Family Matters: Childcare experts fight back

Elizabeth Truss.
Elizabeth Truss.
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Sheffield childcare experts have hit back at a Government minister who has criticised “chaotic” nurseries.

Tory childcare minister Elizabeth Truss said she had “seen too many chaotic settings, where children are running around with no sense of purpose”.

She said: “We want children to learn to listen to a teacher, learn to respect an instruction, so that they are ready for school.”

The minister praised French nurseries as calm and structured.

Janet Kay, principal lecturer in children and childhood at Hallam University, said: “What might seem like aimless running around to her is children experiencing and exploring the world around them, which is what they should be doing at that age.

“They are learning through play and experimenting with their world. They are choosing their own interests and things they want to concentrate on.

“Also it’s just childhood! We should let children enjoy themselves. Children left to their own devices are hard workers. They play hard and it’s a learning process.”

Janet pointed out that play is also important in learning to share, take turns, communicate and cooperate.

“Other things children learn are around emotional aspects of growing up. How to understand their own emotions and those of other people and coping with minor day-to-day stresses and manage how they feel about them.”

She added: “We start all our children in school before they are five. They make no better progress than children in other countries like in Scandinavia who start at six or seven. Research has shown their literacy at 11 is the same.

“Putting a pen in the hand of a child aged three and a half merely bores them and turns them off. Learning isn’t just about literacy and number skills, although that is important. Play is giving them knowledge of the world around them and making connections between different aspects. They use their imagination to learn.”

Philippa Thompson, a senior lecturer in early childhood studies at Hallam, has been an advisory teacher for early years in Sheffield and has served as a nursery governor.

She said: “To an untrained eye, which is clearly what she has, it can appear to be ‘running around with no sense of purpose’. To a highly-qualified practitioner it is clear that is when the deep-level learning is going on.

“If I came into an environment where a group of two-year-olds were silent, I might have concerns that their learning was only determined by adults. You have to strike a balance where children can form their own ideas.

“Play doesn’t get good marketing! Everyone thinks that they know what play is. If you see formal learning you can see a result from that, if they write something down or draw you a picture you can see exactly what they’ve done.

“People begin to think that play’s not valid. It gets a bad press in terms of what they’re learning. It’s exploration and experimentation. That’s how scientists find things out.”

Philippa said she worried about the minister’s view of a good nursery: “If formal education continues from when they’re two to 17 that scares me in terms of how they’re controlled in their thinking. Let’s think about what they already know and can share and what we can learn from them.

“I always tell parents who are looking at nurseries to observe whether the adults are polite and considerate. Do they say please and thank you and give eye contact? That shows the ethos of the setting.

“Children can listen to you from a very young age if the ethos is that we learn with each other and respect each other.

“The minister is not giving a lot of respect to all those people who work really hard in nurseries or an incredibly low salary.

“Our practitioners, in comparison to French nursery staff, earn £7-8,000 less.