The pilot scheme for four- and five-year-olds in Scouting is exciting news. But we need to have the courage and wisdom to learn from our partners and keep an open mind while drawing on our experience as the UK’s largest youth movement.
We’re well used to supporting young people’s development. The idea of bringing together children from different backgrounds to build confidence, key skills and help them learn to interact isn’t a new one. Some 111 years ago, Robert Baden-Powell brought together 20 young people for an experimental camp, and a phenomenon was born. Cubs, for younger children, soon followed, and today there are 460,000 boys and girls in the Scouts across the UK and 50 million worldwide. But supporting four- and five-year-olds is new territory for us.
Bringing Scouting to younger children
Back in 1986 we took the bold step of introducing Beaver Scouts for six- to eight-year-olds. Within five years there were over 100,000 of them – enjoying a heady mix of crafts, games, outdoor activities and drama, from making a lava lamp to singing in elderly residents’ homes, all embedded in a values-based framework. Today some of these are now Olympians or sit on the boards of FTSE100 companies. We couldn’t be prouder.
But in recent years we’ve felt that we could offer the same benefits to even younger children too. It’s now widely accepted that play-based education in early childhood has huge long-term benefits for young people. It’s when the most profound connections are being made and the positive memories of positivity and kindness from these formative years remain imprinted on their character. Vitally, it’s when they begin to learn social skills such as listening, co-operation and compromise.
Part of a plan to promote skills for life
That’s why we made the idea of exploring early years a part of our strategic plan to 2023, called Skills For Life. But as charity, already committed to a huge range of work, it was dependent on securing the funding. The funding announcement from the Department for Education earlier this month therefore meant we have been able to green-light a pilot scheme for early years. It’s the start of an exciting new chapter in our history and there is everything to play for.
Initially we will set up 20 pilots, supporting nearly 300 children, supported by 50 volunteers and parents. Vitally, these will be focused mainly in areas of deprivation where the benefit will be felt most. It’s about supporting young people, but it’s also about building a more equitable society, closing the opportunity gap. We believe every child has the right to learn skills for life, regardless of social or economic background.
Starting the habit of learning
And the benefits don’t stop there. You’ll know that bringing children together for even a short time during the week to enjoy games and activities promotes language and other communication skills; it promotes curiosity, problem-solving and attention spans. Children develop, almost without knowing it, the habit for learning; that glint in the eye; that spark of curiosity that teachers love to see when introducing a new subject.
This work begins relatively small for us, and it could have huge ramifications. But we’re not going to run before we can walk. The pilots will last for at least a year and we will listen very carefully to the young people, parents and volunteers who take part before making any long-term decisions about introducing a new section.
We have over 160,000 volunteers currently supporting Scouting and we do not take a single one for granted. It’s essential that we take them on the journey and that they recognise the benefits of extending Scouting in this way. We also need to prove that we have a sustainable model that does not place additional demands on their time and goodwill.
Working in partnership
We work best when we work in partnership; with like-minded organisations and volunteers locally. As well as using our own expertise, we will be drawing on best practice from the sector, and listening to specialist practitioners. We’re fortunate to have Action for Children supporting us with the design of the programme.
Learning from similar early years Scouting schemes overseas will also be invaluable. A critical part of their success has been the way they engaged parents and carers – creating spaces for them to spend quality time with their children. In Lions, the US Scouts’ early years scheme, some 75 per cent of the adults who supported it were new to Scouting, and the majority stayed in the movement too.
The courage to try new things
As a dad I know how vital it is to make the time to talk, play and have fun with your child. It strengthens the bond and accelerates learning – simple games and activities really do make a difference. If we can create a space for this to happen, then we’ll be contributing something very special to families around the UK. But let’s be clear, this is not about teaching four-year-olds navigation or tent-pitching. It’s about getting them in the habit of learning and enjoying interaction in a kind, supportive environment where adults will listen and respond positively.
Like young people themselves, we will need to have the courage to try new things, make mistakes and learn from them. Wish us well on our new journey.