Without genuine understanding, being able to recite the alphabet or count to 10 is of limited value to our children, warns Amii Spark…
Children are driven to learn new skills out of need. This begins with their physical development – a child who does not need to feed himself will not learn how to use a spoon, and a child who spends most of her time contained will not learn how to crawl or walk. In early years we place a big emphasis on supporting the growth of these skills by designing programmes and environments that encourage children to really need to use them. What I can never understand is why this isn’t carried over into more academic subjects such as literacy, mathematics and understanding of the world.
There seems to be a strong attitude that we introduce numbers and letters so that children are ‘ready’ for Reception. Firstly, this idea on its own is complete rubbish. Children learn only when they are ready and have a need to do so. If we do all of the mathematical reasoning and reading for them then why would they ever feel the need to do it themselves?
Many settings worry about that EYFS standard, the number line, but these do not promote functional mathematical skills – just parrot-like repetition of symbols that in themselves have no real meaning. As for literacy, introducing phonics seems to be the end point for most nurseries.
But what is the point of knowing letter sounds if no one shows you how they can be blended together? By knowing two consonants and a vowel, you have a word. You can begin to build words by using wooden letters and you can begin to read.
It is coming across unknown letters or words while reading that spurs a child on to learn, to want to know more. The same goes for mathematical development. Knowledge without practical application is completely useless, so instead of creating fabricated environments for children to explore these concepts, why don’t we create real ones? Children deserve first-hand experiences through which to solidify and extend their knowledge, and the list of possibilities is endless: large-scale building, mixing powder paint, cooking with American cup measurements, even setting the table. Instead of creating a restaurant, create a word and picture snack menu. Ask who would like to be the server for snack that morning, provide a notebook and pencil, and encourage volunteers to note down in their own way what each child wants, before putting the items on a plate and giving it to them. Set up a real shop by baking bread buns with the children and then getting them to set prices and sell items to their parents or other staff members.
We seem to focus heavily on themes and forget that children are working to become adults, to be part of the world that we live in. So why don’t we allow them to be a part of it? By creating and allowing them to experience these everyday activities, we are providing them with a solid foundation of academic skills and an environment that facilitates learning.
I am not advocating for forced early academics, rather a more natural community environment that naturally has elements of literacy and mathematics included; where children are valued members of the community and not just little people whose next step is to learn numerals 1 to 3 (that in itself completely misses the need for the deeper understanding that a number is a symbol which represents a quantity; without this, the knowledge of the number names is completely and utterly pointless).
We really need to look at our settings and our expectations, and truly judge if our environments are ‘realistic’. Do they provide real first-hand experiences and situations in which to use and develop a true understanding of basic literacy and mathematical concepts? Or do they create nothing more than the encouragement of parroting?
A former preschool-based deputy manager in the UK, Amii Spark today spends her time running training programmes for nurseries and parents on the sunny island of Malta. She is also the founder of The Olive Grove, a Montessori-based parent education and support service. Visit facebook.com/OliveGroveMalta