Learning is the game
Sitting in a bath of baked beans in the middle of a nursery may seem to youngsters like an unprecedented opportunity to make as much mess as they like with adult consent. In fact, it is a multi-textural exercise in exploration, designed to stimulate the senses and boost confidence.
This technique is one of many advocated by Alice Sharp, an early years trainer, consultant and author, who offers information and inspiration to childcare practitioners working with babies to 3-year-olds as they try to incorporate the Government's Birth to Three Matters framework into their services.
During a practical session at Bishopbriggs Childcare Centre in Glasgow, youngsters are smearing yoghurt on a large mirror. This simple multi-sensory experience, which encourages them to look at themselves, encompasses many of the facets of the framework.
Ms Sharp says her practical exercises and advice, incorporating principles and experiences that celebrate early development, are the antithesis of hothousing and more about responding to children than taking the lead.
"Look for the cues and clues children give you and think about the environment you create for babies and toddlers to play in," she says.
"Too many nurseries provide too challenging an experience for the children, a watered down version of the 3-5 curriculum in that they do what they would do with an older child but try to make it easier." This doesn't always work, she says, and she encourages nurseries to change approach.
"We shouldn't be teaching children how to play but supporting their play by watching and copying them. If you take a lead from the children, you can extend their experience, take them forward, before sitting back and letting them go with it themselves. It is a progression of play," she explains.
By the age of three, 40-50 per cent of a child's brain potential, in some cases 80 per cent, may be developed, so it is important that childcare workers and parents find ways to stimulate and encourage early learning. A stimulating environment could have a dramatic impact on increasing a child's potential.
Certainly, the demands of the national framework, with emphasis on the importance of developing learning skills in the very young and the role that practitioners should take in the critical early years, are a challenge for nurseries. However, Ms Sharp emphasises that methods should be simplified to enable children to explore, experiment and investigate under their terms.
"The one thing that worried me was that people would start using the framework as a curriculum tool, because it is not about that. It is simply a reminder of good practices," she says.
"If we do two things, have close, bonding relationships with our children and have positive play experiences, then that's all we need to do.
Practical play sessions will develop nursery workers' skills with children."
Ms Sharp demonstrates learning games to promote development, sensory games to promote well-being, language games to develop communication and physical games to support growth and self-awareness.
All nurseries have resources that can incorporate experimental play methods into their programmes, but Ms Sharp has also produced some of her own. Her singing box is a colourful cardboard box containing characters from nursery rhymes: Humpty Dumpty, a black sheep and so on. The props engage children, stimulating their visual skills and, if you sing, hearing skills.
She also concentrates on the development of language skills by giving children a box of objects and naming them - nouns - before talking about what you can do with them - verbs.
Interactive toys often actually limit children's experiences, she believes.
"There is a place for technology because we live in a technological world, but for the under-3s I would rather see a chatter box containing, for instance, two phones, walkie-talkies and microphones.
"We want to give children a voice, yet so many toys make the noises before they have a chance."
Another practical exercise is giving children powdered chocolate. It feels gritty, cold; they can lick it, smudge it, add it to water and paint pictures with it.
A table top covered in shaving foam, glitter, gloop and jelly can become another wonderful textured play experience for a child.
"The more exploration and experimentation the under-3s are allowed to have, the more it develops their language, creativity and confidence in using resources," says Ms Sharp. "Then they are more able to move forward and explore the world around them.
"It is about setting up an environment in a way that learning isn't noticed; it almost becomes a by-product."
www.surestart.gov.ukensuringqualitybirthtothreemattersAlice Sharp will run seminars at 10.30am and 1.30pm on Nov 19 and a full-day training course on Effective Practice to Highlight that Birth to Three Matters on Nov 20