After considering various statements made by many charged with policy development, most of whom are not developmental specialists, it would seem that they have cobbled together an erroneous model of human development in the early years and consequently ‘spun’ it into a poorly designed ‘solution’ for a range of difficulties faced by young children in families experiencing disadvantage.
This model in turn has then somehow given rise to an ill-conceived ‘schoolified’ programme for toddlers, immersed in a gross misunderstanding of how young children become ‘school ready’.
It was with these rather dismal thoughts in mind that I recently attended a Diamond Wedding party for a couple I shall call Mary* and Jack*. As a distant in-law, I had the opportunity to slip into a role in which I have had long experience, that of an observer.
The evening started with a buffet, a brief presentation of family photographs from the past 60 years and a short speech each from the eldest child and eldest grandchild, followed by eight year old Robbie*, the eldest great grandchild, proudly reading from a card he had written himself, finishing with ‘we love you Nana Mary* and Granddad Jack*’. After the speeches, it was not the adults who took to the dance floor, but the eight great grandchildren, from eight year old Robbie* to ten month old Freddie*.
My attention was drawn to the highly social play that developed as the older children danced with the younger ones, demonstrating their ‘moves’. The two babies were not forgotten; both were pushed around in baby walkers by their three- and four-year-old cousins in time to the music, with the older ones intermittently modelling rhythmic hand clapping for the babies, which was joyfully mimicked.
After an hour or so, the little ones began to doze and were tucked up by their parents at the back of the hall. The older boys engaged in some rough and tumble, giggling, while six-year- old Marie* continued to dance around, joined by her grandmother and great aunt. In my mind’s eye, a vision of family life stretching across centuries began to form, with children and adults first around campfires, later in various community buildings, dancing, singing traditional songs and playing rudimentary musical instruments, a natural socialisation process gradually easing the children into a place within a family and a wider society.
While few would dispute that not all children within our society ‘get a steady stream of educational activities in their early years’ such as these, it must also be emphasised that the activities concerned do not even vaguely equate to ‘listen[ing] to a teacher, learn[ing] to respect an instruction through activities which [a] teacher is clearly leading’. Instead, almost a century of research in psychology, sociology and biology has indicated that young children, regardless of presumed ‘class’ or ethnic background most naturally learn through interaction with others, both adults and other children within such an immediate and extended family environment, and that infants’ social and emotional needs, most importantly those relating to attachment and stability, must be fulfilled before they can become receptive to more formal instruction in mid-childhood.
The indication is therefore that the focus for policy development should be the provision of access to such rich social immersion for all young children, including those from isolated, disadvantaged families struggling with poverty, unemployment depression and sometimes addiction, frequently with parents who have been raised in similarly disadvantaged conditions. Why not therefore develop existing children’s centres staffed by professionals and volunteers under the management of early years specialist graduate leaders, seeking support from a wide variety of people of all ages and ethnicities who live within an immediate locality? There are many, particularly the over-sixties, who would gain a revitalised sense of purpose from contributing to such an initiative.
We can choose to address issues of disadvantage impacting upon young children through the provision of such vibrant neighbourhood centres designed for community cohesion, informed by theoretical and empirical evidence drawn from many years of research. Or, we can use our sparse resources to fund a politically driven attempt to formally educate the nation’s children from the age of 24 months, a venture that has no basis in empirical research or in developmental theory. The final choice is in the hands of the government.
*not their real names
 Pam Jarvis, Stephen Newman and Louise Swiniarski, 'On ‘becoming social’: the importance of collaborative free play in childhood', International Journal of Play (2014 in press).