Big thinking about little minds

23rd September 2011 at 01:00

Too Much, Too Soon? Early years and the erosion of childhood

Edited by Richard House

Hawthorn Press, pound;20

Once upon a time, the only people interested in pre-school children were their families. Nowadays - thanks to a couple of decades of compelling neuroscientific research - everyone's interested, from Cabinet level down. It's clear that children's experiences in the early years of life have profound implications not just for their own future, but for that of society as a whole.

The UK has, according to Unicef, the lowest levels of childhood well-being in the developed world, and some of the highest levels of teenage disaffection and distress. So it's not surprising there's fierce debate in all UK countries about what constitutes good early-years practice and care. This book is a collection of essays by childhood experts from around the world who believe that our tendency to over-focus on cognitive development (at the expense of social, emotional and physical development) is the main reason things have gone wrong in the past.

In the words of editor Richard House: "It was too much too soon, with too little genuine play and too much assessment, and it eroded childhood."

Famous contributors from the world of child development include Penelope Leach, Lilian Katz and David Elkind. There are also chapters from experts in specific areas, such as Sally Goddard Blythe (early physical development), Aric Sigman (the effects of technology on developing brains) and Sebastian Suggate, whose recent research in New Zealand suggests there is no advantage to starting formal reading instruction before the age of seven. (Since I once worked for England's National Literacy Strategy, which pushed for an ever-earlier start to reading and writing, I'm in there too, shamefacedly recanting.)

Many of the essays focus specifically on the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) in England, a controversial document setting out statutory obligations for anyone who cares for young children (birth to five) outside the home. Scotland, mercifully, has never pursued such a highly- prescriptive route, but developments in England inevitably influence us here, not least in terms of parental and political fears that Scottish children may be "left behind".

The conclusion of the book is that the "schoolification" of early years in England has not improved most children's chances of success in the educational system, and may be doing long-term damage.

Much of the discussion centres on the role of children's play in early learning - and how far adults should intervene and direct that play. Although there is now widespread agreement that young children's self- directed play springs from their essential human learning drive, and is vital for every aspect of development and well-being, adults without a background in early years tend to see it as mere "messing about" and to look for ways of making it more "educational". The constant refrain of contributors to Too Much, Too Soon? is that such attempts to accelerate or force development inevitably backfire.

Scottish practitioners and policy-makers might also find food for thought in the chapters by childminders and parents who have challenged the EYFS, and in one by Westminster politician Barry Sheerman who, as chair of the education select committee between 2000 and 2010, watched its development. He hopes the new committee will help restore "the balance between trusting parents, families and professionals instead of allowing too much interference from central government".

About the Author

Dr Richard House lectures in psycho-therapy at the University of Roehampton. He was a founder of the Open EYE campaign, challenging the statutory nature of the Early Years Foundation Stage.

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