Play is back! Long live play!

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While there was a lot to celebrate in Ofsted's annual early years report, Sir Michael Wilshaw's drive for more of the poorest twos in schools is more of a challenge, says Penny Tassoni


Penny Tassoni

While Sir Michael Wilshaw in his address to launch Ofsted’s report into early years didn’t actually use these exact phrases, I am sure that many of us within the early years were rejoicing that play is clearly being seen as a central ingredient in promoting early years. In fact there was a huge amount to celebrate and acknowledge in both the report and in the accompanying ‘survey’ entitled Teaching and play in the early years- a balancing act? No longer does it feel that we are looking at play versus learning as the discussion seems to have moved on from where we have been.

The annual early years report was also complimentary about the range of early years settings and how they benefitted children and gave parents a range of options. It was wonderful to see the recognition that a range of ways of working with children can all be effective. In particular, it was reassuring to see that the role that childminders play in providing not just flexible childcare and education, but also the opportunity for children to develop strong bonds with an adult was flagged up.

But, and of course there is usually a ‘but’ when it comes to how to help children who are at risk of disadvantage, the wheels come off the bus. For some reason, Sir Michael is too focussed on getting these infants along with their nappies into primary school provision. Apparently, only primary schools will do, despite there being no research that schools have either the expertise or the track record to work effectively with these tots above and beyond what PVI settings have been doing for years.  

Whilst maintained nursery schools have had over the years a distinguished track record in providing quality education for young children, this is largely because their headteachers and staff have the DNA of early years running through their veins. Primary schools come from a different genetic pool and so evolving an early years ethos is for some still work in progress.

I know that there will be plenty of primary schools who are meeting the challenges of taking two-year-olds on board, and with great valour and are already doing a great job. But it is not for the faint-hearted. The needs of this age group are well-documented. They have strong proximal attachment needs. They need to be closely involved with an adult in order that they can settle and begin to benefit from any provision. Typically, most two years like to be in sight at all times of a familiar adult with whom they have an attachment. Unlike their older counterparts, they are not so ready to wave goodbye to their parents and disappear into the ether of play. Instead, they need nurturing and pretty much the constant company of ‘their adult’. This is what nature intended and when it is in place, it delivers not just high levels of emotional well- being for children, but pretty much constant opportunities for interaction. Interestingly, within the  case studies provided by Ofsted, there were beautiful examples of the importance of interactions between adults and children.

The question for schools and indeed all providers must be on how this level of attention can be guaranteed. Some school nurseries are already at full stretch as they are minimally staffed at 1:13 for their three year olds. When two year olds enter into the equation, their ‘on paper’ adult-child ratio of 1:4 may in reality become paper thin, especially when one adult is out of the room engaged in nappy changing. Contrast that to the childminder’s ratio of three children under five and then take bets on which provision can offer a child a 1:1 story every day and access to continual adult attention and interaction.

I am not against two-year-olds being in schools, however, if schools take up Sir Michael’s challenge and his belief that they should be in mixed age groups, then it is essential that high staffing levels are put in place in order to support both the two-year-olds and the three-year-olds, many of whom will have some level of developmental need. Schools as well as other early years settings also need to think carefully about the physical environment that they create. How might it feel for a toddler to move from a family unit of say three or four others into a space where they may be 20, 30 or even 40 other children?

Whether school, nursery or home-based, ultimately, we are all in it for the children. Every setting has the potential to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds. This in turn means that everyone must be supported and, of course, funded to deliver high quality care and education.

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