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Learning together can be a picnic

Aileen Little reports on a Barnardos project that encourages parents to plan, do and review. It's the school holidays and Linda, a single parent from Livingston, is busy with plans for outings with William, aged nine, Ryan, six, and Sarah, two. But these are no ordinary preparations.

Linda is one of five parents who recently participated in a pilot project run by Barnardos Scotland and funded by the Aga Khan Foundation through the HighScope Institute in London. She has come to appreciate that a day underpinned by a plan, do and review approach makes for happier children and ultimately for effective cognitive development.

Like the HighScope Educational Research Foundation in Ypsilanti near Detroit, HighScope UK works to promote a method of educating pre-school children devised in the 1960s by Dr David Weikart, former Ypsilanti director of special education. Barnardos took an active interest in Weikart's Piaget-based system from the start.

Along with the Aga Khan and Gulbenkian Foundations, the charity funded some of the first HighScope training programmes in the UK and for more than a decade Barnardos teams have been running family centres along HighScope lines.

Jean Piaget believed a teacher's role should be one of passive observer, arousing children's curiosity and stimulating their research without overbearingly introducing problems and dictating solutions. "Above all, " he wrote, "the adult must continually find fresh ways to stimulate the child's activity . . . knowledge arises neither from objects nor the child, but from interactions between the child and those objects."

Cognitive development, it was suggested, depended less on fixed intelligence than on opportunities for decision-making and problem-solving.

In 1962, David Weikart was researching a pre-school curriculum for disadvantaged children. He established the Perry pre-school nursery, heavily based on Piaget's developmental theories. The system was called HighScope: high for the aspirations of the children and scope for the width of the curriculum. Gone were the "set" materials of the Montessori classroom.

Gone too was the teacher-led activity favoured by Froebel. Weikart's was a cognitively oriented curriculum which led to the evolution of a particular kind of classroom designed for all the activities which stem from children's interests.

So far, all this will sound familiar to anyone versed in current good nursery practice. The vogue for child-centred activity in individual and group settings, the presence of supportive and collaborative staff trained to empower rather than instruct, the classroom arranged into "interest areas", the daily "timetable" structured to include snacks, outside play - none of this is exclusive to HighScope because others have drawn on the same original thinkers as Weikart.

Where HighScope departs from the norm is, as Livingston parents have discovered, in the emphasis of the organising principle which informs the day. The sequence begins, for example, with several small planning groups in which children are encouraged to decide which activity appeals that day. If language skills are not up to the task, any abstract means of communication will do.

Later staff help children recall what was accomplished. Questions are used as a tool for reflection, for reviewing strategies. Pointing, drawing and miming are all acceptable aids to discussion.

Another of HighScope's distinguishing features is a hidden agenda of what Weikart termed key experiences. Equally important is a consistent daily structure which includes a "greetings circle" and a small group session when a teacher sets the stage for a key activity with creative potential (such as blowing bubbles.) Since 1974, Barnardos Scotland has run a day care centre in Livingston for families with a range of social needs. At the core of the work is a nursery run on HighScope principles. Helen Campbell, a former primary teacher retrained by HighScope UK, is the assistant project leader.

Linda was referred by her social worker. Having experienced problems with her nine-year-old, she is anxious the pattern should not be repeated with her young daughter. Instead of ordering William to tidy up, for instance, she has labelled containers in the toy cupboard and the family tidies up together, purposefully. If she proposes a picnic, the children help to choose and prepare food.

"I'm a lot happier," Linda affirms. "HighScope would be good for some of the 17 and 18-year-old mums on this estate."

It is hoped that through systematic experience of the plan, do and review format children will go on to develop a strong sense of self-control. Some critics feel, however, that Piaget's theories are overly geared to cognitive development, that HighScope is too structured, too formalised.

Ms Campbell replies: "The accusation that children must always be active, can never opt out, is just nonsense. Some children plan to go to sleep or to sit on my lap."

Just as a child learns that beating an egg whisk fast produces bubbles, parents still have plenty to learn about cause and effect.

Further information about HighScope UK is available from Copperfield House, 190-192 Maple Road, London SE20 8HT (0181 676 0220).

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