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Play and the age start to formal education in schools have seen to be a highly complicated and a very problematic issue around the world. I found play was hard to define by many experts and published authors, as Tina Bruce described play as a 'political issue'. She stated, 'There are those who think it has no place in a child's education and there are those who believe it must have a central place. This debate has gone on for 200 years' (2006, p.468).
Recently UK based experts in the field of primary education; the authors of the Cambridge review have laid their cards on the table and advised 'formal teaching of the three R's should not take place before six.' However others, notably Education Minister Ed Balls advocate on an earlier start. The Cambridge Primary review says, there is no evidence that an early introduction to formal learning has any benefit. In fact, research suggests 'too formal too soon can be dangerous counterproductive.' Children in early education are encouraged to learn through play by socially interacting with other children and adults in a range of activities.
I have discovered that it is extremely difficult to identify a particular age to when a child should begin formal education. This is because of my firm belief adopted from the EYFS key principle, 'Every child is unique.' I strongly believe each child is a unique individual and therefore, they should not be treated 'all the same'. In order to meet a child's needs, it is necessary to treat each child with 'equal concern' but some children may need more or different support to have equality of opportunity. Every child has different learning needs and all develop at different rates, there may be some children who may be more ready to start formal education at an earlier age than some children of the same age, who may find a start to formal education highly stressful which may cause damage to their learning.
However, my personal views on the formal start to education are partially contradicted by the theorist Jean Piaget. Although Piaget emphasises on the importance of play in early year's education, his idea of the fixed stages of development do not support the EYFS's key principle 'every child is unique.' Piaget believed children aged between two and seven are at the 'preoperational stage' where '...child is not yet able to conceptualize abstractly and needs concrete physical situations' (Learning theories, 2006). He believed children from the ages five to eight years move from play to taking part in games. 'Children are able to play more cooperatively.' Piaget's theory showed the final stage of cognitive development is formal operations, occurring from age eleven years to adulthood. He believed children who reach this stage are able to think abstractly.
I personally disagree with the theory of Piaget as I believe there is no certain age where a child reaches a formal operational stage of knowledge and development. Piaget's theory does not work for children with special educational needs, where the formal operational stage of a child cannot be precisely identified as Piaget suggests. I believe Piaget's last stage of formal operations is not an accurate description of cognitive development. Some adults do not attain a level of formal operations and not everyone appears to be capable of abstract reasoning. This is not that they are cognitively immature but it is because the developmental for every child is unique and has different aspects of mature thought which is not covered by Piaget's theory. I believe Piaget's theory restricts the view of the young child as a learner. The theory that they not capable of logical thought or able to understand complex issues could artificially restrict the curriculum offered and lead to lower expectations.
Although I discovered that it is difficult to identify the particular age to which a child should start formal education. I have identified from different international countries that schools that have a later age start to formal education at six or even seven such as Finland, Poland and Sweden perform much better than countries like England, that have an earlier start to formal education at five or as early as four. However, I believe the priority is not when children start school but what they do when they get there. I analysed the early education system in Finland and Korea due to the countries being the highest performers in the OECD's latest PISA Survey. The strategies and approaches Finland and Korea have adopted in their early year's curriculum has had a positive impact on my personal philosophy of how children should be educated in the early years of childhood and have taught me the key factors in meeting children's needs as an early year's practitioner to achieve a successful outcome.
My personal views support the views of Tina Bruce that every child has the full potential to develop their abilities for learning, and all grow and develop at different rates. However, the levels of knowledge depend on a child's thought and behaviour and I believe these can be developed through adult intervention as well as, social interaction. The first five to six years of childhood are very receptive to learning and I strongly believe this should be spent on a play based education, where children should be engaged in enjoyable activities, with the support of adults to develop their imagination through social, emotional, physical and cognitive growth.
This concept of play based education and the emphasis on social interaction in the early years of childhood can be identified in the preschools and kindergartens of Finland, 'you won't find the country's next crop of top students drilling through flashcards or poring over worksheets. More likely, you'll see them singing, playing, and painting.' In Finland, the focus for early education is on 'learning how to learn.' Children are encouraged to experience, explore, and play until the age of 7. 'Fins value the development of curiosity and social competency in the early years. They know that the "academics" will come more easily later if the foundation is there.'
In contrast, England, Ireland and Netherlands emphasize on a more prescribed curriculum for over 3 year old's. They concentrate on literacy and numeracy as they believe that there is a 'risk of academic failure' if children are not taught these formal skills. Latest News have shown that, 'While pupils in the UK enter formal schooling at five, in Finland children enter school at seven - and then only for half days.' Finland also have longer holidays than in the UK, including a 10-week break in the summer. This proves that spending hours in school and starting formal education at an earlier age is not the key to achieve high academic results in higher education. In fact, it is the foundation adults build for children in the early years of childhood through social, emotional, physical and cognitive development that affect their academics in later life.
Finland appears to focus on children's social and emotional development during the preschool years, a factor that leads to exceptionally positive results later on. It has been identified that 'Social interaction' and 'adult intervention' are the key factors which these countries have adopted to develop children's skills in different areas of learning. During their pre-school experience children are provided a play based learning where adults play a major role in interacting with children and providing a rich and a stimulating environment in meeting their individual needs.
The evidence suggests that having formal schooling earlier doesn't have an effect, but the EPPE research shows that the length of time in a good quality nursery school does. The EPPE Projects outlines the importance of social interaction and adult intervention in having an important positive impact on children's cognitive attainment and indicates this can best be obtained by giving children an early pre-school experience which promotes inclusion and an opportunity for children to interact with other children. It has strongly suggested children that gain no pre-school experience or adult involvement in the early years are at a 'risk status in relation to special educational needs.' It has also highlighted 'children with no pre-school experience had poorer cognitive attainment, sociability and concentration when they started primary school.'
The importance of social interaction and adult intervention can be supported by the theorists Jerome Bruner and Lev Vygotsky who have highly influenced my personal philosophy. Both theorists argued that social environment and in particular our social interactions with others are fundamental to learning. Vygotsky stressed, 'It is through our social interactions with those around us, that we slowly move to becoming self-sufficient and independent learners, and develop our intellectual capabilities.'
Vygotsky and Bruner have also argued that language plays a greater role in facilitating thought than Piaget recognized. Their work demonstrates the important two way relationship between language development and the social context in supporting interaction in the early years. Vygotsky's theory is built on the fundamental premise that development occurs on the social level within a cultural context and language is the major tool by which adults induct children into a particular view of the world. 'According to Vygtosky, social experiences shape the way individuals think and interpret the world.' His theories underpin the importance of talk between children and adults, and between children and children for cognitive development. 'Bruner, Vygotsky and Wells have all stressed the importance of language in terms of its use as a tool of social interaction as well as a tool for organizing knowledge. '
My views support these theories as I strongly believe that children learn extensively through interaction with its environment, usually through talk and play. I believe adults play a crucial role in the early years setting. Adults are role models for children; they play a wide range of unique and enormous roles such as observers, supporters, providers and as play mates. This can be supported by the direct link between children and adult's learning by Anning and Edwards (2003) '...children learn to love learning through being with adults who also love to learn, and are themselves in context that encourage learning.'
The link made from Anning and Edwards can also be supported by Vygotksy who placed great emphasis on the role of an adult in teaching culture, knowledge and language. He believed that children tackle problems at a higher level when working with an adult than individually. For example, supporting a child's bottom as they try to climb the ladder. Vygotsky suggested, 'learning mainly occurs and is extended through interaction with adults or more able 'others'. His main theory was the 'zone of proximal development'; he believed that children work on two developmental levels, their actual level and their proximal level. The 'zone' lies just between these levels where the child is just starting to expand their abilities and is the difference between what a child can do with help today and what they can do tomorrow, independently.
However, on the other hand, the theorist Jean Piaget and the Key educator Maria Montessori partially contradict the views of the theorist Vygotsky and Bruner. Maria Montessori's work suggests that the child should be encouraged to work individually, she suggests little direct parental involvement and the role of the adult is limited as she believes the child has a 'teacher within himself.' Montessori's approach highlighted that the key role of adult is to provide a learning environment for children and the materials during the activities but encouraged children to work alone with the materials presented to them. Jean Piaget partially supports this approach and places great emphasis on children as being 'active learners' which adults must have confidence in the child's ability to learn on his own. Piaget therefore, underestimated the social and cultural context in learning and cognitive development.
To some extent I disagree with the theory that child should be left to learn on their own. My personal views support the views by Meadows (1995) who criticises Piaget's theory. Meadows argued that 'Piaget implicitly saw children as largely independent and isolated in their construction of knowledge and understanding of the world.' I support this argument, as I believe it is It is through active intervention, guidance and support of a skilled adult that children make the most progress in their learning. I believe this support from adults can be given to children through skilled questioning and suggestions which is also known as 'scaffolding' in Bruner's theory. I believe scaffolding is a significant way of adult-child interaction that bridge children's understanding with that of the adults. I believe it is extremely important for every adult to play a 'positive role model' for every child that can guide them to develop their maximum potential in all aspects of their lives. Adults working with children make a big difference to children's learning. They cannot only stimulate and support children to reach beyond their current limits but support their development and inspire their learning.
The importance of adult intervention, social interaction can clearly be identified in the preschools and kindergartens of Finland, Korea, Japan and China. Adult intervention did not relate to staff and teachers working with children in the early years setting but it gave great importance to 'parental involvement.' In these countries 'parental involvement;' is an essential part of the child's well -being. In most cases it is possible for parents or guardians to have some input towards their child's daily plan during pre-primary education, and they are involved in creating the curriculum for the setting. Parents receive constant feedback from teachers regarding their child's development. They are also involved in the planning and assessment of their children, and an individual education plan is drawn up between parents and teachers to track a child's development
Education is brought to them through play-based activities until they are 7. It feels to us that giving children a longer opportunity to build up social skills and the skills that enable learning through play-based, informal lesson may well be beneficial to the child in the long run
Parents involvement is an essential part of the child's well being in Finland, korea, china and japan. In most cases it is possible for parents or guardians to have some input towards their child's daily plan during pre-primary education, and they are involved in creating the curriculum for the setting.. Parents receive constant feedback from teachers regarding their child's development. They are also involved in the planning and assessment of their children, and an individual education plan is drawn up between parents and teachers to track a child's development
From looking at what Finland expect from their Early Years children, maybe we should learn to focus more on a child's emotional and social development up to a later age than the focus we have on academic learning at such a young age. In Finland it appears children are encouraged to grow a
UNICEF therefore proposes that attempts to mitigate educational disadvantage need to begin through good quality early childhood care and education. Care outside the home in the two years or so before primary school is today a fact of life for many children growing up in OECD countries. And there is mounting evidence to suggest that high quality early childhood care and education may have an increasing role to play in minimising educational disadvantage and social exclusion