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In this year's Nursery World student essay competition, we asked participants to write on the theme of 'caring for birth to threes'. Here we reprint in full the winning entry, with extracts from the two runners-up. Congratulations!

In this year's Nursery World student essay competition, we asked participants to write on the theme of 'caring for birth to threes'. Here we reprint in full the winning entry, with extracts from the two runners-up.

Congratulations!

Jools Page 1st prize - 1,000 PhD student at the University of Sheffield, School of Education

Throughout 20 years of working with and for young children I have always wanted to spend time with the youngest, those under three. I recall once being told that my skills would be 'wasted' with the babies and I should stay with the three- to five-year-olds. Looking back, I can see that this intended compliment came from thinking which suggested that older children needed 'brighter' adults to work with them (I shall return to this later).

As a nursery nurse, I worried about the sleeping babies left in their prams at the bottom of the garden. I kept a watchful eye on the sleeping toddlers, who woke, tried to sit up and got caught up in their pram harnesses. Everyone in that nursery of 20 years ago tried to keep up with the increasing demands of the smallest and most vulnerable, but something wasn't right. Everything was clean, orderly and efficient, but something was missing, and although at that time I didn't know what to call it, I now see that the 'keyperson' was missing.

As a young mother working part time (and permitted to bring my baby son to work with me at the nursery for a reduced fee) I was grateful that he was cared for in the 'baby room' while I worked with the pre-school children.

He never had a keyperson. The worst time of the day for me was when the children left at 4.30pm and for the remaining 30 minutes staff cleaned and tidied for the next day.

My baby remained with the staff in the baby room while they did their chores and though I could sometimes hear him crying, I was forbidden to see him until 4.50pm. Torn between my natural instinct to go to him and the financial need to keep my job, I begged colleagues to pick him up while, in return, I did their jobs.

Enormous attention

When he was older he was able to toddle along behind someone familiar helping tidy up. As a practitioner and a mother I thought deeply about work with the youngest children. The staff could detach themselves from the sound of my baby crying, yet once we had left the building, they would pay him an enormous amount of attention, almost as if they were trying to make up for not being able to meet his earlier demands. The perceived need for some kind of professional 'distance' was eroded once the workplace was left behind.

Instinct has strongly influenced my practice. Instinct as a mother told me that I wanted the people who cared for my child to love him. Instinct lay behind my encouragement of my own staff team later in my career to foster close relationships between practitioners and children, and practitioners and parents. This instinct is now solidly underpinned by research including Lesley Abbott's pioneering work with under-threes and the Birth to Three Matters resource.

Children in good quality settings benefit from early education and childcare. It is good for children to develop close relationships with a keyperson, 'Through intimate and tender patterns of body play, gestures and conversations with their keyperson children become attuned and responsive to others' (Goldschmied and Selleck, 1996, p6). A keyperson can provide continuity of care which helps to reduce the anxiety of separation (Goldschmied and Jackson, 1993, Penn, 1999).

Close relationships

However, there is a great need for training for practitioners in how to develop their keyperson role so that they can cope with the demands of the close relationships they make with the children, and the complexity of the triangular relationship that includes the child's parents.

Perhaps too many things make it difficult to establish a keyperson system and add to anxiety for parents and practitioners. This need not be so, (Goldschmied and Jackson, 1993) and the benefits to children are overwhelming. The complex relationships which make up a keyperson approach are: 'Challenges to be overcome, rather than reasons not to develop the key person approach' (Elfer, Goldschmied and Selleck, 2003, p12).

Birth to Three Matters (DfES/Sure Start 2002) provides practitioners with long overdue support in balancing care with the development of emotional bonds with babies and children. We know that children under three learn better if they form strong emotional attachments with one (or two) special people, the 'keypeople'.

So, back to the idea that older children need more able practitioners. The speed and complexity at which babies learn to move, to communicate, to develop relationships, to take their place in their communities seems evidence enough that only the very best of practitioners can keep up with them and ensure that their needs are met and their potential reached.

Ruth Roberton 2nd prize - 500 BA/BSc student in Early Childhood Studies and Psychology

In our society there appears to be a grave mismatch between job responsibility and subsequent salaries. While qualified childcare workers can earn as little as 5.32 an hour, unqualified workers in a Walkers Crisp factory can earn up to 5.68 ('A matter of opinion' by Julian Grenier, Nursery World, 14 August 2003). Perhaps this is why increasing numbers of workers are opting to gain a relevant degree, in an attempt to prove their worth and expertise.

So what has my degree left me with? I looked to get a job following my graduation, but many settings require practical qualifications such as NVQs as opposed to my academic degree. In fact, my GCSE in child development has given me more knowledge about the care required for the birth to three age group than my degree.

As part of the assessment procedure we were required to complete a research study on an aspect of the early years. Little encouragement was made to examine the birth to three age group. What knowledge I do have of the Birth to Three Matters framework, I gained through research for my psychology dissertation examining creativity in the early years.

Perhaps a more appropriate term for the course I have followed is 'Foundation Stage Studies', and maybe in the way we have seen the growth of Early Childhood Studies courses, we shall see an increase in degree level courses that focus on this formative age group, called perhaps, 'Birth to Three Studies'.

When I was at school, I wanted to become a nursery nurse, but my school encouraged me to go to university. I am now looking to train as a primary school teacher, because I cannot independently support myself on the wages given by pre-school or nursery nurse work. I believe many others have been lost to teaching due to, albeit limited, financial benefits and increased professional recognition.

Sarah Plumley 3rd prize - 250 NVQ Level 3 in Early Years Care and Education

Last year I worked predominantly with three- to five-year-olds, but this year I have spent quite a lot of time with the babies, and I'm now permanently based in a two- to three-year-olds room.

When I first embarked on this career change, I found it so difficult to communicate with these tiny people, and so difficult to anticipate their needs, and help them with their worries. I have found out through the course of this year though that getting to know children of this age group brings immense rewards.

Babies and very young children need stimulation, but it need not be complicated, or difficult to plan or deliver. For instance, going out for a walk in the grounds of the nursery is a fantastically rich experience, with the bluebells under the trees, and rhododendrons in full bloom, not to mention the vast number of rabbits we seem to have yet again this year...

If it's wet, there are puddles to splash through in our welly boots, and mud to squelch in, and if someone falls over, well, never mind because there are always spare clothes back at nursery, and no one really minds.

There's always plenty to do indoors as well. The babies can be stripped down to just their nappies, in a nice warm room, and play in trays of water or gloop.

After lunch, we all get clean, take our shoes off, and retire to a big room with our mats and sheets laid out ready for us, and one of the most magical parts of the day begins.

Three members of staff sit down among around 15 children, and we magic them to sleep! We rub their backs, or stroke their heads or foreheads, and they just fall asleep. It's amazing, and before doing this job, I never realised it was possible - and I've got two children of my own.

After the beautiful restful sleep time we can have some more fun in the new garden. NW

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