Last month we blogged about the controversy around testing young children at school. Now Sue Palmer, a leading figure in the play-based education movement in Scotland, reminds us why we should question the way formal schooling affects very young children.

Sue Palmer‘With my wee one now in Primary 1,’ said the mum. ‘I’m reminded just how important a creative, play-based approach is. Taking the paper off crayons, painting your own hand and scribbling are apparently ‘naughty’ things to do… And we’re only in our second full week.’

How do you respond to that?

Do you think: ‘What’s the big deal here? P1 children have got to learn how to behave at school. After all, they don’t get belted or stood in the corner these days. Her child will soon settle in.’

Or are you more likely to think: ‘Oh, the poor kids. They’re just doing what comes naturally to wee ones. It’s not fair to get in trouble for that.’

I reckon about 50% of Scots would side with the first response, considering the second ‘indulgent’ and ‘soft’.
But those soft, indulgent thinkers have hard, factual science on their side. According to the experts at the Harvard Centre for the Developing Child, children need time and the right sort of experiences to develop the ‘executive function and self-regulation skills’ needed to settle comfortably in a classroom.

Harvard has made this film about it, explaining that children who haven’t developed these capacities ‘look as if they’re just not paying attention or deliberately not controlling themselves’. So it really isn’t fair to label their behaviour ‘naughty’. When children start thinking of themselves as naughty, it obviously affects their self-image and they’ll feel ashamed or angry. This is likely to have adverse effects on their subsequent behaviour and development.

However, most children just try desperately to conform. They want to do well and please the teacher so they try to work out what’s ‘naughty’ and what isn’t, even though the rules make no sense to them. Many four- and five-year-olds, especially little girls, live in a constant state of anxiety in case they put a foot wrong. Not a good way to start one’s school career.

This is one of the many reasons that Upstart Scotland believes we start formal schooling far too early in Scotland. We’re one of only 12% of countries worldwide that send children to school at four or five years old. The most successful countries in Europe have a state-funded kindergarten stage instead, where children learn through play until starting formal schooling at six or seven. We’ve recently released a two-minute animated video explaining why we believe it’s now vital to change the ethos of early years education and care in Scotland.

This wouldn’t mean changing children’s entitlement to state-funded hours in education and care. The entitlement would stay the same, so there would be no extra childcare expenses for parents. It would simply mean a change of ethos. Instead of pressurising children to get on with reading and writing at an age when children in other countries wouldn’t even be in school, the emphasis would be on learning through play, as often as possible active outdoor play, and activities like art, music, singing, listening to stories, making and building, explorations and experiments.

This isn’t about ‘holding children back’ – that would be as counter-productive as forcing them to behave in ways for which they aren’t developmentally ready. Any child with an interest in reading, writing and/or numbers would be encouraged and supported. In fact, in Finland where they have a kindergarten stage till seven, the vast majority of children can read, write and count by the time they start school. They just haven’t been badgered and brainwashed into it when they weren’t developmentally ready.

Finland has had a universal state-operated kindergarten stage for over thirty years now. They regularly top the international charts for educational achievement and last year were voted the world’s happiest nation. Obviously this isn’t just the result of its early years policy, but when I asked a Finnish politician about it, he said: ‘We asked ourselves, “How can we get a good society” and we answered, “We must do the best for our little children.”’
That’s what Upstart wants for Scotland: the very best state services for our little children. Just like Home Start, really!

Sue Palmer is a literacy specialist and Chair of Upstart Scotland (