Education: Painting or pens, sand or spelling?: Diana Hinds visits two nursery schools with different views about what young children should learn in their important first lessons

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The Independent Online
In all the heated debate about the provision of nursery education and who should pay for it, one important question tends to get lost: what sort of education are we talking about? Should nursery schools be offering our three- and four- year-olds unlimited 'free play' with sand, water and paint; or would these children be better served by being sat down with paper and pencil and taught to form their letters? Does it even matter what children do at nursery school, provided they are reasonably happy and absorbed?

Two nursery schools I visited recently demonstrated very different approaches. At St Nicholas Garden School, a private nursery in Henley-on- Thames, Oxfordshire, the children spend the first part of each morning divided into three classes of 10. While the two-and-a-half- to three-year-olds concentrated on puzzles and sorting games, the three-and-a-half to fours, seated round a large table, were learning to write the letter 'R' with the help of worksheets based on the 'Letterland' character, Robber Red. The four to rising-fives, at small desks in a separate room, were working on another 'Letterland' character, Sammy Snake, drawing pictures of other things beginning with S and then copying out the words.

Later the children move on to less structured activities and games, but the formal overall approach is reflected in the children's artwork around the walls: 10 clowns, 10 Christmas trees, 10 model snowmen, all virtually identical. Children in the middle class read words from flashcards and chant from one to 10. Those in the top class take home reading-scheme books - progress is measured in a star chart on the wall - and practise simple addition with unifix blocks.

'You can get a lot out of this age group,' says Jennifer Sanderson, the principal. 'I believe in a more formal and traditional approach because I think children benefit from a bit of structure.'

In the nursery class of Wessex Gardens state infant school in north-west London, Moira Prunty, the head nursery teacher, is committed to learning through play. There is no formal instruction and the children are free to choose from a wide range of activities, inside and outside. Books and writing materials are freely available.

When I visited, one boy, not an English speaker, was learning the names of toy animals with his mother, while others were painting, clay modelling, cutting and sticking, or playing with trains. In the large playground some were riding bikes, and a solitary girl was washing up in a plastic sink. (Domestic games still appeal mainly to girls, says Mrs Prunty, although she does her best to encourage the boys. 'Little boys still say that's girls play. I can't see much progress in the 20 years I've been teaching, and it drives me mad.')

Despite the apparent lack of structure, many activities are carefully planned and constantly varied. 'Winter weather' is the current topic, which includes ideas for role-play, 'pretend' writing (or mark-making), and visits to the local park and supermarket. Staff and helpers observe and record individual progress and try to ensure that all the children have a go at everything. Teaching them is about 'drawing things out, rather than putting things in', Mrs Prunty believes. 'It has to come out of what they're interested in.'

Neither of these two schools has got it exactly right. It may be true that young children need a certain amount of structure, some of the time at least, to help them channel their energies and interests. But there are surely more stimulating and creative tasks to occupy this age group than Robber Red worksheets and dullish reading-scheme books. Children pushed on too early can sometimes lose interest later as a result.

The Wessex Gardens nursery offered a relaxed and rich learning environment. But what about children there who might be ready for a more structured approach to reading and writing? Nursery schools should not shy away from encouraging such children, perhaps in small groups, with more traditional teaching.

Different children, depending on temperament and home background, will be suited to different styles of nursery education. But since many families have little or no choice of nursery school, such schools should be sufficiently well staffed to offer a variety of approaches, to provide a balance between free play and more formal education.

Parents also have a greater part to play. Barbara Tizard and Martin Hughes, in their study of four- year-olds at home and at nursery school (Young Children Learning, Fontana 1984), concluded, to the surprise of some educationists, that the home environment, for both working-class and middle- class children, was often a more fruitful place for intellectual development than nursery school - chiefly because of the one-to-one communication between adult and child.

Nursery schools clearly offer important things that many homes cannot. Children learn how to get on with others in a group, and they enjoy the broader, challenging range of activities and equipment that most nurseries provide. But nursery schools could do still better by encouraging more parents to be actively involved. More should follow the example of Wessex Gardens, where parents come in on an informal basis to work alongside the staff and trainees, helping with observation, playing with individual children or simply being available, on the large sofa in the book corner, to read to them.

Instead of being relentlessly activity-oriented, as they tend to be, nursery schools could in this way make more opportunities for children to learn by talking to adults. There should be time for conversation, and for children to ask questions instead of only answering them. Far more important than what children are being taught - whether it is Sammy Snake or games with sand and water - is that their appetite for learning should be stimulated and sustained in a process of discovery and questioning that unites home and school.

(Photographs omitted)