Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Turning toddlers into normal people

I like the commitment in the new Early Years Foundation Stage to see each child as unique, and a competent learner. But it isn’t easy to honour this commitment: we will have to work harder at observing children closely and trying to understand how they are making sense of the world. We will need to make more time and space for their play and, as Tina Bruce recently suggested during a conference speech, give children more personal space too. We need to stop crowding them with things, and rules, and our own ever-close presence.

Not long ago, I was part of a fascinating discussion with the nursery team about whether there was any reason to maintain our “no running inside” rule. Some of the team had recently been involved in training run by Jabadao, the National Centre for Movement, Learning and Health. They had been watching how children moved at nursery, and had noticed that nearly all the children took care not to bump into each other or the furniture. Where children did bump into each other, or the walls, it was almost always because they intended to, not because they were uncontrolled. As we talked, I was aware that only moments earlier I had asked a toddler to do “nice walking” as she grabbed her coat and ran to the garden door. I started to wonder whether you can feel your life in every limb, aged two, by doing something called “nice walking”.

We decided to experiment with dropping the “no running inside” rule, and at the same time enabled children to have experiences inside and out where they could bump, roll and push into each other, drawing their attention to the need not to hurt anyone else. A few weeks later, and the “no running” rule had been practically forgotten. I became aware of how our rule had prompted the children to be devious. We had made an excessively sanitised environment with no pushing or bumping allowed, so the children were doing it out of sight or pretending it was by accident.

I am not suggesting that we should let children do whatever they want. Children need limits. They need to know that adults will protect the rights and needs of younger, smaller and more vulnerable members of the group. But this does not mean we should see children in nursery as little packages which need to be controlled by adults: socialised, processed through their learning goals and sent off “ready for school”.

Sue Palmer, author of the book Toxic Childhood, recently commented that toddlers are “working at a very emotional level. They should be told stories and allowed to sing and play. That's what will turn them into normal people." Whilst applauding this plea for enjoyable nursery experiences for young children, I would go further. We are quick to assume that we know how to shape young children for the future, and we spend insufficient time trying to understand them in the present. Toddlers don’t need to be turned into anything.