children's Play Council, is a free, bimonthly magazine looking at broader play issues, available via the NCB website. The foundation stage forum - an online community interested in early-years issues (see opposite) - is also a good source of articles.

Encouraging parents to contribute to their library, either by suggesting books or videos, or areas they would like to see included, encourages a sense of partnership - and creates a good model of co-operation for children, too. The 2004 edition of The Good Toy Guide, due to be published in the autumn, can also prompt informal discussion. (Order through Play Matters (tel. 020 7255 4600).

There will always be a place for "finished work", of course; no nursery or pre-school would be complete without its complement of paintings and collages, and there is nothing to beat the look of delight on the face of a proud infant as he or she shows off a big, bright, beautiful ladybird picture.

It's just a question of balancing this with measures that work to communicate to parents the importance of allowing children to follow their own interests and explore materials in their own ways, regardless of outcome. Playing, in other words. Even if it means the goggly eyes end up in some very peculiar places.

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