Over the past decade, there has been a seismic shift in how Early Years Services operate. Parents who have used Early Years Services over this time, will definitely have observed these changes. Every year there seems to be new requirements for settings. It can be difficult for us professionals to keep up with new policy and regulation. Playschool is not what it used to be, so it’s not an overstatement to say, it can be confusing for parents too.
There are five main government policies influencing this new approach; Siolta, The Quality Framework; Aistear, The Curriculum Framework; the 2016 review of Childcare Regulations; the Equality and Diversity Charter; and the DES Early Years Inspections. These developments are influenced by international best practice and early year’s theory. They put children’s interests, voice and needs at the heart of practice. The overall intention is to create high quality Early Years Services for children.
As I see it there are four main areas of change. Firstly, we have moved away from an adult led curriculum with a highly structured and planned day, to an emergent curriculum with a flexible day planned by and for the child. Secondly, we have stopped the early introduction of academic subjects, in favour of a curriculum based on learning skills and dispositions. Thirdly, we have moved away from template based crafts, in favour of process art and creativity. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, we recognise Play as paramount to each child’s learning and development.
The Emergent Curriculum
A day in Playschool using the older approach may have been highly structured, with routines and times strictly kept. There may have been lots of adult planned activities, based on what the adults felt children should be learning. The new approach is called the Emergent Curriculum, meaning that early educators observe what children are interested in; reflect on why they may have this interest and figure out what to do next, to create meaningful learning experiences for children. The Emergent Curriculum focuses on play that compliments the interests and needs of children, so every aspect of the day is enjoyable and fun.
To give an example of the Emergent Curriculum; One Monday morning, we had planned to plant with the children, based on their interests the previous week. During lunch, a discussion began about the birthday wall and how everybody has a different month, but some people have to share. The adult mentioned that on that day it was a new month, and pointed out the children who would be celebrating their birthdays soon. One child in her second year exclaimed, ‘it’s a new month, oh my god, we have to do a fire drill’. So, our day changed and we had a fire drill and discussed fire safety, we followed the child’s lead and had a very valuable learning experience.
Academics in Playschool
The older approach to Playschool probably involved academic work, the provision of templates and worksheets along with teaching ABC’s and 123’s in a formal way, similar to the junior infant’s curriculum. Now, we don’t introduce academic work. Instead, we focus on pre-academic skills, which are also life-long learning skills.
To give some examples, we encourage pre-reading skills by having books available, we read aloud, we encourage pretend and dramatic play so children can create their own stories and develop imagination. Pre-writing skills are developed through access to pencils, paint and paper, and physical pre-writing strengths are developed through experiences like sand and water play, and outdoor play. Pre-numeracy skills are enhanced through songs, rhymes and real -life experiences.
Our scientists are at work every day in the sand-pit. Our engineers are building and knocking towers. Our naturalists are planting and watering flowers. Many of the skills that children need for life and school are being developed in Playschool.
The older curriculum focused on adult designed crafts, similar pictures made by the children for display, with each child filling a folder of craftwork every year. The new focus is on Process Art where the value is on the experience of doing, thinking, creating, problem-solving, having fun. Children are offered creative experiences, where the end product is not the goal. It may disappoint parents if sometimes their child doesn’t bring anything home, but know that even if you don’t have something to hold on to, the skills built during these creative experiences stay with children for life.
To give an example of process art; Glue, collage paper, card, sparkles and paint are available to children. Some create cards or a picture using their imagination and creativity, some will take two minutes, others will take part for longer. Some children don’t like to touch the glue, but others grab globs of glue with their hands, to spread on the table and rub their hands together, and enjoy the stickiness, and the strings of glue between their hands. Each child experiences a process unique to them.
In the past Play may have had a minor role, with the opportunity to play freely for only a short time each day. We now identify play as the child’s most vital and natural means of developing and learning. The learning outcomes of play are vast, that is why it has a key role in Playschool. There are many types of play; characteristics of play; patterns within play; dispositions built by play; and skills learned through play.
It can sometimes look disorganised, and this can make parents unsure of its value. Perry Else (2014) describes ‘play as a process’, the focus is the doing, and sometimes the doing involves boxes of blocks tipped out, a doll in the sand, dinosaurs in the dollhouse, a chair wrapped up in Sellotape or paint spilled. Even though play can sometimes look chaotic, it must be taken seriously, because it’s crucial for children.
Peter Gray, (in Ken Robinson 2015): describes play as ‘nature’s way of insuring that young human beings acquire the skills that they need to acquire, to develop successfully into adulthood’ and further describes free play as ‘the means by which children learn to make friends, overcome their fears, solve their own problems and generally take control of their own lives’.
To conclude, I encourage parents not to worry, Playschool might look different, but it’s full of learning, friends and fun. We are working hard to ensure your child’s experience in Playschool will enhance their learning and development for life.
Deborah Reynolds is a Playschool Leader in Kilkerrin Community Playschool, a play-based service in East Co. Galway. Deborah has qualifications in Childcare, Fine Art and Forest School, she recently graduated from Athlone IT with a Level 7 in EYCE. She is currently completing the LINC course and she is on the National Committee for the Big Start Campaign. Her main influence in Childcare has been her Mum, Therese. Therese planted the seeds of a play-based approach that have firmly taken root. She offered to write this Scéalta post, outlining how she demonstrates to parents the benefits of a play-based approach.