Children and dogs


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….


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

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?


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?