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The pre-school battle for hearts and minds;Platform;Opinion

Play and self-expression are vital in an early years system, say Robert Davis and Marianne Valentine

PRIMARY AND nursery school teachers across Scotland are caught up in the implementation of the new guidelines on A Curriculum Framework for Children in their Pre-School Year. The combination of trends in educational research, social and employment patterns, and the priorities of the Government, has rightly ensured that the framework will remain a staff development priority for schools and local authorities.

Local development issues aside, however, the adoption of the framework affords Scottish policy-makers and practitioners a hitherto underexploited opportunity to become full participants in a debate taking place in pre-school and nursery education across Europe and North America.

The debate extends well beyond the traditional confines of educational policy-making, involving much deeper explorations of the nature and purpose of early childhood - and our responsibilities to very young children.

An abiding concern of pre-school theorists is the issue of defining early learning and child development in forms which preserve the distinctiveness of young children's experience, avoiding what some see as the "colonisation" of the nursery by the competence-based pedagogies that dominate the formal school curriculum.

There is a parallel anxiety that models derived from the classroom of later primary stages will undermine the unique expertise and independence of nursery and pre-school staff, turning their environments into little more than antechambers to the early stages. Small children will rehearse the skills sought by the primary school at the expense of the characteristic, inherited approaches to play and learning built up intuitively and incrementally by generations of nursery professionals.

The framework document is alert to some of these dangers; and seeks to embed its curricular intentions in programmes rooted in the relationships that arise from children "observing, listening and talking, responding, thinking and experimenting". Internal and external pressures remain, however, and the omens of a Scottish pre-school curriculum appropriated by insensitive political and economic interests need to be heeded.

Formulating a "theory of childhood" is made difficult by the nursery environment's understandable resistance to theory, the sense that nurseries have evolved their practices out of an ethic of care and nurture.

Analysis of particularly innovative models, such as the much-admired Reggio approach, suggests, however, that at the heart of the most effective nursery practice lie those older "romantic" perceptions of the child which played such a significant part in defining the progressive, child-centred philosophies of education of the recent past.

Originating in the nurseries of the Italian town of Reggio Emilia, the approach focuses on the unique learning relationship of adult and child, detailed observation and documentation and strong family participation.

The child is seen as motivated by curiosity and imagination, as someone who makes hypotheses and who is constantly creating theories in an attempt to understand the world; a child for whom growth does not imply loss, or the eclipse of imagination by clinically acquired skills and powers of reasoning resolutely attuned to the acquisition of social and intellectual competence.

It is a vision of the child born equipped with the abilities and desires fully to connect with the world, entirely capable of becoming the central protagonist of their own learning.

At its most creative, the nursery experience "tantalises" children, encouraging them to learn through curiosity, hinting at the possible and building on their own interests. It leads to a curriculum seen not in linear form, determined by the teaching calendar or the system's priorities, but founded on the patient practices of reciprocal listening and observing.

The distinctiveness of the pre-five sector is perhaps most evident in its unique commitment to the expressive arts as a vehicle for learning. There exists an underlying belief that it is through the imagination that children engage most meaningfully with the world. From this position, the expressive arts are treated not simply as a curricular area, but as the fundamental medium of all the domains of learning.

Nursery professionals sometimes flinch at the earnest emphasis on literacy in much current pre-school planning, recognising that for children the development of oral and written language can be a mixed blessing. In the push towards literacy, and the frequent concentration on reading and writing at the expense of other curricular areas, school can be guilty of devaluing the preliterate and pre-verbal child and their skilled use of other expressive languages.

The framework document places our thinking inescapably in an international context, demonstrating Scotland's receptiveness to the exchange of ideas and experiences. In its implementation, the framework must surely also be seen as an affirmation of the autonomy of the pre-five sector, an autonomy which recognises the need for creative interaction between pre-five education and the primary curriculum, but which also celebrates the distinctiveness of the pre-five understanding of the child, and the place of play and the expressive arts in the formation of the integrated self.

Marianne Valentine was for several years a primary teacher in Edinburgh. She now lives with her family in Reggio Emilia. She has just completed an account of the Reggio approach for the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum. Bob Davis is director of in-service education in the faculty of education of Glasgow University. He has written and broadcast widely on education and the cultural history of childhood.

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