Demands for getting children ‘ready to learn’ in pursuit of school readiness arouses deep tensions in many working with young children, flying as it does in the face of deeply held beliefs and experienced practice that sees children’s holistic learning embedding and flourishing from birth.
Being ready and able for an auspicious start to school life is the right and need of every child, but preparing children for the rigours of formal education, and in fact all of life’s demands, has roots within the earliest stages of life. With adult prospects recognisable within skills and abilities already established at 22-months-old, the influential impact of effective parenting, the home environment, maternal and child health and early childhood education and care is clear. With direct impact on language acquisition, self-regulation and confidence, early influences are felt throughout children’s school experience and on into adult life, affecting employment, social integration, even criminality, with effects felt throughout the family structure.
The term ‘school readiness’ was originally introduced in England as a performance indicator for Children’s Centres and is now linked to children’s performance in the EYFSP; an assessment conducted at the end of the Reception year when children are typically five years old. To get a good level of development (GLD) children must reach the expected level throughout all the prime areas of learning, and the specific areas of literacy and numeracy. This narrow and often grossly misunderstood view of what constitutes an ‘ideal learner’ raises several questions:
- How can assessment at the end of Reception indicate readiness for formal schooling which has, in many significant ways, already begun?
- In what context are judgements being made, and by whom?
- How can all significant achievements be effectively judged within prescribed goals?
- Can any set criteria be meaningfully matched to all children regardless of background and early childhood experiences?
- What impact is this having on practice and priorities?
As we consider the overwhelming influence of effective beginnings on children’s futures we must explore practice beyond learning goals and government directed assessment targets to consider deeper attributes of holistic learning in the support of children and their families. By recognising children’s diversity and the wide-ranging abilities and skills they have already gained we can begin to challenge the current rhetoric of children starting from deficit positions, seen somehow as potentially ‘unready to learn’. But this is a mindset that needs employing right from the start.
Born eager to learn, children of all ages are continuously reacting to every sensory experience as basic brain architecture and the systems deployed within its development sees growth with every opportunity. This ability to learn is demonstrated most eloquently within situations that matter to them such as working out many rice cakes are needed for everyone at the snack table, it does not do as well within demonstrated displays of knowledge such as being asked to count out ten blocks. Predisposed to engaging in multifaceted, hierarchical, cyclical and spiralling learning processes more complex and important than the simple bestowing of information, it is within engaging, open-ended and well-considered learning environments that these building blocks for more complex functions are laid.
However, these capabilities are in danger of being lost if natural attempts at learning are undervalued or superseded by other demands. Children disengage as opportunities to make decisions and self-direct diminish. If their earliest experiences are unmatched to their learning needs or are out of context with their reality, as is often experienced by children living in difficult situations, or where there is an emphasis on pre-determined outcomes within pre-determined timeframes, such deeply unfulfilling and frustrating learning experiences can introduce a sense of failure. Psychological and social issues often follow, specifically disadvantaging the children whose experiences beyond school limit their ability to succeed within this model – the very children we most need to reach. If children’s natural learning processes are denied, limited, devalued or continuously interrupted, the message is introduced that their natural attempts at learning are simply not worth their efforts.
- A voice – opportunity to express their opinions and feelings, meaning, reasoning and thinking as they learn to vocalise ideas and experiences, through imaginative discussions, listening and responding to others in increasingly sophisticated ways.
- To be encouraged – supported, challenged and stimulated, children will rehearse, adapt, revisit, improve and perfect understanding in ways meaningful to them, becoming independent learners.
- Quality relationships – through social, cooperative play, social skills and behaviours, self-confidence, independence and the ability to cooperate with others flourish, supporting feelings of belonging and well-being.
- Risky challenge – allowing for careful judgement where possible harm is balanced against potential benefit children learn through their errors, misunderstandings and conflicts.
- Creative opportunities – free from adverse stresses of conformity or imposed sense of failure.
When diverse yet accessible experiences are set within practical environments familiar to their own real-life realities, children become deeply engaged in their problem-solving potential. When given freedom to initiate and explore within their own timescales they will freely combine ideas, becoming deeply self-motivated, wallowing within intellectual processes as they consolidate their understanding. It is within these moments that the foundations of lifelong learning are taking root.
Preparing children to transition into formal classrooms, into an environment with many developmental, individual, interactional and contextual challenges, is no small order. But the research consistently shows that children who start school well, happy to explore, to take risks and experiment, even when making mistakes, start school with a belief in their own abilities. They have a greater chance of future success, unlocking their potential with repercussions felt throughout a lifetime. But to realise this, key personal attributes and relevant experiences need embedding throughout early childhood, securing the building blocks needed for future success.
About the author
As a passionate advocate for children’s access to rich and meaningful experiences throughout their early years, Kathryn delivers training, seminars and short courses for local councils, private nurseries and schools. Seeking to identify and celebrate the impact of effective experiences on children, as preparation for all of life’s learning she guides practitioners, teachers and parents in enhancing the experiences they offer through her consultancy, research, writing, teaching and conferencing. A highly acclaimed author and member of parliamentary groups, Kathryn also teaches a Masters at the Centre for Research in Early Years (CREC) and is currently gaining her PhD.
For more information and practical guidance on developing the features of lifelong learning, Kathryn has published a book: Developing School Readiness, Creating Lifelong Learners. Get in contact at www.kathrynpeckham.co.uk or email firstname.lastname@example.org.