58 experiences of a lifetime
We're going to make a plan today, a plan today, a plan today. Dami, what's your plan?" Dami, holding hands with her fellow Sunbeams, says: "I'm going to do cooking." The questioning song is repeated around the circle. Whether she intended to or not, Dami started a craze for cooking on that Friday morning.
Such planning starts every day at the South Bank University nursery in the London borough of Southwark. Heather Munn, the nursery's headteacher, is an enthusiastic supporter of HighScope, a curriculum that was born in 1960s America.
Pared down, HighScope is based on a three-step "plan, do, review" model. Children plan what activities they intend to do during the "structured" morning session and discuss it with their key workers. They then carry out their plan. Finally, they come back together to review or recall what they have done. The emphasis is on active learning by supporting the children in making their own decisions and taking responsibility for them.
All activities and toys relate to one or more of 58 "key experiences" which occur spontaneously in the course of play. It is through these experiences that children develop concepts and understanding and the experiences are divided into the following categories: creative representation, language and literacy, initiative and social relations, movement, music, classification, sequencing, number, space and time.
The South Bank nursery is a beautiful place, housed in an old Victorian library, with lots of light and space for the 72 children to move around from one activity to another. Which is precisely what Dami and her mates are doing.
They get to work "cooking" in the home corner. One girl feeds a doll plastic potatoes and oranges out of the saucepan. Another talks on the phone next to a boy who is sharing the vegetable basket with a bunch of bunnies. After about a quarter of an hour, they move on to the big bricks, using them as stepping stones to "mind out for the crocodiles" until it's time to tidy up, about 25 minutes later.
While they play, Kaya, the Sunbeam group's key worker, makes herself available, chatting to the children without intervening, as do the other workers. The mood is relaxed but concentrated on the serious business of play.
When review time comes, Kaya asks each child what they've done, encouraging them to give a sequential account of their activities.
It is not a problem if the children do things without having planned them, says Marjana, another worker, "but it is something to be addressed. We'd say during the playtime, 'Oh Josh, I see that you've changed your plan, you moved from playing with the clay to playing with the water.' They're given choices and you support them in making them."
Marjana was negative about the HighScope way of doing things when she first came to see the nursery, believing it was a rigid system. But she has been converted. "I couldn't go back to a regular nursery after this. What we do here is just good child-care practice, but it requires a lot more thought in how you relate to the children.
"It's not about zooming in and sorting things out for them, but rather allowing them to do it. We follow routines but they are flexible." Though there is no strict timetable, there are structured, carefully thought out plans for activities. The nursery also keeps strict records logging the experiences the children have, what they say and what they do.
A feature of HighScope is the close monitoring by staff of children's acquisition of the experiences within each category. If children appear to be focusing on some and avoiding others, staff gently steer them in directions that will redress the balance.
Observing this curriculum in action, it seems to make good pedagogic and child-care sense no matter what the economic and social status of the children. All under-fives need structure, just as they all need freedom and support.
Heather Munn agrees. "I am irritated that we have to justify early-years education in this country in terms of crime prevention. HighScope is for the here and now, for the children's enjoyment as well as for the long-term developmental benefits. All children need to be empowered."
She illustrates what that empowerment meant for one boy. "He had been with us for a year-and-a-half and left at age four. On the last day, an outing had been arranged. When he was told that the children were going out for the day he said, 'I don't want to go out. It's my last day - I want to stay here.'
"In my view, if you can express those feelings at the age of four, you're going to be okay."