Author Archives: Upstart

The Silence of the Weans


This blog first appeared in Gaelic in Naidheachdan:AAA, February 2018

Silent SpringSixty years ago, people walking in American country lanes noticed the birds had stopped singing. Their concern led to a book, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, explaining how crop-spraying of DDT killed wildlife and wrecked the local ecology. As well as securing a ban on dangerous pesticides, publicity around Silent Spring brought the environmental movement to public attention.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that, over the last couple of decades, another sound has disappeared from our daily environment? When was the last time you heard the shouts, squeals and laughter of young children as they ran, jumped, climbed, built dens, made mixtures and played ‘Let’s Pretend’ in their local neighbourhood?

Upstart Scotland is a campaign aimed at focusing public attention on serious changes in the nature of childhood that are already having dangerous repercussions. The most significant of these changes is the decline of outdoor free play.

auto-736794_640There isn’t one simple reason that children don’t play out any more. The build-up of road traffic, break-down of local communities and changes in parents’ working patterns are all implicated, as are the ready availability of indoor sedentary entertainment and a generally more fearful climate (probably related to occasional horrifying media stories about abduction).

But the reason we should be concerned about this loss is simple. children-403583_640Active outdoor play is a biological necessity for long-term physical and mental health. As play has declined, we’ve seen more and more cases of childhood obesity, Vitamin D deficiency and other physical conditions with alarming long-term implications for the National Health Service.

Perhaps even more alarming is the increase in mental health problems among children and young people – now reaching crisis point in Scotland.  An article in the November 2017 edition of the medical journal The Lancet pointed out the links between this swelling tide and the decline of outdoor free play.

The reason it’s taken so long to recognise this emergency is that – from an adult perspective –  play doesn’t seem anywhere near as important as education.  We see it as just kids messing about.  And how can what wee ones do when left to their own devices be of any significance? Yet the evidence now emerging from neuroscience and evolutionary biology suggests that play actually has immense significance, not only for health and well-being, but for educational success.

annie-spratt-365641In fact, play is children’s inborn learning drive – it’s how evolution designed them to develop human capacities they’ll need to flourish throughout life.  ‘Messing about’ in the great outdoors develops children’s powers of creativity, adaptability and problem-solving; it’s also how they hone their social skills of communication and collaboration with their peers; and it’s essential for the development of personal qualities like perseverance, self-control and the emotional resilience they need for long-term mental health and well-being.

These qualities and capacities can’t be taught – either by teachers at school or computers at home – they have to develop in each individual child’s body and brain, in the holistic way decreed by evolution over countless millennia. And learning through play is particularly important in the first seven or so years, when children are establishing the neural networks that influence the whole of their lives.

Upstart Scotland’s message is that – like their counterparts throughout human history – 21st century children still need time and space to learn through play, as often as possible outdoors and in nature. Now that it’s practically impossible for most parents to ensure young children get enough outdoor play, we should learn from other countries who are weathering the 21st century cultural storm better than Scotland.

Upstart coverThis is why we’re campaigning for a Nordic-style kindergarten stage for children between the ages of three and seven. Our aim is to alert the Scottish public and our politicians to

  • neuroscientific evidence about play’s vital importance for health, well-being and educational success, especially in the early years (0-8)
  • educational evidence that an early start on formal schooling brings no long-term advantage, but in some children causes social and emotional problems that last lifelong
  • international evidence that countries with a later school starting age (and kindergarten care/education till children are six or seven) consistently score higher than the UK in the PISA charts for literacy, numeracy and science.

Only 12% of nations worldwide start school before the age of six – and all but two are former members of the British Empire! Scotland’s school starting age was decided by the Westminster parliament in the 1860s, when politicians wanted children off the streets as early as possible so their mothers could work in the factories.  It was also convenient that the sooner children started school, the sooner they could finish, and go to work in the factories themselves.

There’s never been any educational justification for this early start.  Indeed, every authority on early education – including Froebel, Montessori, Steiner and Malaguzzi – and the great developmental psychologists, Piaget and Vygotsky, maintained that children need play-based learning till the age of seven.

siarhei-plashchynski-362979We managed to get away with it for over a hundred years, because children still played out around the edges of the school day, at weekends and during school holidays.  Four-, five- and six-year-olds would be out with their pals in the local streets, fields or wild places, making up for all that wasted time in the classroom!

But now that free play is in such serious decline, we can’t afford to go on rushing children into formal education at such an early age.  It’s time to stop aping England’s ‘schoolification’ of early childhood and look north to European countries with a long tradition of kindergarten. As well as doing better than us educationally, their children (and adults) have higher levels of health and well-being.

We may not be able to bring the joyful sound of children playing back to all of Scotland’s streets.  But by introducing a ring-fenced kindergarten stage. we can ensure that our youngest citizens have the best possible chance of flourishing in the future.

Sue Palmer, Chair of Upstart Scotland

Upstart and Children’s Rights

Cropped rights

The most fundamental right of every child is the right to a childhood. And, throughout human history, the two most important ingredients of a healthy childhood have always been LOVE and PLAY.

These days, in a competitive consumer culture, we’re encouraged to confuse both these ingredients with shopping. Marketers convey the same messages to children and their parents day after day:family-2923690_1280

‘If you love someone, you buy them lots of stuff.’

‘Play is something you buy in the shops.’

So nowadays parents are obliged to work long hours to keep their families fed, housed and provided with 21st century substitutes for time and attention.  And children spend less and less time engaging in the active, creative, self-directed outdoor play that leads to long-term health and well-being. Instead, they spend many hours a day engaged in sedentary screen-based activity. Scottish children are now among the least active in the world and a steadily increasing number suffer from mental health problems or low levels of well-being.

Upstart coverScotland can’t turn back the clock and transform the world economy, but we can ensure that our country provides the best possible environment and experiences for its children, especially during the most critical developmental stage of childhood – the Early Years.  That’s what Upstart Scotland is all about. We want all adults working with the under-sevens to care for every child as a unique individual whose physical, social and emotional development is more important than an early start on the three Rs.

We also want everyone who works with the under-sevens to be trained in the play-based pedagogy that research shows work best with this age group. In a wealthy western nation, every young child being cared for outside their home should have the right to person-centred care and play-based learning.

Last month, Together (the Scottish Alliance for Children’s Rights) asked public bodies to announce their Rights Resolutions for 2018, so Upstart listed our resolutions for the coming year:

Rights Resolution 1: To draw political and public attention to the ‘the Early Years’ (defined by the United Nations as pre-birth to eight years) as a hugely important develop-

'I'm visiting my cousin in Sweden. He gets to learn through PLAY in his kindergarten.'

‘I’m visiting my cousin in Sweden. He gets to learn through PLAY in his kindergarten.’

mental stage in children’s lives – a stage which isn’t over at 4/5 just because that’s when UK countries traditionally start school!

Rights Resolution 2: To convince politicians to introduce a rights-focused, relationship-centred, play-based kindergarten stage (3-7 years) thus giving all Scottish children the best possible chance of lifelong heath/well-being and educational success.

Rights Resolution 3: To challenge the political ‘silo effect’ by collaborating with Scottish organisations in Education, Early Years, Health, Children’s Rights, the Arts and others towards establishing a coherent Early Years policy from pre-birth to age eight.

Rights Resolution 4: To convince politicians that a later start to formal schooling is the best way to ensure a level educational playing field – and far more likely to reduce the ‘attainment gap’ than national testing of four- and five-year-olds.

PISA 2016Rights Resolution 5: To work together with other national organisations to ensure that all under-sevens have frequent opportunities to play in and connect with nature. Environmental sustainability depends on emotional connections with the natural world, forged in childhood.

Resolution 5

Upstart Scotland will work to achieve these aims this throughout 2018 and beyond.  Many thousands of Scots already support our campaign and we hope this year to convince many thousands more that rights-focused, relationship-centred, play-based care and education is the right of every 21st century three- to seven-year-old child.

Rules, rules, rules and we’re not allowed to skip


Despite the breadth of research on the educational transition of young children, there has been little evidence in Scotland of this knowledge impacting on everyday practice.  The overall contention emerging from the literature is that some children positively embrace the experience, while others face challenges and risk failure and regression.

Unique life journeys involve differences from individual experiences: children construct and elaborate their knowledge. The views of children can (and do) add nuance to our understanding of how power impacts on their transition experience and I found children’s accounts of discipline strategies used by the schools insightful. The following excerpt comes from William (5 years) who had recently begun primary 1 and started the interview by stating that he was ‘bad’:

Me:        What is bad…I mean what makes someone bad?        

William: Not sure.  I didn’t know when I started [school].

Me:        What happens when children are ‘bad’?lonely-604086_640

William: They get punished.

Me:        What does that mean?

William: It means they get whacked [actions hitting his hand] something like that, I can’t remember.

Me:        Have you ever been there when any child of the children have been punished?

William: They have to switch classes. ‘Cos once they have done that once, you can’t change classes you have to move out.

Me:        Can you tell me why children are punished – because they don’t do their writing properly [referring to something said earlier]?

William: And…and…em because, because if you don’t do it neatly you don’t get to go into a different class like…like…like…if you do that ten or 20 times you have to stay in class up to next year [said with emphasis] for the rest of the year.

Me:        Did the teacher say that to you?

William: We just knew…and once she told me…well I was quite naughty…now I am this naughty [opens his thumb and forefinger to show a little gap].

Me:         I find it hard to believe you were naughty.  I don’t think of you as naughty [I knew William from his time in an early years setting].

William: Well that’s because you don’t know me now…I was littler then…and I never thought this is what I would grow up as.

boy-1867332_640William talked of being ‘scared…very scared…’ Clearly, the school system had failed to instil a love of learning, self-expression and pride in this young person – merely succeeding in making sure that he conforms and continues to conform.  What is mindless conformity worth at the expense of intellect, confidence and sociability?

In my study, I argue that the problems experienced by William and other children are related to Scotland’s very early school starting age (4/5 years, as opposed to 6/7 in most of the world).  Children do not all develop at the same pace and I argue that, at this comparatively early stage in development, they would benefit from a pedagogical approach based on unhurried, guided participation, without undue pressure to achieve a pre-specified level of knowledge or proficiency at a given age.

However, my study showed that children were instead expected to become acquiescent, adjusting to coercive practices used in the school institution. Although my findings also showed that some children found ways to creatively resist organisation, most were keen to obey the rules of the school.

Unfortunately, this resulted in some children whom I had known to be very independent in the early years setting becoming reliant and dependent on the teacher’s direction.   I do not mean to set up a false dichotomy here, between independence and dependence, as children can be somewhere in between those two constructs; however, the children seemed now to find themselves unable to perform outside the structure.  That is, children who would have previously made self-animated choices, such as putting their coat on when they went outside at break time, or deciding when to eat, no longer had a choice: they subsequently put on their coats on under the direction of the teacher.

The classroom, then, became a microcosm of coercive social control.  Children very quickly learnedboy-2026310_640 the role of a school child, who followed the rules and learned how knowledge circulates and functions.  The individual interests of the child were often sacrificed in favour of controlling behaviours. My study therefore suggests that due in part to our early school starting age – social inequality and imbalances of power are at the heart of school life.

When the children arrived at school they were tested and grouped according to the results of the testing.  Thus school life appeared to mimic individualistic and nationalistic competition in the global economy.  My study therefore contends that the curriculum has been misinterpreted, inasmuch as there is no room in the school testing system for adults to appreciate that children learn in different ways, or for testing that values diversity between children.

Thus, when these very young children arrive at school they are treated as neutral, fixed entities that are to be ‘institutionalised’ in the broadest sense. The aims of schooling appear to be to prepare children for market competition. The individual capacities of children are under-explored in this industrialised system.  The complex notions of school testing, grouping and target-setting become transparent through exposure: as the Swedish educationist Gunilla Dahlberg recently said, we now ‘put a tremendous effort into taming, predicting, preparing, supervising and evaluating learning’.

The beginning of school life is therefore marked by stratagems and tactics that aim to establish and sustain a classification and ordering of children who already ‘fit’ – to a greater or lesser extent – into the school curriculum. It’s likely that the recent introduction of national standardised testing in Primary 1 will intensify this process.

We have to ask what might be the long-term consequences (for children, the education system and society as a whole) of allowing creativity and individual approaches to be overshadowed by discourses of accountability and economic competitiveness – especially at an age when most of the world’s children can still look forward to one or two more years of unhurried, play-based learning.

Dr Lynn McNair’s doctoral thesis ‘Rules, rules, rules and we’re not allowed to skip’ is an ethnographic study of five-year-old children’s perceptions of starting school, showing how both children and their parents are affected by an ethos based on control.


A book about ECEC that will win hearts and minds

Featured image

I read lots of books about Early Childhood Education and Care. Some are informative but dull. Some are interesting, even enjoyable. Occasionally there’s one I really love. But the book I read today is in a class of its own. I want to buy a copy for every single Upstart supporter. No, for everybody in Scotland who works with children. And for every Scottish politician so they’ll understand what it’s all about. And everyone in the media so they’ll understand too…

Unfortunately, it costs £23.99 so the best I can do is hijack this month’s blog and tell you about it. Then perhaps you can persuade someone to put it in your Christmas stocking. Or you could submit a request form at the library. Or, if you’re in the Central Belt, I’m starting a lending list for my copy so get your name down now.

First of all, it’s an extremely readable book – I devoured it between breakfast and book-1760998_640teatime.  But it’s also academically faultless and brimming with erudite references, which isn’t surprising since it started life as a doctoral thesis.  Indeed, that’s how I first heard about it – a friend mentioned that Cathy Nutbrown, eminent early years expert and professor of education, told him it was the best doctoral thesis she’s ever read.

Unfortunately, the title isn’t exactly enticing: Autoethnography and Early Childhood Education and Care won’t set the heather alight. And no, I didn’t know the meaning of ‘autoethnography’  either. However, it turns out to be a kind of academically-informed reflection on one’s own experiences. So the heart of the book is a sequence of beautifully written autobiographical fragments about working with young children. We meet angry little Lola; tragically silent Ruby; Darren the wild boy, labelled violent at the age of two; Rashid, who’s chasing sunbeams one minute and rushed off to hospital the next; Rachel the struggling reader, and Marcus – a poor wee soul who struggles with almost everything.

Teachers and EY practitioners meet children like these every day and – like author boy-2095859_640Elizabeth Henderson – have the enormous privilege of sharing moments of joy and wonder with them. But there’s also the possibility that the strength of relationships forged through such moments can lead to professional confusion or personal pain.

As every Upstarter knows, relationships are at the heart of education – especially early childhood education. And relationships involve people, made of flesh, blood and emotions. The education and care of young children involves a great deal of emotional investment on behalf of practitioners, often within contexts that are far from supportive. It’s an aspect of the educational process that doesn’t tend to feature in policy documents or newspaper reports about educational standards. And when it appears in academic writing, the embodied emotional experience of the people concerned (both adults and children) is usually buried under jargon, theoretical discourse, notes and references.

I have to admit that, as I read the Introduction, I feared that might be the case with this book. But as soon as Elizabeth began her narrative, I understood why Professor Nutbrown provided this endorsement:‘… the strength of a text lies in its ability to effect change.  This book will change its readers, it will speak to hearts, and change minds.’

Upstart is all about winning hearts and minds. We need books like this to help us make the case for a coherent approach to education and care of the under-sevens.

blog bookAnyway, reading it has certainly changed me. It’s provided a wealth of heart-and-mind-winning insights into the meaning of ‘reflective practice’. And Elizabeth’s profoundly thoughtful, academically-informed reflections on the vocabulary of everyday life in an early years setting (words like ‘listening’, ‘the outdoor environment’, ‘attunement’ and ‘disability’) have also deepened my admiration for the many brilliant practitioners I meet – and my frustration that so few politicians, media pundits and members of the general public actually ‘get’ what ECEC is all about.

Although the title of the book is unlikely to attract attention, the subtitle ‘Narrating the Heart of Practice’ gives a hint of its power. Do try to get hold of a copy – and point other people towards it.

Sue Palmer

Autoethnography in Early Childhood Education and Care: Narrating the Heart of the Practice by Elizabeth Henderson is published by Routledge at £23.99

Elizabeth Henderson has worked in education for more than thirty years in a variety of settings, both in the state and voluntary sector, from nursery through to university.  Elizabeth currently works for a local authority in Scotland, providing support and advice for those working in the early years sector.  (She’s also an Upstart supporter!)

Declutter the emotional environment!


The best designed physical environment, with carefully selected loose parts displayed in the most Reggio of baskets are not worth that much if the emotional environment isn’t right. To me, the emotional environment of a setting can be most simply judged by a few criteria: do the children feel safe, secure, respected and like they belong there? Do the adults feel relaxed, confident in their role, and able to have the presence of mind to interact meaningfully and mindfully with the children? Perhaps most importantly, are the children and adults alike happy to be there?

Just as we might move a shelf to different wall, add or take away some resources, or rearrange other physical objects in our rooms to better fit the needs of the children and our overall aims as educators, we also should be open to new approaches and techniques that help improve the emotional environment. As a team, and individually, this requires us to be honest, reflect and at times be willing to try new things in our practice.

hamster-wheel-1014036_640There are a lot of things that needlessly stress adults and “clutter” up the emotional environments of many settings but this article will only focus on one topic, the daily schedule. Yes, young children thrive on routine and familiarity but I’ve worked in too many places that treat the daily schedule as a cruel and impatient taskmaster.

Over-scheduled and hurried days

If the schedule on the wall states “10:15: Outside Play Time”, many adults rush the children through getting ready as if it were a once-a-day train that we might miss!  Not only does nobody involved enjoy this stress, we miss out on opportunities for younger children to increasingly learn to get on jackets, shoes or water-proofs themselves. Instead of investing the time for children to increasingly learn to handle these tasks independently, “doing it for them” because it’s faster ensures we will always be burdened with these tasks.

When I’ve worked in situations like this, my patience went way down, my stress way up and I know the quality of my interactions with the children suffered quite a bit. I would go home every day feeling miserable and upset with myself because I knew I wasn’t giving these children what they needed. I couldn’t keep up with the pace demanded by this setting and nobody benefited. I’ve noticed a sort of an unspoken sense of pride amongst some practitioners: look how quickly and efficiently I can get the kids through lunch, or ready to go outside or anything else. While I appreciate working with organised and capable coworkers, I am not sure speed and efficiency should be valued over the quality of our interactions.

Parents (who might know much about early childhood development) might like the look of a timetable with 30-45 minute intervals titled things like Literacy or Work Time, thinking this is what will get their children ready for school, but these sorts of schedules do not allow children enough time to truly get engaged in anything.

Time and space to play

Many days children need time to suss out their play options before getting into something truly engaging.  A rule of thumb I agree with says children need at the very least an hour of free play at a time to truly get into some engaging play and to see it through to a satisfying end. Settings I admire (like Discovery Early Learning Center in the USA) have changed their environment, schedule and approach over time as they’ve learned to trust in following the pace of the children. These days they simply let the children play all day.  The pictures from their Facebook page show children absolutely brimming with engagement, curiosity, well-being, persistence, confidence and everything else a quality early years setting should strive for.

Some adults can be tactful about it, others more bossy but one of the worst parts parts of clock-933311_640transitions is the fact adults have to interrupt children in the middle of their play. On an episode of the podcast “That Early Childhood Nerd,” Heather Bernt, an American consultant says we “teach children not get engaged by our interruptions.”  Her guest, Tiffany Pearsall, asks if you only had 15-30 minutes to engage in something you enjoy as an adult – knitting, reading, cooking a nice meal etc. – would you really get into it, much less bother at all? I’d add to this:  How would you react if you were happily in the middle of perfecting a new recipe and someone told you it was time to put your kitchen tools away before you were truly finished? Many interruptions are unavoidable given the realities of group-based education and care but I do think we should give children’s play the same respect we would as the favourite hobby of any adult.

Minimising transitions

If you are currently in a setting with an over-scheduled day, consider minimising the transitions and chopped up parts of the day. If some transitions are truly unavoidable, is it always the end of the world if you get off-schedule a bit some days? Do you worry what your co-workers will think if you can’t herd the kids to the next thing like they do? If so, is it possible to talk to them about it? If you’re worried you won’t get good observations in a certain area of development, could you bring something specific into provision? Or perhaps get some mentorship on how to further see all of the learning inherent in children’s play? If you are lucky enough to be in a setting that values long stretches of play time, are there still any “sticking points” in the day that might be worth discussing with your team?  

Young children’s brains are in a distinct and sensitive stage. What education should look bubble girllike for them should not be confused with getting them to sit still because that will be expected of them in a few years. “Learning time” is every single second of the day they are with us.  Young children’s brains don’t stop growing when they are getting jackets on to go outside, fighting over toys, having runny noses, getting their nappy changed, eating meals, or falling down and skinning knees. These aren’t parts of the day to impatiently rush through so we can get to the part of the schedule where we think we put our “teacher hats” on.  Rather, these seemingly insignificant parts of the day really are valuable opportunities for connection, learning and growth.

Over-scheduled and hurried days do not give children the time and space they require to engage, persist, experiment, think critically or deeply engage in their play. When we streamline the daily schedule and minimise the transitions, we can use our patience and energy for more meaningful and mindful interactions instead of burning through it quickly trying to keep a group of young children in line and on schedule.

Should our job be ‘herding cats’?

Our daily schedules shouldn’t just be randomly thrown together or “what we’ve always done.”  In my opinion, schedules should include long stretches of free play time (with constant access to outside), minimal transitions and move at the pace of the children. More than anything else though, schedules should best serve the actual, specific needs of the actual, specific children in our settings. This means they will change as the children grow, leave or as new children join us. Serving the best needs of the children also means they are sustainable and not needlessly stressful for the adults. Figuring this all out will take observation reflection, discussion and the freedom for educators to experiment.

cats-2009175_640A lot of us like to joke our job is like “herding cats,” but when are we going to realise that cats aren’t meant to be herded? Just like a spring cleaning and decluttering of a room, if something in the schedule is not helping the relationships and emotional environment of a setting maybe it needs to be changed or even chucked out!

David Cahn has worked in Early Years since 2007 in the US, Australia and currently as an educator in a Children’s Centre in Leeds, England.  He blogs at and offers workshops for Early Years settings on Adults Rediscovering and Respecting Play.  He can be contacted through facebook or twitter.

This blog was originally published in the Early Years Collective E-Zine, Issue 1.

But my five-year-old IS ready for school…


‘Our daughter’s bored to tears at nursery. She needs a new challenge.’


‘My wee boy’s already reading and writing and I don’t want him held back.’


‘Our five-year-old can’t wait to start school….’

Political interest in closing the attainment gap means that Upstart Scotland spends lots of time explaining why play-based learning helps children who find it difficult to settle in school. But there are many reasons why delaying formal education for another year or two would benefit all children, including those who are apparently ‘ready’.  In fact, there are so many reasons that, when I’m arguing the case with the mums and dads who reckon their children are ready, it’s hard to know where to start.

Sometimes I weigh straight in with the Longevity Project – a long-term study of middle-class children described as ‘intelligent and good learners’.  It went on for eighty years, becoming the world’s longest longitudinal study of human health and well-being.  One of its findings (completely unexpected by the researchers) was that an early start on formal education was connected with ‘less overall educational attainment and poorer mid-life adjustment’ than a later start. Since the mid-life issues impacted on both physical and mental health, early-starters also tended to die younger than their peers.

When the project’s findings were published in 2012, Howard Friedman, the chief researcher, wrote:

‘I’m very glad that I did not push to have my own children start formal schooling at too young an age, even though they were early readers. Most children under age six need lots of time to play, and to develop social skills, and to learn to control their impulses.  An over-emphasis on formal classroom instruction – that is, studies instead of buddies, or “staying in” instead of “playing out” – can have serious effects that might not be apparent until years later.’

Since it’s pretty obvious that active outdoor play during the early years is good for children’s long-term physical health, another regular starting point for my Upstart arguments is the huge change in children’s lifestyles over recent decades. In traffic-clogged urban environments, it’s very difficult for parents to get their offspring outdoors and active, especially now that indoor sedentary entertainment is so readily available. A Nordic-style kindergarten stage would help reinstate outdoor play (as often as possible in green places) at the heart of 21st century childhood.

child-sitting-1816400_640But physical health is only half of the problem. Scotland is currently experiencing an explosion of mental health problems among children and young people – and anxiety, depression, eating disorders and self-harm are increasingly common across the social classes. On the other hand, the Nordic nations – whose young people are exposed to the same social pressures as our own – have an excellent record for childhood well-being.

Nordic kindergartens are based on well-established principles about child development, meaning that no child is pressurised to perform tasks beyond his or her personal developmental level. This also, of course, means that no child is ‘held back’.  So I’m always delighted to reassure anxious parents that, in a high-quality kindergarten, early readers and writers would be encouraged and supported at their own level, just as they would in a loving family home.

But we now know that – in terms of both long-term well-being and educational success – the ability to read and write is less important during the early years (which actually extend to the age of eight in both UN and Scottish policy documents) than the development of self-regulation skills, emotional resilience and a love of learning. There’s now a mountain of research showing that these qualities are best developed through a combination of active, self-directed play and sensitive adult support.

‘Self-regulation skills’ is a shorthand term for children’s autonomous control of their physical, social and emotional behaviour. As active outdoor play has declined, more children – including some academically able children – exhibit ‘challenging behaviour’ during the primary years. Behavioural issues also cause problems for ‘non-challenging’ children, not least because teachers have to spend so much time and energy dealing with the challengers.

traffic-lights-514932_640But in countries with an early school starting age,  there are other knock-on effects. Many P1 teachers now feel the need to use ‘behaviour management strategies’ to deal with the increasing number of children who can’t settle in the classroom. The traffic light system, for instance, involves a naming-and-shaming chart: all children start the day on green but their name may be moved up to orange or – horror of horrors! – red if they misbehave. I’ve heard many stories of well-behaved, high-achieving P1s who live in terror of inadvertently putting a foot wrong and moving up the colours. The chances of this happening are, of course, minimal … but the children’s anxiety is no less real. And fearful anxiety isn’t a good starting point for an educational career.

This brings us to the development of emotional resilience, vital for long-term mental health. During the early years, the most significant protective factors for resilience are sensitive adult support and the sorts of ‘safe but challenging’ play-based experiences that develop self-regulation skills. These protective factors also happen to be the developmental underpinnings for ‘intrinsic motivation’ to learn, which is much more productive in the long run than simply trying to please the teacher.

So … if my four- or five-year-old were bored tears at nursery or told me she was ‘dying to start school’, I’d (a) question the quality of education and care at the nursery and (b) wonder whether she might somehow be getting the message that ‘just playing’ is of little value. And if my child were an early reader, I’d be checking that support for his interest in literacy was accompanied by plenty of play-based opportunities to ensure optimal physical, social, emotional and cognitive development.

The years between three and eight years of age are a precious time when all children need time and space to play. Scotland’s extremely early school starting age is an historical anomaly that’s becoming increasingly counter-productive. A dedicated kindergarten stage for three- to seven-year-olds would give every child the best possible chance of success … ‘ready’ or not.

Sue Palmer, literacy specialist and Chair of Upstart Scotland

Ten reasons why national testing at P1 is WRONG!


From this year, Scottish primary schools will be obliged to gather educational data for the government through ‘national assessments’ of P1, P4 and P7 children. This development comes at a time of considerable debate about the efficacy of national testing in general and its potential link to increases in mental health problems among children and young people. Accordingly, in May this year the UK Parliamentary Education Committee recommended significant changes to England’s assessment regime.

Testing at P1 is particularly controversial. The younger children are, the more likely it is that ‘adverse experiences’ will affect their long-term development. Given the body of evidence against national standardised testing at this age (as outlined below), Upstart urges the Scottish government to abandon plans to test children during their first year in school.

1. Standardised ‘baseline’ testing of four- and five-year-olds is not reliable. In 2016, wide variations were found in children’s scores on three baseline tests from accredited test providers (the National Foundation for Educational Research, Durham University’s Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring [CEM] and Early Excellence). An attempt to introduce baseline testing in England was dropped and the Parliamentary Education Committee mentioned above recommended that any measurement in the first year of schooling should be by teacher assessment only.

'School' by David Howard

‘School’ by David Howard

2. Testing can create self-fulfilling prophecies, which are particularly damaging at very beginning of a child’s school career. Four- and five-year-old children are at a stage in development when performance on a test can vary from day to day (see second item in this newspaper report).

3. Throughout the world, the introduction of national testing has resulted in teaching to the test. This leads to a narrowing of the curriculum and uninspiring teaching methods, which are designed to achieve good test results, but do so at the expense of deeper learning. It is particularly detrimental in P1 (see 4, below).

4. There is a wealth of research showing that four- and five-year-old children

ned-2alearn best through play and other holistic learning experiences. Tests, however, require them to focus on specific abstract ideas which often seem pointless to young children and can therefore easily be misunderstood. Time spent on testing and preparing children for tests is therefore highly counterproductive, at a stage in their lives when their lifelong attitude to learning is still developing.

5. Primary 1 is traditionally a ‘settling in’ year for children, when teachers focus on their social and emotional development. Since the transition between nursery/home and school is deeply significant for four- and five-year-olds, it is naturally a stressful experience and children who do not settle easily may become disengaged from learning. This means that their relationship with their teacher is of paramount importance, particularly if they are encountering stress in other aspects of their lives. The quality of this relationship is bound to be affected if the teacher is required to ensure that children attain academic standards specified by the tests and related benchmarks.

6.  Assessment at P1 is being introduced as part of a drive to ‘close the attainment gap between rich and poor’. Although a narrow focus on specific literacy and numeracy skills can undoubtedly raise test scores among disadvantaged children in the short term, research shows that such improvements ‘wash out’ over the course of their primary education. On the other hand, it has been shown that early academic instruction can have other – highly damaging – long-term consequences for disadvantaged children.

7. Due to significant lifestyle changes over recent decades, most children starting school today have had far fewer opportunities for active, self-directed play than in the past (particularly outdoor play). Over the same period, there have been significant increases in mental health problems among children and young people. It is well established that resilience (the ability to cope with stress throughout life) is developed through a combination of play and supportive relationships in the early yearsThe effects of testing on the EY curriculum and the requirement that P1 teachers work towards specific skills-based standards (as opposed to supporting individual development) therefore has implications for many children’s well-being in the future.

8. Testing affects public perceptions about education, not least because of the media coverage it generates. Tests for four- and five-year-olds will intensify the widely-held misconception that children of this age must reach certain standards in literacy and numeracy.  In fact, there is no evidence that an early start on the three Rs is necessary or, indeed, beneficial. Research in New Zealand showed that when literacy skills-teaching began when children were seven, they were as efficient readers by the age of 11 as those who started at five. Indeed, in the vast majority of countries Starting agesworldwide, children do not even start school until they are at least six years old. Until then they go to kindergarten and learn at their own rate, following their own interests through play. When young children learn through play they discover that learning is fun.

9. Tests are not fun. They are not play. And they do not have a place in the lives of four- and five-year-old children. We’ve heard it said that ‘The P1 tests are more like a computer game than a test – children won’t even know they’re being tested!’ But children are not stupid. They can tell when the grown-ups are judging them. They recognise adult priorities. There now is widespread concern among experts in early child development (and other related academic and professional fields) about the long-term effects on health and well-being of an overly-academised, high-pressure childhood.

child doing sums10. The introduction of national testing has been driven by political – not educational – considerations. It is at odds with the play-based pedagogical principles underpinning the Early Level of the Curriculum for Excellence and explained in greater detail in Building the Curriculum 2 (2007).  Unfortunately, the integration of these principles into P1 teaching practice has so far been extremely patchy. Their importance has, however, been confirmed by all recent early years research and, over the last couple of years, there’s been increased commitment among P1 teachers to the introduction of play-based practice. It’s highly unlikely that this welcome development will continue if teachers feel obliged to adapt their practice to ensure children’s success in skills-based tests.

The aim of the Upstart Scotland campaign is to create a ‘ring-fenced kindergarten stage’ for three- to seven-year-old children based on these well-established pedagogical principles. This would ensure that all Scottish children have at least three years during early childhood to reap the developmental benefits of play (as often as possible outdoors and in natural surroundings) while being sensitively supported to learn at their own pace, rather than being judged against arbitrarily-determined academic standards.




What is self-regulation?


By Sara Higgins
Senior Early Years Officer at Moffat Early Years Campus

As an undergraduate, studying a BA in Childhood Practice, I recently created an academic poster on self-regulation. The title “Self-regulation: Autonomy or Compliance?” stirred up some strong and conflicting viewpoints from the audience. This is a topic which highly interests me and one which I will continue to study and research in my final year at university.

So, what is self-regulation? According to Whitebread (2012), it is an extensive subject that encompasses various interconnecting aspects of social, emotional, cognitive and motivational development, it may also be referred to as executive function; control of attention, working memory and inhibitory or effortful control.

I would suggest that children who self-regulate, demonstrate their ability to govern their own learning and behaviours. Autonomy is an essential element of self-regulation.


Like adults, children are more likely to achieve a goal if they have set the target for themselves. Increased levels of concentration, perseverance and motivation are evident when children have this ownership.

The benefits of self-regulation:

The development of self-regulation in children is so important. I believe it is the foundation for the development of a broad range of skills and temperaments that influence children to be successful and achieving individuals. It may also predict the child’s:

  • emotional well-being
  • academic and educational outcomes
  • the ability to work in a group
  • the ability to make friends
  • the ability to develop as a well-adjusted human being
  • the ability to tackle complex tasks and to be successful at them


There are increasing levels of interest and enthusiasm from policy makers regarding self-regulated learning in childhood and its positive links to educational attainment. Self-regulated learning includes:

  • setting goals for learning
  • concentrating on instruction
  • using effective strategies to organise ideas
  • using resources effectively
  • monitoring performance
  • managing time effectively
  • holding positive beliefs about one’s capabilities – self-efficacy


Unfortunately, interpretation of self-regulation will vary within practice. Often, there is a narrow-minded notion that self-regulation relates to school readiness or compliance.

Current policy informs the practice of early year’s educators and strives for children to be independent and successful learners. However, the reality is that there are often pressures that militate against children’s independence and autonomy in schools and nurseries. Contradictorily, these pressures often come from the policy makers themselves, striving for raised attainment levels and orderly classrooms.

Early years practitioners and teachers must understand the fundamental aspects of self-regulation in order to nurture and support this in young children and to develop a culture within their establishments.

Fortunately, self-regulation is a skill that can be developed through effective learning and teaching practice, which includes; emotional warmth and security, feelings of control, cognitive challenge and articulation of learning (metacognition).

Here at Moffat Early Years Campus, we are striving to improve our practice and understanding of self-regulation in childhood. We have strong links with our cluster nurseries and schools and intend to work collaboratively with others to improve local children’s ability to self-regulate.

At Moffat, we respect children’s agency and are responsive to their growing interests and needs. We support a wide range of experiences, some that offer a degree of risk. However, our strength is trusting and respecting our children. We value positive and nurturing relationships and have high expectations for all children.

Picture1 (1)


Whitebread, D. (2012). Developmental Psychology & Early Childhood Education. London: Sage.

Music and Literacy


As testing shows that literacy standards are falling (Cramb, 2015) it seems evermore important that children get the foundation they need upon which to build these vital skills. Children learn through experience.  To become readers and writers, children need to experience reading and writing environments, observing that this is part of life.  There is much to be learnt before children start the formal process of becoming literate when they start school.

image003It is long recognised that children need to play, that they need to develop at their own pace and that they need to have experiences through which they can learn.  Formal learning whilst sitting at desks is not appropriate for active youngsters who need to be feeling, doing and moving.  Children need engaging and enjoyable activities through which they can learn.  Musical activities are an ideal way to encourage social participation and build many early skills which contribute to later literacy learning.

Gathered from research, the diagram below summarises the main requirements for becoming literate.  It also suggests that music may be used as a conduit for this learning.

Requirements for Literacy


The close relationship between music and language render music a perfect medium for promoting speaking and listening skills.  Music and language have much in common:

  • The requirement for listening
  • The necessity to discriminate between sounds
  • Sound production
  • Comprehension of sound
  • Pattern
  • Rhythm
  • Prosody (intonation and stress)
  • Pitch
  • Tone
  • Use of memory
  • Both require use of left and right hemispheres of the brain
  • Means of communication
  • Innate to humans

Phonological awareness (the awareness of individual and groups of sounds within words) is identified as a major determinant of success in literacy (Bradley and Bryant, 1983; Goswami, 1990).  Anvari et al., (2002) found that musical skills correlated significantly with phonological awareness and reading.  Musical rhythm can be used to help children learn to detect syllables in words; musical rhymes have rhyming endings which can be brought to children’s attention and alliterative rhymes (those with repeated first letter sounds) for example, ‘Five Fat Peas in a Pea Pod Pressed’ can help children to identify individual letter sounds.

Children must have an awareness of differences in spoken sounds and differences in shape before they can learn to match the two – letters to language sounds.  Additionally, they must also know the purpose of text and how books work and be motivated to want to decipher the alphabetic code.

Linnea Ehri (American psychologist and Distinguished Professor) describes literacy as ‘One of the great mysteries’ (Ehri, 2005:168).  Becoming literate is a multi-faceted and complex process.  Literacy also requires cognitive skills, not least, the ability to remember.  RAN is the ability to name items quickly; this is what happens when we become proficient readers, we do not stop to analyse each letter in every word but quickly identify the words we see.  Children must also understand the language which is spoken to them, be aware of cause and effect (putting items and storylines in sequence and knowing what follows what) and be able to pay attention to their environment and what is said to them.

Musical activities can be used to promote each of the skills in the diagram.  Musical activities allow repetition which is great fun.  Rote learning is arduous but repeated singing and playing of favourite songs and musical games is not.  Repetition helps to embed learning as it facilitates memory retention.  Many rhymes and songs help us to learn sequences, such as days of the week, months of the year, numbers and the alphabet.  Singing a musical story can also assist memory of the sequence of events.  Try this one – Sleeping Beauty with Sounds and Symbols.

Maybe surprisingly on the diagram is ‘motor skills’.  Music and movement may ultimately impact positively upon literacy learning.  Music is motoric – it makes us want to move.  Movement stimulates the brain.  When the brain is in a learning state (relaxed, as opposed to one of anxiety) it is most receptive to environmental stimuli.  Research has shown that kinaesthetic learning (learning by doing) is a preferred learning style for young children.  Children also learn through sound and sight.  Our senses inform our brain and then the brain instructs the body – it’s a two-way process.

Motor skills are also required for writing.  Children must be able to control a pencil on paper.  Gross motor skills (big movements) develop before fine motor (small movement) skills.  Hence, encouraging movement to language, as in song, helps children to bring motor and language skills together.

1The cerebellum (a part of the brain at the back of the head) is responsible for helping skills (such as reading and writing) to become automatic.  It is also responsible for motor skills and timing.  This information helps us to see how music, movement and literacy can be related, as music can help the development of both movement and language.

Children who have difficulty with literacy often also have difficulty with keeping a beat (Goswami, 2013)).  Children need to be able to keep time.  Bodies move in time in order to function effectively.  Moving to rhythms helps to embody language sounds, such that they become part of one’s being; this may subsequently impact upon literacy ability.

Communication is also presented through movement in the form of gesture.  Gestures support our spoken words and may even help the brain to function (Özçalışkan and Goldin-Meadow, 2009).  The act of gesturing can help us to retrieve the words we need.  Children use gesture to communicate before they learn to speak.  Hence, performing action songs and rhymes helps children to develop their language skills.

However, simply performing songs and rhymes does not automatically confer benefits to literacy learning.  The literacy outcomes need to be embedded into the musical activities. A person wishing to promote early literacy learning through musical activities, must be aware of the skills and knowledge they are aiming to foster, and not rely on an automatic transfer of skills between domains.  The diagram below shows where these links can be made.


Music encourages focus and attention and is multisensory. It can be used to help children to focus their listening upon important features of language.  Through deliberate attention to these features, many early literacy skills may be fostered.  Children can build a secure foundation for many of the skills required for later literacy through appropriately designed musical activities.  Such activities offer a playful and active means of learning.


Sounds and Symbols has a website and a FB page.

Maria Kay, May 2017

Maria is a research student and author and writes regularly for Teach Early Years magazine, where you can find a wealth of information on early years education.

Click on the hyperlinks throughout this article to access the websites.


Anvari, S. H., Trainor, L. J., Woodside, J. and Levy, B. A. (2002). Relations among musical skills, phonological processing and early reading ability in preschool children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 83, pp.111-130.

 Bradley, P. and Bryant, L. (1983). Categorizing sounds and learning to read: A causal connection. Nature, 301, 419–421.

Cramb, A.  (2015) Literacy Standards Decline  The Telegraph.

Ehri, L. C. (2005). Learning to Read Words: Theory, Findings and Issues. Scientific Studies of Reading, 9 (2), pp.167-188.

Goswami, U. (1990). A special link between rhyming skill and the use of orthographic analogies by beginning readers. Journal of Child Psychology, 31, 301–311.

Goswami, U. (2013). Dyslexia – in tune but out of time, The Psychologist, 26 106-109.

Özçalışkan S. and Goldin-Meadow S. (2009). When gesture-speech combinations do and do not index linguistic change. Language and Cognitive Processes, 24 (2) 1-25.

Did Scotland have the world’s first kindergarten?


According to history, the first play-based kindergarten was Frederich Froebel’s ‘Institute of Play and Activity for Young Children’, opened in 1817. Froebel went on to devise a world-famous system of early years education and care. But was his kindergarten the first in the world? Over a year before it opened its doors, another Institute, which also pioneered a play-based approach to early learning, was launched in Scotland.

Scotland already had a well-established commitment to universal education (at least for boys) with ‘a school in every parish’, dedicated to promoting literacy and dating back to the days of John Knox. But when, on 1st January 1816, the social reformer Robert Owen (1771-1858) opened his ‘Institute for the Formation of Character’ for the children of mill-workers at New Lanark, he extended educational provision to much younger children, basing it on a child-centred philosophy that was far ahead of his time.

An extract from the Owen’s speech on the opening day of his Institute shows his appreciation of the importance of early years care and education:

‘It must be evident to those who have been in the practice of observing children with attention, that much of good or evil is taught to or acquired by a child at a very early period of life; that much of temper or disposition is … formed before he attains his second year; and that many durable impressions are made at the termination of the first 12 or even 6 months of life.’

The Institute’s ‘infant school’ therefore accepted children from the age of one, although contemporary reports say the youngest pupils were probably two or three years old. Since children didn’t move up into the main school until they were around seven, Owen catered for the same age range as Froebel and subsequent early years pioneers, such as Rudolf Steiner and Maria Montessori.

Owen’s approach to early education clearly involved a great deal of self-directed learning – during fine weather the children were encouraged to play all day in a large playground outside the Institute. There were three rooms for use on wet days, including a large schoolroom where the walls were decorated with pictures (mainly of animals) and maps. It was also regularly supplied withImage

‘natural objects from the gardens, fields and woods – the examination and exploration of which always excited their curiosity and created an animated conversation between the children and their instructors.’

These ‘instructors’ (specially chosen because they had ‘a great love of children and unlimited patience with infants’) were told that

‘they were on no account ever to beat the children or to threaten them in any word or action or to use abusive terms; but they were always to speak to them with a pleasant voice and a kind manner. They should tell the infants … that they must o all occasions do all they could to make their playfellows happy – and that the older ones, from 4 to 6 years of age, should take especial care of younger ones, and should assist to teach them to make each other happy.’

grandfather-with-grandchildren-2040914_1920Owen was also very keen on the civilising effects of music: all ages of children were taught to dance and those of four and upwards had singing lessons. But he insisted that no child should be forced to learn in any way and that ‘the children were not to be annoyed with books’. The contribution of their adult carers was to explain

‘the uses and nature or qualities of the common things around them, by familiar conversation when the children’s curiosity was excited so as to induce them to ask questions’.

It’s thought that Owen’s educational views were influenced by the work of the Swiss writer and teacher Johann Pestalozzi, who was also Froebel’s early mentor. There’s certainly a great deal of similarity between the ideologies informing the two Institutes and, since Owen opened his establishment a full year before Froebel’s, it can definitely be claimed that Scotland had the world’s first kindergarten.

However, although Owen’s experiment in play-based early education was acknowledged by contemporaries to be a success, it was short-lived. He was a social reformer with interests in many social and political initiatives (for instance, he campaigned for an eight-hour working day and is recognised as one of the fathers of the cooperative movement) as well as a business entrepreneur (running the mill that financed his schemes) so the ‘infant school’ was merely a sideline. A decade after its inception, he decided to leave Scotland for America where he hoped to build a Utopian community in New Harmony, Indiana. So New Lanark Mill and its Institute for the Formation of Character were sold. Subsequent owners saw little point in providing outdoor play and stimulating conversation for the under-sevens.

Froebel, on the other hand, went on to become one of the most influential figures in early years education. Indeed, Scottish EY provision today is greatly informed by Froebelian principles, which is one of the reasons Upstart adopted the term ‘kindergarten’ (literally ‘children’s garden’) for the educational ethos that works best for the three to seven age group. We’re delighted to discover that, two hundred years before our campaign launch in 2016, three- to seven-year-olds in Scotland were the first ever children in the world to enjoy a system of education and care that emphasised social and emotional development and outdoor, self-directed play.

Sue Palmer

The quotes about New Lanark in this piece are taken from:

Donnachie, I (2003) Education in Robert Owen’s New Society: the New Lanark Institute and Schools

For details of free workshops at New Lanark for parents and children on ‘How To Nurture A Joy of Learning’ see

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