We're not playing, we're learning

31st October 1997 at 00:00
At Balgreen Nursery School, having fun is not a problem - it's a regular part of the curriculum. Willis Pickard reports.

The little boy looked up at the sunflower towering over his head. "It is tall," he said. The nursery head was pleased: he had said tall rather than big - at four he had absorbed a mathematical concept.

As with other nursery schools, learning for the 100 pupils of Balgreen nursery school in Edinburgh is closely related to curriculum statements. The Scottish Office's recent document, "A Curriculum Framework for Children in their Pre-School Year", puts play at the heart of learning and it is at the heart of the curriculum devised by Judy Goodyear, Balgreen's headteacher. As she told parents earlier this month, the children are not "just playing"; they are learning in a coherent way.

The starting point is what children bring to school: items that interest them (recently, it has been conkers) or stories about life at home. There may be concerns, perhaps the relationship with a new brother or sister, or a forthcoming stay in hospital. These all form the basis for exploration activities or for talking with teachers and nursery nurses.

Mrs Goodyear believes that giving things their right names is good preparation for later understanding. The shapes with which children play are discussed in mathematical terms. A round wooden block is a cylinder and is so described. Primary and secondary teachers should be grateful for time spent on shapes during early education.

Balgreen has two teachers, including Mrs Goodyear, and four full-time equivalent nursery nurses. "Staff need good observational skills to assess pupil's learning and development and give appropriate experiences. They have to be tuned into the children's intentions," she says.

Talking with parents is an important part of the head's job. The "cover'' that she had to allow her non-teaching time disappeared in one of the rounds of council cuts and she is delighted that it is being restored. There are children from ethnic minority backgrounds at the school and liaising with their parents is important and time-consuming. A three-year-old Chinese girl with limited English is finding it hard to settle at the nursery; she needs a lot of adult time and support.

Walking around classes crowded with small group activities, Mrs Goodyear automatically relates everything to language or maths, thinking skills or emotional and social development. That reflects her background in curriculum development. Her career has included spells in primary and special schools, as well as nurseries. She was deeply involved in devising the former Lothian Region's pre-school curriculum. Her school has one copy of the new Scottish Office curriculum document but she is ordering more so all the staff, as well as interested parents, can read it .

Asked to compare the Lothian guidelines with those drafted by the Conservative Government and adapted for publication last month, she says that there is greater emphasis on language and mathematics "but not at the expense of other areas of learning and experience. We are talking here of the whole child. It is just our convenience to split things up into areas of a curriculum."

Balgreen mainly has four year olds on its roll, with some three-year-olds in each class. The younger ones learn from the older ones, Mrs Goodyear says. A trio of boys were building a wooden railway system.

All were contributing and trying to link in the branch lines with points. The older two quickly grasped the problem that Mrs Goodyear pointed out. A bridge was too low to allow the engine under it. Raising the bridge's height or substituting another were problem-solving exercises that older pupils could lead and younger ones benefit from.

A detailed profile accompanies each Balgreen child to Primary 1. About half of the pupils move to the primary school across the playground. Three or four other schools take most of the rest. Close links have been formed through twice-termly meetings of an early years' forum made up of local schools.

As well as easing the transition for pupils, the regular contacts have allowed projects on emergent writing and, more recently, on early literacy. Mrs Goodyear has no problem with the Government's intention of linking the pre-school year curriculum to the 5-14 guidelines. But she doesn't like any idea that the pre-school aspect is an add-on.

"I would be even happier if 5-14 picked up on what children are bringing to Primary 1," she says. Appropriateness should also govern baseline assessment in the first year at primary school. "It is important for the primary school to know where children are at, but how it is done is also important." Assessments are right, but there should be no suggestion in assessments that a child is already "failing" at the age of five.

Evidence of primaries' use of the pupil profiles is an encouragement to nursery staff, Mrs Goodyear says. It shows their contribution to the pupil's development is valued. It also has benefits. Primary 1 teachers noted that their entrants were comfortable with numbers from one to five so their work could start with six and beyond.

Balgreen opened in 1939 and is fortunate in its design. The building reflects the pre-war interest, then a new concept, of relating the outside world to the classroom. A verandah links classes to a garden. Pets live in cages on the verandah. In the garden, potatoes have just been dug up, amid much excitement.

Pre-war ideas of a good nursery environment coincide with today's concerns about scope for physical skills and basing learning in the pupils' surroundings.

Everything can become grist to the teachers' mill. Beyond the garden fence is the Water of Leith. It has flooded the garden only once in Mrs Goodyear's 14 years at Balgreen. "If it happens again we will be ready to do Noah and the ark."

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