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 http://infed.org/mobi/education-in-robert-owens-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 https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/o/nlps-parents-association-12822352540

I deferred my August-born son and a year on I’m so glad I did


I deferred my August-born son and a year on I’m so glad I did. He’s not top of the class but is massively more mature than the youngest ones in the class and coping well with having to sit down and take instruction during the school day. He still says he misses being outside and it’s tough for him not being able to learn in a self-directed manner but as least he’s relatively happy at school.

I deferred him because I didn’t feel he was ready to start reading. I should have been prepared but to be honest it came as a bit of a shock how seriously they took the task of ensuring all the kids were reading by the end of P1. Massive amounts of homework including reading, writing and maths which took over half an hour a night was sent home from day 1. After battling for a few weeks and then reading the research we now just do 10 minutes reading. I feel this is plenty for an active 6 year old who has been sitting and behaving well for a full school day. Not all schools send this amount of homework and I wished I’d known as I may have chosen a different local school with a no homework till P4 policy.

I didn’t feel my son was ready for school on a number of levels. He didn’t know any of his letters and wasn’t at all interested in learning. He still mixed up numbers counting to 10. He was completely disinterested in colouring and his drawings weren’t much more than scribbles. And more importantly he hated being forced to sit in one place for any length of time unless it was something of his own choosing. My only worry, which was putting him out of his age group, has turned out to be completely unfounded. He loves being the oldest in his class and has made friends both with his own class and with older kids in the playground and at after school. And being the oldest or rather one of the most mature has done wonders for his confidence.

Would I do it again? Definitely. My second child is female and far more capable of being sat down to learn but with a November birthday would be one of the younger ones in her class. And while she would cope with being sent this August better than her brother would have 2 years ago, there is no question – we’ll be applying to defer. Unfortunately, that will mean another expensive year for childcare with no partnership funding but our family believes it is money well spent. We’re lucky we can afford to do this as I know other parents that would have liked to defer but couldn’t afford to.

Everyone I speak to says they know plenty of parents who wish they had deferred their children but none that regret deferring their children and that certainly has been my experience.

The Looming Trial of PISA


by Philip Hood, Associate Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Nottingham.

After the ‘success’ in popular media terms of the PISA test programme to supply international league tables of attainment at age fifteen years in core subjects, the OECD has turned its attention to early learning and development. The proposal is for a new set of tests (IELS) aimed at children between four and a half and five and a half years old, that is before the end of the (F2) Reception Year in England and of P1 in Scotland.

OECD describes the purpose of these tests in this way: ‘Information from this new OECD study on children’s early learning will provide insights on the relative effectiveness, equity and efficiency of ECEC systems and also on the focus needed in early primary schooling. The study will also include a focus on the impacts of children’s home learning environments.’ [1]

hiding-1209131_640Professor Peter Moss of the Institute of Education, UCL, warns us: ‘The plans for the IELS have been gestating over several years, and OECD member state governments have been consulted during this period. But the wider early childhood community of practitioners and academics has not been; the OECD has shown little interest in opening up their proposals to public scrutiny and debate……. The DfE in England has similarly made no attempt to inform and consult, either on the wider OECD plans or on England’s participation in IELS.’ [2]

We know that England has signed up to pilot the tests as the government has very recently asked for expressions of interest to tender for the contract to produce and manage the tests following the OECD brief. Other northern European countries, including Scotland, have apparently declined. But given the willing participation of so many nations in the older PISA tests and the store set by those results by governments, this is certainly the thin end of the wedge.

What kind of wedge and why is it such a bad prospect? In many countries of the world, formal schooling starts at six or even seven, the age at which Upstart argues formal education should begin, preceded by a kindergarten stage from age three, with the emphasis on children’s social and emotional development and active, outdoor play.

But in England, we now have children from two years old to five years old in school-based nurseries, before the relatively early start to more formal structures in Year One and the beginning of national testing at six and seven. To many in other countries, and to those of us who have followed research over several years, there is a real danger in over formalising too soon. The ‘readiness debate’ is part of this and is perhaps shown best by the rather polar opposites of the OFSTED document ‘Are you Ready?’ [3] and the Whitebread and Bingham paper ‘School readiness: a critical review of perspectives and readiness.’ [4]

painting-945895_1280The former is very centred on the need to have all children fitting a ‘mould’ by the time they enter formal schooling while the latter is much more concerned with schools’ abilities to offer each child what they need to develop over a less restricted time scale. Again Upstart, in maintaining we should aim for seven rather than five as a time to begin to move towards more formal methods, shares the view that children will become developmentally ready with sensitive and gifted practitioners at their own pace, as opposed to responding to pressures to conform to an abstract set of standards dictated from above with no view of individual contexts.

A testing programme not only intrudes on children’s development at an artificial point but also has a washback effect on the pedagogy that precedes it. Our ECEC practitioners are more than capable of offering a really good start to young children if they are allowed to use their national Early Years framework as they wish to and know how to, using pedagogy they believe in, and making the assessments they know will support each child’s development. These practitioners have expertise and belief in children and confidence that their assessment is ongoing, shapes and responds to development and is not dependent on a specific time, a reliance on tablet testing formats and artificially divided between four domains of ‘knowledge’ (all of which the IELS will involve).

On the other hand, Nick Gibb, from the English Department for Education, who was recently pictured beaming in front of a writing display of modelled (and maybe model) sentences in a pre-school classroom, spoke this week about the harm done by child-centred pedagogies, quoting OECD evidence to justify his claims.[5] This is the indicator of where a new PISA structure for five-year-olds will go. Not maybe, but certainly.

[1] http://www.oecd.org/edu/school/international-early-learning-and-child-well-being-study.htm
[2] Briefing Paper 18.01.17 and see also
[4] http://tactyc.org.uk/occasional-paper/occasional-paper2.pdf
[5] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/nick-gibb-the-evidence-in-favour-of-teacher-led-instruction

20 things Upstart wants for Scotland’s under-sevens…


to help them become
successful learners, confident individuals,
responsible citizens and effective contributors.

  • Plenty of opportunities for active, self-directed, outdoor play (e.g. running, climbing, jumping, building dens, splashing in puddles).
  • The freedom to explore,experiment and discover things for themselves (e.g. making mixtures and constructions, ‘messy play’, investigating how things work).
  • Lots of contact with the natural world, e.g. spending as much time as possible in green places; growing plants; helping care for animals; visits to the woods, the beach, local wild areas …
  • Sharing exciting and interesting experiences with the adults who care for them – and having conversations about what they’re learning.
  • Adult carers who are authoritative (setting clear boundaries for behaviour) but also warm,understanding and respectful to children.
  • Lots of opportunities to play with other children, learning to take turns and abide by agreed rules through inventing their own games and cooperating on creative projects. Thus learning how to get along with their peers for themselves (e.g. making friends, dealing with fall-outs) without unnecessary adult intervention.
  • Lots of opportunities for creativity, e.g. drawing, painting, making models, playing with puppets, making music, dressing up and creating props for pretend play.
  • Plenty of singing (including action songs, number songs, alphabet song, traditional songs and rhymes) and moving to music. It’s the best way to develop auditory memory, essential for literacy and learning.
  • Lots of stories! Listening to adults reading picture books every day and (until they start reading themselves) the chance to hear favourite stories over and over again.
  • Opportunities to play ‘let’s pretend’ – not using shop-bought stuff or in ready-made role-play areas but their own pretend games, especially outdoors.
  • Opportunities to join in adult-organised activities (playful ones) e.g. games to develop physical or attention skills, ‘circle times’ to develop language and listening, art and craft activities or science investigations that need adult support.
  • Frequent opportunities to see their adult carers reading, writing, counting and calculating, so they know what literacy and numeracy are all about, and why they’re worth learning.
  • Encouragement of their interest in words, rhymes, language play, books and other reading materials.
  • Encouragement of their interest in numbers (e.g. counting stairs, trees… anything) and other mathematical concepts through real-life problem solving (and opportunities to use these concepts in play).
  • If/when they show an interest, support in developing literacy and numeracy skills as appropriate to each child as an individual – i.e. not holding anyone back, but not pushing children to read, write or reckon until they are ready to do so.
  • No formal assessment, academic ‘benchmarks’ or pressure to start formal, classroom-based, ‘sit-down’ schooling until the year they turn seven. Before then, an emphasis on their overall health, well-being and natural potential to learn.
  • Sensitive support for all aspects of their development – physical, emotional, social, cognitive – at the level that’s right for them as individuals.
  • Adult carers who recognise that play is the natural vehicle for developing children’s potential for lifelong learning, as well as promoting long-term physical and mental health. And that – in a world where active, creative play is rapidly disappearing from children’s lives – it’s more important than ever that they have time and space to play in the early, formative years.
  • A happy, carefree childhood with lots of opportunities to develop a wide range of interests and life-skills, so they eventually start school as confident, resilient, self-motivated learners.
  • In short, the sort of childhood the under-sevens enjoy in kindergartens in Finland – the western country with the best record of educational achievement in international surveys, high levels of childhood well-being, and one of the narrowest gaps between rich and poor in the world.



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.

[1] https://www.nspcc.org.uk/globalassets/documents/annual-reports/childline-annual-review-always-there-2014-2015.pdf


[2] http://www.youngminds.org.uk/news/blog/3273_camhswaitingtimes

[3] http://cepuk.org/2015/04/10/latest-prescription-data-shows-consumption-psychiatric-drugs-continues-soar/

[4] https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/232978/Smart_Restart_280813_web.pdf

[5] Godbey, G. (2009) Outdoor recreation, health, and wellness: Understanding and enhancing the relationship, Online. Available HTTP: http://www.rff.org/documents/RFF-DP-09-21.pdf

[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. www.natcen.ac.uk/study/predictors-of-wellbeing

[8] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-35688048

[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.

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