Recently Sir Micheal Wilshaw, Chief Inspector for Schools caused something of a stir when he said 30% of children were not school ready. He suggested a 4 year old starting school should be counting to 10, writing simple words, hold a pencil correctly and take turns. These skills should, he suggested, be taught in early years settings in readiness for school. Here in the UK, we are so keen to get children into school that most are 4 years old when they start but in other countries pre-school usually continues until 6 or 7 years old
So given that British schooling starts ahead of other countries what is it that children really need to get the most from starting school? What helps children become motivated and effective learners? Early years professionals will tell you that the skills a child needs to start them off in life need to be discovered from within through play and exploration. As a Child and Educational Psychologist I agree with them wholeheartedly. The skills a child needs to develop first in their first six to seven years do not start with a formal curriculum. The urgent focus for the child’s early years is to discover and develop the working mechanisms of their own body and brain.
The early years are a vital stage in a child’s life and the child’s development cannot be rushed. The child experiences the world fresh and for the first time and with it an awakening to the possibilities of what they can become. “Who am I?” precedes “What do I need to be taught?”
This personal and practical experience in the child’s early years forms the foundation for the child to become a competent and autonomous person. Early experience is vital, not only for the child to learn about the world, but also to learn about themselves. The child needs to have a level of self-knowledge and self-awareness as well as concrete, practical skills. To become a self-motivated and avid learner the child needs to be able to:
- Connect with others in close, secure relationships
- Communicate confidently with a richness of language to seek and share knowledge.
- Harness their curiosity and desire to explore so as to plan, organize and achieve a satisfying outcome
But there is a danger that once formal education starts the time to build on what you know and develop your strengths and interests gets squeezed out. If early year’s education encourages children to be motivated, curious and capable learners then how can we make sure this is not lost when children get to school? Here are 5 suggestions to encourage children to continue to be eager to learn.
- Encourage children and families to discover and build their child’s strengths so that each child has the experience of choosing and following an interest, preferably on a daily basis. This is not just about experiencing success but also about having choice and control.
- Make sure children have time every day to play freely and creatively so they experience planning, organizing and sustaining their attention on something which excites and interests them. Something that doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone else but is just about being happily inside your own head.
- Make project time or innovation days a regular feature of the term in school so children have the opportunity to manage their own learning on a regular basis and get thrilling results. Taking the initiative and thinking creatively builds a child’s sense of mastery and autonomy. “This is me and what I can do”
- Share and record the process so children also get the opportunity to explain what they did and why. Written records, pictures, photographs, audio recordings and video offer a rich menu to keep and savour the child’s achievements.
- Explore ways a child can take the initiative within the school community or through volunteering and charitable projects. This enables children to contribute in an emotionally rich and compassionate environment focusing on giving to others. Learning is about contribution not just personal achievement.
Childhood doesn’t stop at the age of 4. We need to nurture the curiousity and imagination which excites young children and ensure that language , literacy and maths are the means to an end not the purpose of education itself. A child’s reading age tells us nothing if they are reluctant to pick up a book.