Research big and small

We always get really excited by research and we know that some of you now will be thinking about designing studies for dissertations. In the past, we’ve always had to encourage students not to think ‘too big’ in terms of research, however it is always interesting to hear about what big research teams are doing to find out about children. Catching up with the weekend newspapers, we noticed there were some interesting articles about Jean Golding and her work with ALSPAC; but what is ALSPAC exactly? Some of you may never have even heard of it even though its work has been so important.

The title ALSPAC stands for the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children; this was a research study set up to track the lives of children born in the Bristol area between April 1991 and December 1992; it also included their parents in this tracking. The sample included 14, 000 pregnant women, any children they gave birth to and any partners of these women. Golding’s intention was to collect as much data as she could and to make the data available to other researchers in order to increase the potential of interesting and useful findings. It was intended that the findings could then influence policy.

Jean Golding’s discipline is epidemiology; an epidemiologist is a person who studies health issues and the spread of disease in specific populations. As such, she was interested in how both the environment and a child’s genes might impact on a child’s health; to put it simply, she was interested in questions of nature AND nurture and how they relate to children’s health. Furthermore, she was interested in how knowledge gained could influence practice. So how did she, and her team, go about designing the research?

As you can imagine, such a large-scale piece of longitudinal research, with such a considerable sample, has a complex and extensive methodology. A mixed methods approach has been adopted which includes questionnaires, medical and educational records, environmental measures, interviews and biological samples such as blood tests. Golding and her team state that the research has been designed in such a way ‘to determine how the individual genotype combines with environmental pressures to influence health and development’ (Golding et al., 2001, p. 75). So, what have they found out so far?

Certainly, many things that are of interest to those of us who work with or study young children and certainly too many things to list here. For example if you look at the research’s news page you will see that in 2019 findings established links between anxious mothers to be and hyperactive teens, in 2018 links between trauma in childhood and later psychotic experiences, then back in 2013 links between premature birth and low achievement at school. This is just a tiny snap shot of work they have done, it is such an interesting read we would really encourage you to have a look.

You might get some ideas for your own research however small scale that is going to be. We’d love to hear from those of you undertaking a research study and the ideas you have. Remember also to look at our book for inspiration; do let us know!

 

Tackling children’s knife crime

KnifeAngelThis week we went to see The National Monument against Violence and Aggression, better known as The Knife Angel. It’s a 20ft high sculpture of an angel made from 100,000 knives either seized or surrendered as part of amnesties. It’s touring round cathedrals in England and is in Rochester until Sunday 29th September 2019. When we were there we spoke to one of the cathedral volunteers about the piece. We asked whether they had an intended audience for the installation. The volunteer said that all schools in the area were being offered free transport to attend a one-hour session to see the Knife Angel and learn more about knife crime, and in particular targeted Year 6 and Year 7 children (i.e. those between the ages of 10-12) were being targeted. Whilst there they can sign a “pledge book” and pledge not to carry a knife.

You might be thinking that these children seem young to be receiving knife crime intervention. But recent research using data from the Millennium Cohort Study, published by the Home Office (2019:14) found that 3.5% of children had used or carried a knife at age 14. The Children’s Commissioner’s Manifesto for Children, which we spoke about in last week’s post, said that “573 children were admitted to hospital last year with stab wounds” (2019: 11). Whilst a recent report from Ofsted (2019: 4) states that “data from 21 police forces in England and Wales obtained through a freedom of information request showed that 363 sharp instruments were found on school property in 2017–18”. That’s about 10 a week, over the course of an academic year.

So perhaps that suggests that targeting children in Year 6 and Year 7 is a sensible move, and we hope that the Knife Angel plays a role in discouraging people from carrying knives. When reading about knife crime and children something that has resonated with us is a headline from academics Case and Haines (2019) who suggest that “children are not the problem, they are part of the solution” when it comes to knife crime, and engaging them in positive, nurturing relationships can be beneficial in reducing criminal outcomes. They argue that responses to knife crime “must involve partnerships between a variety of children’s services, such as youth offending teams and youth work, and other relevant organisations such as police, schools, and housing authorities. This echoes Ofsted (2019: 3) who stress that although schools can teach about knife-related dangers and can protect children whilst they are on the premise, they can “only do so much… children need everyone in society – the police, LAs, health, youth services, welfare services, housing services, local communities, their parents, social media providers and so on – to work together and to put children first and protect them from county lines, gangs, knives, drugs and from adults who pose a risk to them.”

If you have the chance to go and see the Knife Angel, then do. And also take some time to reflect on the issue of knife crime in the UK, and what you think could be beneficial in encourage children to pledge to remain knife-free. We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Manifesto for young children: We will……

Did you get chance to read the recent children’s manifesto, Guess how much we love you:  Why politicians urgently need to help our children,  ? It was published by the children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield. In it she sets out the commitment that all political parties need to make to children to ensure they can enjoy their childhood, achieve and have success in life. She also emphasises how important this is, not only for children themselves, but for society as a whole. For example, in her introduction she writes: ‘…it’s critical for this country’s prospects. Today’s children are our future economic prosperity, our tax payers and wealth producers, our support in our own old ages. But this generation will also need to change the world – to tackle the challenges of environmental degradation, to shape the opportunities of the digital era, and to address global complexity around citizenship, immigration and employment. There is a clear economic and social imperative to do the very best we can by the next generation’ (p. 1).

Although we agree that it is highly important to raise awareness for politicians about their responsibilities towards children, this quotation from the manifesto does seem to lay a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of children. This made us wonder what a really selfless manifesto would look like, particularly in terms of younger children. What promises should we be making to children, not based on what they can do for us in the furture, but purely in terms of what we can do for them. Ideally we should really be asking children, they might have very different ideas to ours. However in the meantime we have come up with a list of our own…..

The Contemplating Childhood’s Manifesto for young children

  1. We will respect play as a key way that you learn, grow, develop and be happy.
  2. We will listen to you.
  3. We will let you be outdoors as much as you need to be.
  4. We will let you get dirty and messy.
  5. We will read you lovely stories so that you grow up to love reading and books.
  6. We will make sure you are safe and that you can keep yourself safe.
  7. We will make sure you can meet and play with children from a diverse range of backgrounds and cultures.
  8. We will model kindness
  9. We will care about your parents.
  10. We will make sure you have enough good food to eat.

There was much more we could have added but thought we should stick to the first 10 that came to mind. But what about you? What would be on your list? Have we missed something really important? What promises do you think we should make to young children – we’d love to know what you think?

What does it mean to be ready for school?

This week we seem to have been talking to lots of people who are experiencing (or whose children are experiencing) transitions – into nurseries, childminders’ settings, primary schools, secondary schools and universities. Transitions can be an unsettling and uncertain time – taking on a new challenge, meeting a lot of new people and absorbing a lot of new information. Several of our guest posters have wrote about this topic before; Karen Matthews has reflected on how children transition into primary school from her perspective as an early years practitioner. Caroline Lampard-Shedden has thought about how the child’s voice is considered when making the transition to school. And Kerry Holman has thought about whether the transition between the Foundation Stage and Key Stage 1 (and from a play-based to a formal curriculum) is being overlooked.

One phrase often used when talking about how to support children with school transitions is “school readiness”. But what does this mean? Definitions are widespread, often combining two main elements of (1) ensuring that young children beginning school have some basic skills and (2) that transitions for children into school are smooth and well-prepared (OECD, 2006).  This description of school readiness, the OECD believes, most commonly fits with how children are supported to start school in France and the English-speaking world, where significance is placed on children to develop academic skills, and acquiring “a range of knowledge, skills and dispositions that children should develop as a result of classroom experiences” (2006:65).  It’s described by the OECD a “pre-primary approach” or a “readiness for school approach” (2006:57).

However, this interpretation of what it means to be ready for school is at odds with that of Scandinavian countries, which are described by the OECD as having a “social pedagogy” approach to early education. In this approach children are provided with “excellent results in terms of readiness for school” (2006:63) as a result of their holistic approach to early education that focuses on preparing the child for life by learning through play, encouraging personal interests and social interaction. The Scandinavian approach to early education and care differs vastly in their aims to that of France and the English-speaking world, with the former aiming more to support the family unit and the development of young children, whereas the latter has a stronger focus on the “schoolification” (2006:62) of early education. This schoolification approach more explicitly promotes academic readiness for school, valuing more school-like areas of development, such as mathematics, language and literacy (2006:64). We can see the difference between the “readiness for school approach” and “social pedagogy approach” through looking at ECEC curricula –whilst the UK’s EYFS (2017: 5) claims that it “gives children the broad range of knowledge and skills that provide the right foundation for good future progress through school and life” (our emphasis), Sweden’s pre-primary curriculum – The Curriculum for the Pre-School Lpfö 98 (2010: 4) states that preschool education must “lay the foundations for lifelong learning”.

We’d be interested to know what you think. What does “school readiness” mean to you? And what advice would you give to those starting new places (whether it’s nursery, school or university) at the moment?

Summer’s over: How are children socialised to keep themselves safe?

la Rochelle
Le vieux port La Rochelle

Welcome back to the start of the new academic year; we hope you had a lovely summer and managed to have a little rest and recuperation time. One positive about taking a little time out, is that it gives you chance to put your brain in a different gear and reflect on life in a different way. If you are lucky enough to be able to do this in a different environment ie go on holiday, then all the better.

One of us was able to take a train trip to France and spend a few restful days in La Rochelle, a beautiful bustling port town on the Atlantic coast. The town centre is built around the old harbour full of cafes, shops and ice cream stalls. It seemed such a family friendly place and therefore the perfect place to contemplate childhood. What really struck us as we watched even very young children, running, jumping, peddling and scooting around the edge of the harbour, was the apparent lack of concern from parents about the fact that their children might be at risk from hurtling into the deep water below; there was no wall, fence, railings, just a sheer drop – not even a life ring. We spent the week waiting for an accident to happen but of course it never did.

There is a whole genre of anecdotal writing that compares the British and the French way of bringing up their children but our observations in La Rochelle made us wonder if there was any research evidence. And then, naturally, our thoughts turned to risk taking possibilities and issues for our very youngest children including what is written about this in different cultural contexts.

Of course, we are definitely not saying that those parents we observed weren’t concerned with the risk of the sheer drop into deep water; but something had happened in the way that they had socialised their children so far, so that the children were both kept safe and also knew how to keep themselves safe by not going right to the edge (although we did see a family with young children with their legs dangling over the side). Kleppe (2018),writing about the risk taking of 1-3 years olds in the Norwegian context, would suggest that ‘children’s ability to assess risks is developed by approaching and handling, gradually, more realistic risks’ (p.259). We would love to have observed how a gradual approach had worked in this particular context.

We talk a lot about risky play in ECEC but these children, enjoying their holiday, weren’t necessarily engaging in play; rather they were spending time interacting with their families, going about their business. Which begs the question, have they learnt about keeping themselves safe through risky play in an educational setting, through parenting or a combination of both? One thing we do know is that cultural practices from the home setting are mirrored in the ECEC setting particularly as far as the youngest children are concerned.

We’d really like to know what you think, particularly in terms of cultural practices around children learning to be safe – both in the home and in the ECEC setting. Good to chat again; have a great year!

The power of the picture

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A future illustrator in the making?

We’ve been enjoying the summer so far; both of us have recently had the chance to get away from our computer screens and explore some of the UK. Polly went to Newcastle last week and visited The National Centre for Children’s Books, Seven Stories. The museum aims to “collect, champion and celebrate” children’s literature, and to “make a real difference to the children and families living nearby [because] early experience of books and stories is vital to childhood development and raising aspiration”. As well as story time sessions, areas for playing, exploring and, of course, reading books, there are also exhibitions featuring manuscripts and illustrations that form part of the museum’s collection.

Until May 2020 one of Seven Stories’ exhibitions is Elmer and Friends: The Colourful World of David McKee. It celebrates the stories and illustrations of David McKee, who you might know as the author of Elmer, Not Now, Bernard and Two Can Toucan, amongst others. Not Now, Bernard is one of our particular favourites. If you haven’t read it, do. It’s been described as “a tragic contemporary tale in which nobody lives happily ever after” by Taransaud (2016, p.70), who draws parallels between the way Bernard is ignored by his parents to Tronick’s (2007) ‘Still Face’ experiment. For a book that The Book Trust recommend for children aged three and above, the messages are rather deep, which is an especially remarkable feat as (as the exhibition states) it contains just 115 words and 25 illustrations. The powerful illustrations are what make the book so superb; they visually narrate Bernard’s desperation for his parents’ attention, which Taransaud (2016, p.71) suggests “lies at the heart of every picture”.

The power of the picture is the focus of one of the museum’s other current exhibitions, Drawing Worlds. The exhibition focuses on ten contemporary illustrators and is curated by Lauren Child. She states at the start of the exhibition that “as infants we have an amazing ability to decipher the visual world, to recognise expressions, body language, and interpret symbols, signs and images. However, we seem to quickly overlook the wonder of this universal language, neglecting the importance of visual literacy and the power it represents. Illustrated books are similarly regarded as something to grow out of as if a ‘picture’ amid the text is inherently childish.” We are reminded of Loris Malguzzi’s The Hundred Languages of Children poem, which stresses how children have a multitude of ways of expressing themselves but these are suppressed by “school and culture” who “tell the children to discover the world already there.” Child tells us how children’s ability to “read” picture books is stripped of them by adults, who view them as babyish rather than, she suggests, like poetry in the way “a piece that can be looked at over and over and interpreted differently each time.”

If you have the opportunity to head to Newcastle to visit Seven Stories then we’d highly recommend it. If not, you might find that some of the museum’s exhibitions are touring closer to you. And whether you are able to visit the exhibitions or not, we’d still encourage you to reflect upon how you see children’s picture books – are they something to “grow out of” as children’s literacy develops? If not, what can we do to ensure they aren’t simply seen as childish?

We are going to have another break from our computer screens over the summer and grab a chance to recuperate and relax (and finish writing our next book!) before the next academic year starts. We’ll be back in September and will share what we’ve been up to over the next few weeks then. We hope you have a chance to have some rest and relaxation of your own.

Looking after the earth

Screenshot 2019-07-01 at 19.08.49

 

We are starting off with an apology this week; our regular readers will have noticed that we have missed a few posts recently. Mostly this is because life has caught up with us and we are furiously focused on meeting the deadline for our next book Understanding Gender and Early Childhood: An introduction to the key debates (working title) which we need to have finished by August 31st. Thank you for not deserting us! We did take time out at the weekend though to watch a bit of Glastonbury (although one of us was more interested in the Spice Girls Reunion Tour!) and enjoy the sunshine. The Glastonbury Festival has of course taken the major step of banning single use plastic bottles and David Attenborough took to the stage to remind the crowds of what an important step this was and our collective duty to care for the earth.

Of course, environmental issues are everywhere in the media at the moment. As I was reading around these ideas, and how they related young children, I came across a lovely quotation in a paper by Hall et al (2014) entitled ‘What can we learn through careful observation of infants and toddlers in nature?’ They cite David Sobel (1998) who reminds us we must teach children ‘to love the earth before we ask them to save it’ (p. 195). But we know that, despite all the initiatives in formal settings such as beautiful outdoor learning environments, forest schools and outdoor nurseries, children are having fewer and fewer opportunities to engage with the outdoors. Last year’s Children’s Commissioner report ‘Playing Out’ (2018) set out the issues plainly:

‘children now spend just four hours a week playing out…The area around the home where children are allowed to go unsupervised has shrunk by 90% since the 70s. And the problem now gets worse during school holidays. Research from ukactive suggests that children return to school in September less fit than when they broke up in July, with children from poorer areas worse affected’ (p. 2).

It stands to reason that if children are inside then they are not engaging with nature first-hand and therefore learning to love it.

It might be sensible to suggest that if we want to encourage a love of nature in young children then we should start as young as possible. There is plenty of research which focuses on the benefits of the outdoors for young children although surprisingly very little of this discusses what happens with the 0-2s. We have recently received funding from the Froebel Trust to investigate this gap in our knowledge. You can read about it here and we will update you as we progress with this work.

We know already that there are particular barriers with this age group to do with weather, keeping warm, safety and staff ratios. But some of these barriers seem to be particularly English ones that in other cultures they manage to circumvent. There has to be a will to get this younger age group outside for the sake of children’s health and well-being on the one hand and, perhaps,  the needs of the planet on the other. In this way we could support children to develop as those with agency who not only enjoy being in nature but who want to protect it.

Some suggest it may be too late now to take small steps in protecting nature, big gestures may be needed instead – but please let us know about your small steps. What are you doing with young children to address issues around caring for the earth?

Celebrating Children’s Day in Poland

Last Saturday (1st June) we were wished a Happy Children’s Day by one of our Polish friends. Whilst in the UK we celebrate Universal Children’s Day on 20th November (which we’ve considered in a previous post), in Poland (along with almost 50 other countries) the dedicated day for celebrating children is 1st June. Our friend said that it’s a big occasion in her home country, with lots of ways that children are made special. She says that towns organise family fun days with concerts, shows, competitions and cultural events so that “almost every park or amphitheatre has something going on”. Parents and family members give children treats and take them out, almost like a birthday celebration. She remembered that when she was at school instead of lessons on Children’s Day there was a sports day with games and races instead. She was proud to tell us that children are the focus even in parliament, with children taking over and debating children-related topics on this day every year since 1994. To mark the day this year the Polish Statistical Information Centre released an infographic which demonstrates how although the percentage of the population in Poland that are children has remained almost static since 2014 (15.3% of the population, just slightly lower than the EU average of 15.6%), there is evidence that children are becoming more valued and visible in everyday life, for instance the number of playgrounds in tourist accommodation has almost tripled since 2009.

We think it’s wonderful that Polish culture celebrates children in this way, in particular how children’s competencies and capabilities are recognised in their chance to contribute to Polish Parliament. We’d be interested in hearing more about how the day is marked around the world – what are your experiences of celebrating Children’s Day, in Poland and beyond?

Children and dogs

 

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Photo courtesy of Charlie

 

Scrolling through social media as a dog lover, I come across numerous, delightful videos of charming dogs doing cute things. At the same time, there are very many clips of dogs with babies which I choose not to watch as they always make me feel a bit uncomfortable. Dog owners may think they have the loveliest pup in the world however I believe being over cautious is the best stance; I’ve heard too many harrowing stories of the dangers dogs can present to young children.
At the same time, it is impossible to ignore all the recent initiatives taking place which use dogs to support children’s development; dogs which listen to children read, dogs for wellbeing, dogs who support children on the autistic spectrum etc. Research into these initiatives is in its early days although I notice more and more students are choosing this topic as a focus for their dissertation. There is still much research work to be done; it is not only an under researched area but there are also suggestions that, in research work to date, methodologies used can be a little problematic. However there does appear to be consensus that dogs are  beneficial to young children in terms of their cognitive development (Hall et al., 2016).

In addition to supporting young children with learning to read, it is also suggested that having the opportunity to interact with a dog can impact positively on wellbeing. For example, in children with emotional development issues, engagement with a dog at school can have a positive impact on their behaviours and dispositions (Anderson and Olson, 2006). Ward et al. (2019) use the lovely expression a ‘calming and joyful effect on adults and children’ to describe what the presence of a dog can do when they researched adult/child/dog/ interactions in nature. So does the dog reign supreme or might other animals have an equivalent positive impact?

It is generally thought that all pets are a positive addition to a child’s life whether in the home or the early years/school setting. For example there is research to suggest that having pets impacts on self-esteem, cognitive and social development. (Purewal et al., 2017). Russo et al’s research (2017) shows how parents certainly see the benefits of pet ownership for their children and as such how the pet is considered an important member of the family. From our own experiences in practice we saw how pets such as guinea pigs in the setting helped children who were lacking in confidence or just having a ‘wobble’ on a particular day.
Do you have any experience of using animals in the early years setting and the benefits they can bring? We would love to hear about them….

References

Anderson, K.L. and Olson, M.R. (2006) The value of a dog in a classroom of children with severe emotional disorders, Anthrozoös, 19(1), pp. 35-49.
Hall, S, Gee, N.R., Mills, D.S. (2016) Children Reading to Dogs: A Systematic Review of the Literature. PLOS ONE, 11(2), pp. 1-22.
Purewal, R., Christley, R., Kordas, K., Joinson, C., Meints, K., Gee, N. and Westgarth, C. (2017) Companion Animals and Child/Adolescent Development: A Systematic Review of the Evidence, Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health, 14(3), p. 234.
Russo, N., Vergnano, V., Berger, D.and Prola, L. (2017) Small Pilot Survey on Parents’ Perception of the Relationship between Children and Pets, Vet. Sci, 4(4), p. 52.
Ward, T., Goldingay, S. and Parson, J. (2019) Evaluating a supported nature play programme, parents’ perspectives, Early Child Development and Care, 189(2), pp. 270-283.

 

Parents’ perspectives of childcare and early years

LetterThis week Polly received a letter in the post from the Department for Education (DfE)! She has been randomly selected by Ipsos Mori, an independent research organisation commissioned by the DfE, to complete an online survey about parental views of childcare and out of school activities. The letter arrived with a free reusable shopping bag (more on that in a later post!) as a potential sweetener, along with the suggestion that it’s important to take part to “have your say in shaping services for families and children”.

Polly has now begun completing the survey, though hasn’t finished it yet. The questions begin by asking about awareness of entitlement to free early years education and also awareness of Tax-Free Childcare. Next they ask about the frequency of educational activities at home (like how much reading, activities with numbers and words are done at home, and how many books aimed at under fives are in the house). They then move on to opinions on the childcare options in the local area, for instance in relation to criteria like affordability, quality and suitability. Following this there are questions about how local childcare options might impact on decisions about working. Then finally there are questions about personal information such as ethnicity, levels of participant qualification and their financial circumstances.

This isn’t a new survey but an annual one; the Department for Education have collected and published data about parental views of childcare and early years since 2004. The report published about the 2018 results indicates that the questions asked of parents this year are broadly similar, although there have been some changes both to the questions asked and to the survey methods. This is as a result of a consultation carried out by the government last year which aimed to consider perspectives on both the Childcare and Early Years Survey of Parents and also the similar Survey of Childcare and Early Years Providers. For instance, in previous years the survey has been carried out face-to-face, whereas in 2019 Ipsos Mori are trialling a web mode version and telephone surveys. Changes have also been made to the sample. In the 2018 survey the target sample was 6000 parents of 0-14 year olds (in actual fact the achieved sample was close to this, with 5922 participants) and this is the same proposed sample for the 2020 survey. But for 2019 the target sample is 5000 parents of 0-4 year olds, with the aim that this “will enable more in-depth analysis of early years policy priorities and various family and child demographics within the 0-4 age range” (2018, p.4).

We’d recommend you have a look at last year’s report on parental views of childcare and also the survey consultation document. We’d like to know what you think of the changes and the survey overall – do you think the right questions are being asked? Do you think it’s important that research like this is taking place? We’d love to hear your views.

Trends in early years practice.

This week’s post has been written by one of our regular contributors, Karen Matthews, who is an early years practitioner. Thanks once again Karen for a great post!

Many areas of life are spurred on by trends or hot topics and the early years sector is no different.  It’s all too easy to get drawn in by a ‘current trend’ or the latest craze, buzz word or concept, so what can we do to ensure that our vision and ethos is right for the children in our settings? How can we evolve and be reflective, whilst keeping at the forefront the aim of providing the best care and education for our particular group of young children?

My journey in early years started with a naive idea that I wanted to work with children and a B-tec National Diploma, back when I was 16, to my recent completion of a Masters in Early Childhood Education.  In this time, I have seen many changes in policy; from desirable learning outcomes in 1996 to the current framework, which has been revised a number of times and of which a further revision is imminent.  Combining work and study through these developments has given me the opportunity to explore and reflect upon many theories, ideas, thoughts and concepts.

Early years practice has evolved alongside policy, as has my own practice during my journey; scaffolded by academic study as well as experience, over more than 25 years I have explored and reflected upon my pedagogy. Using the metaphor of the human body; the skeleton, is my drive and passion to be the best early years advocate that I can be, my muscles are the qualifications and the skin is my experience, without which, for me the qualifications would not make sense

I have realised that, more than ever, there is a need for practitioners and all those involved in early years, to be continually reflective; of themselves and their pedagogy, their practice as well as developments in the early years sector.  There is a wealth of exciting developments in the early years sector, for example, Channel 4’s ‘Old Peoples home for 4 year olds’, ‘Loose parts’ and ‘In the moment planning’ to name but a few; and whilst very beneficial these developments often come with specifications or requirements which can be prescriptive.  Moreover, these raise the question as to whether we need embrace one single idea or simply take from a concept the elements that work for us, or more specifically, our current groups of children.

The recipe for high quality early years practice requires knowledge of the unique needs of a group or individual children, combined with an understanding of approaches and methods to draw upon and I would advise caution in adopting a single approach, method or philosophy.  Instead, knowledgeable, reflective practitioners who can select from their extensive knowledge base the strategies that meet the needs of the current group because “No theorist has all the answers in respect of explaining the development of children’s understanding.  Each casts some light on the problem and offers a slightly different emphasis.  Some have been more influential than others and, in due course, new theorists will come along with new perspectives on human understanding” (Alfrey, 2004, p. 2).

Reading recently about the work of Malaguzzi (Holland, 2017) a single paragraph mentioned the names of eight theorists that had inspired his work; having a range of theories, philosophies, ideas and concepts to draw upon allows us the opportunity to really meet the needs of the individual child.  We are fortunate to have a metaphorical tapestry of theories and theorists to draw upon.

What do you think?  What is your own pedagogy or philosophy and what ideas and concepts do you draw upon?

What can babies get out of the theatre?

Theatre.jpgLast weekend one of us went to see a theatre performance aimed at children aged from six to eighteen months. In the weeks leading up to the show, several people had expressed surprise that such a thing existed – “what can babies get out of the theatre?!” It turns out that babies can get a lot out of the theatre, particularly when the production is founded on research about how they develop. Kaleidoscope, devised by Fliskit Theatre Company, is just that. The production features one performer who occupies a stage decorated with cool-white light bulbs. Her interactions with objects on the stage leads the bulbs to change colour over the course of the show, introducing lights in blue, red, yellow, green, pink and orange. It’s hard to explain, but you can watch a trailer of the show here. The production is based on research from The Sussex Baby Lab at the University of Sussex about how children perceive colour. It’s very cleverly and thoughtfully done – for instance the order that the colours are shown in the show echoes the order in which babies develop colour categories. As an article about The Sussex Baby Lab research explains, “by two months, babies can tell red and green colours apart; a few weeks later, they can also tell apart blues and yellows.” It’s this sequence (red, green, blue and then yellow) that we see in the production.

About 15 babies and their adults attended the 25-minute performance, which maintained the babies’ attention for the full show. The incredibly slow pace supported babies to follow it, as did the repetitive dialogue. The performer playfully communicated in baby-like babble and mimicked the young audience’s excited interjections; the only intelligible words were the names of colours as light bulbs changed throughout the show. The actor interacted with the babies too; taking time to show them stage props individually and pass around shiny material and colour-changing light-up globes at the end of the show. The babies then had the opportunity to explore the stage and props in some stay and play time. All in all, a big hit for the audience, some of whom has only just mastered sitting up.

The people who wondered “what can babies get out of the theatre?!” may have (a) underestimated babies’ capabilities to engage and focus on a structured performance, (b) underestimated a theatre company’s ability to produce an engaging show worth focusing on or (c) both. Kaleidoscope illustrates that when pitched at an appropriate level, babies can engage with, and enjoy, the arts. If you are able to see the production, we’d recommend it. If you’ve already seen it, we’d love to know your thoughts.

Moving at your own speed

Rebecca Reynolds is an independent early years literacy consultant; this is the third blog in a series on children’s early writing that she has written for us.

What does moving at your own speed look like in the classroom?

In my second blog about handwriting (as distinct from writing in its other forms), I explored the idea that all children showed ‘readiness’ for letter formation at different times and arrive in school with vastly differing skills and experiences which pave the way towards ‘readiness’. In a well-planned classroom many resources for the year ahead can be made before the children start in September. This ensures that valuable teacher time is not spent during the week, or even weekends, making resources or preparing for the fast moving demands of a child’s individual progressions. (Full details of ideas for these can be discussed with me directly.)

The bigger decision to be made is when and how to implement a program which allows every child to make their own progressions at their own speed whilst still maintaining a free flow of other activities during the day. Within a class of 20/30 children how do I reach each one every day? Confident handwriting is build up in tiny daily steps. Try to picture a time of day when a child can routinely complete a 5 min task within the framework of a free flow of other activities. Some practitioners favour on entry to the classroom first thing in the morning. Many children seem to settle better when they know they have a routine, familiar activity they can go to. Building independence during such activities is key to good classroom management and also gives the child a huge sense of achievement and self-esteem before the day has begun in earnest.

Imagine the classroom where some children are playing with fine motor control games, some outside, some tracing their names, some choosing puzzles, drawing or on a computer. With the practitioners managing the flow of children subtly, each child could manage a routine motor control/name writing or handwriting task in under 5 mins, enjoy a morning greeting from the teacher, greet their friends and play all within 20 minutes. There are numerous great ideas, tips and resource lists to be found regarding pre-writing and writing activities at : Oxfordshire County Council’s site, the document entitled ‘Supporting children’s writing in the reception class.’

Once the child is well versed in the routine and is working on becoming independent the teacher is able to efficiently manage the micro progressions for everyone. They are barely perceptible to the naked eye, being so small, and of course, with everyone travelling at their own speed. Rather like an army of little ants, all with their own tasks, moving purposefully from one to the other.

The greatest joy when children are moving at their own speed, is that they recognise their own achievements and delight in their own progress because they are not being ‘held’ in a group, compared to anyone else, or made to feel that they are being restricted by a task which is too easy or too difficult. Rather like a 6-lane motorway, everyone is heading in the same direction, at different speeds and able at any time to accelerate, decelerate, change lanes or overtake whenever their skills, confidence and concentration allows!

If you would like to find out more about Rebecca’s work, please visit her website or email her at rebeccareynolds@literacyconsultant.org

World Health Organisation update their recommendations for children under five

img_20190426_140741.jpgThis week the World Health Organisation has updated some of their recommendations for children under five. What we’ve found curious is how the updated guidelines have been reported by the popular press. For instance BBC News lead with “No sedentary screen time for babies, WHO says”, Nursery World state “Guidance recommends no screen time for under-twos” and The Sun sensationalises the report with the warning that “Kids under two should never be allowed to watch ANY screens – or they’ll get fat, WHO warns”. We’ve considered before on the blog how newspapers are fuelling a moral panic about children’s media use and we don’t dispute that young children do watch television. Yet recommendations about children’s screen time only made up a small part of the WHO’s updated 36-page guidance, which altogether focuses on physical activity, sedentary behaviour and sleep for children aged under five. The report makes for interesting reading.

For children in three age categories (under one, one-two years old and three-four years old) the World Health Organisation gives guidance on how much time children should be spending on three areas – physical activity, sedentary screen time and good quality sleep. They state that their guidelines are for all healthy children “irrespective of gender, cultural background or socio-economic status of families and are relevant for children of all abilities” (2019; viii). Many pieces of research have been taken into account when devising the guidelines, although some people have criticised the recommendations because there are still gaps in research about children’s physical activity, which the WHO themselves acknowledge.

Parents and practitioners may now be questioning how to ensure they are following the updated guidelines. In some cases, they may find the guidance useful, as it is does give exact amounts of time that children should be devoting to activities. For instance, the report states that children under one should engage in at least 30 minutes of tummy time per day, whereas NHS guidance on tummy time is slightly more woolly. However, the advice that children under five should not be restrained for more than an hour at a time (whether that be in prams, car seats or baby carriers) might be daunting for those with circumstances where that is unfeasible, for instance because of long work commutes.

We’d encourage you to have a look at the new guidelines for yourself to see what you think. Do you think they are a useful tool for parents and practitioners to improve children’s physical activity, sedentary behaviour and sleep habits? Will you be changing your practices with children as a result of this new report?

This fine place so close to home

Thanks to Paula Stone for this week’s article; are some children seen as more important than others in our society?

 

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Author’s photo

 

Since reading the article in the Guardian on 25thMarch “Too poor to play: children in social housing blocked from communal playground” I have been deeply, deeply troubled. The story reports how a housing development in London is segregating the children of the social housing tenants from those of wealthier homebuyers by excluding them from some communal play areas – whilst discharging their duty to provide play space for under-fives by providing a small strip of toddler play equipment specifically for the social housing children.

In subsequent articles published by the Guardian it seems that this housing estate is not alone in its practices.

As someone who grew up in socio-economic deprivation in the 1960s, and lived on a council estate as it was known then, I do not recall any social segregation between rich and poor; we all just played on ‘the green’. But it seems that negative and deficit depiction of people from lower socio-economic groups has become even more evident in the present day with a widening in the gap between rich and poor. There now seems to be an expectation that the working-class show deference to their more affluent peers as clearly illustrated in this situation. The contempt and class blaming, what Owen Jones calls the ‘demonization of the working-class’ found in wider society is illustrated beautifully by one of the comments in response to the article

I think the social housing people SHOULD be kept separate. I live in a private part of a development, but the social housing children are awful. Antisocial behaviour, vile language, litter, vandalism. I wish I lived in a development that did restrict where they could go!

The way that we, as social beings, are treated and learn to treat others can have a profound effect on how we see ourselves and other people well into adulthood. In both, the practices of the housing development and in this comment above there is a suggestion of working-class being the inferior ‘other’. This can only leave a lasting legacy on both the poor children who will inherit feelings of subordination and marginalisation and the wealthier children who will grow up thinking that it is acceptable to demonize a group of people because of their lack of social, economic and cultural capital. We all need to challenge practices like this.

This story does have a happy ending – following widespread condemnation the children from the social housing have been ‘granted’ permission to play in the playground and the wall has been removed. Does this improve the situation? I suspect it will for the future residents; but for those already living in both parts of the estate the damage has been done.

What does this situation say about how we treat each other in 21stcentury? How can we, as adults, make sure that everyone is seen first and foremost as human beings regardless of gender, race, disability and class.  What small things can you do to encourage and celebrate diversity?

 

Should we reward children for full school attendance?

IMG_20190406_131441.jpgWe realise that it’s ironic to write a blog post about punctual and full attendance as we are publishing this post later than usual this week. But yesterday (when we should have been uploading this post) we went to a restored house that used to be a Victorian girls’ boarding school. On display in the schoolroom were Queen Victoria medals that some of the pupils had been awarded for full and punctual attendance. They were introduced in 1887 and achieving one of these was no mean feat; the V&A talk about how there was little treatment for childhood illnesses (so missing school because of sickness was common) and how girls in particular were often kept at home if their mother was working, giving birth or unwell so that they could look after their younger siblings. The scheme was scrapped in 1916 because resources had to be redistributed due to World War One. But we know it’s still common in schools to reward 100% attendance – should it be?

Many schools in the UK give prizes and certificates for those pupils who achieve 100% attendance. As Ofsted use attendance data as part of their judgement when doing inspections, it’s become necessary for schools to take measures to ensure attendance is as high as possible. But is it right to award prizes for something over which children have no control? Back in 2017, one mother made the headlines after refusing to permit her son to receive his attendance prize (a trip to a soft play centre) because of her belief that they reward luck and “exclude the weakest”. Similarly one teacher has argued that attendance awards send the message that “work comes before all else, even our own health and wellbeing”. And a recent study from Harvard University found awarding prizes did not improve attendance. In fact when “surprise” awards were given at the end of a school year, these had the impact of reducing subsequent attendance and acting as demotivators. This is suggested to be because the awards signal that “award recipients have performed the behavior (attended school) more than their peers have. And second, that recipients have performed the behavior to a greater degree than was organizationally expected” (2018, p.2).

And if we shouldn’t reward high attendance, should we punish low attendance instead? Schools and councils have the power to take legal action to reprimand parents of low-attenders by issuing fines, instructing a supervisor to assist with getting children to school, sending parents to parenting classes and even prosecuting them. Although these measures are not without controversy; in 2016 one parent successfully won a High Court ruling to overturn his prosecution for taking his daughter on a term-time holiday, after arguing that missing seven days of school did not amount to “failing to attend regularly”. And it’s easy to see why parents could be tempted to take their children on holiday during term time when it can cost a family of four almost £3000 more to travel in August than in June.

So, should we do away with school attendance prizes and prosecuting for term-time holidays? Or do you think we should return to medals for those pupils who don’t miss any lessons? We’d like to know what you think.

Busy times, busy women

Busy times for us both at the moment because, as well as everything else going on in our lives, we are working on the first draft of our second book. Generally, this seems to involve occasionally meeting up for coffee and comparing notes on how much (or how little!) we have done and promising to try harder before the next meeting.  We work very well together as writers, dividing up the chapters to write and then getting together to give each other critical feedback and make sure that what we have written flows.

Whereas as our first book focused on approaches to research in early childhood, the second is looking at the often contentious area of gender issues in early childhood. It’s always problematic writing about gender as you can easily tie yourself up in knots and start to talk in stereotypical ways without meaning to; as the seminal gender theorist Connell warns (2011, p. ix): ‘The issues are explosive and tangled, the chances of going astray are good’.

Once you begin thinking about gender, it’s difficult to stop and can colour everything you see. We think about conversations with our predominantly female students and the breadth of responsibilities they have working with young children, yet how little they are rewarded financially and how much of their goodwill is taken for granted. We think about the media highlighting the ‘female’ leadership response of Jacinda Ardern following the terrible terrorist attacks in New Zealand and wonder why this has to be seen as a gendered response. We also think about the disastrous Brexit negotiations in the UK context and wonder, as one of our students said, ‘I don’t agree with Theresa May’s politics, but do you think there is some gender bullying going on?’ In her wonderful book ‘Of Women in the Twenty-First Century’ Shami Chakrabarti describes the post referendum meeting between May and Trump when he ‘grabbed and patted the hand of Britain’s second woman prime minister and she allowed him to do it….It was a sad day…’(p.23).

What is the connection between all these instances?  Connell (2016) encourages us to see how gender issues on a micro level impact on those on a macro level and vice versa.  For example there is a connection between gendered issues such as femicide, militarisation and ‘the erosion of women’s rights’  on the one hand and every day issues of ‘intimate relationships, [and] personal identities’ (p.4) on the other.  If this is so, we can see the link between  Trump holding May’s hand and the status of the underpaid, predominantly female sector who work so hard to improve outcomes for young children.

Please contribute to our conversation about gender as we work on our book; we appreciate your insights.

 

Children’s Centres’ “fight for survival”

Yesterday the Local Government Association (LGA) claimed that Sure Start children’s centres in England and Wales are in a “fight for survival” as the amount of funding for them fell by 25% between 2014/15 and 2017/18. And despite the fact that the Sutton Trust has already previously estimated that between 2009 and 2017 more than 1000 centres may have closed, the LGA suggest it is “inevitable” that more centres will be forced to shut. We’ve written before about why children need children’s centres, but this week we are sharing someone else’s perspective. One parent, who wishes to remain anonymous, has written this piece below about their experiences of visiting their local children’s centre:

Since becoming a parent I’ve become a firm advocate of the power of Sure Start. Becoming a parent can be an isolating experience, as new mums and dads find that (a) their usual support networks are at work whilst they are at home with the new baby, and (b) surviving on maternity pay means every penny counts when it comes to finding activities and things to do with your child. The groups I’ve attended at my local children’s centre have all been free and have been great for meeting new people, finding out more about being a parent and learning about my child’s development. I’ve attended sessions on things like weaning my baby, helping them with good sleeping habits and learning how their brain develops. I’ve been able to build a group of friends who I now chat to every day. We share our babies’ progress, ask for advice when we aren’t sure what we are doing and check in with each other to make sure we are all doing okay. And we wouldn’t have that group support without the children’s centre bringing us together.

I find it sad that my child and I have missed out on Sure Start groups that used to be run in my local area; I know there used to be much more on offer. In the last two years the three centres that were closest to my house have closed. There are a couple of parent and child groups that I go to every week that used to be run by the children’s centres but were scrapped. Subsequently volunteers have taken over the running of them, and ask for a donation from parents just to cover the room hire and resources cost. I’m very grateful to the volunteers for stepping in – definitely evidence of the Big Society in practice.

I worry about what will happen if further cuts are made to local children’s centre provision. My child and I have benefited so much from the support they offer, as I know others have. If the LGA’s estimations are correct that more centres are set to close then I feel sorry for those yet to have children, who won’t be able to benefit from the help and guidance I’ve received from them.

Have you benefited from children’s centre services? In what ways have they helped you and your child?

Professional identity; who am I and how do others see me?

A poignant post this week from an early years practitioner who wishes to remain anonymous.

Creeping towards 43 years old, with a career in early years that started when I was 16, I recently undertook a role as a nursery teacher in a maintained nursery class.  My experience within the early years sector is vast and varied and includes a variety of settings in the PVI sector.  Scaffolding this experience is my learning journey that has lead me to a masters qualification; I would say that I have found my vocation and the passion and enthusiasm that I have for supporting young children in the foundation for their futures continues to burn brightly.

So I know what my professional identity is; it is built on a commitment to continuing professional development and a continual reflexivity of being the best early years advocate that I can be… but how do others view me?

A local authority that I previously worked within made quality payments to settings that employed graduates. These were top up payments per hour, per child; 30p for an ‘early years teacher’ and 90p for a ‘qualified teacher’ (QTS) paid under teacher terms and conditions.  From what I can gather, this incentive is to encourage early years settings to employ a graduate; moreover, I would suggest that to a degree, this local authority values the contribution that graduates make to early years settings. However they still differentiate between an ‘early years teacher’ (a practitioner committed to early years) and a ‘qualified teacher’ with QTS.  I would like to note here that at the time I was employed within a PVI setting where I was often not counted in the ratio and given the freedom to develop my role based on the needs of the children. Furthermore, I was recognised and valued for the early years professional that I am.

When I applied for my current nursery teacher role, the head teacher and governing body were happy for me to apply with my early years professional status (EYPS); however, when it came to the job offer the post was offered on the unqualified teacher scale which is significantly lower than for teachers holding QTS.  My workload and job description is on par with other teachers; although I could argue more as I have responsibility for up to 60 children, split between two classes.

I have studied for almost 10 years to MA level, a journey which has propelled me from early years practitioner to knowledgeable, reflective and confident early years professional.  I have specialised in early years and undertaken the stringent assessment process for early years professional status however in the eyes of the local authority I am considered ‘unqualified’ and more importantly, everyday I face challenges that conflict with my professional and personal identity.

Recently, the ‘Early Years Workforce Strategy’ (2017) highlighted the need to grow the graduate early years workforce; however this recommendation has been dismissed and as recently as the beginning of this year it was suggested that a decline in uptake of places on specialist early years graduate programmes needs to be addressed to avoid losing early years teaching as a career option (Bayram, 2019).

Lawson (2019) suggests that with the current situation surrounding pay and conditions there is a risk that early years will become a profession where only those who can afford to work in it do so.  Luckily I am in a position to stand by what I believe in – however, I wonder if some who are not will find their professional and personal identify being compromised?

So where am I now? Secure in my knowledge of what is good practice when it comes to young children in early years settings, a committed and reflective practitioner who will continue to strive to be the most effective practitioner that I can be.

Thank you for your honesty and for reminding us of the issues that those who work in the early years sector face. We would welcome any responses and suggestions of ways forward.

LEGO: The building blocks of children’s development

fs.jpgYou probably know we like LEGO as we’ve used photos of our own figures to accompany previous posts. Recently we went to see a LEGO exhibition at a museum local to us. It featured models representing British history over time, from a model of a stone age house to figures of famous people from the 20th century, like the Beatles and Tim Berners-Lee. The star attraction was an 8m long model of the Flying Scotsman train, as you can see in the photo of the interior of one of the carriages accompanying this post. The exhibition was attended by lots of children who got the chance to demonstrate their own Lego skills afterwards in ‘the Brick Pit’. We saw them making models of thing like boats, castles, towers and love hearts. It got us thinking about the ways that playing with LEGO specifically can be beneficial for children’s learning and development.

Unsurprisingly, the LEGO Education website lists several benefits for pre-school children, including developing mathematical and scientific concepts, fostering language skills and supporting social development in turn-taking, negotiation and self-regulation. The LEGO Foundation website also talks about how being engaged in play activities (such as LEGO) can be beneficial to children’s learning in a variety of ways. Their Six Bricks booklet shares Lego activities you can do with children with each person having just six bricks, which can support language, problem solving and collaboration. It’s definitely worth a look. But were interested to see whether more impartial sources, like articles in academic journals, support these claims too. It’s definitely possible to read studies that suggest that playing with LEGO helps young children’s development, for instance in supporting their mathematical abilities and social skills. Although we struggled to find pieces of research that had researched with LEGO specifically, as the majority explore block play more generally. It’s much easier to find studies that have investigated block play, for instance finding benefits for language and social development, literacy and abstract thinking.

We’d be interested to know what you think. In what ways have you seen LEGO play a part in children’s learning and development, either at home or in their educational settings?

What’s in a name?

Rebecca Reynolds is an independent early years literacy consultant. This is the second of a series of 3 posts she is writing for us on the subject of children’s handwriting.

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For a child, the ability to write their own name is one of their most noticeable achievements, one which they become very proud of.  It tells the world, ‘this is me’ or marks the ownership of a picture they have drawn. It is something that children show a great deal of interest in. This is possibly the first time they will connect with the significance of writing, as opposed to the printed word. Children who are read to, will have connected with the significance of the printed word through story books.

There are many, many stages a child goes through before they will be able to write their own name. To begin with, just recognising what it looks like can be tricky enough. There are dozens of fun activities, games and songs which early year’s settings employ so well, which pave the way towards this.

Handwriting is a multisensory activity. As you form each letter, your hand shares information with language processing areas in your brain. As your eyes track what you’re writing, you engage these areas. The same goes if you say letter sounds and words when you write” (Horowitz, 2018).

But, once a child joins a reception class, how does a teacher, faced with a huge range of abilities, backgrounds and experiences start to identify who is ready to write their name. What does ‘readiness’ look like and how do we cater for every level simultaneously? How can each child travel at their own speed at their own speed?

In my previous blog, I talked about gross and fine motor movements and how to develop a repertoire of actions which will support a child’s move towards handwriting when the time is right. This can indicate a ‘physical readiness’. Once a child can recognise their own name, and identify it from amongst a group of others, then you have some visual discrimination skills and developing of identity. Once a child is mark making with purpose, possibly naming their drawings, attempting to create the first letter sound as a means of ownership, then you have a need or desire to learn how to write your name. From there, the practitioner can informally assess what the next step could be. It may be sequencing their name with pegs marked with letters, which peg onto a lolly stick with their name on. This further develops fine motor strength, at the same time as sequencing the letters of their name. Possibly, tracing over simple pictures or lines, loops or waves, to improve hand eye coordination. Those children able to demonstrate these skills might move on to tracing their name with verbal support from an adult, sometimes this can take many weeks to become embedded learning. Once, this motor planning is established, and a child can do this without verbal support then progression on to close copying is possible.

There are many indicators that a child is ready for progression, one important one is whether these skills are being transferred to their independent activities. Do they write letter shapes whilst in the role play shop, café or hospital? Are they labelling people in their pictures, are they naming their own work unprompted?

There are a huge number of progressions to move on to from here, full name, numbers, letter families and capitals, but each needs to be addressed at the child’s own speed. This applies both to print and cursive script. Some children will master these stages quickly, becoming independent relatively easily whilst others will take much longer and need much more support. The important thing to remember is that everyone needs to travel at their own speed!

Managing all these stages simultaneously for the teacher, could be very labour intensive. Preparation is the key. Many resources can be made in advance and selected at the appropriate time for each child. This ensures that the teacher does not need to spend time writing in individual books, weekly or even daily.

If you would like to find out more about Rebecca’s work, please visit her website or email her at rebeccareynolds@literacyconsultant.org

 

 

Is this app ……appropriate?

Another great blog to get us thinking by Dr Paula Stone; let Paula know what you think about this initiative by adding your comments.

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This week (20 February), the Education Secretary Damian Hinds has announced the roll-out of free access to educational apps to families from disadvantaged backgrounds in a bid to boost early literacy and language skills. Up to 375 schools and nurseries will be recruited for the pilot projects, run by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and Leeds-based education charity SHINE.

Families from disadvantaged backgrounds, with children aged two to four, will be given free access to some of the best children’s educational apps for smart phones and tablets, encouraging parents to think about how to use children’s screen time constructively, rather than as an easy distraction [sic]. Parents will also benefit from text message tips to support children’s early language and literacy at home, the DfE reports.

Mr. Hinds states that ‘the home learning environment can have a huge impact on a child’s ability to succeed in life, so I want to support families with hints and tips to propel their child’s learning so they are not behind on their first day of school and they can go on to reach their full potential, whatever their background’.

I will never fail to be astonished by the myopic view of government minsters when trying to address socio-economic disadvantage and the impact that this has on young children’s lives. First of all, they are making the assumption that families in socio-economic disadvantage have smartphones and tablets.   Secondly, do they honestly think that parents from low-income families will benefit from being sent three texts each week to encourage activities that help develop literacy, numeracy and socio-emotional skills when they are struggling to feed and clothe their children. Recent figures from the Resolution Foundation indicate that in 2016 30.3 per cent of children lived in relative poverty (i.e. in a household with an equivalised disposable income after housing costs of below 60 per cent of the median) and this number is continuing to grow. What these families need is proper welfare support but instead they are offered further welfare cuts, and benefit freezes. We are on the cusp of a child poverty crisis which will damage both the life chances of a generation and the wider economy and what are hard pressed families offered ……an app.

Do you think initiatives like this are a good way of making a real difference for children from disadvantaged backgrounds?  

‘Get some fresh air’ – The importance of outdoor play

This week’s blog is written by Charlotte Hanks a final year Early Childhood Studies student.

 

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Forest school placement (permission granted by forest school

 

Recently I have been reading ‘Swallows and Amazons’ by Ransome (1930).      I can’t help but think how lovely it is to read about the adventures these children have sailing and camping on an island with no adults around. However, I also think ‘would I let children in my care do this?’ honestly, I don’t think I would. I believe this attitude to be a result of the growing fears around safety (Moyles, 2012), not just ‘stranger danger’ but also the fear of potential injuries (Brussoni, 2017). There is a need for children to interact with nature and many have mentioned the benefits it has on children’s development (Henley, 2010). Ben Kastly (TEDx Talks, 2014) refers to nature as being a remedy, due to playing outside aiding mental health and happiness (Moyles, 2012). Fundamentally, it is the child’s right to play as stated in Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child [UNCRC] (1989). This is important to remember as sometimes we can forget this and stop children from playing due to the business of everyday life.

Why is play important? – Play itself, in all forms, is important for young children as it allows them to learn about themselves, their cultural, and the social and physical environment (Wilson, 2008). Playing also aids their holistic development (Armstong, 2006, cited in Ernst, 2017; Howard, 2014). The importance of play is highlighted in the Early Years Foundation stage (Department for Education, 2017) mentioning how it is “essential for children’s development” as it builds their confidence through exploration and problem solving. Additionally, Longfield and Grey-Thompson (2018) mention how play benefits children’s health and wellbeing. I would argue that these benefits are enhanced through outdoor play as it allows for more opportunities to play in a way that aids all areas of development. A study (LEGO Learning Institute, 2002) showed that 97% of parents in the UK agreed, either strongly or slightly, that play also meant learning. However, when looking at what parents classed as play, 55% saw watching TV or videos as play. Despite this being considered as true and the potential learning benefits, I would argue children do not learn as much, or in the same beneficial way, as outdoor play. When children play outside, they experience new situations that require negotiating and listening skills (Harris, 2017). This can be something simple such as discussing how to get around or over a fallen tree, or the best way to stop water flow.

What’s your view of play? –  When we talk about play, we all have different ideas of what this means, some more complex than others. These different views and interpretations of play have been influenced by our culture, values, gender, economic factors, relation to the natural world, and our childhood (Whitebread, 2012). For me my childhood is a massive contributor to how I view play. Growing up on a farm I had the freedom to walk out the front door and explore as far as the fields and woods allowed me. Having this freedom and connection to the natural world has made me greatly value the importance of outdoor play. This has caused me to value play that involves a sense of discovery and risk taking. Bruce (2001), Whitebread (2012), and Rogers (2016) provide multiple types and features of play if you wish to explore the concept of play yourself and come to your own view of what play is.

What is outdoor play?-  When children play outdoors it can be anything from the local park to walking around the woods, or even going to the beach. However, I do believe that parks and playgrounds not only restrict children to one area but also in the way they play and the language that comes with this. One child from the ‘Playing Out’ report (Longfield and Grey-Thompson, 2018, p.7) mentioned how “There isn’t enough variety”.  In contrast to playgrounds, the natural outdoor area offers an unlimited space that is forever changing, allowing for a diverse use of imagination and creativity (Moyles, 2012). This changing environment also allows for different risk-taking opportunities (Ernst, 2017) that offer a wider use of language and possibilities to learn and experiment with language. Outdoor play allows for development in all areas; physically, cognitively, emotionally, and socially (Mainella, Agate and Clark, 2011). Physically, they are able to use all their muscles and develop both gross and fine motor skills; cognitively, they problem solve; emotionally they build up resilience and determination, and socially, they work together to overcome barriers or simply through playing together.

How does play link to language learning? – Play and language seem to go hand in hand and can be argued that this is what separates our play from the play of mammals. As humans, symbolic playdepends upon the symbolic abilities we have, such as language (Whitebread, 2012). Play essentially needs language, whether this be verbal or non-verbal, through narratives or simply through talking about the process of play (Howard, 2014). Children learn language in various ways. Chomsky’s theory was the idea of Language Acquisition Device which we are all born with to organise the language we hear (BBC Radio 4, 2015). Bruner developed this idea saying how it requires a trigger, that being children need to be spoken to first in order to learn language. If we take this theory, as adults, sometimes we need to be this ‘trigger’ to aid children’s language learning through play. When children play outside this ‘trigger’ can come from the adult to the child, or one child to another. Additionally, Bruce (2001) links language with play and culture. She suggests language is different for each culture and children learn specific cultural language by experimenting with it though play, where they create or experiment with words. Children can show language learning outside in this way by either creating and experimenting with words to describe the area they are in, verbalising how they feel about the space, or describe what their surroundings looks like or remind them of. Additionally, children can learn language through stimulus and response. This involves the child experimenting with language and the adult correcting the child’s language, so they learn the correct wording or praising the child, so they know they have said it correctly (Cameron-Faulkner, 2014). I would argue that in both cases the adult is the more knowledgeable other and scaffolds the child (Corsaro, 2005; McLeod, 2018).

Forest schools are an excellent example of how being outside aids children’s learning and combats against this decline in outdoor play (Coates and Pimlott-Wilson, 2018). The pedagogy they use, as adopted from Scandinavia and influenced by Froebel (Joyce, 2012), is a great illustration of how outdoor play impacts children’s development and aids their language learning. Having worked in a Forest School, I have seen just how much the children are eager to learn and explore in the outdoor space provided by forest schools. Harwood and Collier (2017) provide a lovely document showing how something as simple as a stick can be used in so many ways. One example they mention involves a stick that has a “pronounced ‘y’” at the end. This description shows how natural resources can be used to aid children’s language as this could quite nicely be turned into an activity where children have to find all the letters of the alphabet in sticks or to create each letter using the natural resources they find. This not only helps their observational skills but also language as they discuss how to create each letter and learn words associated to that letter. This also offers opportunities to learn to negotiate and explain to others what they think is the best way of doing things and why. This allows children to learn how to use language effectively (Longfield and Grey-Thompson, 2018). Additionally, a participant in the researched conducted by Mashall and Lewis (2014, p.343) mentioned the outside space as being particularly important in developing speech and language skills. These language skills are developed through the challenges, teamwork, negotiation, creative thinking, analysis of situations and problem solving that comes from outdoor play (Harris, 2017).

What is the adult’s role in children’s play? – The main role of the adult, that being parent, carer or teacher, is to support children’s play and encourage it by being sensitive to their needs and not dominating the play by imposing goals and outcomes into it (Synodi, 2010; Howard, 2014). However, it can be viewed that having goals in play is more enriching for children as the adult essentially teaches the child how to play (Fleer, 2015). With regards to outdoor play, this view of the adult’s role seems to be relatable in the sense that we should teach children an appreciation for the beauty of the natural world they explore (Thornton and Brunton, 2015). With outdoor play adults should also teach, and reassure, children that it is okay to play outside and take risks (Quetteville, 2009). Adults should also ensure that the environment in which the child plays allows for independent exploration and discovery (Thornton and Brunton, 2015). This can be achieved by allowing children to play outside with little adult guidance so that the children can play freely. This view can be argued to see adults as organisers of children’s play who ensure the child has opportunities to play (Synodi, 2010) by providing them with the environment to do so. Having the adult’s role as an organiser of play can be seen in a negative way and be argued to be adopting an adult-initiated approach rather than child-initiated. Despite this, sometimes adults need to initiate outdoor play to ensure children spend time outside and reap the benefits of this. Once the child is outside playing then adults can take a step back and allow the child to play independently. Overall, as mentioned before, adults need to encourage children to play which sometimes means being an organiser of play (Synodi, 2010) or even joining in and co-constructing the play (Goouch, 2008). Ultimately, adults need to let children play (Play England, 2009), so let children go out and get some fresh air.

If you would like to read more about play and see what children have to say, I would highly recommend reading ‘A report on children’s views on their right to play’ (The Children’s Parliament and The International Play Association, 2014) as it beautifully captures the child’s voice and their right to play.

References:

BBC Radio 4. (2015) Noam Chomsky on Language Acquisition, Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Cgpfw4z8cw(Accessed: 01.11.2018).

Bruce, T. (2001) Leaning through play: Babies, Toddlers and the Foundation Years, London: Hodder Arnold.

Brussoni, M. (2017) ‘Why kids need risk, fear and excitement in play’, The Conversation, (August), Available at: https://theconversation.com/why-kids-need-risk-fear-and-excitement-in-play-81450(Accessed: 20.11.2018).

Coates, J., and Pimlott-Wilson, H. (2018) ‘learning while playing: Children’s Forest School experiences in the UK’, British Educational Research Journal, DOI: 10.1002/berj.3491.

Cameron- Faulkner, T. (2014) ‘Language Development in the Young Child’, in Maynard, T., and Powell, S., An Introduction to Early Childhood Studies, 3rded., London: SAGE, p. 104.

Corsaro, W. (2005) ‘Social Theories of Childhood’, The Sociology of Childhood, 2nded., London: SAGE, p.15.

Department for Education (2017) Statutory framework for the early years foundation stage: setting the standards for learning, development and care for children from birth to five, Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/596629/EYFS_STATUTORY_FRAMEWORK_2017.pdf(Accessed: 20.11.2018).

Ernst, J. (2017) ‘Exploring young children’s and parents’ preferences for outdoor play setting and Affinity towards nature’ International Journal of Early Environmental Education, 5(2), pp.30- 45.

Fleer, M. (2015) ‘Pedagogical positioning in play – teachers being inside and outside of children’s imaginary play’, Early Chid Development and Care, 185(11-12), pp.1801-1814, DOI: 10.1080/03004430.2015.1028393.

Goouch, K. (2008) ‘Understanding playful pedagogies, play narratives and play spaces’, Early Years, 28(1), pp.93-102, DOI: 10.1080/09575140701815136.

Harris, F. (2017) ‘The nature of learning at forest school: practitioners’ perspectives’, Education 3-13, 45(2), pp. 272-291, DOI: 10.1080/03004279.2015.1078833.

Harwood, D., and Collier, D. (2017) ‘The matter of the stick: Storying/(re)storying children’s literacies in the forest’, Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 17(3), pp.336-352, DOI: 10.1177/148797417712340.

Henley, J. (2010) ‘Why our children need to get outside and engage with nature’, The Guardian, 16 August.

Howard, J. (2014) ‘The Importance of Play’, in Mukherji, P., and Dryden, L., Foundations of Early Childhood principles and practice, London: SAGE, pp.122-140.

Joyce, R. (2012) Outdoor Learning: Past and present, Maidenhead: Open University Press.

LEGO Learning Institute. (2002) Time for Playful Learning? – A cross-cultural study of parental values and attitudes toward children’s time of play, Available at: http://www.playscotland.org/wp-content/uploads/assets/Documents/TheLEGOTimeStudyReport.pdf(Accessed: 16.11.2018).

Longfield, A., and Grey-Thompson, T. (2018) Playing out: A Children’s Commissioner’s report on the importance to children of play and physical activity, London: Children’s Commissioner, Available at: https://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Play-final-report.pdf(Accessed: 20.11.2018).

Mainella, F., Agate, J., and Clark, B. (2011) ‘Outdoor-based play and reconnection to nature: A neglected pathway to positive youth development’, New Directions for Youth Development, 2011(130), pp.89-104, DOI: 10.1002yd.399.

Mashall, J., and Lewis, E. (2014) “It’s the way you talk to them.’ The child’s environment: Early Years Practitioner’s perceptions of its influence on speech and language development, its assessment and environment targeted interventions’, Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 30(3), pp.337-352.

McLeod, S. (2018) ‘The Zone of Proximal Development and Scaffolding’, Simply Psychology, Available at: https://www.simplypsychology.org/Zone-of-Proximal-Development.html(Accessed: 11.12.2018).

Moyles, J. (2012) A to Z of Play in Early Childhood,Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Play England. (2009) Charters for Children’s Play, Available at: http://www.playengland.net/resource/charter-for-childrens-play/(Accessed: 20.11.2018).

Quetteville, H. (2009) ‘Swap the cotton wool for a mud pie’, The Telegraph, February, Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/4690916/Swap-the-cotton-wool-for-a-mud-pie.html(Accessed: 27.11.2018)

Ransome, A. (1930) Swallows and Amazons, Middlesex: Puffin Books

Rogers, S. (2016) From theories of play to playing with theory. In T. David (Ed.) The Routledge International Handbook of Philosophies and Theories of Early Childhood Education and Care. Routledge: London.

Synodi, E. (2010) ‘Play in the kindergarten: the case of Norway, Sweden, New Zealand and Japan’, International Journal of Early Years Education, 18(3), pp.185-200. DOI: 10.1080/09669760.2010.521299.

TEDx Talks. (2014) Get hooked on nature: Ben Klasky at TEDxRainier,Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ArhjLa4xbNk(Accessed: 22.10.2018).

The Children’s Parliament., and The International Play Association (Scotland). (2014) ‘“I’d play all day and night if I could” A Report on Children’s Views on their Right to Play’, Available at: http://www.ipascotland.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Right-to-Play-Report-IPA-CP1.pdf(Accessed: 11.12.2018).

Thornton, L., and Brunton, P. (2015) Understanding the Reggio Approach: Early years education in practice, 3rded, Oxon: Routledge.

UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. (1989) Convention on the rights of the child. Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Geneva: United Nations, Available at: https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/ProfessionalInterest/crc.pdf(Accessed: 12.11.2018).

Whitebread, D. (2012) The importance of play, Cambridge University: Cambridge, pp.8-29, Available at: http://www.importanceofplay.eu/IMG/pdf/dr_david_whitebread_-_the_importance_of_play.pdf(Accessed: 22.10.2018).

Wilson, R. (2008) Nature and Young Children: Encouraging creative play and learning in natural environments, Oxon: Routledge.

Time for Teletubbies?

img_20190207_212657.jpgThis week we were talking to some parents about their babies’ screen time. It’s hard to find statistics on babies’ media use, but we know that in 2018 96% of three and four year olds were watching television, on average for 14 hours per week. It’s also hard to find firm guidance about whether babies should be watching television, and for how long. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that the only type of digital media that children under 18 months should be engaging with is video calling; the NHS suggests that television for under twos should be limited to 30 minutes per day. So whilst we might not have a definitive answer on how many babies are watching television – and whether they should be – anecdotally we know that it’s common for babies to be watching tv.

One programme that babies and young children are possibly going to be watching is Teletubbies. Originally broadcast between 1997-2001, the programme was revived in 2015 and 425 episodes have been made to date. When the programme was restarted in 2015 the BBC described it as “one of the most successful global children’s programmes of all time” and said that the original series had been had been seen by over a billion children, in over 120 territories in 45 different languages.

We are both fans of the programme and were interested to find out whether any research has been carried out about it – should parents make time for Teletubbies? Findings about the benefits of the programme are mixed. Pempek et al. (2010) conducted an experiment where children between 6 and 24 months old were shown normal and distorted versions of the programme. They found that “it remains to be determined what, if anything, infants comprehend in commercial infant-directed videos” and therefore “if there is, in fact, little comprehension, then the time spent watching television may well be time better spent engaged in other activities such as toy play” (p.1292). Yet Marsh (2000)’s study found that using Teletubbies as a stimulus in literacy activities created a shared discourse and shared understandings between children and supported their reading, writing and oral work. Meanwhile Buckingham (1999) theorises as to why adults like us might like the programme – perhaps because they might see it as a form of “regression” but also because the Teletubbies could be seen as “a necessary process of recovering childlike pleasures – in silly noises and games, in anarchy and absurdity, for which irony provides a convenient alibi” (p.293).

We are going to continue to make time for Teletubbies. But what do you think – should children?

Early writing and motor planning

Rebecca Reynolds is an independent early years literacy consultant.

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Whilst visiting a school recently I was struck by a little girl next to me who had been asked to attempt to write a cursive ‘b’ after a phonics lesson. The teacher explained that whilst in the phonics lesson the letter was shown in print but when we write we used cursive and demonstrated this on the small A frame board.  The group were given their lined handwriting books to attempt their own cursive formation.  However, try as she might she couldn’t replicate accurately. There was nothing in front of her to guide her. She worked hard but was practising the wrong motor planning. There was a disconnect between her skill level and the resources provided to support her. It made me wonder how often the type of disconnect occurs in children’s literacy learning, particularly in the vital reception year when so many dots need to be joined in order to make sense of things that adults take for granted.

I think that as adults, we forget how difficult the motor planning required to form a letter actually is. It takes up huge amounts of brain space to process “ start on the line, up, loop over (anti-clockwise), down straight, touch the line, back up the same line halfway, round (clockwise) and join it on.” Holding the image of a letter in your head, moving from the carpet to a table, opening a book, finding a pencil, adjusting your fingers to a correct pencil grip and remembering the motor sequence, without a reminder to copy, is TOO MUCH information to process. Even close copying for many will be much too difficult.

So, all that said, where is a good place to start? I have been lucky enough to have worked in a school where Write Dance was introduced. A fabulous musical introduction to gross motor movements which develop muscle tone and motor planning sequences paving the way towards fluid movements in handwriting, particularly cursive writing. It takes you through curves, arcs, waves, loops horizontal straight lines, vertical straight lines, circles and my particular favourite lazy eights. The lazy eights promote strong cross lateral movements by crossing the midline of the body and requires good hand/eye tracking which is essential to good handwriting. Each musical segment is between 1-3 minutes long, so not a big time commitment in the busy reception day. It also builds a story as you go through the book which develops the child’s imagination. I took this gem with me to my next school and championed its use there. It is still going strong 10 years later! Its value cannot be underestimated.

This video illustrates the range of materials that can be used with Write Dance. You will notice how much fun it is for the children. With Write Dance a regular part of the week, we solve the disconnect between the teacher’s demonstration on the board and the child replicating this accurately. The children are given an oral description of the motor planning required with references made to actions already practised, eg “up in an arc, just like in the Write Dance volcano, loop over like the clouds of smoke, straight down like the robots do, then round like in lazy eights”. The child is given a chance to practice these gross motor movements in the air using their ‘magic finger’; several repetitions help the muscle memory. Then the same thing is demonstrated on an A3 or A4 piece of paper. The child is encouraged to trace and follow a printed version with their magic finger whilst the adult checks for correct formation. Once the correct motor sequence is becoming easier, the child can move onto using crayons or coloured pencils, rainbow writing, whilst the adult encourages the child to repeat the motor sequence instructions out loud whilst carrying out the correct actions. ‘This is your brain telling your hand what to do!’  If fine motor control is developed enough, then allow the child to trace and follow a smaller version, whilst talking himself through the actions. Therefore, accuracy and success are guaranteed with varying levels of support.

Hopefully, the disconnect between watching and doing is now closing, although is very unlikely to be embedded for a while yet.  The process of oral description, rehearsal, motor sequence practice, tracing, close copying and memory will take time to establish before independence is reached. However, as soon as it is, more brain space is freed up to tackle the more interesting and complex issue of, ‘what do I want to write?’

If you would like to find out more about Rebecca’s work, please visit her website or email her at rebeccareynolds@literacyconsultant.org

References

Ragnhild Oussoren, (2001), Write Dance, London: Sage.

 

Votes for children?

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Last weekend we went to see an exhibition at the British Museum called I object: Ian Hislop’s search for dissent. It featured dissenting items that people had left their mark on in order to object and to protest. Some of these items were defaced coins and banknotes, such as the British pennies defaced with the Votes for Women slogan shortly before the outbreak of the First World War. The exhibition posed questions for the attendees throughout, including one questioning why the voting age should or should not be lowered in the UK.


Currently in the UK
you can vote from the age of 18, except in Scotland where you can vote at 16 in Scottish elections. 18 is the most common age minimum age for voting across the world, although some other countries do have a minimum voting age of 16 and others have minimum voting ages of higher than 18. But some think the voting age should be lower than 16, including Prof David Runciman, head of politics at Cambridge University, who has suggested it should be lowered to six. He argues that ‘I would lower the voting age to six, not 16. And I’m serious about that. I would want people who vote to be able to read, so I would exclude reception [age-children].’

We were reminded of A.S Neill’s Summerhill School, a boarding school in Suffolk which describes itself as a ‘democratic, self-governing school in which the adults and children have equal status’. Meetings take place twice a week where everyone (from the youngest four-year-old pupils to the headmaster) has the opportunity to vote on a one-person-one-vote basis. Stronach and Piper (2008: 12) describe how this approach differs from other schools: ‘students propose and police laws to ensure the proper running of the school, privacy, and the rights of individuals… They address specific problems as they arise, rather than envisaging possible problems in terms of universal prescription. Even the School Laws have numerous specific exceptions. For example, Law 48: “Freddy can have a stick bigger than him.” ‘ This shows how young children can be involved in decision-making, although some would question whether the ethos and philosophy of Summerhill could be transferred elsewhere.

What do you think? Does Summerhill show us that children are capable of voting on issues relevant to them? And do you agree with Prof Runciman – should the minimum voting age be lowered to six?

OfSTED’s proposed new guidelines for inspection. A step in the right direction?

Thank you Dr Paula Stone for another timely post.
On Wednesday, I was heartened to hear the news about OfSTED’s plans to issue new guidelines for inspection that will shift the focus towards quality of education rather than purely educational ‘outcomes’ or attainment.  It is proposed that this will be the biggest overhaul of the inspection framework for nurseries, schools and colleges in England in over a decade.
OfSTED says that its own research suggests that currently some settings are narrowing their curriculum so much so that that they only focus on educational attainment with Early Years practitioners spending more time writing reports rather than playing with or reading to children; in primary schools the curriculum has become so focussed that teachers are merely teaching to the test.  Ofsted says the new framework will include a new “quality of education” judgement which assesses both results and the methods schools use to deliver them. This could see a change to the way children are taught and the curriculum is delivered.
It is argued by OfSTED that the new framework, with its increased focus on behaviour and attitudes, will look at how school and settings are deciding what to teach and why, and whether it is leading to strong outcomes for young people. This will hopefully mean that schools can decide what and how to teach based on the children in their school.
I am hoping that those schools in the most challenging circumstances will be recognised for their hard work in creating positive learning because in my opinion EYFS and primary school is so much more than about attainment, especially for those students who come from the most deprived households. In this way, a school in a tough area which has great teachers and a great curriculum could be rated outstanding. This is so rarely recognised under the current inspection framework.
The new framework has been supported by Damian Hinds, the Education Secretary for England but education unions say the plans do not go far enough. The National Association of Head Teachers argues that there is nothing in the framework that will help reduce the stress of an inspection or increase the reliability of judgements so that settings and schools will still feel the need to focus purely on education attainment rather than what is best for the children.
Do you think this change is a good thing? Would this make you as a parent or a teacher feel concerned that the curriculum is being dumbed down or relieved that the emphasis has shifted from outcomes to education in the truest sense of the word?

‘Hungry, hungry, I am hungry…’; young children and food insecurity.

 

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Empty plates and empty tummies

 

 

When I taught in a primary school there was a Dr Seuss nonsense song that the children loved to sing with great enthusiasm. It was called The Super-Supper March and began ‘Hungry, hungry, I am hungry, I could eat a pickled plum…’. Do you remember it? Perhaps you sang it too. When I saw headlines this week calling for a Minister for Hunger it made me wonder if this was still being sung in primary school classrooms or if teachers now considered it inappropriate with the knowledge they may have of their pupils’ real hunger. One head teacher, of a school I had attended as a child, spoke movingly about children stealing apple cores from rubbish bins as one of her day to day observations of the impact of hunger in her school community.

The headlines have come from a recent report by the Environmental Audit Committee entitled Sustainable Development Goals in the UK follow up: Hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity in the UK. The report sets out both the scale and causes of hunger within the context of the UK and the country’s progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 2: Zero Hunger. But from this report, it would appear we are moving in the wrong direction ie away from this goal rather than towards it. For example the report suggests that more and more people are having to rely on food banks; the Trussell Trust, a charity that runs the majority of food banks used in the UK, are cited as seeing an increase of 46% in the number of emergency food supplies they had to provide in 2017-18 as compared to 2013–14. Of the recipients of these emergency supplies, 484,026 were children.

The report makes recommendations for ways forward in terms of policy and governmental decisions; one of these is to ensure there is accountability for ‘combatting hunger in the UK’.  This is why there have been calls in the media for a ‘Minister for Hunger’. The report accuses the government of focussing on obesity and showing limited understanding of the wider issues around what it calls ‘food insecurity’. It also suggests that hunger is seen as an overseas issue rather than one that is happening on our own doorstep.

As children continue to go hungry at school, the equality gap widens between themselves and their well-fed peers. Individual teachers and schools may attempt to ensure children’s food needs are met whilst on school premises, however as the Trussell Trust argues ‘It takes more than food to end hunger’; change needs to happen on a more macro level, to the structures that keep people locked in a cycle of food insecurity.

Merry Christmas!

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We are taking a break for the Christmas holidays and will be back online on 4th January 2019.  Thank you for all your support for Contemplating Childhoods this year and if you would like to contribute a post in 2019 then do please get in touch.
Polly and Jo

Good words are worth much …. (George Herbert)

Dr. Paula Stone is Senior Lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University. Her interests are class and education.

I have been struck by the number of recent articles and debates around the use of social media and the impact that this is having on young people.

As highlighted by Harriet Smithers in her recent blog which was commentating  on the ‘Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report’ (OfCom, 2017) there are both negative and positive connotations to children using social media. However in  a recent article in the Guardian Jemima Kiss recounts a number of stories in which children are coming to harm because their parents are distracted by their phone, including one mum who had been so distracted her baby had fallen downstairs without her noticing.

But for me, what stood out in this article was that smartphones are having a negative impact on conversational and academic development of very young children. It is alleged that in a recent YouGov report (2017) that 83 per cent of headteachers believe there is a rising number of four-year-olds arriving for their first day at school unable to speak properly. According to British educationalist Robin Alexander, children need to talk, and to experience a rich diet of spoken language in order to think and learn. Alexander (2008) argues that “in dialogic interactions, children are exposed to alternative perspectives and required to engage with another person’s point of view in ways that challenge and deepen their own conceptual understandings”.

So if children are not being exposed to conversations because their parents are too engaged with their phones, not only is their ability to interact socially being impaired, but there could also be lasting damage to their ability to learn.

So what can we do? As parents, grandparents, and guardians we should put away our phones and talk to our children. Simple questions like “Tell me one nice thing you have done today?” which just allow your children to explore their emotions and talk out loud for extended periods. Here is a resource to help.

As teachers we need to make sure that tasks are planned with an eye to their potential to provoke and benefit from talk-based activities so that there are ample opportunities for dialogue that goes beyond simple questions and answers. You might find this resource from the National Society for Educational Art and Design useful.

Whether you are a parent, guardian or teacher give an activity a go….for the sake of our children.

Viewing children through different lenses

img_20181206_221453.jpgThis week we have been reflecting on the BBC Two series Babies: Their Wonderful World again. When we watched the programme it made us think about how we might choose to carry out research on the topics that are being investigated and explored. We imagine that the approach we might take may be different to what we see in the programme, because we align ourselves to a different discipline to many of the experts that feature on the show. We sit within the subject area of early childhood studies, which is informed by a range of other perspectives such as education, health, sociology, psychology, law and history (QAA, 2014). This adds a real strength to ECS because it allows for a holistic view of early childhood and young children. However it comes with its challenges too. Sacha Powell and Kate Smith talk about how “knowing that there are different lenses through which young children are ‘imagined’ makes for a field of study that is often difficult and problematic rather than comfortable and straightforward” (2017: 1).

Babies: Their Wonderful World is presented by paediatrician Dr Guddi Singh, who might potentially view young children and their development from a health perspective because of her professional background and education. This may be different to some of the other people who share information about their studies and conduct some of the experiments, like psychologist Dr Michelle Peter who features in the programme in relation to her research on children’s language development. What’s important to remember is that there is not a “right” or a “wrong” way to view children, but it is important to bear in mind researchers’ perspectives and backgrounds when reading their studies and thinking about why and how they chose to carry out the research they did. Although many people conduct pieces of research on young children, the approach that they take and the methodology they choose may differ depending on the discipline they sit in. The ethical guidelines they follow will be different too – for instance whether they follow the British Educational Research Association’s (2018) ethical guidelines for educational research or the British Psychological Society’s (2018) code of ethics and conduct. The implications of these different lenses (and thus different research designs) might mean that research findings and analysis differ. Again, this doesn’t necessarily mean that one way is better than the other, but it is something to be aware of when you are thinking critically about the sources of information you are coming across.

Do you think you view children through a particular lens? How do you think that might influence how you would choose to conduct research into their lives?

Thinking Critically about Early Childhood Sources

Blog 30-11-18We watched the first episode of a new television series called Babies: Their Wonderful World on BBC Two this week. The series focuses on what we know from scientific research about children’s development up until the age of two. The first episode looks at the research that has been conducted about babies’ individuality. For instance, it showed experiments that aimed to determine a young child’s temperament (at just 6 months), considered children’s widening vocabulary and examined the differences in gross and fine motor skills between tech and non-tech users.

The programme explored aspects of children’s cognitive, moral and physical development in an accessible way and it’s great that programmes like this open up the fascinating world of child development to a wider audience. It might also make more people passionate about the importance of children’s earliest years, like reports such as the 1001 Critical Days manifesto assert. But, like any source of information it’s important that we look at it with a critical eye and don’t take the claims made on face value.

In our book Introducing Research in Early Childhood we look at what the markers of quality are that might affect a source of information, like the provenance of the author, resonance, truthfulness and integrity, timeliness, style and the relevance of the information presented. It’s really important to consider these elements in relation to a source of information to help you decide whether it’s worthy of using and referring to. For instance, a limitation of the television programme is that the experiments we saw had very small sample sizes (for instance 3 non-tech users and 3 tech users in one experiment) and we can’t draw out wider generalisations from such small numbers of participants. However, what was good about the programme is that it cited the names of researchers that had been previously involved in published studies, like Professor Jessica Somerville, who we saw carry out a study that explored young children’s racial biases. This means we can check the provenance of the people involved in creating the programme. We recommend that if you are writing academic work that you find, read and reference to the studies that the programme has cited directly rather than referring to the programme (Googling the names of the academics featured in the programme to get lists of their published work would be a good place to start).

Did you watch Babies: Their Wonderful Worlds? What did you think? How would you evaluate it critically?

Hearing children’s voices

Did you do anything special to celebrate Universal Children’s Day on 20th November this week?  Here is a short piece of writing we were asked to compose around listening to the child’s voice…

In times gone by, when we wanted to find out about children we had to draw on research conducted on them. This positioning of children saw them as  ‘objects’ or ‘subjects’ of research (Penn, 2008: 142); we only have to think of the seminal psychology studies of Piaget (1926) or Ainsworth (1964) to realise this. However, in more recent times there has been a shift in our thinking about what children are capable of and a re-evaluation of how children themselves may contribute an important voice as ‘experts in their own lives’ (Clark and Statham, 2005).

Research with children is important for many reasons including supporting children’s empowerment, providing perspectives adults may not have access to and encouraging creative methodologies which could provide richer data (Bolshaw and Josephidou, 2019: 69). If children are both encouraged and supported to participate in research they can also develop valuable skills which will be important to them as active members of society who can make an increasing contribution as they get older (Punch, 2002).
Nevertheless, difficulties with this approach cannot be brushed under the carpet. For example, there is still a power issue to be addressed; we are asking children to participate but we are asking them to do it on our terms, for our agenda. Bradbury-Jones and Taylor (2015) outline many other objections raised about this kind of research; they not only address them but also signpost counter-arguments such as how children could be compensated for giving up their time rather than the adult researcher assuming that they are happy to do so.

Researching with children can be valuable both in terms of creating new knowledge and supporting children to develop an awareness of themselves as people who have agency in society and therefore can contribute to change. Yes it is not easy, yes there are still power issues to be addressed but worries about tokenism should not discourage this kind of research (Lundy, 2018); rather it should be seen as a step to action.

 

References

Ainsworth, M.D. (1964) ‘Patterns of attachment behavior shown by the infant in interaction with his mother’, Merrill-Palmer Quarterly of Behavior and Development, 51–8.

Bolshaw, P. and Josephidou, J. (2019) Introducing Research in Early Childhood.London: Sage.

Bradbury-Jones, C. and Taylor, J. (2015) ‘Engaging with children as co-researchers: chal­lenges, counter-challenges and solutions’, International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 18(2): 161–73.

Clark, A. and Statham, J. (2005) ‘Listening to young children: Experts in their own lives’, ADOPTION & FOSTERING, 29 (1):  45-56.

Lundy, L. (2018) ‘In defence of tokenism? Implementing children’s right to participate in collective decision-making’, Childhood, 25(3): 340–354.

Penn, H. (2008)Understanding Early Childhood: Issues and Controversies. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Piaget, J. (1926) Language and Thought of the Child. London: Routledge.

Punch, S. (2002) ‘Research with children: the same or different from research with adults?’, Childhood, 9(3): 321–41.

Introducing Research in Early Childhood

Book CoverThis week’s post is slightly different to usual because we are celebrating. Our first book, Introducing Research in Early Childhood, has been published by Sage Publications. We first had the idea for the book back in March 2016, when we couldn’t find a comprehensive text that talked about how research with children is conducted, how people have carried out studies on children in the past, what areas people have to think about when planning a piece of research and what things people reading studies have to be aware of when considering others’ work. 32 months later and we’ve written the first drafts of chapters (six each), had them reviewed, revised them accordingly, submitted the final versions and checked through the proofs. We finally saw our book in real life for the first time last month and felt incredibly proud.

We’ve put a lot of work into producing a text that we think is going to be really valuable to people who want to understand how and why research in early childhood takes place. In the book we recognise how research practices in relation to children have changed, like from the ethically-questionable conditioning experiment by Watson and Rayner (1920) (better known as the Little Albert Experiment) to how now researchers use the Mosaic Approach (Clark and Moss, 2011) to listen to children first-hand. We reflect on the difference that research findings can make to children’s lives, for instance as we’ve done in a previous blog post about the experiences of children in hospitals. We think about cross-national and longitudinal studies, for instance those conducted by Unicef and UCL’s Centre of Longitudinal Studies. We consider how research in early childhood can be designed, the ethics of conducting research, how researchers need to think about the beliefs and truths they hold about children when planning their study and also how creative methods can be used to find out more about children and their childhoods. And we also introduce strategies to help readers critically examine pieces of research that they read about and not take them on face value.

We are really pleased with the response that we’ve had to the book so far. Deborah Albon, co-author of the brilliant Research Methods in Early Childhood with Penny Mukherji, has described it as “a useful book for the beginner researcher” and that the book’s “inviting and accessible style will support the novice researcher, and the development of criticality in relation to research.” The wonderful Kathy Brodie, well-respected Early Years Professional, consultant and trainer, has also spoken to us about the usefulness of our book for those studying early childhood. You’ll be able to see an interview we filmed with Kathy about the topic of one of our chapters, The Language of Research, in February 2019 as part of Sage’s Early Years Masterclass called Doing Your Early Years Research Project (which you can sign up to for free before 4th February 2019).

If you’ve had a chance to have a look at our book already we’d love to hear your comments below. It is available to buy from Amazon here and available to preview via Google Books.

Children’s digital footprints

IMG_20181108_232524Yesterday Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, released a report called Who knows what about me?. It considers how children’s data is collected and used and what the implications might be of this. We’ve written previously about the not-so-secret lives of children and how data about children is shared, for instance that in 2016 on average every year UK parents shared almost 300 photos of their children online and of other people’s children 30 times. This new report reinforces those findings, suggesting that on average parents have uploaded 1300 photos and videos of their children online by the time their child reaches 13 and that when the children themselves gain access to social media accounts they post on average 26 times a day.

We know there’s a moral panic about children’s social media usage, and how it contributes to children’s data footprints. But the Children’s Commissioner highlights other ways in which data about children is being created and what risks this data collection may pose. For instance, how many homes have baby video monitors which are in danger of being hacked so that other people can watch children through these as they sleep and play. She also draws attention to internet-connected toys which often have unprotected accounts so that messages that children send and receive through the devices can be accessed by others, for instance Cloud Pets. Similarly the consumer organisation Which? have also warned of lax security on some internet-connected toys which means that it would be possible for others to send and receive messages from toys they could link up with via Bluetooth. And this isn’t just a UK concern; in Germany parents were told to destroy My Friend Cayla dolls after claims they were spying on children.

What’s scary about the rise in children’s data footprints is that we don’t know what the long-term risks of the increase in data collection. The report suggests that it may lead to identity theft and fraud because of how much personal information parents inadvertently reveal about their children online. It also states that there’s the danger that the increased amount of data about individuals may lead to profiling, where companies may use it to decide who to employ and banks decide who to lend money to.

Longfield’s report shares 10 top tips for parents and children for how to reduce their data footprints. For instance, she recommends that children (and their parents) think carefully before sharing information online and have a look at to the Children’s Commissioner’s Digital 5 a Day to help them reflect on their digital practices. She also suggests that parents change the default passwords on the devices their children use and look out for security updates on products.

It’s clear we need to be mindful of what information is being collected and distributed about children. What top tips would you give parents and children to minimise how much data about them is created?

Is this really the end of the era of austerity? What will this mean for children?

Thank you Dr. Paula Stone for once again giving us lots to ponder on in this week’s post.

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Austerity is a term often bandied about in politics and the media; over recent years it seems to represent ‘a difficult economic situation caused by a government reducing the amount of money it spends’  i.e. not an economic necessity, rather a political choice. So when I heard that Theresa May, in her Conservative Party conference speech, had  declared the government’s eight-year programme of austerity was over – I reflected on what austerity meant in is truest sense of the word ‘the condition of living without unnecessary things and without comfort, with limited money or goods, or a practice, habit or experience that is typical of this’ (Cambridge Dictionary). If true, the end of austerity will be a welcome relief to poorer families who are disproportionality affected by cuts to Government spending

The impact of eight years of austerity on children and families cannot be underestimated. There are currently four million children living in poverty, two-thirds of whom live in working households. And according to recent research led by Professor Paul Bywaters, those living in the most deprived areas in England are 10 times more likely to be on a child protection plan or come into care than their peers from more affluent areas

A recent report by the United Nations (2016) pointed out that fiscal policies and allocation of resources in the United Kingdom in recent years have contributed to ‘inequality in children’s enjoyment of their rights, disproportionately affecting children in disadvantaged situations’ (p.3). In particular, the introduction of universal credit and the imposition of a cap on the amount of benefits paid to poor familieshas contributed to an increase in the number of homeless households with dependent children in England and Northern Ireland, and the number of families in temporary accommodation in all four jurisdictions (p17). The report shares a concern that the rate of child poverty in the UK remains high and disproportionately affects children with disabilities, children living in a family or household with a person or persons with a disability (p.17), and the number of children with mental health needs is increasing (p.14).

The LGA have estimated that children’s services face £2bn funding shortfall by 2020. As I sit listening to the budget, I hope that Theresa May and her government will reaffirm their commitment to improving outcomes for children, young people and their families by investing in their future

What did you think of the budget? Do you think it will make a difference to children’s lives? Is the injection of £1.7 bn into universal credit payments enough? Is the raising of the personal tax allowance, and the increase to the National Living Wage by 4.9%, from £7.83 to £8.21 enough to improve the lives of lower-income families? Was there any extra funding for childcare? Education? Was there any specific mention of improving mental health for children?

 

 

Boys’ toys and girls’ toys; why does it really matter?

 

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Which toys will you choose?

It’s half term already and finally it’s beginning to feel like autumn.  A quick stroll into town reminds us of all the celebrations that happen at this time of year; the shops are full of Halloween paraphernalia, there are reminders it is nearly Bonfire Night, and of course, the countdown to Christmas has already begun. People I know who are much more organised than I will ever be, use this half term week to do their Christmas shopping. They are already wondering what to buy the children in their extended families. Whilst chatting about appropriate toys for young children, one of them reminded me of the BBC clip which showed an experiment on adults’ perceptions of gender appropriate toys. Adults were asked to play with babies using a range of available toys; the adult choices were very clearly influenced by what they perceived the gender of the child to be, mostly because of how the babies were dressed. We are not given details about the sample size however the findings are said to suggest that those babies perceived to be boys were much more likely to be given toys which developed both their physical confidence and their spatial awareness.

 

If it is common practice for adults to consider the child’s gender when engaging them in play then I suppose this begs the question, why might this matter and what might the impact be? For example, is it such a big deal if girls are offered dolls more than boys or boys are offered building blocks more than girls? Kolmayer et al (2018)suggest that indeed it does matter because of the way that certain toys develop specific skills which may, in turn, continue to reinforce gender stereotypes. If no adult is taking responsibility for disrupting these stereotypes, then the potential of that child is being limited. This is interesting when we consider that the most recent Girls’ Attitude Survey found that when girls (11-21) discussed their aspirations for the future, 67% of them believed they did not have the same opportunities as men. Do these opportunities begin to be kept from them as they play as babies through the toys they are offered?

Skilled adults will look to disrupt these practices by offering children a wide range of toys to provide for a variety of play experiences. In this way, they are suggesting possibilities to children which could impact on aspirational choices children make as they get older. Skilled parents will also consider how their children are being targeted as ‘consumers-without-agency’ who must fulfill gender-specific roles such as the nurturing female and the heroic male. If, on the other hand, we choose not to disrupt these gendered scripts we are contributing to reinforcing those stereotypes which benefit very few in society.

So what’s it going to be?  Will you police or disrupt gender scripts this Christmas? It’s never too early to start!

Social media; are the fears surrounding children using social media limiting the positive benefits for young children?

A great post this week from Harriet Smithers who is an Early Childhood Studies student.

 

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The toys of 2018: laptops, phones and tablets

 

Children’s social media use is growing. This has been highlighted in Ofcom’s annual Children and Parent’s Media Attitudes report. The report highlights that 74% of children aged between 12 and 15 have a social media profile. As well as children’s social media growing, their online presence is also increasing. By a child’s fifth birthday a parent will on average have uploaded one thousand five hundred photos of them on social media. This has caused many concerns surrounding the potential dangers that social media poses to children. Dangers often highlighted include; meeting strangers online, accessing harmful information and cyberbullying.

A moral panic surrounding children using social media has been created. A moral panic is a public response to threats to the standards of society. They are a representation of people’s fears. The mass media will use moral panics to sell stories and often in the process create misleading reports that will often be published in newspapers and online. An example of this is the fear that children are going to meet up with strangers they have met online. Only 9% of children have met up with someone in real life that they have met online and of these only 1% of children were bothered by this meeting. This shows that the moral panic created by the media that suggests children are constantly meeting up with strangers and this meeting results in a harmful or dangerous situation is exaggerated.

The moral panic surrounding children and social media has resulted in a limit in the understanding of the vast amount of benefits social media use can provide for children. These benefits include; socialising with people who have similar interests; staying in contact with friends and family; access to a vast amount of information that could aid learning and developing media literacy skills.

The benefits of social media can be increased by ensuring that all children are using social media in a safe way. There are a number of strategies that can be used to do this. They include; having internet safety lessons at school; placing parental restrictions on computers; educating parents on how to keep children safe online and creating child-friendly social media sights.

It is evident that there are many benefits that social media can provide for children. These are often overlooked in favour of the potentially negative effects. This could be because social media is new and the long-term effects of using it are unknown. However, social media use continues to grow, and children are becoming interested at a much younger age. So rather than trying to hide children from it, I feel children should be allowed to use social media and benefit from all of its positive aspects. This being said I feel parents and children need to be educated on how to stay safe on social media and use social media appropriately.  What are your thoughts?  Is social media benefiting children or harming them?

Thanks Harriet – lots for us to think about here!

To share or not to share?

This week’s post has been written by Karen Matthews, an early years practitioner who has recently completed an MA in Early Childhood Education. Karen is sharing a thought-provoking reflection on how we teach children to share.

Share

Imagine this, you have been fitting together different shaped magnets to create a model; you have been at this self-chosen activity for a while and are really engaged, choosing specific shapes to add to your castle. There are other children playing around the table too and the pile of shapes available becomes smaller. Another child joins the table and asks for some shapes, you have got quite a lot, but they are central to your model and you haven’t finished yet, you still need to do more.  So, you tell the child no, that you are using them, but they keep asking for shapes and then go and tell a practitioner that you won’t share; the practitioner comes over…what should they do…should they ask you to share?

Development Matters tells us that children begin “to learn that some things are theirs, some things are shared, and some things belong to other people” (p.12) at around 16-26 months. By 50 months children begin “to accept the needs of others and can take turns and share resources, sometimes with the support of others” (p. 13) and by 60 months, or 5 years are “beginning to be able to negotiate and solve problems without aggression” (p. 14).  Taken from the guidance that practitioners in many early years settings use daily, could statements like these be the reason that sharing is a contentious issue?  Piagetian theory (Bee, 1995) uses the term “egocentrism” which describes how young children assume that everyone sees the world as s/he does, acknowledging this as a stage of development and not simply as the child being selfish.

The event that led me to reflect on this took place with an activity involving dinosaur eggs; I placed four frozen eggs onto the tuff tray and straight away this attracted a lot of attention, children began picking up the eggs, feeling them, noticing that there was something inside. Eight children fit quite comfortably around the tuff tray and so this organically became the group size.  For a few moments all was well, but then children began commenting that they didn’t have an egg, that they wanted an egg.

I supported the children to place the eggs evenly around the tray and explained that because there were only four eggs they would share one with a friend, this worked for a few more minutes and again I stood back and observed the children exploring the eggs.  I heard one child ask for a hammer, saying they need a hammer to crack them open, four hammers were found, and the children started using different strategies in their mission to get the dinosaurs out.  The children who didn’t have hammers wanted them and again I supported them to take turns with a peer.

One child is working really hard on his egg, moving it round, twisting it, hitting it in different places, his wellbeing and involvement are high; he comments continuously, in an excited tone, about what is happening but it is time for his peer to have a turn and he reluctantly hands over the hammer, whilst the activity continues, this one child’s wellbeing has dipped.  In this situation, promoting sharing interrupted one child’s deep level learning and engagement and effectively I was “controlling” the sharing; why did I not let him finish the task that had him so engaged? In a Montessori environment there is usually only one set of each material and a child who wants to use something that is in use must wait.

How else could this situation have been handled? I could have supported the child who wanted a turn, instead of focussing on the child who was already engaged.  What would you have done?

Play, talk, read, write, repeat

IMG_0167Did you see the new Literacy Trust report ‘Mental wellbeing, reading and writing’that came out this week? The research that underpins it looked to explore any links ‘between mental wellbeing and reading and writing enjoyment and attitudes’ (p. 25). It referenced other studies such as the Millennium Cohort Study which has found parallels between reading ability and wellbeing. This might make us feel we must rush to teach young children to read without taking into consideration the important role that play has in developing language skills and therefore literacy skills. So how does play support these early literacy skills?

If children are allowed to play with language they can rehearse, make mistakes, practice and just enjoy the sheer thrill that different sounds and wordscan make. For example, think about a young child shouting ‘Wheeeeeeee!!’ at the top of their voice as they go down a slide or another learning a new word and repeating it over and over and over again……….Bruce and Spratt (2011)discuss how important it is for a child to have these opportunities. They describe the scenario of ‘Sam’ who ‘smelt rotten food…[and] uttered a disgusted sound – ‘Errrrh!’ (p. 34) and they remind us how important mastering these vowel sounds are for children when they begin to read.

These sounds begin to develop too in children’s imaginative play; they might begin to make animal sounds or copy the words of characters from their favourite stories. They might even throw in a few words that surprise you; I’ll never forget a 2-year-old galloping around the garden on his imaginary horse and then bringing me my ‘palomino’ so I would join in with him. Paes and Ellefson (2018) describe how important pretend play can be in supporting children in developing their spoken skills, skills they will need to become successful readers and writers.

And of course in pretend play, mark making and early writing happens in an informal yet purposeful way. For example, a child making notes from an imaginary phone call is not worrying about the size, direction or accuracy of their writing; they are just participating in the joy of making a meaningful mark.

The progression from speaking and listening to reading and writing needs to be facilitated by knowledgeable adults who can provide exciting and engaging occasions for play.  It is not sufficient to plan ahead with a rota of particular activities provided on particular days of the week. As Neum (2018) found, just because children are playing, this does not necessarily mean they are developing the important types of language they will need to be successful at school and beyond.

So when we are thinking of developing young children’s literacy skills we should never take play out of the equation.  If children are deprived of rich play opportunities which are facilitated by skillful adults, how will they develop those important language skills that they will need to become effective readers and writers? Any thoughts?  Please add your comments below….

Sugar and spice…rats and snails

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Do you remember the nursery rhyme ‘What are little boys made of?’I’m pretty sure that it won’t be recited in early years settings today but I do remember it was a common rhyme in my own childhood. It demonstrates how deeply ingrained the desire to differentiate between the sexes, or genders, is. I was reminded of the rhyme this week as I followed some of the headlines coming out of the Labour Party conference. One of the discussions reported in the media was that of being able to choose the gender of one’s baby and how the Labour Party intend that it should be banned.  Presently there is a test called The Non-Invasive Prenatal Test (NIPT) whose main purpose is to screen for any genetic conditions.  However, there is an emerging trend to go through private clinics to use the test to determine the sex of the foetus. Would be parents are then using this information to decide whether to abort or continue with the pregnancy. It is interesting that we have come so far in terms of gender equality and yet there is still a preference for baby boys over girls.

It is not simple to answer why boys may be preferred over girls.  Predominantly, it is suggested that there is a faith aspect as to why there is a preference for boys. Some research suggests, however, that in some societies there is a growing preference for baby girls. Perhaps the bigger question then is why some parents are concerned about their baby’s gender and what this tells us about gender preferences on a wider scale.

If parents show a preference for a child of either gender are they stereotyping children even before they are born? For example, if they really want a daughter, do they imagine they will have a child who wants to be dressed up like a princess and do stereotypically ‘girly’ things. What if their child does not want to conform to these gendered ways of being? What if their children cannot live up to these gendered expectations and decide to disrupt the gendered scripts that have been given them?

And where does that leave those of us who care about young children and their outcomes? I would suggest that we needed to continually look to disrupt those stereotypical discourses and practices that look to reinforce gender differences and our expectations of boys and girls. Some early years settings have sought to do this through what have been described as gender-neutral pedagogies.

If we work with young children, their families and their communities  we have a responsibility to ‘disrupt’ some of these gendered discourses around boys and girls and support others in thinking more critically about gender not in a preaching, patronising way but in an opening up of a discussion kind of way which recognises the contexts in which people live their lives and the extent of  freedom they have to make their own choices. What is your experience of hearing gendered discourses in the early years setting and how do you disrupt them in the workplace? Please do leave your comments below.

Let’s hear it for the mums! The impact of a mother’s education on outcomes for her children.

To do list

It’s the beginning of a new academic year and the first years are arriving on campuses across the UK ready to continue their academic journey – and hopefully have a bit of fun, make some new friends and be inspired and challenged. There’s always one group of students my heart goes out to; those who are having to juggle academic work with having a family. Every year without fail several of these students will ask me anxiously ‘Do you think I will be able to both commit to my studies and meet the demands of my family’.  From my long experience of observing these students, and I have to admit to being in the same situation myself, I always tell them that they will be fine, that they will have well-honed time management skills and that often students who are parents can be our highest achievers because they have an incredible sense of focus due to their time limitations. I also remind them how studying is not a selfish thing as it will impact positively on outcomes for their children. I am encouraged this week to see further reinforcement of this latter message in the most recent SEEDreport to be published which states clearly that when looking at the HLE (Home Learning Environment), the mother’s educational level impacted positively on outcomes for children. This report focused on 4,000 children (aged two, three and four) as part of a longitudinal study. One of the areas it examined was links between the HLE and quality ECEC provision.  It asserted that the impact of both were independent of each other, so that even children in a very enabling home environment could still have enhanced benefit from a quality ECEC setting. At the same time, it drew attention to the impact that a mother’s education can have stating: ‘

‘The level of maternal education and the home learning environment were among the largest influences on children’s cognitive outcomes at age four…These associations suggest that child cognitive development may be supported by having a more highly educated mother, as well as experiencing a richer home learning environment ‘(p. 93).

Of course, I am aware that not all of our student parents are mothers but since we have already recently dedicated one post to the important contribution fathers make, let’s big up the mums here.

So, to all the mums who are going back to study ‘Well done!’ This isn’t about outcomes for you but what you are doing for your children. Those of you who now have a bit of experience at the balancing act between being a full-time student and a full-time parent have you any top tips to share? Or any encouraging stories about how being a student has enabled you to become a better parent?  We would love to hear your thoughts; please do comment below.

Do children have the right to be themselves or only the right to conform?

A thought provoking post this week from Ian Durrant who is a senior lecturer in a Faculty of Education. 

Prison

Ofsted (2009, p.2) suggested that in outstanding schools ‘Children are treated as individuals; they are supported well and expected to achieve well.’ However, there has been increasing concerns about unruly behaviour, which has led many schools to introduce tough new behaviour policies, ranging from the enforcement of school uniforms to zero tolerance for unacceptable behaviours. In 2016, the head of Hartsdown School in Margate hit the headlines by turning away up to 50 pupils in a single day for not wearing the correct school uniform. The head was reported as saying, ‘“This school has not been successful enough for our children,” adding that a “minority of children and parents” had been allowed to “set the tone for the school”.

What is interesting to note here, is that the head is drawing on the same discourse as Ofsted. That the aim of the policy is to improve the ‘success’ of the school (presumably in relation to Ofsted grading), ‘for the children’. However, interestingly this will be achieved by not allowing ‘a minority’ to set the tone by not treating children as individuals as a mechanism to enable their achievement. Or to borrow from Monty Python’s Life of Brian; we can all be individuals as long as we behave the same way.

The question becomes, how far should this new found zeal for behaviour management be allowed to go? In 2011/12 the most common reason for exclusion was persistent, disruptive behaviour, accounting for 32.9% of permanent exclusions and 24.1% of fixed period exclusions from all schools. Pupils with an SEN statement (now replaced with an EHCP) were 8x more likely to receive a permeant exclusion than those without. Perhaps not surprisingly, a number of commentators have raised serious concerns over the rates of school exclusions and how they vary by region. At the same time, schools are required to promote ‘British values’ including ‘tolerance’, ‘liberty’ and ‘respect’.

So how do schools square these circles? How do they promote individuality and diversity, try to reduce exclusion, whilst respecting the needs of the whole school community, the maintenance of ‘standards’ and ensuring schools achieve their performance targets?

Some schools have adopted what at first site could been seen as a somewhat draconian approach. For example, some schools have opted for the use of ‘consequence rooms’, a form of isolation both, for disruptive pupils.  This could be seen simply as a form of detention, many of us of a certain age are familiar with, but one that removes the positive reinforcement of peer recognition, or a type of ‘chill out room’ for the post millennials. A safe space for a child to calm down and consider their actions. However, it has been reported that in one school the behaviour policy states, ‘“Students cannot sleep or put their heads on the desk. They must sit up and face forward,” it adds. When in the booths, children are not allowed to “tap, chew, swing on their chairs, shout out, sigh, or any other unacceptable or disruptive behaviour”. “You will be allowed to go to the toilet up to a maximum of three times during the day (maximum five minutes per visit),” the policy reads. “You must use the closest toilet and go directly there and back. You will be escorted to get your lunch, but you must stay silent.”

This is more than a form of internal exclusion, it is reminiscent of the regime of solitary confinement in a military glass house. Psychological studies have long shown that sensory deprivation and isolation are highly effective behavioural management techniques, designed to break the will.  It is just hard to see how these new behaviour policies are compatible with an aim of ‘treating every child as an individual’.  Unless of course it means; schools are encouraging children to be individuals, providing they all choose to act in the same way?

Thank you Ian; what an interesting post. Do please add your thoughts and comments below.

 

Welcome and Welcome Back!

 

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Hello everyone and welcome back to Contemplating Childhoods.  It was lovely to have a break but also encouraging to see a steady flow of traffic on the blog over the summer. We are excited to be back to our regular postings again and also that we have been promised some really interesting posts from other contributors. We are also saying welcome to a new member of the team – a baby boy – who we think is going to be very helpful in contemplating what childhood is and could be. There is certainly a great deal in the media we could discuss in the coming weeks.  A quick glance over the last few weeks highlighted topics such as:

You might have something you really want to say about these issues and others besides. Do consider writing a post for us because our readers would love to hear from you and we really want to include a range of views on this blog. Some people have shared with us that they feel anxious about writing something that anyone can see; rest assured we are very supportive proofreaders so if you get some thoughts down on paper we are happy to polish them for you.

Have a great week, whether you are starting back or wondering what all the fuss is about because you’ve been working all summer!

Summer break

We can hardly believe  ‘Contemplating Childhoods’ has been going for almost summer flowera year now.  It has certainly been a discipline to make sure that we have our 500 words ready for 8 am each Friday morning.  Thank you to all our loyal readers and those of you who have taken the time to comment on our postings.  We are also grateful to those of you who have contributed some really interesting and thought provoking blog posts.  We are going to take a well-earned rest over August so our next blog post will be on  Friday 7th September 2018.  If you have something important to say as you contemplate childhood, do please consider writing a post for us on our return. The more voices the better!  Have a wonderful August.

Jo and Polly

PS Sorry this was late; we had a technical hitch!

Reflecting on children’s transitions

This week’s post has been written by Karen Matthews, a current MA in Early Childhood Education student and early years practitioner. Karen is sharing her reflection on transitions within early childhood.

img_20180719_202750.jpgTaking a bit of time to reflect, as I often do but particularly at this time of year, on transition time; time to summarise children’s learning journeys at our settings and share enough information with their new teachers to support them until they are at ease in their new environment.

We went on our playgroup trip today. One of the children who came was a boy who began at the setting at two years old, not much more than a toddler, and took weeks to settle with strategies in place to support his separation from his Mum. He’s only recently seemed truly settled and at ease within our setting. We saw him beginning to make friends and play with other children, not checking where I was throughout the day and instead coming excited to tell me about his experiences.  At the zoo I watched him holding hands with his friend, walking across to the bus, chatting, confident and at ease.  In comparison to some of his peers his journey to this point has taken longer, but this doesn’t matter because this is all part of his unique journey.

Another child who spent the first months not wanting to leave the quieter room (not unhappy but not ready to be among a larger group) is now able to eat lunch with his peers and yesterday I saw him in the garden playing happily alongside his peers with sand, mud and the cement mixer: busy, engaged and involved.  Both children have made progress at their own pace and it struck me how children will be ready in their own time. Some settle into the routine and environment of an early years setting more quickly than others, but like late spring flowers I see children who are just starting to open up as it is time for them to move on.

Policy dictates when our children are ready to transfer to school; each year in June or July they have transition days and visits to school before the long summer break.  For the majority of children this transition takes place regardless of which of the previous eleven months that they had their fourth birthday, meaning that there could be up to a year’s difference in their age.   Moreover, it does not allow for children’s varying early years experiences, prematurity, personality, position within the family, among other things, all of which potentially impact a child’s readiness for the transition into the reception class of an infant or primary school.  And what is so important to remember is that once they have transitioned to school, the reception year is still within the Early Years Foundation Stage (DfE, 2017).

Preparation to support our children’s transition to be as smooth as possible includes building relationships with feeder schools, welcoming teachers to visit children at our setting and a parent and carer forum that encourages awareness of the emotions related to transition (both for parents, carers and the children themselves). These are all beneficial, but the activity that seems to have had the most impact is children dressing up in school uniform, giving them the opportunity to explore their ideas about transition to school through their role play (Greenaway, 2009: 39-40).

When this year’s children are starting the next part of their learning journey in reception classes in September I know I will be reflecting once more on this year’s process, identifying what has worked well and thinking about how all next year’s children can be supported during the transition to school. So what are your experiences of children’s transitions? How do you think they could be improved?

Summer celebrations

Summer

Celebrating with Delayna Spencer (commissioning editor) and Cat McMullen (editorial assistant)

A slightly different tone to the blog this week as we thought we would let you know some of the exciting events that have been happening in our professional lives. On Wednesday evening, when many of you would have had important football matches on your mind, we were invited to a summer party at the beautiful Victoria and Albert museum. Our hosts were Sage who are an international publisher of many of the books we recommend to students and also many of the specialist journals you will use in your academic work. The reason we were invited was because our new book, ‘Introducing Research in Early Childhood’, is due to be published by Sage in the autumn.

As the title suggests this a text which introduces key ideas about research concerning children before students are at the stage when they have to go out and carry out research themselves as part of their Early Childhood Studies degree. We have tried to write it in an accessible style and emphasised the important link of research to practice. It has been such an exciting project for us to work on and we are very proud of what we have achieved.

The party was full of authors that we recommend to students to develop both their writing and their understanding so we had to try not to be too overawed by the occasion – and also not stare too much at people’s name badges! The surroundings of course take your breath away and we also had the opportunity to visit the Frida Kahlo exhibition which was really the icing on the cake. A huge screen had been set up in one corner of the courtyard to enable people to follow the football; this of course was the only sad note of the evening when we picked up the final score on the way home.

So all in all it was an eventful evening; thank you Sage both for the invite and also for all your support in making our idea of a book a reality!

Children in Hospitals: 1948 to 2018

NHS70

Recently BBC News have published a series of articles about the National Health Service (NHS) turning 70 years old. One of these focuses on how children’s experiences in hospitals have changed over those 70 years. It shares children’s current experiences in the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital, where there’s a rooftop garden with toys, giggle doctors and parents can stay with their children the whole time. It compares these to the stories of children in hospitals back in the 1940s, when they were treated in a very different way.

The article shares the experience of Andrea Merrall, who had a long stay in hospital for treatment for tuberculosis when she was four in 1948. Her parents were only permitted to visit once a week, and because Andrea used to get so upset when her parents left, they became banned from visiting at all. This type of practice was commonplace; Lindon (2012: 74) talks about how child patients used to be seen in the same way as adult patients, with the medical view that “children had short memories, so there could be no lasting ill-effects, even when parents were made unwelcome, because they allegedly upset their children”, as in Andrea’s case. This belief fits with how Jones (2009: 29)  argues children were traditionally seen; he argues that historically the child was viewed as “a mini-adult lacking in full adult capacities” rather than the modern view that they are “an individual with their own capacities”.

However, now the experiences of children in hospital are unlike that of Andrea’s and other child patients in the 1940s and 1950s. One reason for this was due to researchers James and Joyce Robertson (1989) who made films called A Two Year Old Goes to Hospital and Going to Hospital with Mother (you can see extracts of the films here and here). Their research identified that the children were becoming upset because they were being removed from their key relationships and put into an unfamiliar environment, not because their parents were upsetting them. In 1961 excerpts of their films were shown on television and James Robertson called for communities to put pressure on hospitals to improve conditions, including in relation to children’s emotional wellbeing and parental involvement. Subsequently a group called Mother Care of Children in Hospital (now called Action for Sick Children) was set up in Battersea, which aimed to “persuade hospital staff that the new concepts were worthwhile and could work, and to persuade parents that they had a vital role to play in the care of their sick child” (Belson, 2011).  Since then they have advocated to change hospital practices to remove restrictions on visiting hours, recognise children’s emotional needs and meet sick children’s rights.

The changes to children’s hospital experiences highlight the key role of conducting research (as Robertson and Robertson did) for identifying the need to change practice. It also emphasises the important work of voluntary community groups to advocate for what’s best for young children. Belson (2011) suggests that “a great deal has been achieved but there is still more to be done!” What research do you think should be conducted on children’s inpatient experiences? And in what ways do you think children’s hospital stays could be improved?

Football crazy: What’s the World Cup got to do with Early Years?

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Are you enjoying the World Cup? We decided we couldn’t let it pass by without allowing Contemplating Childhoods to comment on it. We are sure if you are working with young children then some of them will have been discussing it with you; you may even have chosen to acknowledge it through activities you have provided for the children to engage with.

It goes without saying that a key part of effective early years pedagogy involves starting with the child’s interests and this is bound to be impacted by what they are hearing at home from parents, carers and older siblings. We have always been amazed at the very young age many children have begun to be hooked on football and they are clearly reflecting a cultural strand which engages them as an active participant, observer or collector of football-influenced cultural tools such as stickers, football shirts or club-branded artefacts. It is right that we don’t dismiss this as irrelevant to the early years setting but look to use the funds of knowledge (Hedges et al., 2011) they bring with them. It is also an opportunity to highlight the importance of sport and keeping fit, teamwork and develop an understanding of the world beyond their own small community. However, we also need to be aware that some have argued about the negative impact football can have on gender equality discourses.

Football culture can have a profound effect on how gender stereotypes are passed on to young children (Anderson, 2012) because of segregated gender spaces (how many women can you see on the pitch?) and hypermasculine behaviours such as aggression and posturing. Burn and Pratt-Adams (2015) discuss how football has been seen as a way of motivating working-class boys and thus can ‘reinforce’ both gender practices and gender scripts. They are certainly not anti-football and discuss how they enjoyed teaching football to mixed gender groups as primary school teachers; it is the alignment of football with a certain type of masculinity that they consider is problematic.

So how can we minimise this negative potential of football when talking about the World Cup with young children? One way is to disrupt certain scripts that both adults, and then, of course, the children who listen to them talking, will be encultured to use. For example, knowing a little about women’s historical engagement with football would ensure that we were less inclined as adults to use stereotypical scripts.  Encouraging both mixed-gender games of football and girls to engage in our national sport would also support different ways of talking about football.

It’s great we can tap into the excitement of the World Cup if we are working with young children both in terms of the benefits of physical activity, working together and in terms of cultural understanding. However, let us also be mindful of the discourses we use around football when we are talking to or near children to ensure that we are disrupting stereotypical scripts and definitions around gender. What about you?  How are you celebrating the World Cup with the children you are working with or your own children?  Are they interested?  Have you had any interesting conversations with them about it? Do please let us know your thoughts.

What do dads do? A gap in the research

DadsLast Sunday was Father’s Day, and it got us thinking about what we know about the role of fathers in modern Britain. One charity in the UK who publishes lots of information about fathers (and father-figures) is The Fatherhood Institute. They aim to contribute to research on fathers, influence policy to ensure a “father-inclusive approach” and to lobby for changes so that it’s easier for fathers to take on caring roles for their children. They aspire for a society that “gives all children a strong and positive relationship with their father and any father-figures; supports both mothers and fathers as earners and carers; and prepares boys and girls for a future shared role in caring for children.”

The Fatherhood Institute have been working to collate a series of reports about fathers and fatherhood by systematically reviewing studies and pieces of research carried out in the last 20 years. One of these is called “Where’s the daddy?” (Goldman and Burgess, 2018), which examines what is known about fathers and father-figures in the UK. They cite research from Speight et al. (2013) that almost 90% of 70-year-olds have fathered a child or played a significant role in a child’s life, but say despite this what we know about them and their experiences is limited. For instance, they suggest that in cohort studies (like those conducted by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies) often fathers are overlooked because they are more likely to not be living with their child, and also less likely than mothers to be interviewed about their child. The report also states that much of what is known about fathers is gathered through mothers’ and children’s perspectives, rather than the men themselves. The implication of this, the Fatherhood Institute believes, is that when policy is being developed, it’s being developed based on research that has gaps and is incomplete, and thus may “fail to address key issues, and to meet parents’ and children’s needs” (Goldman and Burgess, 2018: 3).

The Fatherhood Institute isn’t the only organisation seeking to build a more informed picture of contemporary fatherhood in the UK. There’s also a funded research collaboration that seeks to do this called Modern Fatherhood. They are interested in who fathers are, what their work lives are like and what fathers’ relationships with their families are like. For example, using Understanding Society data they’ve been able to compile information about how involved fathers are with their families, for instance that they are less likely than mothers to help children with their homework (Poole et al., 2013). They say doing research like this is important because it provides stronger evidence about fathers, to help “policy makers, employers and practitioners develop father friendly work-family policies and practices” and provide “space for a conversation about men, families and work life” (Modern Fatherhood, 2018).

Can you think of other reasons why doing research into the lives of fathers might be important? What do you think the Fatherhood Institute and Modern Fatherhood should investigate, and why?