Ian McGowan, Director of the Movement and Learning Centre (Pictures from the website)

At the Movement and Learning Centre I work with children and adolescents who have a range of learning and behavioural difficulties that adversely affect their lives and schooling. In many cases these difficulties have their roots in early stages of development that may have been missed or not become fully developed. This includes the development of movement, balance and postural control. Should an individual not develop competency in movement, balance and postural control, excessive amounts of mental effort will be required to compensate for this, resulting in less capacity being available to attend to the world surrounding the individual, including schooling, rather than to the body.

Given plenty of opportunities to move naturally, most children pass through early stages of development perfectly well and acquire bodily control satisfactorily. The child’s inner drive to move, together with opportunity to move in response to sensory input, results in the development of fundamental general understanding of one’s body and the environment gained from self-motivated, effortful, independent and pleasurable early play. This represents the foundation of all future learning. However, this happens at different rates for different children.

72365267531323723121It cannot be assumed that all children of a particular chronological age will demonstrate identical levels of development in the full range of abilities. This is what I observe in children that I work with. The school aged children identified as having some form of educational and/or behavioural difficulty, and for which they will be receiving additional support in the classroom, present with a range of similar symptoms, for example: delays in motor and language development, short attention span and distractibility, fidgety behaviour, misinterpretation of questions, confusion of similar sounding words, difficulty following sequential instructions, poor posture, clumsy and uncoordinated movements, poor organisational skills. Fortunately, with appropriate non-invasive physical intervention, problems with movement, balance and postural control can be alleviated, which in turn better supports learning and behaviour. However, this is dealing with problems after they have occurred when the child is in formal education from P1 onwards. Why is it that so many of our school aged children display problems with movement, balance and postural control and behavioural difficulties which do not support learning in the classroom?

I can make an educated guess based on my 36 years of accumulated experience as a physical educator and child development specialist and from the available evidence collected by academics and other professionals. The early experiences of play for our children in recent years have changed considerably from previous generations and probably involve less self-motivated, effortful, independent and pleasurable early play. Children in the past usually played with fewer commercially produced toys and definitely had less screen time!

For the developing child learning about oneself and the world around them is a joyous experience and largely self-directed with support from parents or other responsible adults, older siblings and eventually peers. This is in contrast to formal education in which children are directed by the teacher and governed by national educational policy. As one expert has noted in his wonderful book The Muse Within (Bjorkvold, 1989) there is a distinct difference between what can be described as child culture and school culture which children are subjected to often before they are developmentally ready. Bjorkvold suggests that children’s early school experience actually represses childhood and the stifling of joyful self-directed learning. As examples of this clash of cultures he offers the following list:Sin-título-1
Contrasting these two different cultures, he suggests that early learning experiences of children are unified, authentic and animated as they must be if they are to take permanent root, whilst school learning is of quite a different nature. In this respect Bjorkvold suggests that there is no advantage to starting formal education early. Children need time to develop and that formal school-based learning requires maturation.

It has been noted that many children experience difficulties when starting formal education because they have not developed the fundamental functions that would allow them to succeed. For example poor inhibition associated with weak attention will adversely affect functioning in the school setting. This is an example of a range of executive functions required for mature functioning in life generally and in the classroom. This includes developing bodily control, including manual dexterity in support of hand writing, auditory discrimination of language capabilities which supports the development of phonological abilities required for reading, and cognitive flexibility needed to cope with changing circumstances and learning in the classroom. These functions develop as a result of ongoing learning through play in the early years from birth onwards. A child starting school before they have developed adequate levels of executive functioning will be at a disadvantage. As noted earlier this happens at different rates for each child.

Neurologically the brain rapidly develops from birth onwards and experiences a period of consolidation at around 7 years of age when all of the connections that have been made through a child’s movement and interaction with its environment are secured. Therefore, it would seem reasonable to assume that more children will be developmentally ready for formal education when they have achieved this milestone. Our current situation of children starting school based on their birth date meaning between 4.5 and 5.5 years old would seem misguided leading to the Matthew effect (Gladwell, 2008) whereby a child may have had one year less of development compared to another. To be sure some children are ready for school at an earlier chronological age than others, but the Matthew effect is known to persist if children start formal learning before they are ready. Equally there is little evidence to suggest that children starting school beyond when developmentally they are ready will be held back.


I am well aware from my professional work of many children with poorly developed movement, balance and postural control who struggle with learning and behaviour in school and in life. I am also aware from my email inbox of an increasing number of invitations to conferences on the mental health problems experienced by children today. For sure these issues are not down to any single factor but I suggest that the lack of early experiences of self-motivated, effortful, independent and pleasurable early play and the pressure to meet educational goals in, for example, literacy in school may be playing a part. This then may be causing more children to experience stress and failure leading to problems in becoming successful learners and confident individuals.

Shifting attention and resources to better provision for the early years between age 3 and 7, focussing on play and delaying the start date for entering formal education may be a significant strategy in trying to get things right for more of our children before they go wrong later in the education system. It may also help in recognising the needs of our children based on their own culture before we impose our adult school culture on them.

Ian McGowan

Director of the Movement and Learning Centre


Bjorkvold, Jon-Roar (1989) The Muse Within – creativity and communication, play and song from childhood through maturity. Harper Collins, New York

Gladwell, Malcolm (2008) Outliers –the story of success. Penguin Books, London



by Susan McNeish

“An outdoor play course on a Saturday? No-body will come!” they said, but they did come. Over one hundred people turned out – parents, teachers, nursery workers and managers, playworkers, rangers, other outdoor professionals and the provost. This one-and-a-half minute video, shown at the conference, shows why they cared enough to give up their day off to learn more about play. It’s not just vital for children’s health and well-being – it’s also sheer, joyous, fun!

We had nine outdoor workshops, with leaders from three different councils (Edinburgh, South Lanarkshire and North Lanarkshire), five different organisations (OutLET Play Resource, Wiston Lodge, The Children’s Wood, Off Grid Kids, Icecream architecture) and one individual – the artist Alan Kain. The most popular was loose parts play, but there was also enthusiastic uptake for fire-making, dorodango, mucky play, making the transition from indoors to outdoors, easy dens, natural dens, story-making in the outdoors and natural art.

We also spent some time indoors listening to speakers

  • Eileen Logan – Provost for South Lanarkshire, and also a Brown Owl so very keen on what we’re doing.
  • Sue Palmer – author and Chair of Upstart, who made a passionate case for a play-based kindergarten stage for three- to seven-year-olds, with plenty of outdoor play.
  • Karen Dobbins from The Clyde and Avon Valley Landscape Partnership, who’s also a Forest School Leader, was a ranger, and is an all-round wonderful woman. You can see her on this short clip from BBC Scotland, shown on the eve-of-conference news.
  • Jackie Meager – ex Royal Navy Weapons engineer, ex volunteer for CAVLP, founder of OutLET Play Resource and Music with Ann Dante (she’s my daughter – a badly kept secret!)
  • Alan Bannister – South Lanarkshire Council, Access Officer, also an ex ranger who is always amazed by how little people understand about Scotland’s wonderful access laws
  • Mike Brady – South Lanarkshire Council, Ranger Team Leader, my boss, who is probably Scotland’s best known Forest School Tutor. He trained me as a leader and then as a tutor.

I’m so glad I didn’t listen to the pessimists who thought no one would come because ‘Growing Up Wild’ was a really great day, and an opportunity for lots of dedicated people to get together. I’m a Countryside Ranger and part of South Lanarkshire’s Ranger Service and on a mission to encourage the public to access our wonderful green spaces. My manager says that I am “rewilding play” but I think it’s really about rewilding people! In her speech, Karen quoted me as saying “You can’t love what you don’t know”. I’m sure I stole that from somewhere, but I don’t care because it’s true!

Other rewilding activities include supporting two outdoor play groups – Little Pips, in Morgan Glen in Larkhall and Little Sapplings in Stonehouse Park, both of which I helped set up. The outdoor play groups seem to be a great way to get fathers to come along to what are essentially toddler groups. I also support Wild Time after-school club run by OutLET Play Resource. During the Summer I supported the play sessions run through CAVLP which meant I worked in both South and North Lanarkshire. North Lanarkshire Ranger Service is just beginning to discover play as a way of encouraging people to access the outdoors.

And the turnout at our conference shows there’s plenty of support for the idea in Lanarkshire and the surrounding area. Thanks so much to everyone who gave up their Saturday to make it such a success.

Why ‘Too much too soon’ won’t close the attainment gap


Picture Unai Mateo

Last Wednesday, via the wonders of live streaming, I tuned into a conference in the USA.

In Tennessee, a large-scale programme to improve disadvantaged four-year-olds’ school attainment is getting the ‘wrong’ outcomes. Although results were great after one year, the advantages then began to fade out and after two years had more-or-less disappeared. Indeed, six-year-old children who didn’t follow the programme are now doing slightly better on some measures.

‘We know high-quality pre-school is good for kids,’ the conference speakers agonised. ‘So what’s gone wrong?’

It seems patently obvious to me what’s gone wrong … and what could so easily go wrong in Scotland if we don’t take notice of what’s happening worldwide.

The Tennessee programme is aimed at ‘school readiness’ so it focuses on pre-literacy and pre-numeracy skills, along with preparation for formal class-based learning. Its results mirror those of the US High/Scope Perry research study fifty years ago, except that in 2016 the disadvantages of a ‘school readiness’ approach seem to be apparent rather earlier.

Have a look at this short clip of David Weikhart, the Perry Project researcher, talking about his findings. His study compared the effects of three different pre-school approaches over the course of thirty years:

  • ‘formal’ nurseries, focusing on literacy/numeracy skills and school readiness
  • completely free-play nurseries
  • High/Scope nurseries, in which play is integrated with trained adult support and plenty of outdoor activity, talk, stories and song.

Weikhart found that the ‘formal nursery’ children had more emotional and behavioural problems throughout their school careers than the other two groups and by the age of 27 were more likely to have been involved in crime, to have problems with personal relationships and more difficulty holding down a job. They were also less likely to vote.

Picture: Steve Slater

Picture: Steve Slater

As other research projects have found, a too-early start on explicit ‘school readiness’ can have adverse social and emotional consequences, especially for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The most recent of these studies – The Gift of Time? (2015) – is the first to compare the approaches of early-start English-speaking nations with those in Nordic countries, where the emphasis for children between the ages of three and six is on nurture, nature and play.

This is why Upstart is so worried about the Scottish government’s draft benchmarks for the Early Level – that is, the outcomes children are expected to achieve by the end of P1, the year they turn six. Here’s a selection:

You can see the full list of Scotland’s literacy benchmarks here – and those for numeracy are similarly taxing. Their publication – and the P1 assessment to which they’ll be linked – is bound to affect parental expectations and pre-school practice, and to ensure that P1 teachers in most schools are highly focused on literacy and numeracy skills.

There’s no doubt that some children are capable of achieving these outcomes under their own steam and that many others can be satisfactorily trained to do so. The great question is: Is it in their long-term interest? In the words of Professor Howard Friedman, lead researcher in another long-term study with similar results to the Perry Project:

‘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.”

Picture: Ondřej Špaček

Picture: Ondřej Špaček

Childhood is a time when children are primed by evolution to prepare themselves for life, not just school. Up to the age of seven, they need time to develop physical fitness, coordination and control, social and communication skills, the emotional resilience to cope with lifelong challenges and the self-regulation skills needed for formal learning.

In short, they need a childhood. And in every culture at every time throughout human history, the most important ingredients of childhood have been sensitive adult nurture, self-directed play, and plenty of opportunities to be outdoors in natural surroundings. Biological evolution is a long, slow process so these ingredients aren’t likely to change soon.

With the rapid decline of outdoor play over recent years, it’s desperately important that politicians in charge of state-sponsored childcare and early education recognise children’s biologically-determined developmental needs. And that parents are properly informed about them too.

Sue Palmer, Chair of Upstart Scotland

Sue Palmer’s book Upstart: the case for raising the school starting age and providing what the under-sevens really need (Floris 2016) describes what’s known worldwide about ‘high-quality preschool practice’.

A new prescription for Health and Wellbeing


By Julia Whitaker, Health Play Specialist

As the leaves fall and 2016 draws to a close, we read that an ever-increasing number of our children are being identified as having some sort of mental health problem [1]. Our 3 and 4 year olds are labelled with ‘conduct disorder’ and the vocabulary of childhood now commonly includes references to ‘stress’, ‘anxiety’, and ‘depression’. We witness mental health services under strain with long waits for an appointment with a child mental health professional [2] and a growth in the prescribing of psychiatric drugs for children – including an 8% increase in prescriptions of stimulant medication to treat so-called ‘hyperactivity disorders’ [3].

Our children deserve better – not better labels, better drugs or more therapeutic interventions – but a better prescription: a Prescription for Play.


From before birth, children are driven to move: to stretch and flex, to turn and twist, to curl and unfurl. The transition through the motor milestones – from rolling to crawling to standing, walking and running; from reaching, grasping, pointing to holding a pencil – is a meaningful sequence of skill development and practice. Children need time to grow into their bodies, to practise physical movement skills and to know the pleasure in doing so. This wonderful, universal sequence of growth and change does not reach an abrupt conclusion at age 4 or 5, when the child starts school, but continues until the age of 7 and beyond. (The process of physical maturation is actually not completed until early adulthood).

child-1561968_640When we interrupt this natural process of physical development with a premature introduction to the unnatural demands of the classroom (‘sit down’, ‘don’t fidget’, ‘no climbing’), we create both physical and psychological stress in our children by expecting them to curb their natural instincts. When they fidget or ‘wander’, crawl under the table or climb on top of the chairs, our children remind us that they need to move – and we need to pay attention to what they are telling us.

An extended play-based curriculum which is not only permissive but encouraging of active, physical play supports the natural process of motor development. Our children need opportunities to discover and practise their physical capabilities – with direct benefits for their mental and physical health.

Physical play is associated with improved concentration levels, more pro-social behaviour (such as kindness and conflict resolution) and with children feeling that they are liked by their peers and that they have enough friends. Children who engage in lots of active play show lower levels of anxiety and depression, are happier with their appearance, and report higher levels of self-esteem, happiness and satisfaction with their lives [4].

The enjoyment of physical activity is also associated with happiness and lower levels of worry and reinforces positive habits with lifelong benefits for health and wellbeing.


Children need lots of active play and there is a wealth of evidence to support the view that this physical play is of greatest benefit to mental wellbeing when it takes place in natural green-space, out of doors [5]. Outdoor play serves both preventive and protective functions and it has been shown, for example, that going for a walk in the fresh air can be as effective as medication in reducing some of the symptoms of ADHD. [6].

Breathing properly is one of the simplest, most accessible ways of improving our physical and mental health. When children play outdoors, they breathe deeply using their full lung capacity, boosting oxygen uptake, increasing energy levels and improving mental clarity, whilst promoting feelings of calmness and wellbeing.

little-boy-1635065_640However, by the time they start school at 5, many children have replaced the slow, deep breathing of infancy with the shorter, shallower breathing typically associated with the ‘fight or flight’ stress response. The stress response is important because it helps to protect children from danger but when it becomes a habitual reaction to the challenges of everyday life – hyper-stimulation, performance anxiety, frustrated impulses – it results in the early presentation of symptoms of stress, depression and anxiety – symptoms which endure into adolescence and beyond [7].

Some schools are recognising the impact of increased stress on mental wellbeing by introducing yoga or mindfulness classes designed to teach children deep-breathing techniques [8]. Whilst these special measures are commendable, young children don’t really need to be taught to breathe . . .  Outdoor play as part of a balanced kindergarten curriculum up to the age of 7 allows children to find a natural rhythm of lively and less-lively activity through their own intuitive motivation and their developing capacity for self-regulation.


School is about ‘getting it right’ – earning the tick, the star, the smiley face, the ‘Well Done!’ sticker. But learning is about something else altogether. Learning is about trying things out, about experimentation and being curious about possibilities – whilst making lots of mistakes along the way.

The young child is engaged in a continuous process of creative experimentation as they learn about the world and their place in it. Whether they are tossing things out of the high chair, upturning the tomato pasta, or expanding their vocabulary of ‘rude words’, they are learning important lessons about cause-and-effect, consequential action and reciprocity. Young children embrace possibilities with little regard for ‘right or wrong’ but soon discover that ‘making mistakes’ has negative consequences. With the start of school and its demands for logic, reason, and ‘getting it right’, the process of creative mistake-making is prematurely suspended. The ‘achievers’ are the children who quickly learn to conform to the rules-of-the-game through a realisation that there is a right answer, a right way of doing things. The ‘under-achievers’ are the children who wilfully hang-on to their experimental approach until they too are obliged to surrender to an externally imposed set of expectations. The tragedy is that the abandonment of experimentation is accompanied by a reduction in creativity, curiosity and a belief in infinite possibilities. Once children start worrying about making mistakes, they become less likely to take risks, less playful and spontaneous – resulting in what is recognized as the ‘Fourth-Grade Slump’ [9] mid-way through their primary education.

14068219_10153566138946330_84829607482393222_nIt is the fear of making mistakes and of ‘getting it wrong’ which leads to the fear of failure responsible for many of the mental health problems that emerge in later childhood and adolescence. When the drive to avoid failure overrides the drive for success, our children and young people sabotage their own life chances, as self-esteem is gradually undermined by a lack of ambition and diminished self-belief [10].

A play-based kindergarten curriculum up to the age of 7 extends the period of creative ‘mistake-making’ allowing our children to explore possibilities free from externally imposed expectations and limitations to their creativity. It was Einstein who said, “Play is the highest form of research” and research is about ‘finding-out’ as opposed to ‘getting it right’. By celebrating the natural curiosity and creative experimentation of childhood, we foster robust, resilient children who retain a belief in infinite possibilities and their potential for innovation, flexibility and self-discovery.


There will always be some children whose individual characteristics and personal circumstances make them more vulnerable than most to psychological difficulties. These children certainly need ready access to mental health professionals and services that can address their particular needs.

However, all our children need a ‘Prescription for Play’ until at least the age of 7. The evidence for the link between play and positive mental health is irrefutable. One study has shown that play may actually cause children to become emotionally well: “Children demonstrate increased emotional well-being when they perceive an activity as play rather than not play… play can be seen as an observable behaviour but also as a mental state.” [11]

When children are given the time and space to explore the world through play – to discover their physical capacities, to find their innate rhythm, to experiment and create – they develop the confidence and resilience to embrace life’s challenges and stand the best chance of going on to live happy, purposeful lives.





[5] Godbey, G. (2009) Outdoor recreation, health, and wellness: Understanding and enhancing the relationship, Online. Available HTTP:

[6] Faculty of Public Health and Natural England (2010) Great Outdoors: How Our Natural Health Service Uses Green Space To Improve Wellbeing: Briefing Statement, London: Faculty of Public Health and Natural England.

[7] Nat Cen Social Research (2013) Predictors of Wellbeing. Commissioned by the Department of Health.


[9] Torrance, E. P. (1968) A longitudinal examination of the fourth grade slump in creativity. Gifted Child Quarterly, Vol 12(4), 195-199.

[10] Martin, A. (2010) Building Classroom Success: Eliminating Academic Fear and Failure. A&C Black.

[11] Howard J. and McInnes  K. (2013) The impact of children’s perception of an activity as play rather than not play on emotional well-being. Child Care Health Dev. 39(5): 737-42.

Upstart: the best start in literacy for all children


Picture Raul Lieberwirth

On 19th September, literacy consultant Anne Glennie tweeted a link to a blog : ‘Why Upstart is a non-starter’. Her reason for objecting to our campaign is her belief that lack of attention to phonics teaching for the under-sevens will widen the attainment gap. As Upstart’s main literacy specialist, I was anxious to explain why we believe exactly the opposite. But I was just about to leave for a week’s family holiday so all I could do was tweet back a couple of points. Big mistake: Upstart’s twitter account was suddenly flooded with furious complaints from phonics enthusiasts, none of which was possible to answer in 140 characters.
So my reply to Anne Glennie has had to wait till my return. Apologies to readers that – since the subject is a complex and contentious one – this is a far longer blog than I’d usually post on the Upstart website. Apologies also to Ms Glennie for beginning by answering a tweeted question from Debbie Hepplewaite of England’s Reading Reform Foundation: ‘What do you mean by “formal”?’ The definitions of formal and informal education are critical to Upstart’s case, but I promise to cover the arguments around literacy and phonics when they’re out of the way.

‘Formal’ versus ‘informal’ education

We all know that children are learning from the moment they’re born (indeed, probably before they’re born) and their adults carers are constantly teaching them. In the early stages most of this teaching is unconscious – carers simply act as role-models for babies and toddlers, for communication, language and other aspects of behaviour.
As time goes on, adult teaching becomes more consciously intentional: e.g. potty training and teaching children to dress themselves. Carers may also introduce children to various skills they value, such as swimming, cooking, gardening, reading or counting. I’d describe this type of ‘care-based’ teaching and learning ‘informal’ because it’s personally-tailored to the child concerned, doesn’t follow a prescribed curriculum, and usually happens on an ad hoc basis.
Internationally, preschool systems of Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) have also been based on this sort of informal teaching/learning, along with the provision of opportunities for children to pursue their own self-directed learning through active, creative, social play. The emphasis during ECEC is on children’s all-round development, which is a highly complex biological process: aspects of physical, emotional, social and cognitive development are intricately interrelated.
With appropriate adult support, most children can be expected to acquire the skills and capacities on which more ‘formal’ learning is based by the age of six or seven, but biology is a messy business and child development isn’t a simple linear progression – children develop particular capacities in different ways and at different rates. This is why 66% of countries around the world chose six as the age when children start school and 22% chose seven. The UK and other English-speaking nations are very unusual in expecting children to start school at five, or even four, well before they’re likely to have developed a range of self-regulation skills.
There are many ways in which schools are designed for ‘formal’ as opposed to ‘informal’ teaching and learning:
children are organised into classes, almost always based on age rather than stage of development
there’s an agreed curriculum in which (although it may also cover PE, arts and social/emotional education) the main emphasis is on academic progress, beginning with the three Rs
there’s a daily/weekly timetable for these teaching/learning activities
the adult-in-charge is defined, and trained, as a ‘teacher’ (rather than a carer)
children’s progress is usually judged against age-related ‘benchmarks’ or ‘targets’.

After 150 years of state-funded education, adults now take it for granted that schools operate as described above, meaning that – as soon as children start school – parents, politicians and the general public expect them to start making progress in specific aspects of the three Rs. In the UK, this means there is very early switch in terms of adult expectations and educational ethos. It’s the timing of that switch that Upstart is challenging.

Too Much Too Soon … and the significance of nurture, nature and play

By referring to school as ‘formal education’, we aren’t suggesting that young children in UK primary schools spend all their time sitting at desks, doing sums and spelling. Good primary teaching is usually pretty playful and early years teachers are often extremely ingenious in turning skills-based learning into ‘fun’ teacher-directed activities. Our criticism isn’t of teachers, but of the school starting age – and the expectations it generates, in terms of children’s learning of specific literacy and numeracy skills.

There is no reason (other than an economically-motivated decision by Victorian politicians) for ‘formal’ education to begin before the age of six. The international evidence (see Evidence section on our website) shows there is nothing to gain in terms of long-term academic performance, but much to lose in terms of social and emotional problems that can be triggered by a too-early start on formal learning.

There is now also a growing body of evidence about the importance of nurture and play in the first six or seven years of children’s lives, and the need for young children to spend time playing outdoors, preferably in natural surroundings. This is one of the key reasons for Upstart’s existence because, over recent decades, active outdoor play has seriously declined and its loss has coincided with alarming increases in physical and mental health problems in children and adolescents, as well as a growing number of ‘developmental disorders’ such as ADHD.

The children who are most affected by this change are those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The barriers to outdoor play – such as danger from traffic and the breakdown of local communities – are particularly pressing in the poorest areas of the country. But the decline of active, social, self-directed play during children’s most formative years affects all social classes, which is why Upstart believes the Scottish government should take immediate action to reintroduce it through a play-based kindergarten stage for the under-sevens. Our reasons are clearly outlined on our website, including the video made for our launch in May this year.

The foundations of literacy

Upstart’s arguments are therefore concerned with ‘big picture thinking’ about ECEC for the under-sevens and our interest is ensuring the best possible preparation for life in general, not just for school. However, this doesn’t mean that we under-estimate the importance of the three Rs, or the current debate about the attainment gap. Proficiency in literacy and numeracy is vital for all children’s long-term personal and economic well-being.

There are considerable differences between the life experiences that ‘advantaged’ and ‘disadvantaged’ four- and five-year-olds are likely to bring to school. In terms of literacy, the informal learning provided in an ‘advantaged’ family home is more likely to involve sharing picture books and singing nursery rhymes from not long after birth, opportunities for drawing and learning about the alphabet, and plenty of interesting excursions and experiences to talk about with mum and dad.

These activities develop children’s auditory discrimination, physical and visual skills, various types of memory, linguistic competence and confidence, awareness about the conventions of written language and a gradually widening spoken vocabulary. Literacy doesn’t come naturally to human beings, as spoken language does, so children’s predisposition to acquire literacy skills depends on these underpinning competences, which are nurtured through enjoyable interactions with adults (for example, see this excellent piece about the significance of rhyme).

If the educational playing field is to be a level one, children from less advantaged families also need plenty of these informal learning activities to lay sound foundations for later literacy acquisition. They’re therefore an important element in ECEC, where – just as in a caring family home – they can be integrated into the daily routine, as an element of ‘nurture’, rather than ‘education’. Unfortunately, at present, most Scottish children are entitled to only one or two years of part-time ECEC before proceeding to school, which doesn’t give much time for a nurture-based approach to literacy. (Or, indeed, the other aspects of developmentally-appropriate ECEC outlined above.)

Once formal education begins, it’s inevitably affected by the specific demands of the curriculum, rather than the more generalised outcomes of nurture. Parents and politicians expect schools to teach specific knowledge and skills, which in Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence are outlined in age-related benchmarks, beginning with the Early Level (end of P1). So, as soon as children start school, there’s an inevitable tendency to cut to the chase in terms of literacy skills, rather than to continue with a ‘big picture’ approach, rooted in nurture and play.

Huckt on fonix

Currently, the most obvious illustration of this change of approach relates to the explicit teaching of phonics. This is the symbolic system by which the sounds are represented by letters and groups of letters on the printed page. As Anne Glennie points out in her blog:
‘English … has a deep orthography, which gives rise to various complexities:
not least of which is the fact that we have 44+ phonemes (sounds) in English
and only 26 letters of the alphabet to represent them with. This, coupled with
direct borrowing from other languages, means that we have a huge number of
spelling alternatives’.

She then argues that: ‘it takes at least three years of teaching, learning and practice to master the basics of reading, writing and spelling’ and that the answer is not to start later but to ‘ensure that our practice “fills the gaps” for our disadvantaged children’.

These arguments have informed political understanding about literacy teaching across the English-speaking world for almost two decades, so that preoccupation with ‘filling in the gaps’ has focused increasingly on phonics teaching, rather than the provision of activities that promote all-round healthy development.

The over-focus on skills-based learning has led to growing anxiety among ‘advantaged’ parents that their children should start reading and writing as early as possible, contributing to the steady ‘schoolification’ of early years practice and thus further erosion of informal, care-based teaching and opportunities for self-directed play. It has also led to dismissal of research evidence about the importance of ‘big picture’ approaches to child development and widespread ignorance about the principles underpinning ECEC.

As a literacy specialist, I’m very keen on phonics teaching and have written a number of phonics courses (one of which was specifically recommended by the English government) and acted as a consultant on several others, including BBC literacy programmes between c 1998 and 2008. However, I’ve always accepted that phonics is merely one among many contributory elements in successful literacy acquisition. And I’ve never come across any evidence that formal teaching about the notoriously complex ‘deep orthography’ of the English language needs to begin before the age of six or seven.

Given that sound foundations are laid for literacy learning during ECEC, by this age the vast majority of children will be able to internalise the rules with reasonable ease – many phonic rules have more relevance to learning to write than to read, and the physical process of writing is also easier for children after the age of six. Before then, many children (particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds) are likely to struggle, leading to growing disaffection with literacy and, possibly, school-based learning in general (see also the two previous blogs on this website: Literacy, Learning and Luck and Kirsty, the Holyrood Baby).

Research shows that, while children can be trained in phonic decoding at an early age, by the time they reach double figures there’s no difference in reading competence between those who start formal learning at five and those who start at seven (although there is a difference in their attitudes to reading). However, as pointed out earlier, the repercussions of social and emotional issues connected with an early start last throughout their lives.

My conclusion is that, certainly for the under-sixes (and probably the under-sevens), the ‘informal teaching’ described in previous sections is more likely to lead to long-term interest in and commitment to literacy learning – the sort of commitment children need if they’re to put in the practice required for ‘automaticity’ in reading and writing.

From what I’ve heard of Anne Glennie’s work, she too cares greatly about developing children’s interest in – and indeed love of – language and literacy. I’m pretty sure we’d agree on most points about the best ways to teach reading and writing. The single difference is when ‘formal teaching’ of specific skills should begin.

There’s a great deal more information about the Upstart case on our website, including a section devoted to FAQs. The arguments are given in more detail in my book, Upstart: the case for raising the school starting age and providing what the under-sevens really need and I’m happy to discuss the issue of literacy learning with anyone who’s interested. However, the more specific an area of discussion about child development and learning becomes, the more impossible it is to operate in sound-bites, so please contact me via, rather than tweeting!

Sue Palmer, Chair of Upstart Scotland



by Sue Palmer.

I’m a literacy specialist. Over the last forty years, along with battalions of other literacy specialists, I’ve earnestly researched the way children learn to read and helped devise teaching methods and materials for use in primary classrooms. You’d think that, with all this applied brain power, we’d have found ways to turn the majority of children into enthusiastic readers.

Unfortunately, we haven’t. As standardised testing proliferated in primary schools, we certainly got better at teaching children how to pass literacy tests – although, even in this limited field, quite a few still don’t make the grade. But sadly, in the twilight of my career, I’m forced to conclude that children’s chances of becoming fluent, committed readers are significantly lower than they were fifty years ago. Which is really worrying, because neuroscience now confirms that reading fluency is probably the single most important factor in overall educational success.

children-learning-888892_1280Part of the problem is, of course, down to technological and cultural change. Today’s children have access to many amazing sources of information and entertainment – ways that involve minimal need for literacy skills – so there’s little motivation for them to settle down with a book.

And motivation is essential because it takes a lot of practice to achieve a level of reading fluency that makes it easy – and pleasurable – to read full-length texts. Unless children actually want to read, they’re unlikely to put in that effort. Endless lessons in ‘phonics’ and ‘comprehension’ won’t make them any keener.

In fact, the most motivated children are those who learn to read without much explicit teaching, as a result of pleasurable experiences before starting school. These are the ‘lucky’ children who:

  • share loving interactions with their carers from the moment they’re born, including lots of songs and rhymes and stories
  • enjoy plenty of opportunities for active, creative play with adult carers and, from the age of about three, with other children – as often as possible outdoors
  • regularly share picture books with adults, thus discovering the pleasure of ‘a good read’
  • aren’t pushed to read and write, just gently supported, at their own level, when they show an interest.

It’s not as if these ingredients of literacy luck are unknown. Indeed, the Scottish government has done a great deal to publicise them through its PlayTalk Read project for the parents of children under three. The trouble is that most parents are now out at work for most of the day and don’t have much time left over for playing, singing and sharing stories with their off-spring. And even the luckiest children don’t usually start reading by the age of four or five.

children-1547261_640This too has been widely known ever since schooling began. It’s why the Ancient Greeks didn’t send children to school till they were seven and why formal education in the vast majority of the world doesn’t start till at least six. It’s also why the European countries with the best record in terms of literacy today provide play-based kindergarten education for the under-sevens, with plenty of time for stories and song, as well as lots of opportunities for active, outdoor play. In a kindergarten, children who show an interest in reading and writing are supported at their own level but there’s no formal teaching till they start school. In fact, research has shown no long-term advantage in starting literacy instruction before the age of seven but plenty of potential for long-term damage – physical, emotional, social and cognitive.

The kindergarten approach is, of course, also highly beneficial in terms of physical and mental health – especially for twenty-first century children, who usually have limited opportunities for active, social, outdoor play during their early years. Play is children’s inborn learning drive, and the natural way to develop physical coordination and control, social skills, creativity, emotional resilience and a love of learning for its own sake.

So I’ve concluded that the best way to improve reading standards in Scottish schools – and thus to start closing that shameful attainment gap – is to stop obsessing about reading and writing during children’s early years. By introducing a kindergarten stage for three- to seven-year-olds, with the focus on nurture, play, health and well-being, Scotland could give all young children the best possible start in life, including the soundest possible foundations for reading and writing when formal education begins.

We know what makes children ‘lucky’ in terms of literacy – and of learning in general – so we should provide it for every one of them.

Sue Palmer is the author of many books on literacy and child development. Her latest – Upstart: the case for raising the school starting age and providing what the under-sevens really need (Floris Books, £9.99) – was published this summer.

Kirsty (the Holyrood baby) and P1 assessment


On 12th May 2016, thanks to Holyrood magazine, a fictional baby called Kirsty was born in one of Scotland’s most deprived communities. In a letter introducing Kirsty, Holyrood’s editor challenges all Scottish parliamentarians to improve her life chances over the next five years. Closing the attainment gap is, of course, central to this aim. And five years from now, Kirsty will be just about to start school.

Let’s assume that all goes to plan and Kirsty sits the P1 national assessment due to be introduced in 2017. Armed with this information on her pupils’ literacy and numeracy ‘readiness’, Kirsty’s teacher can get started on the three Rs. With thirty-odd small children cooped up in a confined space – all at very different developmental stages, and many far from ready to settle down behind a desk – this isn’t an easy task so her school probably groups pupils by ability. And, since disadvantaged children usually lag behind their more fortunate peers in most aspects of development, including those underpinning acdemic ‘readiness’, Kirsty has an above-average chance of of ending up in the ‘slow group’.

This doesn’t bode well. Despite the anodyne names teachers give to ability groups, five-year-old children quickly work out which is ‘top’ and which ‘bottom’. And this early academic ranking soon affects their self-image as learners, their attitude to school … and the school’s attitude to them. It’s well-established that an unintended consequence of a too-early focus on academic work is the creation of self-fulfilling prophecies.

child-865116_640However, Kirsty may be lucky. She was born in May, so by August 2021 she’ll be five and a quarter years old. Many of her classmates, born during the winter months, will be only four. At this stage in development, even six months can make a big difference (especially if it’s meant longer in nursery, being primed for ‘school readiness’), so being one of the oldest in the class should give Kirsty an edge in the P1 assessment. There’s a good chance our Holyrood baby will perform well enough to avoid the ‘slow group’.

She’s also lucky – at least in the short term – in having been born female. Girls are generally more socially aware than boys from birth and therefore quicker to develop social skills, including language. They’re also more likely to be able to sit still and do as they’re told in order to please the teacher, so less inclined to exhibit the ‘challenging behaviour’ that rapidly gets many disadvantaged boys a bad reputation in the staffroom. If Kirsty is a typical representative of her sex, she may adapt relatively easily to classroom life, pick up the basics of the three Rs and make good progress at primary school.

Unfortunately, it’s not just children’s academic trajectory that’s affected by an early start on formal schooling. Between the ages of three and seven, they’re still developing habits of mind and behaviour that will underpin their feelings of self-confidence and self-efficacy throughout life. Kirsty’s compliance with developmentally-inappropriate, adult-imposed norms at an extremely formative age is likely to affect her long-term attitudes and behaviour in ways that could leave her psychologically fragile in years to come. For instance, there’s a good chance she’ll be overly compliant, self-critical, dependent on extrinsic rewards and lacking in resilience.

girl-953412_1280Now if Kirsty were really lucky, she’d have been born in a country with a play-based kindergarten stage for three- to seven-year-olds. There she’d have time, space, support from well-trained staff and copious opportunities to be outdoors and active during her formative early years. She’d be free to explore, experiment and develop personal strengths such as self-reliance and problem-solving skills. She’d have the chance to listen to plenty of stories, join in with songs and music-making, take part in art and craft activities, play, talk, investigate, imagine and create. Four years of early play-based education can give every child – male or female, rich or poor – the best possible chance of developing a love of learning, a strong sense of self-efficacy and the emotional resilience to cope with challenges and bounce back from adversity throughout the rest of their lives.

This is why Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence endorses a kindergarten-type approach for the under-sevens. Sadly, its principles have not yet been put into practice in the majority of primary schools because, owing to our historically early school starting age, parents and politicians expect children to crack on with the three Rs from the age of five.

And according to John Stodler, General Secretary of the Association of Directors of Education Scotland (ADES), present government policy can only intensify these attitudes. In a recent interview with the TESS, he explained that councils would ‘philosophically’ be in favour of introducing a kindergarten stage but it’s now right off the cards. ‘Local authorities’ priority will be attainment and closing the gap,’ he said. ‘This will make them less likely to do something radical or creative or depart significantly from early reading and early numeracy skills.’

girl-489106_640So, even if Kirsty gets off to the best possible start, she’s unlikely to fulfil her true potential in the long-term. In an increasingly image-obsessed, gender-stereotypical culture, all girls need deep-seated self-confidence and resilience to see them through the pressures of twenty-first century adolescence. Disadvantaged girls need these personal strengths in trumps because they’re facing the additional challenges of poverty. At present, an alarming 80% of all fifteen-year-old girls in Scotland are suffering from school-related stress and associated health problems. Given her socio-economic circumstances, there’s good reason to fear that Kirsty will eventually join the swelling ranks of teenagers with a diagnosable mental health conditions.

Parliamentarians, please take note. The attainment gap will not be closed by an increasing focus on literacy and numeracy skills in the early years. Educational success is inextricably interwoven with health and well-being. In a culture where young children have fewer opportunities for active outdoor play than ever before in human history, all Scottish children would benefit from a kindergarten stage. But the ones with most to gain from the ‘gift of time’ for all-round development are children, like Kirsty, who are raised in poverty.

Sue Palmer

See Upstart: the case for raising the school starting age and providing what the under-sevens really need (Floris Books) for further details about how early years education can widen or narrow the poverty and gender gaps.

Why play makes grown-ups a bit nervous


(Pictures Jane Hewitt Photography ©)

Post by Dr. Suzanne Zeedyk


It’s striking to see how enthusiastically people are already being drawn to the Upstart Movement. The campaign is clearly tapping into a frustration that is lying just below the surface for many parents and staff. When they hear the case being made by Upstart, it seems straightforward to them: “Yes, our youngest children need more play.”

So what is the problem? Why does the case not seem obvious to the rest of ‘the everyone’ in Scotland? Why does the call for more play sometimes turn into a kind of battle?

Here’s my answer: We are still a Presbyterian culture, here in Scotland. Deep in our cultural psyche, we remain a bit suspicious of play. We don’t really trust it; we don’t esteem it; we don’t rate it. In fact, it makes us a bit nervous. Play doesn’t seem serious enough. It doesn’t seem earnest enough. Play is the thing you do when all the important stuff is done, when the work is finished, when you can take a bit of time off. Play is the frivolous stuff at the end of the day.

JMH_3251Frivolity is not the sort of thing that a serious culture thinks our children should be doing with their time. All that larking about, laughing, getting carried away, doing unstructured stuff. Children should be focused on learning. As a culture, we like the activity of learning more than we like the activity of play. Play is frivolous. Learning is serious.

I know that phrases like ‘learning through play’ have become popular in educational circles. I celebrate that shift. But such phrases ultimately serve to justify play. They explain to doubters why play is valuable. They legitimate play as worthwhile, because it leads to something else: learning. Such phrases reassure skeptical adults that a child at play is engaged in a respectable activity. “Relax, that youngster is actually learning – it only looks frivolous.” Our 21st century Scottish mindset somehow finds it difficult to conceive of learning and play as the same thing.

Would we be comfortable, as a culture, if our government started spending money on educational establishments where the motto was ‘play for play’s sake’? My guess is that we wouldn’t have cultural faith that that was a good enough investment of our taxes.

Take for instance the Play Talk Read bus. I love watching the giggling that goes on between parents and children inside our purple busses, funded by the Scottish Government. But it isn’t the Play Talk Laughter bus, is it? Voters are willing to have the government fund the programme because the word Read appears in the title. The existence of those busses depends on the inclusion of that single word: ‘Read’.  

JMH_3523So when I reflect on what the Upstart Movement is doing, I now think of it as tackling our Presbyterian fear of frivolity. Upstart is trying to get us to undertake a cultural mindshift. It’s trying to get us to have faith that play matters for its own sake. That’s a scary step for a Presbyterian culture to take.

It may be helpful, then, to remind ourselves how far back the fear of frivolity goes. It can probably be tracked back at least to the 16th century and John Knox’s Protestant Reformation. But for now, let me go back ‘only’ to 1844, to one of the country’s most charismatic speakers, Reverend Robert McCheyne. When McCheyne died at the tender age of 30, his good friend Andrew Bonar published a glowing biography about him. Here is what a reviewer of the time had to say about that biography and about McCheyne himself:

“It is in burning and shining lights like Rev McCheyne…that we descry the dawning of Scotland’s better day….[He shows us] that good Christians enjoy such habitual peace as to have no need for levity. They are filled with such deep gladness that it does not readily effervesce into riotous glee….Their frisky imagination is not forever bolting aside or running away.”

That’s precisely the problem with children! When you let them play, their frisky imaginations are forever bolting aside and running away with them! Play puts children at constant risk of giving themselves over to levity and descending into riotous glee!

I know that, since 1844, our culture has largely given up our Christian identity. But I don’t think we have given up our fear of frivolity.

Just in case you think that I am over-exaggerating my case, swept away by the delightfully archaic linguistic expression of the 19th century, it may be useful to know that Bonar’s biography proved hugely popular. Within 25 years, it had gone through 116 English editions. Some commentators proclaimed that “few books have been better loved”. By 1910, half a million copies were in circulation.  

Now…take a guess as to when the most recent edition of McCheyne’s biography was printed. The surprising answer is: in 2015. You can purchase a shiny new paperback copy from Amazon, if you wish. Reviewers there describe the biography as “awesome”, “challenging me to make changes in my own life”, and “the story of a hero for our time”.

The Upstart Movement is about more than our children. It is about what grown-ups in 21st century Scotland descry as valuable for this lifetime. Upstart is about our own humanity as much as it is about our children’s education.



(Pictures Jane Hewitt Photography ©)


Dear John Swinney,

I’m sure you’re only too aware that there’s no magic bullet for closing the attainment gap. It’s ingrained in the social and economic circumstances in which Scottish children are born, raised and educated. It’s not only a symptom of inequality but a cause of continuing inequality. It’s wrong and shameful and it must be addressed … but significant change will require concerted, coherent action by all sectors of Scottish society over many years, possibly decades.

So I’m writing on behalf of one group of people – Upstart Scotland – who desperately want to help make that change – people who have looked carefully at the evidence about child development and concluded that, for historical and cultural reasons, Scotland is actually perpetuating disadvantage by the structure of our education system.

Maisie-6When children start school at the age of four or five, those from disadvantaged backgrounds are on average thirteen months behind their luckier peers in terms of language and problem-solving skills. Yet we expect all children to achieve the same outcomes in literacy and numeracy. Not surprisingly, the disadvantaged kids fall behind, many lose heart, and despite the best efforts of their teachers, fail to thrive in our education system … and so the cycle of disadvantage continues.

Scotland is quite rightly attempting to reduce that thirteen month deficit by investing millions in improving the life chances of disadvantaged children from the moment they’re born, and Upstart Scotland desperately hopes this investment will continue. But we also know that any progress made in children’s first three years will soon be lost unless it is followed through in the next three, when they enter the educational system.

The quality of early years education is therefore of critical importance. It must be coherent and well-resourced. It must take account of every aspect of children’s physical, social, emotional and cognitive development, and of nurturing personal qualities that will help them flourish at school, rather than focusing too early on developmentally-inappropriate academic targets. A year or so in under-resourced childcare, followed by transfer at four or five to a formal school environment where the emphasis is on literacy and numeracy outcomes, is not the answer.

It’s no coincidence that the three western countries that currently score highest in the OECD educational charts don’t send children to school till they are seven. Before then, children are expected to learn in kindergartens, through the medium of play, at their own rate, and with the support of adults specially trained in the science of child development.

JMH_3227This kindergarten stage allows a few years for all children to enjoy learning in an active, age-appropriate way without the pressure of adult-imposed targets. And, crucially, for those children who arrive at a developmental disadvantage, it gives time to catch up in terms of language, problem-solving and self-regulation skills – qualities upon which success in formal schooling depends. Several years of play-based education, supported by caring well-informed adults, is the best way of creating a truly level playing field for all children’s educational achievement.

Upstart Scotland believes that our country’s extremely early school starting age, combined with an increasingly early focus on the three Rs, therefore compounds educational disadvantage and is far more likely to widen the attainment gap than to close it. We are therefore campaigning for the introduction of a kindergarten stage in Scotland for children between the ages of three and seven. It should have a recognisably different ethos from formal schooling, and be based on rapidly-growing scientific evidence about the importance of play in child development.

Research now shows that play – especially outdoor, active, social, self-directed play – enhances self-regulation, emotional resilience and cognitive development. Yet, over recent decades this sort of play has practically disappeared from many children’s out-of-school lives. The ‘real play’ through which evolution designed young children to learn has been replaced by an indoor lifestyle, largely centred on sedentary, solitary, screen-based activity. These recent cultural changes make it even more important that our education system provides time, space and support for play-based learning in the early years.

Rosa-1Upstart Scotland has been formed in response to all the concerns described above. It is a very new campaign – launched earlier the month – but already has the support of many hundreds of professionals from childcare and education, health, psychology, social justice, the play sector and children’s rights, as well as parents and organisations such as the Scottish Parent Teacher Council. All these Upstart supporters have concluded that radical change to early years education is now essential – not only to close the attainment gap, but also to tackle the alarming rise in mental health problems among children and young people ( a development which is almost certainly connected with the same social, cultural and educational issues).

I have therefore written directly to you, the Minister for Childcare and Early Years, the Minister for Public Health and Sport and the Minister for Mental Health asking you to meet with representatives of Upstart in order to hear our case before finalising your plans to close the attainment gap.

Please listen to Upstart’s arguments, Mr Swinney. We’re not suggesting that the introduction of a play-based kindergarten stage is a magic bullet. But we do have evidence that it could give all Scottish children – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds – a vastly improved chance of becoming successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors.

Yours sincerely,

Sue Palmer,

Chair, Upstart Scotland

Let’s all become upstarts!


by Gillian Hunt (Pictures Jane Hewitt Photography ©)

Though I am not new to education, having been an educator of children, and teachers, for the last 28 years, I am a new upstart! I believe that Scotland should want its children to be allowed to be children, to have a happy, fun-filled childhood, to be exposed to many and varied positive learning experiences, to form warm and meaningful relationships with other children, their teachers and other adults, to be well-supported by the educationalists around them, to be supported to reach their potential and to go on from education to have successful lives, supporting themselves and making a contribution to society.   

Is our education system in Scotland supporting this to happen?

The historical reasons we had in this country for an early school starting no longer exist. Statistics show us that the countries with a later starting age are giving their children a more successful schooling experience. For a number of years we have been concerned about early years education and the reduction of play in our educational settings. In addition we have a a significant gap between children of advantage and disadvantage. We are in danger of doing what we have always done and expecting different results. The definition of insanity, according to Einstein!

ned-2aIt’s time to do something different, to be more creative and to really learn from what’s working, and from what’s not. In Scotland we need to create a mixed economy of educational provision within the mainstream. A kindergarten stage, with indoor and outdoor play-based learning will give a firm, rich and meaningful foundation, ensuring children are fully ready of the next more formal stage of their learning. A middle school stage of P5 to S2 would address some of the transition difficulties young people face, including the dip that often happens in S1 and would help to support the natural developments and transitions young people are going through at that age. S3 to S6 is where we really need to consider a mixed economy because it’s where we lose many of our young people, leading to the unacceptable position of young people not moving on to education or work. An upstart colleague said that successful transition is no transition, wouldn’t that be a marvellous thing to be able to say about Scottish education? That we had appropriate, natural stages for children to develop through.

The changes required in Scottish education, noted above begin with the creation of a kindergarten stage.  Let’s all become upstarts!

1 2 3 4