There seem to be two ways of looking at the arts for young children. You either think it's all about hyperactive clowns and talking teddies, or you believe, with Dorothy Rouse Selleck of the National Children's Bureau's Early Childhood Unit, that from the moment of birth, children develop as imaginative, aesthetic thinkers and that adults working with young children need to respect and honour their innate creativity.
Dorothy Rouse Selleck was speaking at the West Yorkshire Playhouse's national conference last week on Arts and the Under Fives, which brought together arts practitioners and early years educators from all over England for the first time.
The picture that emerged was of a dichotomy of approaches, the turning point being the move from infants to juniors. Staff running playgroups, nurseries and nursery classes generally have an understanding of the need to allow children to experience structured and unstructured play as a means of expressing themselves.
In these establishments the arts are acknowledged, as Shadow Heritage Secretary Chris Smith put it: "As a way that children make sense of the world around them and also as a vehicle for language development."
Some local authorities, such as the London boroughs of Southwark and Haringay and Kent County Council, stand out as beacons of good practice. But once the child enters school, the constraints of the national curriculum, coupled with the lack of training most teachers have in the arts, often lead to arts-based activities becoming consigned to formal slots or simply used as time fillers.
Janet Fenton, an early years teacher from Huddersfield, spoke of "teachers with no experience of very young children lacking the patience and the understanding to accept the very different needs and experiences of this age group." Jenny Hannon, a headteacher also from Huddersfield, agreed: "There are people working in this area who don't see the primary curriculum as having any room for the arts because of the three Rs. We have an early years curriculum but it doesn't have the same status as the primary curriculum. Schools aren't going to prioritise the arts in nurseries when nursery education itself isn't statutory. "
And there's the rub. As Sian Ede, Arts Council drama officer, said: "How are we to reconcile an enlightened early years curriculum with the tightly controlled national curriculum?" It needs, she suggested, to be thrashed out politically, which is precisely the context in which it suffers most. "Using the soft language that is typically associated with early years undermines it politically." Not that hard language necessarily sits easily with concepts like messy play, dressing up and banging on percussion instruments.
But there are theories to buttress these practices, research studies, analyses of good practice, and people working, like Dorothy Rouse Selleck and her colleagues at the Early Childhood Unit and Vicky Hurst and others in the Early Childhood Education Research Project, who make a study of early childhood development and speak of the necessity of artistic expression in the under eights.
There are also drama practitioners, artists and musicians who work with young children in nurseries and schools, who learn from the teachers as the teachers learn from them and who are committed to this low status, poorly funded work because they believe in it.
Playwright Adrian Mitchell has said that he learned to stop dancing at the age of five and to stop singing at the age of seven. The fear is that, without funding to train teachers and occasionally buy in outside expertise, children today - despite pockets of enlightened thinking - will be no better off than he was.