When I read a preview of Sir Michael Wilshaw’s latest instructions to nursery school inspectors a few weeks ago, I thought that his directive could be interpreted in two ways, one of which appeared to take pedagogic principles into account. In this context I elected not to add my name as a signatory to an open letter criticising his instructions, which was published in the Daily Telegraph on the 3rd April 2014.
On hearing Sir Michael Wilshaw being interviewed on the BBC “Today” programme (3.4.14) I changed my view. His policy as explained in this interview reveals a woeful lack of understanding of how children develop, grow and learn, with directives being aimed at “teaching” children under 5 rather than providing an enriching environment in which they learn through exploration, discovery and trial and error about the world around them and their place in it.
It was in the 1960’s that Ray Barsch wrote a series of books on motor-perceptual efficiency in which he described the young child as a “terranaut” – an astronaut on terra firma – whose primary role was to become master of his/her own body in space. Physical competence and confidence in space provide the basis for balance, postural control, coordination, control of eye movements needed to support reading, writing and maths, the ability to sit still and even emotional stability. These abilities are developed in the context of physical exploration in space through the medium of movement, a process most children seek and experience with joy and access through play throughout what used to be known as the “pre-school years”.
It used to be said that the time for reading readiness coincided with the shedding of the first milk teeth, which usually occurs from 6 years of age. While there are some children who are ready to read from as early as 4 and these should not be held back if the desire and ability are present, forcing children into sedentary and near-point visual activities before they are ready can literally do more harm than good. In China for example, there has been a worrying increase in the development of myopia (short sight) in children, which is thought to be linked to the amount of time spent in near-distance visual activities from an early age.
Various studies have shown that more than a third of children in the samples investigated showed signs of immature neuro-motor skills after entering school, and that there is a link between the level of motor skills and educational performance. Immature neuro-motor skills may not be the single cause of under-achievement, but it will act as a barrier to performance,
Both in politics and education little attention (other than lip-service) is paid to the role of physical development in supporting cognitive learning and behaviour, or apparently to matching educational input to developmental stages and needs. More of the same, in terms of pumping more sedentary cognitive tasks into education from an earlier and earlier age will not produce good results unless they are led by the developmental needs of the child.
Neither do these recommendations pay sufficient attention to the emotional needs of the young child. While a raft of studies indicate that children placed in high quality nursery or pre-school care from the age of three benefit socially and emotionally, the global benefits are less clear in children under 3. Some studies have shown that levels of cortisol – a physiological marker of stress – are higher in children placed in nursery care under 2 years of age. Under 3 years, children do seem to benefit on measures of cognitive development but may pay a price emotionally. The combination of long hours in nursery care from increasingly early years of age combined with “schoolification” of the environment risks placing stress on very young children before they are developmentally ready to handle it.
Children are not “little adults”. Development of the brain takes place in different stages with areas involved in sensory motor skills being the first to develop. True education should begin with fostering skills with development rather than trying to impose a top-down adult style of learning on the immature brain.
While there is a need to support children from disadvantaged backgrounds with access to enriched language and social environments these should be in the context of true “primary” education, which is the development of physical and spoken language skills in a milieu which facilitates free exploration, discovery and most of all, play.
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