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Resource Ideas to Support Children

If you do a course about special educational needs with me, you’ll find that it isn’t too long before I suggest that all resources you use the children with SEN are good for children who do not have SEN.

A good case in point was recently, on our accredited course, we had a very knowledgeable and experienced teacher come to talk to us about her work with children who have SEN. By the end of the 3 hours there was no doubt left in my mind that good practice with children who have SEN is good practice for all. Let me give you a few examples to show you what I mean:

Two-way communication with parents, families and carers. For a child with SEN this is an essential part of the practitioners work. Without good communication joint targets cannot be realistically set. Hospital appointments, speech and language therapy, physiotherapy and the myriad of different professionals that a child may see, need coordinating effectively.

For the child who does not have SEN, good communication is still very important. And it is essential that this communication is two way. By this I mean that the parents offers information and the practitioner offers information and between them this becomes greater than the sum of the whole.

For example, an activity may well benefit from a parent coming in and demonstrating their skills. Without good communication or understanding of the parents abilities, this would not happen.

Describing emotions. For a child who has difficulty communicating with speech or finds it difficult to make sense of the world around them, it is essential that the practitioner gives them the tools to express their emotions. This may be an emotions board or a picture exchange system.

This is just as important for the child who does not have SEN. Giving a child the ability to express their emotions can reduce behaviour problems and frustration for the child. It has also been shown in research that children who have better emotional intelligence, or the ability to express emotions effectively, do much better later on in life (Goleman, 1996).

Other elements of good practice are as simple as having the right equipment for a child who has SEN. For example, having a calm space where child can retreat to if it’s just getting all too much for them. This could be as simple as a curtained off area in the corner with a few comfy cushions.

Or, for the child who has a visual impairment, using bubblewrap or the rough side of Velcro along the edge of the wall can help them move around the setting more easily. Different textured materials can be used on the handles of different doors, so children know where they are going.

One idea which I particularly like, is having a colour and a smell of the day. For example, Monday could be orange. This would be demonstrated using an orange piece of material and an orange scent spray in the entrance hall.

When children first enter the setting they will know immediately that it is Monday because they can smell orange and they can see the orange fabric up. Similarly each day will have a different smell and a different colour. Others which could be used are lime, strawberry, apple, peach, cherry, lemon, cinnamon and vanilla. Or whatever takes your imagination!

Another excellent idea is using objects of reference rather than pictures on the outside of storage boxes and for the day’s timeline. Objects of reference are objects which are representative of the pieces in the box. For example instead of putting the word Lego, or putting a picture of Lego, on the outside of a box, you could superglue a piece of Lego on the outside of the box.

This is particularly good for children who have difficulty interpreting pictures or who may have a visual impairment. But it is also an excellent visual clue for other children.

This could be extended to the day’s timeline. Instead of having pictures for snack time or playing outside for example, you could attach a a plastic cup for snack or a laminated leaf for playing outside. This can often be more meaningful for children who have difficulty in understanding pictorial representation.

You could involve the children and have them choose what object they would like to have represent different activities during the day.

You will see that most of these ideas cost very little, if anything at all, but have great benefits for the children in your care. By embedding these good practices into the setting, you will be prepared when a child who does have SEN joins you. This will ease the transition into your setting, and demonstrate professionalism in your working practices.

Goleman, D. (1996) Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. London: Bloomsbury Publishing

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Review Roundup

the pile of Reviews


At the minute it seems to be that every new week brings a new Review of some sort. Although I have already written about some in detail, I felt it was timely to do a round-up of the latest reviews in the Early Years Sector. Roughly in chronological order:

Bercow 2008 – 0-19 years Speech Language and Communication needs
This report by John Bercow, MP, concentrated on the provision of speech and language in three main areas:

  1. The range and composition of services required to meet the diverse needs of children and young people from 0 to 19 in an affordable way.
  2. How planning and performance management arrangements, together with better cooperation nationally and locally between health and education services, can spur beneficial early intervention.
  3. What examples of best practice could be identified as templates for the wider roll-out of services across the country.

The recommendations for the transformation of the provision and services for children who have Speech, Language and Communication Needs fell into 5 themes:
1. Communication is crucial
2. Early identification and intervention are essential
3. A continuum of services designed around the family is needed
4. Joint working is critical
5. The current system is characterised by high variability and lack of equity.

A total of 40 recommendations were made, some of which have come to fruition already, such as the communications champion and the National Year of Speech, Language and Communication.

This review has had a particular impact on how speech and language programmes are delivered to families from the Local Authority.

The Bercow Report

Field 2010 – Poverty review

The aims of Frank Field’s report – The Foundation Years: Preventing poor children from becoming Poor adults – were to:

  • Explore how a child’s home environment affects their chances of being ready to take full advantage of their schooling
  • Generate a broader debate about the nature and extent of poverty in the UK
  • Recommend potential action by government and other institutions to reduce poverty and enhance life chances for the least advantaged, consistent with the Government’s fiscal strategy
  • Examine the case for reforms to the poverty measures, in particular for the inclusion of non-financial elements.

He made 24 recommendations which link closely with other reviews, for example he suggests that the information collected from the 2 year old check and the health check at 24 months recommended in the Tickell Review should be used to collect data about child poverty. He also recommends a Minister for the Foundation Years (Recommendation 17) which sounds like a fantastic idea.

Frank Field Poverty Review

Marmot 2010 – Fair Society, healthy lives

Sir Michael Marmot led the review to ‘propose the most effective evidence-based strategies for reducing health inequalities in England from 2010.’ In his introduction Sir Michael lays out the bare truth: ‘the more favoured people are, socially and economically, the better their health’.

The review had four aims:

1. Identify, for the health inequalities challenge facing England, the evidence most relevant to underpinning future policy and action
2. Show how this evidence could be translated into practice
3. Advise on possible objectives and measures, building on the experience of the current PSA target on infant mortality and life expectancy
4. Publish a report of the Review’s work that will contribute to the development of a post-2010 health inequalities strategy

Sir Michael is well positioned to investigate such things. He led the Whitehall studies, which showed that the people in the lowest status jobs were far more likely to suffer from ill health, including stress related diseases, than those people in the highest status jobs.

At the time this seemed counter-intuitive. Surely the bosses would suffer from the highest rate of stress related illness? But the studies showed that lack of control over your own working environment contributed greatly to the stress felt.

In ‘Fair Society, Healthy Lives’, Sir Michael suggested:
Reducing health inequalities will require action on six policy objectives:
— Give every child the best start in life
— Enable all children young people and adults to maximise their capabilities and have control over their lives
— Create fair employment and good work for all
— Ensure healthy standard of living for all
— Create and develop healthy and sustainable places and communities
— Strengthen the role and impact of ill health prevention

This review contains a vast array of statistics and quantitative data as well as qualitative data. Because of the nature of the investigation there are references from incredibly diverse sources – from mental health to social mobility to fast food restaurants. A thoroughly interesting review, which will stand as social comment on our current life styles in years to come.

Marmot Review, Fair Society, Healthy lives

Allen 2011 – Early Intervention: The Next Steps

The Allen Review of Early Intervention in children’s lives starts with a graphic and horrifying image – the CT scans of two brains, one of which is markedly smaller than the other. The smaller brain is due to the child having suffered ‘severe sensory-deprivation neglect in early childhood’.

The effect of deprivation on child development could not be illustrated more clearly.

Thirty three recommendations were made in all, with the top three being identified as:

1. The 19 ‘top programmes’ identified in the Report should be supported and work undertaken with local areas to explore how they might be expanded to demonstrate our commitment to Early Intervention.

2. Early Intervention should build on the strength of its local base by establishing 15 local Early Intervention Places to spearhead its development. These should be run by local authorities and the voluntary sector, who are already the main initiators and innovators of Early Intervention.

3. The establishment of an independent Early Intervention Foundation to support local people, communities and agencies, with initial emphasis on the 15 Early Intervention Places.

This is an amazingly broad review, covering everything from babies to brain development to economic implications of not having Early Intervention. The tone is very positive and the way forward is clearly laid out. There are examples from around the world, demonstrating the good practice of early intervention and the good economic sense.

However, the Review does not preach, but puts forward irrefutable evidence for Early Intervention.

Graham Allen Review Early Intervention

Munro Review 2011 – Safeguarding

The Munro Review is an independent review of child protection in England and asks the central question of ‘What helps professionals make the best judgments they can to protect a vulnerable child?’

Fifteen recommendations are made, which start with a child centred approach. They strongly advise against cherry picking from the recommendations and urge that they should be considered as a whole to be meaningful.

The main thrust of the Review is that there are better outcomes for children when agencies, across the broad spectrum, work together – with the child at the centre of their thinking.

There is support for the Tickell Review, with the suggestion that the ‘Welfare requirements’ are renamed as the ‘Safeguarding and Welfare requirements’ (p. 59).

Munro Review

Bailey Review 2011 – Letting Children be Children

This is an independent Review of the Commercialisation and Sexualisation of childhood and covers the age range from 0 up to the age of 16.

The evidence was considered under 4 themes

1. The ‘wallpaper’ of children’s lives
2. Clothing, products and services for children
3. Children as consumers
4. Making parents’ voices heard

The Review suggests an approach which simultaneously stops the ‘unthinking drift towards greater commercialisation and sexualisation'(p. 11) but which also supports children and helps them understand the adult world, through the support of family and wider society.

14 Recommendations are made in all. Some of these are common sense and would cost nothing, for example, not putting sexualised images where children can easily see them and introducing age ratings for music videos. Some are more thorny, such as ensuring greater transparency in the regulatory frameworks.

The discussion about making the parents voice heard is particularly interesting. Advertisers and businesses claim that there is not a problem due to the low levels of complaints but, as the Review highlights, this is probably because it is not ‘top priority’ for parents (p. 76) not because there are no concerns. From the evidence gathered for the Review there are obviously many and varied concerns.

Bailey Review

Tickell Review 2011

In the summer of 2010, Dame Clare Tickell was asked by the DfE to review the EYFS, in particular how to refocus on children’s early learning.
The Review covered 4 main areas:

Learning and development of young children
Assessment and how this should be done
Welfare standards
Regulation of settings and childminders
The call for evidence closed on 30th September 2011 and the new EYFS is due out in Spring 2012, with implementation September 2012.

Further discussion about the Tickell review can be found at:
Tickell Review part one
Tickell Review part two

Tickell Review

Nutbrown Review 2011

In October 2011 the DfE asked Professor Cathy Nutbrown of the University of Sheffield, to review the qualifications of the childcare workforce.
The Review aims to assess:

content of early years and childcare qualifications and training.
development of the range of qualifications
career progression
knowledge and experience of early years professionals
raising the status of early education and childcare

Professor Nutbrown said,‘I will look at how to improve the rigour and quality of current training and qualifications, and create a clear route for career progression. It’s vital that we have a professional, diverse and confident workforce who feel equipped to do their job well. They are often the unsung heroes of the children’s workforce – responsible for the care, education, development and wellbeing of over three million young children.’ (Nursery World, 28th October 2011).

Image by lotyloty at

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Sources of free information for Early Years Practitioners

If you are currently studying for a foundation degree or degree in Early Years, one of your challenges may be accessing reference materials for assignments.

There are lots of resources out there, sometimes you just need to know where to look.

A good place to start is the excellent Teachfind. On this site you will find all the great videos from TeacherTV, National Strategies documents to download and Teachernet information. The site is really easy to navigate and is constantly adding new materials. You can even suggest websites for it to link to.

A source of information about Government policy, new directives and press releases is the Department for Education website.

Personally I find this an incredibly frustrating site to navigate. You have to know exactly what you are searching for as the site takes a ‘scatter gun’ approach to search results – if it’s vaguely linked to your search, its included in the (thousands) of results! However, if you persevere there are some really useful resources available.

Less well known is Google Scholar. This can usually be found on the top bar under the drop down menu ‘more’. Google Scholar has listing of academic papers and books related to the search term. Although the results may refer you to academic journals, which you may then need to access via your Academic Institution, the abstracts are usually visible (and free). Occasionally the whole research paper is available, so you can read it there and then. This can be a great method to get a list of journals you’d like to read when you are next in college. It may also give you an idea of who is writing in that particular field of research, so you can search for their books in the library or on Amazon.

YouTube has some informative and interesting videos about all aspects of child development. For example, try this one about The Science of Child Development from HarvardEduction, 2009, which is about neuroscience and the developing brain. Be warned – you may need to put aside a couple of months to watch them all.

Of course THE video that must be viewed, is by Sir Ken Robinson, about how schools kill creativity and the knock-on effects. This was presented as part of the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) lectures in 2007 and Sir Ken has presented a couple more follow up videos since then. The video is only 15 minutes long, but in that 15 minutes Sir Ken uses humour and sharp observations to make his point clearly. Dare you not to nod in agreement whilst watching!

Finally, do remember to use the websites of charitable organisations, such as iCan for speech, language and communication, National Autistic Society and the Foundation Years.

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The Manual for the Early Years SENCO by Collette Drifte

Collette Drifte book cover
The manual for the Early Years SENCO is a great example of a practical book, pitched at just the right level for a new Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO) or someone who needs extra support in this vital role within a nursery.

The Chapters take you through getting organised (locked filing cabinets and calendars), SEN policies, the SENCOs role in a fully supportive team and onto supporting children in the setting.

There are many examples given of the type of support different children may require, as well as how to record these in Early Years Action, Action Plus and Statutory Assessment.

Working effectively with parents and other agencies is covered in the last two Chapters.

There are 2 outstanding elements to this book:
Firstly that the advice is practical and clear. All the information for a first time SENCO is detailed in a logical and methodical order. The significant difference between integration and inclusion is clearly outlined. Writing an SEN policy is explained, with example of long and short policies included.

The format of the paperwork is explained, from Individual Education Plans (IEPs) to different types of observation forms.

Secondly the CD ROM which accompanies the book has 3 power point presentations which can be used immediately for staff training. This is invaluable and really underlines the role of the SENCO as coordinator rather than the misguided notion, that so many managers have, that the SENCO should be doing everything herself or himself.

In addition the CD ROM has blank forms which can be printed off, examples of SEN policies and case studies.

For the undergraduate student there are some academic references which can be followed up, but this is really for the SENCO on the ‘front line’, doing the job every day in a nursery or setting.

I also feel it has a lot to commend it if you are an experienced SENCO, particularly the power point presentations and case studies, which would be valuable for full staff training or training SENCOs to be.

I sincerely wish I’d had this book when I’d started out as a SENCO!


Drifte, C. (2010)(2nd Ed) The Manual for the Early Years SENCO London: SAGE

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The Trouble with Play. A Thought Provoking Book

The Trouble with Play by Susan Grieshaber and Felicity McArdle. Open University Press (2010)

This book will challenge any preconceptions about the innocence and universal benefit of play. It is based on naturalistic observations of children, where researchers do not interrupt or disturb the play, so the ‘real’ situation can be witnessed.The result is a number of fascinating, and sometimes disturbing, vignettes of play behaviour.

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Breathtakingly Beautiful Land of Me

The amazingly talented team at ‘Made in Me’ understand the lesson that Disney demonstrated in Snow White 50 years ago – attention to detail and watercolour beautiful animations are a winning combination.

They have designed a computerised book, which is issued in themed chapters. Chapter one is shape, size and colour; Chapter 2 the Outside World; Chapter 3 is Making Things and the newly released Chapter 4 is Rhythm and Dance. The story is based around 3 animated friends – Buddy Boo the bear, Eric the raccoon and Willow the Owl. They can imagine being different things, but the three properties of the imagined objects are chosen by the child using the programme.

Once chosen, a picture of the imagined object appears. Clicking on the picture animates it. By changing the words in the descriptive speech bubble, the picture changes.

The stated aim of this delightful software is to promote discussion between the computer users, whether that is parent and child or children working together – the ‘sustained shared thinking’ of the EPPE research. I was initially concerned that the temptation would be to just leave the child to their own devices but when I left my youngest son alone with the first chapter, all he wanted to do was show me the pictures he had created!

The educational consultant on the project, Professor John Siraj-Blatchford has been able to optimise the learning opportunities such as symbols representing objects and the connections between words and actions. It is a great idea to be able to print the pictures and related activities. In my experience this is exactly what children will want to do.

I thoroughly enjoyed using this programme. It was very refreshing to hear English accents and the instructions are clear. There are only 3 options to choose from, but this is probably enough for very young children.

Personally I think, just as Disney 50 years ago, Made in Me have created a classic against which others will be measured in years to come.

The Land of Me can be downloaded very easily at Enjoy!

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Book Review: Early Childhood Education by Nutbrown, Clough and Selbie

‘Early Childhood Education: History, Philosophy and Experience’, written by Cathy Nutbrown, Peter Clough and Philip Selbie, published in 2008 by Sage, London.

The authors

‘Early Childhood Education: History, Philosophy and Experience’ aims to investigate the origins of ideas in early childhood education and how they now affect present day practices. In this book, Peter Clough notes that his own history ‘was shaped by the times I was born and brought up in, and how as a person and a teacher I inherited a world of meanings laid down by other people and their values and their times.’ (p77). This is the very heart of the book. It’s about learning how the past affects us now, so lessons can be learned for the future.

All the authors have in-depth knowledge of the subject area and have considerable experience writing in this field. This comes through very clearly in the breadth and depth of the pioneers explored. The authors have used each of their own strengths to good effect – Clough’s narrative inquiry, Nutbrown’s knowledge of early literacy and Selbie’s knowledge of Comenius – making the whole book larger than the sum of its parts.

A short history

‘Early Childhood Education’ starts with a short history. This takes the reader back to the state of education in the 1700s, moving swiftly through to the schools which emerged in the 1800s. Reference is made here to Szreter’s journal article (Szretzer, 1964) which tracks the start of compulsory school age of 5 years old to 1870 with Forster’s Education Act.

The rest of this chapter examines the history of nursery education in Sheffield and Scotland. There then follows a table of 50 influential figures, ranging from Comenius to Dickens to Sir Alec Clegg, with a brief summary of achievements for each. This is an excellent quick reference list, usefully in chronological order so the reader can place the person into historical context. The range of pioneers considered raises this list above the normal type found in text books and makes it very thought provoking. For example Charles Dickens is included because of the attention he drew to the social conditions of children at the time. His descriptive work, with the sensitive observations he made, could be considered to be a form of narrative inquiry.

This particular section made me realise how many people, men and women, had influenced early childhood education, but who aren’t known about.

The chapter concludes with the terrifying fact that there has been an average of one new policy a year for the last 20 years – Bertram and Pascal (2001) describe it as a ‘substantial and unprecedented range of policy initiatives’. I feel that this is likely to be unabated – and will probably increase – with the change in government.

The Pioneers

The next section of the book is a biography of 24 key figures who the authors consider to be pioneers in the world of education. It is acknowledged by the authors that this isn’t a comprehensive list, but one which contains people who were influential to the authors’ own beliefs. This makes for an eclectic mix of names, including Charles Dickens but excluding Bruner, for example.

When compared with similar books, such as Linda Pound’s ‘How children learn’ (2005), the amount of information given about each pioneer is brief and to the point.

Six Conversations

The third section of ‘Early Childhood Education’ is four imagined conversations between pioneers and authors and two conversations between the authors. Personally, it is this section which originally drew me to the book. Having to find a way to explain the theories of pioneers to a group of first year degree students, in a way which was engaging but informative, I turned to the conversations. I found these enlightened my own understanding and enabled me to explain them, in a similar way, to the students.


The first conversation in ‘Early Childhood Education’ is between the three authors, discussing what is important to them and why history matters. It is set in the Cafe Louvre, Prague, in November 2006. In this conversation, we learn about the broad range of pioneers and educational policies which have influenced the author’s own views on early childhood education.

This conversation is an excellent example of the authors ‘practicing what they preach’, in that it illustrates to the reader how pioneers, recent or otherwise, have affected them, their philosophy and their practice personally. Interestingly, although there was some commonality (for example Pestalozzi was cited as an influence by all three authors) there were many more differences, showing how no two people are influenced in the same way, even if they are exposed to similar things, even in the same University.

The second conversation is between Selbie, John Comenius and Robert Owen. Their conversation highlights the way the two pioneers believe in the often forgotten issue of respect for young children, through education and treatment.

In conversation 3, Clough talks to Susan Sutherland Isaacs about what really motivates children to learn.  Clough cleverly draws out the information so it sounds like a natural conversation. He adds much of his own insight into the conversation. So, although we learn a lot about Isaacs, her view on scientific investigation and home learning environment, we also learn about Comenius, Owen, Nutbrown, Montessori and Piaget via Clough’s contributions.

This conversation is very worthwhile because Isaacs’ work is often misunderstood, and sometimes sidelined, with the most prominence given to the freedom that the children enjoyed rather than for example, her work on intellectual growth and social development. In this conversation we can begin to understand her beliefs and her philosophy behind the discovery of knowledge in young children.

Conversation four is between three theorists – Pestalozzi, Piaget and Froebel – about how young children learn.

Conversation five is between Steiner and Nutbrown and concentrates on literacy in the early years. Nutbrown is particularly linked to early literacy, having written several books and many articles on the subject. Nutbrown and Steiner find common ground with ‘too much too soon can be detrimental’ (p124), ‘anthropomorphism’ (p125) and ‘education for life’ (p125), but agree to disagree on boys sharing books with their fathers.

Conversation six takes us back to the beginning, with two of the authors, Clough and Nutbrown, discussing the role of faith and religious conviction in early childhood education.

But why does narrative enquiry work so well in this context? I believe it works because the subject of ‘research’ is or was a living person. Compared to other books, such as Pound (2005), the reader has to consider their own view point on the pioneer’s stance about early childhood education. But not only that, the reader also has to think about their position on the author’s line of questioning or facilitation.

This was in equal measure enjoyable and frustrating. It was very interesting to see how Clough’s line of questioning allows Isaacs to explain her theories. Inevitably there are questions I would have asked, but weren’t. There were questions I would have asked Steiner, for example, about his research or reasoning behind delaying formal reading until ‘the coming of the second teeth’.

The potential pitfall of narrative inquiry is that the reader is reliant on the author’s interpretation of the educationalists philosophy and beliefs. The author has the power to exclude the elements that are not in support of the argument being made, whether this is intentionally or otherwise.  This has been avoided in this book, because of the authors’ deep understanding of the pioneers and their works. For example, it would be easy for the authors’ to choose pioneers who agree with their own philosophy, but instead Nutbrown chooses to talk to Steiner, but without biasing Steiner’s opinions so the reader can get a true picture of his philosophy.

The more things change…

The final section of the book looks at seven themes selected by the authors which considers current day policy and explores where the roots of those policies may have come from. The seven themes are:

  • Children’s Rights
  • The Arts and creativity
  • Literacy
  • Play, learning and pedagogy
  • Early Intervention
  • Home learning and parents
  • Inclusion

Each theme is discussed from a current perspective, regarding current policies and practice, but then the ‘roots’ are uncovered, proving there is very little which is truly new in early childhood education. This is an essential part of the book as it brings it right up to date and makes the connection between current policy and the pioneers.

It is very often the speed of change, along with being constantly bombarded with new policies, that is the challenge for modern pioneers. However, progress is being made. For example, The Early Years Foundation Stage mentions schema unambiguously for the first time. Athey and Nutbrown’s work have moved schema into main stream knowledge.


This book is a very useful reference book for the practitioner (or politician) who is trying to understand how we got to where we are now and how we can move forward.

The authors have a range of expertise which is brought together with good effect, each playing to their strengths.

The use of narrative inquiry is excellent, illuminating theories and bringing to life the pioneers. This is a particularly difficult method to master but has been used to very good effect here. The use of narrative inquiry is a growing topic in educational research, gaining credibility as a serious way of presenting or re-presenting data.

The book is pitched at the correct level for degree and masters students who want to investigate the history of pioneers and understand the philosophies which affect everyday practice today. There are plenty of references for further reading and seminal texts by the pioneers.

Overall, the book is a thought provoking read, particularly now, with the change in government and reviews of educational policy. Until practitioners can understand how early childhood education has evolved from the blend of ideas from pioneers over many decades, they cannot determine its effectiveness for the future.


Athey, C (2007) Extending Thought in Young Children: A Parent – Teacher Partnership, London, Paul Chapman Publishing

Bertram, T and Pascal, C (2001) the OECD thematic review of early childhood education and care: background report for the United Kingdom. Retrieved December 11 2009 from OECD.pdf.

Nutbrown, C, Clough, P and Selbie, P (2008) Early Childhood Education: History, Philosophy and Experience London: Sage

Pound, L (2005) How Children Learn, London, Step Forward Publishing

Szreter, R., (1964) “The origins of full-time compulsory education at five” from British journal of educational studies 13 (1) pp.16-28, London: Faber & Faber

** This book review was first submitted as part of the Masters in Early Childhood Education, University of Sheffield.

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Extending Thought in Young Children by Chris Athey

This book was recommended to me with the words “this will change the way you look at children’s learning forever”. Strong words.

The book is one of the results of the Froebel Early Education Project, which was run by Chris Athey from 1973 to 1978, at the Roehampton Institute of Higher Education, London. Tina Bruce was the appointed teacher. The children came from nearby Wandsworth, from a range of backgrounds. The project’s aims were to:

Observe and analyse, on a daily basis during a two-year teaching programme, children under the age of 5 in order to:

  • Identify developments in each child’s thinking
  • Describe the development of symbolic representation from early motor and perceptual behaviours
  • Identify curriculum content assimilated to developing forms of thought (page 3)

Very wide ranging aims indeed. So how has the author, Chris Athey, approached this in the book? She has divided it into 3 parts: Events influencing the Project; the Findings of the Project and Later Patterns of Thought.

Part 1 is an overview of the political background and government initiatives, with an illuminating Chapter 4 about constructivist pedagogy, Piaget and how this fits with current theories. And here we find the motivation for the Project and the book:
Constructivists are interested in the processes by which children construct their own knowledge (page 43) and there is a great difference between ‘know-how’ and consciousness of ‘know-why’ (page 44).

Part 2 is a highly detailed breakdown of the observations, drawings, actions and dialogue that were observed during the Project. It is prefaced by the observation that in previous research it was content which was more important than form. So Eng’s observation of “jagged teeth” and “stairs” seem to show no correspondence in content – but when the zig-zag form is considered they are a common representation. The Project concentrated on form, which includes topological space, space notion and representation. As children develop they begin to develop perception (a face must include a mouth before it will elicit a smile, even at 5 months). Children must then use this perception to create their representations in drawings and 3D models.

Using these representations, Athey discusses 5 graphic schema in detail:
Lines; Core and Radial; Open and Closed Arcs; Zig Zags and Angles and Quadrilaterals. This also includes discussion on how the same drawing can be re-interpreted i.e. how Eng interpreted the jagged teeth as “aggressive” but the Project team interpreted this as open triangles (zig-zags schema). Each schema is discussed in detail with plenty of examples of how they may progress as the child matures. The most practical part of this is the subsequent analysis of the representations, with the details of form as schemas start to be combined and perfected.

This part of the book concludes with chapter 6 From Action to Thought. This chapter demonstrates how schemas become co-ordinated with each other and develop into systems of thought (page 153). Seven action schema have been considered in great detail, namely: dynamic vertical schema; dynamic back and forth; circular direction and rotation; going over, under or on top of; going round a boundary; enveloping and containing; going through a boundary.

Each has been sub-divided and considered with respect to Motor level (physical action); Symbolic Representation Level (drawing, models); Functional Dependency Relationship (how the schema is used during play, dialogue, early thought); Thought Level (demonstration, usually through dialogue, of how schemas have been used to create original thoughts) and Discussion (explanation of how children have moved through each area resulting in thought). Finally Thought as internalised action is discussed.

This was a truly fascinating chapter as it draws together all the theory and clearly demonstrates how understanding and building on children’s schema improves their cognitive functioning.

Part 3 of the book takes us even further on the children’s journey, demonstrating how (and examples of which) schema impact on speech, writing and complex concepts, in primary education. For example, levers and pulleys need comprehension of linear movement (dynamic vertical), rotation and going over.

The final chapter explores parental participation and extended experience. This details the learning journey that the parents also undertook during the Project. It is hoped here that this “great source of untapped ability and energy” is used to its full potential in the future. Personally I would have liked some more specific examples of the ways parents were involved and benefited from being a part of this Project, as this could help practitioners to engage more confidently.

Extending Thought in Young Children is a detailed analysis of a complex and long running project. Consequently the book contains plenty of technical language. It is this detail which makes it an excellent reference book. But it does make it a book to be read at several sittings.

There were loads of moments where, as I read a description of a child’s behaviour, the light bulb came on and previously unrelated behaviour suddenly came into focus. I recognised the form of many drawings, plenty examples of which have been illustrated throughout the book. One of the bitter-sweet comparisons is two sets of “draw-a-man” illustrations, one by Project children and one by children matched for age, sex, ethnic background and neighbourhood. The Project children perform significantly better. I couldn’t help feeling a little sad that not all children could benefit from being a part of the Froebel Project.

Finally, has this book changed the way I view children’s drawings, actions, dialogues, behaviour and thought processes? Absolutely. Forever.


It is still available from Amazon

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Involving Parents in their Children’s Learning 2nd Ed by Margy Whalley

“This book is just one of the outcomes of a five-year research and development project at the Pen Green Centre for under fives and their families”. So starts this book and you know it is going to be full of interesting findings. Of course, it helps that Margy Whalley, who has been involved in education for 34 years, around the world, has been leading and directing the research programme.

The 12 chapters are each written by different authors, all of whom were involved in some way with the project at Pen Green, Corby called Parents’ Involvement in Their Children’s Learning (PICL). The authors range from teachers, social workers to researchers and education consultants.

The book starts with a background chapter about Pen Green and its endeavours. In the next chapter, ‘developing evidence based practice’, Margy Whalley discusses the way the project has developed. It contains some essential insights for anyone setting up research projects where children are being observed and details the additional benefits for the adults involved.

In ‘getting to know the families’ Colette Tait discusses how knowing the family situation is vital when planning meetings. From the shift patterns that parents work to the wording on the advertising flyers (mums prefer to “have a chat and a coffee” whilst dads prefer “coming to this meeting will make a difference to your child”).  It highlighted for me that you have to consider all the various home situations if you are going to engage parents successfully. Cath Arnold continues with this theme in further practical ways such setting up the room, which topics to cover, which theorists to draw on.

Chapter 5, ‘parents and staff as co-educators – ‘parents’ means fathers too’, by Margy Whalley and Trevor Chandler is inspirational. How many times have we heard “dads just don’t want to know”? This chapter shows not only how to involve fathers effectively but also the fantastic benefits to the child, father and other significant adults. This is essential reading for every setting and is the most comprehensive writing I’ve come across on the subject.

Cath Arnold writes an emotionally moving chapter about parents who find the services ‘Hard to Reach’, which, in the cases highlighted, means that the parents had had very negative school experiences themselves. This was stopping them getting involved with the centre’s activities – Kate says “I’m not the type – Pen Greeny”. So the two mums were interviewed and allowed to explain their own experiences, feelings and the consequences. In this way the barriers, including personal feelings and attitudes to other people, were identified so they could be overcome. Annette Cummings, in the next chapter, goes on to discuss the impact on parents’ lives, with some great case studies in the parents’ own words.

In chapter 8 we meet the Pen Green Loop, which is a feedback loop with the child in the centre, surrounded by parents and professionals and the Possible Lines of Development (PLOD) wheel. I particularly liked the PLOD wheel, as it has at the centre a small group of children, all of whom enjoy similar schemas. I often hear “how can we possibly plan for 40 different children? We can’t have 40 carpet areas!”. This is how it is done. First identify the children’s schema and then transpose this onto the centre of the wheel. There are 6 ‘spokes’, representing the 6 areas of learning, where activities and ideas can be mapped out for the group of children with similar or overlapping schema. Genius!

Colette Tait discusses the Growing Together groups which are for the birth to 3 age groups, discussing how it evolved out of the PICL group. The value of video taping the parent child interactions and then reviewing these is emphasised.

In ‘deepening the dialogue with parents’ Eddie McKinnon shares with us some in depth conversations with parents about their children, and how, as a result of being involved with the project this has made parents more reflective in their own practice.

But what happens to the family groups when the children start school? Cath Arnold presents 3 case studies, following the parents through Pen Green and then into Primary school, with very positive results.

Finally we have Kate Hayward, a primary school teacher, who was concerned with her own interactions with parents at school. She followed the good practice demonstrated at Pen Green and reports how she reinvents the traditional ‘home-school book’ model when communicating with parents. This chapter ends with a glowing recommendation from the headteacher.

This book is an excellent reference book, steeped in thorough research and viewed through many lenses. The concepts are explained clearly and examples are enlightening. Each chapter is written so it can be read independently, which means an amount of repetition when reading the whole book. However, I found the reinforcement of schemas, involvement levels etc reasonably useful. I was asked a while ago “why do we listen to these ‘theorists’ about good practice?”, to which I answered that they had done research and then tested their theories, proving that it was good practice. I think this book demonstrates this point and beyond.


It is available from Amazon

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Cultivating creativity in babies, toddlers and young children by Tina Bruce

As practitioners we are always being reminded about taking photographic and video evidence of children during the day day because a picture can demonstrate a point really clearly. But how often do we find a book which takes this valuable advice? The first thing that you will notice about Tina Bruce’s book is the beautiful, full colour photographs throughout. These are often grouped so that the reader can see the process that is being described in the text.

The next thing is the way that the book can be read – either scanned through, picking out the information boxes or dipped into a chapter at a time or simply read end to end. With this in mind there is some repetition from chapter to chapter, which reinforces the central themes. These are:

  1. Anyone can be creative
  2. Good creativity needs incubation
  3. There are 3 kinds of creativity: everyday, specialist and world shattering

It is often noted throughout the book that creativity is hard work, the environment need to support creativity, as do the practitioners, and that creativity is not producing a creation, but is a process. For me this was the most resonant idea in the book. Too often as practitioners we talk about ‘doing a creative activity’ meaning that we will expect the children to make something, often within our own, narrow adult boundaries. Were the children in your setting allowed to make their own Christmas card using any material of choice and own design? How long was the idea allowed to incubate? Did everyone have to do a card?

Tina Bruce concentrates on the aspects of creativity:

  • emergent beginnings
  • the process of developing a creative thought or idea
  • the product which (may or may not) emerges and this could be a scientific theory, dance or poem!

Sometimes the children don’t even know what they are creating and our adult interpretation should not be forced upon them. In fact, Bruce notes that a clear idea may restrict the creative process.

The case studies bring the subject to life with examples I could easily relate to. Gradually the theory is built to a final chapter about the three kinds of creativity with powerful examples of how this is achieved in adulthood in the arts, humanities and science. The book concludes with a useful page of bullet points on how to cultivate creativity generally.

I was a little disappointed that there were no pictures of children in chapter 6 – Emergent Beginnings – which covers babies and SEN. Whilst there are excellent examples for toddlers, pre-school and older early years, there is much less about babies in general.

Nonetheless, it is a good read, and it is very useful to be able to access the book at the different levels. It is also a useful source of practical information on the process of creativity and how to encourage this within various settings. I would strongly recommend it to any practitioner who is interested in creativity.

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