The Early Years: just how important are they?

Pre prep students being read to

Clayesmore’s Head of Pre-Prep, Charlotte Townsend, explains just how important these formative years are: 

Very often in both my professional and motherly roles, I am asked about the importance of investing in a child’s education in the early years. Parents have wide-ranging views, but my strongly held one is that the early years are the most important of all. Get it right from the start and a child can be set up for life. I see it as being like the first hours and days of a baby’s life, when the initial bonding time with parents and recognition of love and nurture is crucial, marking the beginning of a long and important relationship. The early years are these bonding moments for education: a time for children to recognise who they are, and to develop the character that will enable a fulfilling and lifelong love of learning.

From the moment I decided to join the teaching profession, I was interested in the early years. I believed then, and continue to do so, that the first years a child spends beyond their home and the nurture of their parents are of enormous importance. These are the years when we can build trust, confidence and independence. We can offer opportunities for learning and experience that go far beyond simply teaching a child to read, write and add up.  My interest in the nature of how young children learn and the opportunities to engage them led me to specialise in Early Years during my PGCE, and I continue to study this fascinating age group as I pursue my Masters.

What has always been deeply gratifying in my role with young children is that, although one encounters a few parents who question the importance of the early years of education, there are many more people who hold the same views and passions as I do, that the early years are not only fundamental in their impact, but also that they are unrepeatable. Thankfully, I work with a group of passionately like-minded people,  so we are able to regularly stand on our soapboxes together to shout the cause!

As a teacher, I believe I chose a vocation with an innate responsibility. I chose to guide and nurture children, young people who are easily influenced, impressionable, vulnerable perhaps, yet open to experience.  We know that children learn from what they see and hear. They mimic what is modeled and look to those around them to guide them on their way. The younger the child, the greater the impact that we as adults can have. The greater the influence, the greater the responsibility, and we must be aware that we have every power to make or break these very first years in terms of building confidence and happiness.

When young children start their education, they embark on an exciting journey that we hope will last far beyond the end of the schooling. That journey will take them from their first steps of the Early Years Foundation Stage, via the crucial years when they make life choices as adolescents and young adults, to a lifetime spent building on those choices. The first years are called the Early Years Foundation Stage for a very good reason: young adults make life-influencing decisions based on learning and experience that they have accumulated from their first days in  school and nursery, choices that will dictate who they are and who they become. A secure foundation is a prerequisite of later success. The early years of a child’s education pave the way for later life, feeding their desire to learn and experience the wonders of the world around them. Teaching at this age is about so much more than establishing the basic skills. We have to offer opportunities to experience as many areas of life and learning as we can, experiences that are tailored to interest and need, bespoke to each child, appreciating the uniqueness of the individual.  We support them where and when they need it, showing them direction in an ever busier and more hectic world. We offer them time to think, time to be, time to rest and time to play, time to absorb the world around them and time to digest it. Time itself is a luxury for adults, but for children it is a necessity, and should be sacred and preserved, allowing children to learn at their own pace. Very often that pace is much faster than we might imagine it to be!

At Clayesmore we have recently introduced our  ‘Attitudes to Learning’ initiative, illustrated by our Clayesmore Compass. The strapline we attach to it, ‘Where will your learning take you?’, makes its aim very clear. Our role is to encourage and support every child in fulfilling their learning journey and thus reaching their full potential. At an early age, attitudes to learning could equally be called ‘Attitudes to Life’. We encourage the children to live by them in their learning and in their day by day existence. The attitudes we have selected underpin our beliefs as a school, which is why we introduce them from Nursery upwards.

The compass is formed of six key attitudes: Creativity, Courage, Curiosity, Collaboration, Conscientiousness and Consideration. We believe in challenging and supporting our children in developing these attitudes wherever they can, both in the classroom and beyond.   The great outdoors, where much of our younger children’s learning happens, offers challenge and  enormous opportunity to test out any one of these attitudes to learning. In Forest School the children experience the art of courage in trying new things. They show their wonderful creativity and collaboration in their den building, their curiosity in finding out about the natural world around them, while showing conscientiousness in their learning and understanding of what is safe to touch and what is not. They learn consideration for their world, and appreciate how precious it can be.  

These are long lasting experiences, when the children develop, grow and learn. We believe and hope the children will remember these moments of their learning for years to come in a positive way. Sitting around in Forest School and learning how to make a real fire from the natural tools around them, creating woodland faces on trees, playing campfire games,  cooking ‘smores’, tasting nettles, learning the names of the trees and their fruits, and whittling wood, are all wonderful and yet challenging ways for the children to develop attitudes that will serve them well throughout their lives. Through fun and enjoyment, challenge and courage, in the safety of the small groups of friends and adults, they feel safe, supported and happy to learn.

The great outdoors is a natural choice of learning environment, but I am a  great believer in creating meaningful learning experiences wherever they are, jumping on opportunities as they arise. Poetry is so much easier to write when the poem is inspired by a pumpkin which you have just held, smelt, opened, dug out the flesh from, tasted and then designed and turned into a work of art to display. Likewise, maths becomes more understandable when it has a purpose, from creating enough buns  for your friends to eat, to adding the right amount of ingredients together to make the perfect magic potion! Learning to write is a lot more fun when you can do it big scale, with plenty of sensory feedback. Who needs a pencil when you can use your fingers in shaving foam, sticks in mud, letters in the sand and large ‘jedi’ style writing wands in the air? Learning needs to be challenging and experiential, it needs to connect with children’s interests. It needs to be interesting and enjoyable so that it instils in them a desire to pursue ideas and discover more.

The learning environment, both indoors and outside, needs to reflect this. Everything that surrounds young children needs a purpose. It needs to be carefully thought out and designed, with their welfare at the very centre. Be it a place for discovery, nurture, play or simply thinking time, the needs of the child need to be central. This physical environment and its design is important, but of greater significance still are the people surrounding the children.  When a child leaves the familiar comfort zone of their own homes, they need to feel secure, nurtured and appreciated in the place they go to. Their wellbeing and happiness must be at the centre, and their urge to discover and experience new things should be fulfilled at every opportunity. Surround them with people who understand them, care for them, appreciate them and are passionate about their happiness and learning, and they will thrive.

It is clear, then, that the Early Years are not to be glossed over but celebrated for all the opportunities that they offer. They can be and should be the most fulfilling years of a child’s schooling, achieved by understanding, thought, care and perseverance. So, before making the decision about a child’s early years education, please think: does your choice offer the best path to a love of learning? Getting that choice right is one of the most important things you can do for your child.

This article was first published in the Spring 2018 issue of Country Child Magazine