Children move outwards from their caring adults a step at a time as they learn to play with other children, and to understand other adults by replicating what they have seen in their play. This happens most successfully with a progressively loosening adult scaffold, the process being in response to the interaction of experience and personality. As children’s social competence grows, so they are ready to have less adult structure and further-removed supervision.
Children with loving parents who enjoy them, play with them, and offer guidance and suggestions as they explore their environment will be healthy, emotionally well-adjusted, and psychologically advanced.
A reason often given for the trend toward early schooling is that such experience gives a child opportunity to learn how to get along with others. Several questions should be raised about this presumed benefit of early schooling. What is the evidence that these children actually do get along better? What kind of socialization should they have? Do we want them simply to make many acquaintances? Or do we expect them to develop concern and consideration for others and respect for older people? What do we really mean by “getting along”? Are these values really best developed in a crowded situation, where a child has relatively little attention from an adult whom he can use as a pattern?
Probably the greatest single goal of early childhood education should be to build in children a sense of their own worth as persons. The child must learn to feel that he is needed and valued by those about him. This is one of the richest gifts his parents can give.
We must realize that the child who is required to learn things before he is ready may quickly tire of them. Or he may become anxiety-ridden and so frustrated that he will not try at all.
The EYFS (DfES, 2007) talks about ‘reasonable risk taking’ (on practice card 1.4), a phrase I am fond of. It means that the responsible adult has recognised the risk, examined the hazards, balanced the likelihood of an accident happening against the severity of the harm that would take place if it did happen, and taken the appropriate action. What is left is an experience where the risk is reasonable for the age and stage of the children taking part in it.
What’s the best way to master language? Years of research provide the answer: It’s not with drills or computer programs, but with daily conversation that gives the child motivation and allows time to respond. When children interact with real people in a social context, they are motivated to express their needs, thoughts, and feelings. Nature has programmed us to learn language through social relationships.
Confidence in providing challenging activities, but not rash foolhardiness, should enable rather than disable adventure and risk in practice, and that confidence comes from knowledge. This knowledge is more than the adherence to a set of rules, it is about understanding and reflecting on why things happen in certain ways and the likely consequences of our actions.
In settings with outdoor spaces, the challenge for practitioners may be to review the space and to think about ways to increase the risks, rather than minimise them. A concrete square has few visible risks, and yet children fall or push each other over and accidents happen. It may even be that some of the ‘accidents’ are the result of the limitations of the space, a direct correlation with the sterile safety being offered to the children. Perhaps if they had the challenge of a pile of logs to scramble over, the risks would be focused, could be discussed and managed, and learning could take place.
In principle, a young child, given reasonable freedom and personal guidance, develops better outside the classroom than within it. This is particularly true of the first 8 years or so.
According to a 2006 report from the Future Foundation, the time parents spend looking after their children each day has quadrupled from 25 minutes in 1975 to 99 minutes in 2000. This is more than an hour extra every day. It also showed that the public believe the opposite: that parents spend less time with their children than they used to.
The vast majority of adults do not intend to harm children they do not know, so strangers are a largely dependable source of help if things go wrong. Safety messages that warn children never to speak to strangers reinforce the view that it is wrong for adults to initiate social contact with children they don’t know. A tragic event from 2002 shows where such attitudes can lead. A two-year-old girl named Abigail Rae escaped unnoticed from her nursery. Soon afterwards she was found drowned in a nearby pond after falling in. During the inquest it emerged that a man passing by had seen her wandering the streets on her own, but had done nothing. He told the inquest: ‘One of the reasons I did not go back is because I thought someone would see me and think I was trying to abduct her.’