The Office for Standards in Education has now declared education for under fives to be a key stage in its own right. It needs to be one in which children are taken seriously. In 1995 Sir Christopher Ball reminded us that the curriculum of key stage 0 (good nursery education) was concerned with matters that were even more important than the 3Rs. He wrote that the early childhood curriculum should be concerned with developing in children a sense of self-worth, the ability to care for others and the disposition to learn. The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's "desirable outcomes" for personal and social development focus on similar issues.
Those of us who work with young children are well aware that they need to have high self-esteem and a sense of self-efficacy if they are to reach their full potential.
Consider Thomas who, at three years old, bounds into the nursery on a Monday morning full of pent up anger and frustration after a wet weekend. He makes sure that everyone knows how he's feeling by sweeping much of the carefully set out equipment onto the floor as he storms outside in search of his favourite trike. Thomas's play provision at home consists of a yard full of derelict cars, an Alsatian dog and an ashtray full of cigarette ends.
What about Katey who puts up her arms to hug and be hugged by anyone within close range; whose only strategy when someone takes away her favourite buggy is to wail. And Lee who is so confused about his own identity that he apologises whenever he hears another child cry in the nursery. He is so used to getting told off that he believes he's always in the wrong and has to learn to assuage parental anger by assuming responsibility.
OFSTED suggests that children such as Thomas, Katey and Lee will need to be equipped with their own "Ariadne's Thread" to guide them through the confusing world that they find themselves in. In early years we provide the children with that magic thread through the personal relationships that we establish with them and the rich and challenging curriculum that we offer them. By ensuring that we meet the desirable outcomes for children's personal and social development we will be "adding value" to their personal lives.
Children need to build strong relationships with the important adults in their lives and this means they will need a key worker in their early childhood who can become their "special person". In the nursery setting, this might well be a teacher, nursery nurse or a classroom assistant, and they will become an important and resourceful friend to both the child and its parents. A warm relationship with a trusted adult who has probably visited them at home and knows their parents well will make it easier for the child to cope with that first, sometimes painful, transition from home to nursery. With a trusted adult the child will be able to express his feelings and know that they are understood.
At three years old, or four, or five it may be that he is afraid to let go of his parent's hand. He may need to share a special moment with a book or a favourite experience and have some individual time with his key worker. He might need a hug, a cuddle or just a gentle stroke to let him know that his feelings are acknowledged. He might just need to know that his key worker is there waiting to help him when he is ready to move on.
Children need to learn how to express their anger and their pain. They have to learn how to share and care for each other and build up friendships. If children are to develop meaningful relationships in early childhood then the adults who educate and care for them have to be able to contain children's strong emotions and set boundaries for them and sometimes their parents. Sometimes adults will need to stand back and let children develop their own negotiating skills.
Adults working in this way will have to be very clear about their own boundaries. They must be able to touch children with confidence and with respect. They will need to be good listeners. Some nurseries now have "soft rooms" with bouncy cushions and ball pools where children can work off some of their angry feelings or just have fun. Some may even have access to "snoezelens" where they can experience the gentle, changing patterns of light, sound and moving water. Most nurseries provide the children with varied opportunities for outside play throughout the day as well as outings.
We need to help children to become good decision makers. Children ask questions all the time. They will also need to be able to make mistakes with impunity. Imagine a nursery school report which read: It's a delight to have Sophie in the class, she's such an adventurous child; so forthright in her manner; so persistent in the face of opposition. She challenged my thinking in many areas and comes to school full of problems she wants to sort out. Sophie has an active mind and I'm pleased to say she talks a great deal about things that interest her and shares her ideas with the rest of the class. It is inspiring to see her anger with anything she perceives as injustice, such as cruelty to animals or bullying in the playground."
We will need to offer children a self-servicing workshop-type environment where they can develop their own interests. We must avoid imposing inappropriate rotas of activities that have little meaning for the child, such as production line experiences; "the five things in a morning syndrome". Children may need to focus on one experience for a long time. As professionals we will need to respect their right to do this.
SCAA makes it clear that personal and social education is not value free and it is important that there isn't too great a dissonance between home values and school values. Clearly the challenge to early childhood educators is to build up children's emotional security in partnership with the other key adults in their lives. An important first step might be to develop a nursery checklist to monitor children's "well being" based, perhaps, on the indicators suggested by the Belgian researcher professor Ferre Laevers:
* openness and receptivity
* self-confidence and self-esteem
* relaxation and inner peace
* enjoyment u being in touch with oneself
Nursery workers might also like to consider this checklist from the Van Leer Foundation's guide to promoting "resiliance" in children, by Edith Grotberg:
* The child has someone who loves him unconditionally
* The child can count on her family being there when needed
* The child knows someone he wants to be like
* The child believes things will turn out all right
* The child does endearing things that make people like him
* The child believes in a power greater than seen
* The child is willing to try new things
* The child likes to achieve in what he does
* The child feels that what he does makes a difference in how things come out
* The child likes himself
* The child can focus on a task and stay with it
* The child has a sense of humour
* The child makes plans to do things