Select Committee on Education and Employment Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from the British Association for Early Childhood Education (EY 84)

  1.  Every baby is unique. Although dependent on adults for virtually everything at first, each one is already an individual in his or her own right, and should be respected as such.

  2.  Parents and carers are the experts on the particular babies they care for because they know them intimately through listening and observing their preferences. They are their first and enduring educators. Close adults can interpret what babies and very young children are trying to communicate. Young children's sense of security depends on adults who can accept their changing moods, and show that they are affectionate and reasonably consistent. Effective communication is often non-verbal. Given sensitive support as they face new experiences in the world, young children can be enabled to develop confidence and express their natural curiosity.

  3.  As well as responding sympathetically to very young children, and showing reciprocity in their interactions, adults also communicate actively. When they imitate and extend vocal and turn taking games, they start to establish patterns of vocalisation and speech which are the early stages of conversation. They also help to reassure children that although they may disappear, they will return. They contribute to young children's developing conceptual understanding by offering or reinforcing patterns of behaviour in an enjoyable way. Young children learn a great deal from imitation, and the examples given by adults are very influential. Social interaction with other children, especially siblings, is also a rich source of learning.

  4.  Looking at life from a baby's point of view helps adults to realise the vast range of learning that takes place in the earliest months and years. It underlines the fact that babies cry for a reason and that their behaviour has its own logic—they are not being naughty. Young children who have been helped through periods of distress in their first year are less likely to cry later as they have gained confidence and learned that, given help, they can deal with difficulties. This is a constructive pattern for all aspects of development, where young children learn about their family life, language and culture in a meaningful, supportive social context.

  5.  Improvements in their physical coordination over the first few months enable babies to take increasing control of their environment. They have a need to explore actively, and to experience artefacts and activities at first hand. This kind of experimentation does more than introduce them to the characteristics of materials and objects; it enables them to experience cause and effect, to test emerging hypotheses and to develop concepts through a wide range of relevant activity. It is the grounding for future mathematicians, linguists, designers, scientists and artists as well as athletes.

  6.  Providing a rich environment and allowing babies to take the lead enables them to learn about the effect their actions can have, and nourishes their growing sense of themselves. The development of language is one of the miracles of infancy. The complexity and subtlety of children's learning, and the speed with which they become confident communicators, is remarkable. It starts at birth, through experimentation with sound. Rhythmic activity and song reinforce growing communication skills, and are the beginnings of literacy as well as verbal communication, and contribute to physical, mathematical, and creative development as well as social and emotional growth. Errors should not be seen as mistakes, but as part of learning indicating the children's ability to experiment and draw conclusions for themselves. They are often a sign of progress.

  7.  Play, alone or with others, is a fundamental means of helping young children to learn, develop and grow. It is essential that young children have access to space which allows them to follow through their own ideas actively, and are given time to consolidate their learning. Routine is helpful, but should not be oppressive. Consistency combined with flexibility will enable children to accept the needs of others while developing in their own ways.

  8.  It is important to recognise the widely varying rates of development shown by individual children, while remaining sensitive to delays or disabilities which might cause concern. Equal opportunities principles should always be applied.

  9.  Young children benefit from being involved in domestic routines and social occasions as well as play. All should be able to spend their time in a safe and attractive environment, with access to out of doors in all weathers. High ratios of adults to children are needed, and continuity of care should be assured in any group setting. Nutrition, hygiene and arrangements for sleeping must be carefully considered. High standards for group care should be set nationally, and consistently monitored.

  10.  As Mary Jane Drummond has commented, adults working with very young children need to help them to think for themselves and to care for others. This requires particular skills, including insight, self-discipline, patience and the ability to engage genuinely in young children's concerns. The expertise shown by many adults is frequently underestimated, because they enable events to flow smoothly by following the children's interests and anticipating their needs. Involvement with young children, whether in the family, with a childminder or in a group setting, has low status. It is nevertheless rewarding to those who can appreciate the remarkable developments which occur in the early months and years of life, and who appreciate their importance for the future.

  11.  Most homes and settings contain plenty of stimulus and challenge for children, and we can trust most environments to be good enough. In general, adults can tune in well to young children. There is no evidence that efforts to accelerate learning through direct teaching or concentrated training programmes bring significant long-term effects, and there are dangers that downward pressure is counter-productive.

  12.  As a society, however, we do need to be vigilant in countering the effects of poverty and other forms of disadvantage which can reduce children's achievements and life chances. Initiatives such as Sure Start are a welcome recognition of the importance of the earliest years. The emphasis on families and on flexible combined working across services is helpful. Consultation within communities as to their own perceived priorities is crucial.

  13.  Jane Healy, an American expert gave some pointers for good practice, based on her view of what is known from brain research, at the Parenting Forum conference held in April 2000. This is a summary of her advice.

  Help children to feel safe. They need:

    —  Unconditional love, expressed through plenty of smiles and hugs;

    —  Reasonably consistent limits, rules and routines, with some quiet times;

    —  Latitude and encouragement for exploration and learning.

  Allow children the freedom to explore and make "good" mistakes for learning

  Encourage children to be in charge of their own learning. The growing brain searches out what it needs at different stages. The human brain does not need "jump starting", it is ready for development and is impelled to do what it needs to do at any given time.

  Give children the tool for success—language. Talking helps to build connections in the brain.

  Give children time for learning.

  Listen to children, and observe them. Pay attention to what they are really asking. We should not be so eager to tell them.

The British Association for Early Childhood Education

June 2000

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