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June 2012

Pretend play guide – Teddy's tea party

Children learn language by talking about what they see happening in front of them. You can help them by making their play world simple and relatively repetitive, and by describing what they are doing in short, simple sentences. Here is the first in a series of pretend play guides – today’s is teddy’s tea party.

Collect: soft toys (use favourite toys), toy cups, toy teapot, toy milk jug

  • Get the toys to sit somewhere comfortable. Ask the toys if they’re thirsty.
  • See if he will pour drinks and help the toys drink. Is it hot enough? Too hot?
  • Try filling up the teapot with pretend water from a pretend tap.
  • Make a sound when he pours and when he helps the toys drink.
  • Flavour the tea (e.g. with a plastic strawberry to make a fruit tea; something to make it disgusting – like a sock). Will the toys enjoy it?
  • The toys might knock over the cups or the teapot if they’re clumsy. He might clean up if you provide a cloth.
  • Make the toys ask for more, until they say they have had enough.

 Model language: ‘oh what a mess!’, ‘drink it up teddy’, ‘that one’s yours’, ‘teddy’s drinking’, ‘is it nice?’


Childcare is in a total mess in the UK and we're going to make it worse

BBC News – Childcare: One in four providers ‘make loss’
BBC News – Childcare review launched as nursery reforms urged

I think it’s fair to say that childcare is in a bit of a crisis here in the UK (although I’m sure that Scotland and Wales are somehow absolutely perfect like usual). Parents pay huge sums for childcare (and four or five times as much in London as elsewhere, I read today) and places for some 2- and all 3- year olds are centrally funded at one of the highest cost-levels in Europe. Yet nursery managers are apparently taking home an average of £13,500 a year and the workforce, despite all the training they have to trundle through, and despite the sheer complexity of trying to squeeze a child into the EYFS, they get the minimum wage in almost every case. It’s not much compensation for the sheer weight of responsibility heaped on these people from both directions – upwards from busy parents and downwards from nervous law-makers.

The same thing can be seen in social care for the elderly. Councils pay quite large sums, private tenants’ cross-subsidy to the council-funded tenants is frankly eye-watering (my grandmother pays £900 a week for what seems to me to be rather hands-off care), and once again it doesn’t seem as though the people who own care homes are bothering the rich list particularly.

Another thing these two sectors have in common is the fact that hardly anyone ever has anything positive to say about the people on the ground providing the care. Today the problem is the fact that nursery workers and childcarers in general lack an A-level equivalent qualification, and that their literacy and numeracy skills are inadequate.

Admittedly there must be something very wrong with the numeracy skills in a sector where some settings have taken it upon themselves to pay 92p a pint for milk… but I digress…

Was it the the Swedish model or the Finnish model we were meant to be following? I forget. We failed either way.

The first component of these models must have gone unnoticed by the legislators when they were on their jollies in Scandinavia. They were presumably overawed by the settings they saw, and the top-class early educators they met, without considering the fact that the countries who get childcare right can afford to do so because they make full use of the adults (neighbours, family) in the community to deliver informal child care the rest of the time. Of course in this country, even two female police officers can be prevented from looking after each other’s children because they are not registered as childminders. We need to do something to develop ours into a compassionate society where people do things for one another simply because they can and because they want to. Certainly we could start by getting rid of any legislation that prevents us doing so. We overpay for care in this country because we don’t, or can’t, care enough for one another without being given some sort of financial jolt to do so, or without having a badge that says we’re allowed to.

The second component of these models was the one they focused on, but again they didn’t look deeply enough. These settings understand that young children learn from play, from direct experience and from each other. In many countries in Europe, sit-down learning starts well after a child reaches 7 years of age. In the former Czechoslovakia, it used to be, if your child couldn’t draw a circle clockwise and anticlockwise, and if he couldn’t touch his left ear with his right hand, and his right foot with his left hand, he wasn’t made to sit in a classroom to learn. Here we have taken on the bits of the system we like, without actually considering the experience of the child. Some reception teachers understand that it is too much to expect children to adopt a rigid learning plan just because they happen to be turning five years of age before some random day or other. Likewise, some nursery staff understand that a total absence of structure is confusing for young children. But the bulk of children in this country experience the shock of transition from Child-Led (read “child-left”) Play to ‘sit-down and listen’ without any consideration for where they are in their development. In this country we have the option of holding a child back a year. But one day that child has a serious dose of reality coming their way when they have to get back into their correct year group before a change of school.

So to get back to the original point – the supposed need for early years’ staff to be educated to A-level level. I couldn’t care less if they can’t read a story to the child. What I want to know is, can they make a story up off the top of their heads and tell it in an exciting manner? Can they leap into the child’s world and instinctively offer intellectual morsels that draw the child’s thinking onwards through the proximal zone of their development? Can they spot something the child is doing today that they weren’t able to do last week? Do they know what the child likes to do? Do they enjoy doing what the child enjoys doing? Are they able to make the child understand that they enjoy getting involved in what they are doing? Do they even like children?

None of these things (apart from the last one) are easy. It is precisely because delivering child-led learning, to a skeleton curriculum, on the hoof, pitched perfectly to arouse a group of disparate souls is so difficult that we have lost our way in childcare in the UK. It takes a special person to be able to nurture children in all domains, to understand them and to love them, and with every policy review we get further and further away from getting early “education” right.

When we find our workforce, they may or they may not have additional skills in administration and accounting. It could not be any less relevant for the children.