Early learning is, quite simply, vital for all children as it lays the foundation for everything that is to come (John Hopkins University, n.d.). Research studies indicate that the development of active neural pathways (Shonkoff and Phillips, 2000) in the brain primarily take place before the age of three and that it is during the early childhood period that the brain is most receptive to learning (John Hopkins University, n.d. ; endorsed by State of Victoria, 2010). Therefore, it is critical that children in their early years are given opportunities for social, physical, emotional and intellectual development through high quality early years provision which in turn provides the potential for not only educational but economic and social benefits (Barnett, 2008). The way in which this provision is facilitated is a mark of how well any nation takes care of its children inclusive of their health and safety, their education and socialisation, their material security, “… their sense of being loved, valued, and included in families and societies…” (UNICEF, 2007, p. 4 cited in Aldgate in McCauley and Rose, 2010, p. 23). Adults who wish to work with children in this age group have to wear many ‘different hats’ in order to facilitate children’s needs which necessitates their having an understanding of their role and responsibilities with regard to interacting with children (Rose and Rogers, 2012). The aim of this essay is to highlight the most important elements which need to be considered in the education, preparation and training of those who wish to work within the field of Early Years Childcare.
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The Early Years Sector – Work and Training
As early as 2009-10, the House of Commons recognised the need for greater rigour in the training of teachers for Early Years age group, stating that standards should be modified in order that this sector was no longer associated with the least skilled part of the children’s workforce (House of Commons, 2009 -10). These comments concur with the findings of research studies such as that of Sylva et al (2004) which indicated that the quality of the provision provided for children is commensurate with the quality of the adults working in them (Miller, 2010 in Cable et al, 2010, p. 55). As from September 2014, Early Years educator qualifications have been introduced in the United Kingdom in order to meet the Early Years educator criteria as set by the National College for Teaching and Leadership. This qualification operates at Level 3 (A-level) and enables practitioners to be “… included in the ratios specified in the Early Years Foundation Stage Statutory Framework” (National College for Leadership & Teaching, 2013, p. 2). This qualification aims to provide learners with opportunities to develop their understanding of how to support and promote children’s early education and development, to develop skills of planning for effective care which prepares children for school, to utilise assessment effectively, to work with children in a safe environment which safeguards their welfare, to develop effective working practices and to work in partnership alongside the key person, other colleagues and parents for the benefit of young children (National College for Leadership & Teaching, 2013). A similar qualification is the CACHE Level 3 Diploma for the Early Years Workforce (Early Years Educator- QCF) which has been developed for use from September 2014 to provide a high quality qualification that “… reflects the priorities of practitioners and employers to meet the needs of young children” (CACHE, 2011, para 4). Minimum entry requirements include the stipulation that all entrants to these type of training courses must have GCSEs in English and Mathematics at grade C or above which should have the effect of raising the “… overall quality and literacy and numeracy skills of those entering the workforce” (Foundation Years, 2014, para 1).
Clearly, once qualified, these individuals will work closely with those who have Early Years Teaching qualifications. Those who wish to embark upon gaining Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) must have a minimum standard of a grade C GCSE in English, Maths and a science subject as well as a degree. Candidates for teacher training must also have experience of the school system, over and above having been a pupil themselves; most courses stipulate that individuals must have at least 10 days experience prior to embarking upon their training (Department for Education, n.d.). Prospective teachers must also pass numeracy and literacy skills tests as part of the application process (Department for Education, n.d.a) prior to embarking upon Early Years Initial Teacher Training. There are four ways in which Early Years teacher status can be accredited - graduate entry (a one year full-time course), graduate employment-based (a one year part-time course for graduates in Early Years settings who need further experience and/or training to demonstrate Teacher Standards), undergraduate entry (full-time Level 6 qualification in an early childhood related subject in conjunction with Early Years Teacher status over a 3 or 4 year period) and assessment only (graduates with significant experience of working within the age range [0 – 5] over a period of three months) (Gov. UK, n.d.). In addition to this, a clear set of Teachers’ Standards have been developed by the government in order to ensure that practitioners are “… accountable for achieving the highest possible standards in their professional practice and conduct” (National College for Teaching & Leadership, 2013a, p. 2). The rationale behind these newly implemented criteria and renewed emphasis upon appropriate qualifications is the need to establish an education system which allows children to move from one phase to another seamlessly, as a result of the fact that practitioners recognise that learning is a continuum from the Early Years through to Key Stage 4 and beyond (National College for Teaching & Leadership, 2013a). It is based upon the evidence that 94% of children who attain good levels of development by the age of five progress to achieving their expected reading levels at Key Stage 1 and are statistically five times more likely to achieve higher levels (Department for Education, n.d.c). It is clear that these levels of attainment are attributable to the increasing impact that graduate practitioners are having on the quality and the delivery of Early Years provision across the United Kingdom (Mathers et al, 2011). Furthermore, Sylva et al (2004) contend that there is a direct correlation between practitioners’ qualifications, the quality of the learning environment and the attainment levels of children in a pre-school learning setting.
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Learning and Play
In order for practitioners to create quality learning environments, it is essential that they have an understanding of how children learn. Learning is quite difficult to define as it can include the process of thinking and becoming aware, using imagination and creativity, observing, hearing, remembering and problem solving (Malone, 1991 cited in Ostroff, 2012, p. 2). Ostroff (2012) contends that learning is something which is embedded deep in our psyche which is rooted in the need to assimilate new information through actively exploring the environment. She believes that the process of learning is physical in nature, taking place within the sensory systems which feed information back to the brain in order to dictate an individual’s actions. Pollard et al (2008, p. 170) regard it as the mechanism through which “… knowledge, concepts, skills and attitudes are acquired, understood, applied and extended” whilst Pachler and Daly (2011, p. 17) view it as “… twin processes of ‘coming to know’ and ‘being able to operate’ successfully in and across new and ever changing contexts and learning spaces, as a process of meaning making…” that occurs as a result of communication and interaction with others. Learning, for children, is the development of their thinking processes and knowledge base as a result of adding new concepts and ideas to what they already know (Wood in Anning, Cullen and Fleer, 2004). The means through which young children achieve this is play. This is an umbrella term (Bruce, 1991) which describes a process of interaction between different individuals which facilitates the development of thinking skills (Dunn, 1993; Meadows, 1993). This is regarded as a social cultural process that is impacted upon by the context and the environment in which any interaction takes place (Robson, 2006). It is an integral part of children’s development physically, intellectually and emotionally (Elkind, 2008). Play allows children to gather a wealth of first-hand experience as a result of the exploration of the environment in which they find themselves and it is the means through which they solve problems and in so doing develop an appreciation of the world around them (Bruce, 1993; Hurst, 1997; Phillips and Soltis, 1998; Edgington, 2004).
Play provides opportunities for children to make discoveries not only about the world around them but about themselves. Hughes (2006) indicates that there are many different types of play which contribute to children’s development including the use of language, expressive movement, the examination and use of space as well as physical ‘rough and tumble’ play. It is the vehicle through which children learn to be creative and to utilise their imagination through interacting and communicating with others in their group in a variety of different roles (Edgington, 2004). It is through this vehicle that they learn about cultural conventions (Wood and Attfield, 2005) as well as the means through which they are able to develop physically as a result of exercising through running around (Manning-Morton and Thorp, 2003). Play also appears to have a positive effect upon children’s emotions (Russ, 2004) and it is the mechanism through which they are able to learn about how to control their own emotions and gain an appreciation of the views and feelings of others (Sayeed and Guerin, 2000). However, learning through play cannot take place unless there is an appreciation and a deep understanding of its purpose and function in children’s lives. It is therefore important that the thinking which underlies child centred learning is also taught to, and understood by prospective practitioners.
The notion that children could create their own bank of knowledge was first mooted by Piaget who believed that individual children were young investigators of their world who experimented with their environment in order to gather an appreciation and understanding of it (Moore, 2000). He stated that there were distinct stages in children’s development (sensorimotor, 0 - 2 years of age; preoperational, 2 – 6 years of age; concrete operational, 7 - 11 years of age; formal operational, 11+) (Jardine, 2006) through which children developed their beliefs and how to express them; it also allowed them to hone their logical thinking as a result of modifying their beliefs and subsequent actions as a result of assimilating new information (Barnes, 1976). Piaget believed that each experience that children undergo is vital to their development which is an opinion shared by Vygotsky. However, it is his contention that learning is a social activity and it is the means through which children develop as a result of learning to communicate with each other using both language and gesture. He believed that children learnt as a result of observing the actions and reactions of others and that through cooperating with individuals within their environment who are more experienced, they are able to achieve a greater degree of learning. The evident gap between that which children are able to achieve alone and with the aid of someone else he called the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). It is the function of the practitioner to create an environment in which children learn as a result of individual work and through interacting with those around them in order to develop skills for their future (Brown, 2006).
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The creation of a vibrant, child-centred learning environment is critical in encouraging play and communication, a point which is recognised in the government’s existing literacy and numeracy strategies (Wood, 2004 in Anning, Cullen and Fleer, 2004). The play based curriculum as highlighted in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) documentation (2012, p. 6) as being “… essential for children’s development, building their confidence as they learn to explore, to think about problems, and relate to others.” Children should be provided with opportunities to learn through play which they initiate themselves and by engaging with activities lead or guided by adults. It is critical, in creating any learning environment, that children’s interests and needs are catered for, inclusive of the different ways individuals learn. The EYFS states that the characteristics of effective teaching and learning are playing and exploring (providing children with opportunities to investigate and to experience different things), active learning (children are motivated to concentrate and be persistent if they enjoy their experiences) and creating and thinking critically (individuals are provided with opportunities to develop their own ideas, make connections between different concepts and to utilise different strategies to do things) (Department for Education, 2012). It is the function of the Early Years practitioner to lead the child in their learning, supporting and helping them as and where appropriate (MacShane, 2007 cited in Allen and Whalley, 2010, p. 4) which is achieved through the planning and resourcing of appropriately challenging learning activities embedded in play (Wheeler and Connor, 2009). It must be understood that it is planning which ensures a continuity of learning (Wood, 2004 in Anning, Cullen and Fleer, 2004) and that the learning environment which is dependent upon play will lead to individuals having a more rounded educational experience leading to a greater depth of knowledge, understanding and skills (Moyles and Adams, 2001).
In order to facilitate the rounded development of individuals, as highlighted by the EYFS, parents must be involved in the educative process so that children have support for their learning in both the home and school environments. The needs of each individual must be discussed with parents in order to create a working partnership (Department for Education, 2012) which can foster united approaches towards teaching and learning to ensure that children are able to maximise their potential. Families can become involved in a number of activities to encourage their child’s learning; for example, reading with children, teaching nursery rhymes, teaching songs, practising letters and numbers, drawing and painting, visiting the library, taking children on day trips and engaging in play with their friends at home (Sylva et al, 2003). If parents are encouraged to take an active role in their child’s education they can have the effect of enhancing their child’s rate of development and progress (Wheeler and Connor, 2009), can ensure that children are fully aware of their cultural background and can foster a positive attitudes towards diversity.
Inclusion and Cultural Awareness
All prospective educators need to be aware of the idea of inclusion and inclusive practice. This involves modelling positive behaviour towards everyone no matter their background, their abilities or their race in order that everyone is seen as being of equal value. It is critical that every child is provided with equal opportunities to learn about and experience their culture and that they face no barriers to their learning. Furthermore, it is crucial that diversity in all its forms is a matter for celebration (Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education [CSIE], 2014). In practice, this necessitates practitioners and schools providing a curriculum that allows complete access for all in order that they are able to experience success to the extent of their ability (Mittler, 2000). It is also equally important that children are taught the skills that enable them to remain safe and healthy, to achieve everything that they are able, to make a valuable contribution to society and to attain financial stability in the future (Every Child Matters Green Paper, 2003). Within the EYFS, practitioners are expected to treat every child as being unique, to develop positive relationships with every individual in their care, to create environments which enable them to learn as an individual and as a member of a group whilst acknowledging that every person develops and learns at a different rate but still needs to be provided with activities that cater for their needs (Department for Education, 2012).
Clearly, there are a number of important elements which contribute towards the education, preparation and training of those who wish to become Early Years educators. It is vital that they have an understanding of the importance of this phase of a child’s education and the responsibility that is commensurate with working to cater for their needs. Prospective Early Years practitioners must be appropriately qualified and have an appreciation of how children learn. They must develop the ability to plan activities which cater for the needs of every child in their care and an ability to utilise different approaches towards teaching and learning. It is important that they are able to communicate with not only the children in the classroom but also their parents and develop positive working relationships with them in order that they feel valued and involved in a partnership towards the education of their child. In the classroom, they must be able to provide support, care and encouragement as well as positive feedback to every child in order that they are able to feel positive about themselves and their learning. It is of the utmost importance that each prospective educator is willing to find out about and cater for the differing cultural needs of those with whom they are dealing and ensure that each individual child and their family feel valued members of the community. They also need to demonstrate the ability to reflect upon their performance, display decision making skills, the ability to be a role model, to lead and support others, instil values within their working environment and work competently to effect change (Whalley et al, 2008 cited in Allen and Whalley, 2010, p. 2). In short, they must demonstrate a willingness to cultivate an understanding of how children develop and learn, how practitioners are able to support and enhance that process as well as nurture and cultivate their beliefs about what education should be for children, and how that vision should be supported (Stewart and Pugh, 2007 cited in Allen and Whalley, 2010, p. 4).
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