with the youngest children, bear in mind the unique learning needs of their age, says Jennie Lindon
It helps to plan ahead in your work with very young children. But plans or schedules have to reflect the nature of very early learning. If your under-threes team is tempted to 'water down' an existing curriculum for three- to five- year-olds, just stop and consider:
- Very young children explore materials in different ways than older children. They are at an earlier stage in gaining physical control and hand-eye co-ordination. They need to have hands-on exploration and the opportunity to 'do it again'.
- When baby and toddler rooms take on topics and 'pre-school' activities, there is a high risk that under-threes are pushed ahead at speed. Babies cannot make Easter cards to fit in with the nursery topic. Toddlers do not benefit from activities built around the shape of the week or colour tables. They need to experience all the different qualities of the world, long before they can make sense of these abstract ideas and words.
- There is also the serious disadvantage that a modified three-to-five curriculum will not give enough prominence to the 'care' aspects of provision.
You will reach an appropriate planning framework if you consider the broad areas of early learning.
- How will we support early communication? How do we ensure that we notice and respond to the earliest looks and smiles; how will we help listening and looking; how will we talk with babies, and with one-, two- and three-year-olds as their spoken language emerges and extends?
- In what ways will we value physical skills, avoiding any sense that they are the poor relation to intellectual or language development? How will we help babies to gain physical control? In what ways will we enable young children to gain and use all the large and fine movements?
- How will we help babies, toddlers and very young children in their emotional development? Just what does confidence look like in a very young child and how will we help it to grow? How do we show that we cherish this baby as an individual or this two-year- old as a small person with views and preferences?
- How will we help children to develop socially? Do we make it easy for very young children to get to know their key worker? Do we promote ways in which they can get to know other children, and do we value how very young children play together?
- In what ways do we encourage self- reliance? Do we allow relaxed time for even very young children to relish sharing in their own care? In what ways do we organise the learning environment and make play resources accessible to young children, so they can choose within their play?
- How do we recognise and encourage the early thinking skills of under- threes? How do we support their effective learning through hands-on exploration and following their curiosity? In what ways do we share and promote their growing interest in the world around them?
Definitely look for the good-quality care theme that runs through all the early learning questions.
- Consider the opportunities for warm communication and building a personal relationship that can develop as part of feeding, changing and dressing routines.
- What aspects of children's early development are being fully supported when you encourage them in appropriate ways towards self care in feeding, dressing and becoming toilet trained?
- Routines matter, and even very young children like to feel they have a genuine part to play. Consider how being treated as a trusted helper at mealtimes, in tidying up the room or in tending the garden could promote children's confidence and support physical, thinking and communication skills.
After considering these questions, you can look at a working timetable for important daily routines, possible activities and events.
There will be a number of routines that need to be covered in the day and some of these will have a regular time. But avoid a situation in which you or the children feel tyrannised by routine. Look at routines in a positive way, as a source of learning, but also with potential to help children anticipate and handle simple daily changes.
You may have timed access to the outdoors, perhaps because the children are very young or the space does not easily allow continued access. But, just as with the older children, think creatively about play, learning, conversation and how children can help you out in the garden.
You may time some activities on a weekly or fortnightly cycle, but avoid scheduling all the activities. Even very young children will learn better when the play resources are accessible so that they can choose freely from materials on an open shelf or in containers.
Remember that young children are ready to learn in different ways. Perhaps you have laid out plastic bottles filled with various materials, thinking that these play resources will encourage looking and sound-making. But your toddlers are currently very keen on putting small objects into larger containers and they want to play together piling bottles into a large container and then taking them out again.
You will probably time in creative activities such as art, craft, cooking and playdough. Avoid feeling obliged to have an end product in terms of a picture, card or little dough sculpture. If you feel pressured to have something to show, take photos of the toddlers sploshing paint and squeezing soft dough through a little fist. Make a display of photos with simple captions that show parents, or any other adults, that this is 'real' baby arts and crafts.
Special sessions such as treasure basket time or a heuristic play session with mobile young children can be timed within the week. But do watch out that the qualities of this play also spread through the other days.
Story time becomes more feasible with older two-year-olds. A singing session can work with younger children, but avoid being restricted by the timetable. Be ready to sing a song or look together at a book simply because that is what this young child is keen to do now.
Be flexible enough so that if the weather is finally pleasant after days of heavy rain, then never mind what it says on the plan - take a trip to the park or the market instead.
Beginnings and ends of a full childcare day may be the times when the different rooms in your setting come together. This merging can be a positive event and an opportunity for the different age groups to socialise.
Finally, be ready to review your plans and how timed activities actually worked out in practice. Ask yourself 'What did we anticipate the children would learn?' and 'What did they probably learn?' If the activity did not go very well, how might you change it? What can you learn from the children, even very young ones? What are they 'telling' you through their actions and words about what is exciting, intriguing or tedious? What do they seem to think has worked?
- Our earlier articles in this series offer many ideas for suitable activities for under-threes. These ideas will be published as a book in early 2001, called Play and learning for the under threes by Jennie Lindon, Kevin Kelman and Alice Sharp (Nursery World/TSL Education).
- For a reminder of the importance of physical skills, see Sally Goddard Blythe's 'Mind and body' (Nursery World, 15 June 2000).
- For a link between language and concepts, see Shivani Chotai and Louise Habgood on 'Talking sense' (Nursery World, 9 November 2000).