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Thursday 8 December 2016

'It's time to respect as well as inspect our childcare workers'

In my opinion... Carmel Brennan

Published 20/04/2016 | 02:30

Dr Carmel Brennan, Early Childhood Ireland, the representative body for early education and care in Ireland
Dr Carmel Brennan, Early Childhood Ireland, the representative body for early education and care in Ireland

Success in life begins in early childhood. The research leaves us in no doubt. That's why inspectors from the Department of Education (DES) are now going into pre-schools. To the surprise of many, there's a very positive welcome for them in the sector, because early childhood people see the move as a recognition of the work they do - a recognition that what children experience in pre-school is both education and care and very important.

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Success in life begins in early childhood. The research leaves us in no doubt. That's why inspectors from the Department of Education (DES) are now going into pre-schools. To the surprise of many, there's a very positive welcome for them in the sector, because early childhood people see the move as a recognition of the work they do - a recognition that what children experience in pre-school is both education and care and very important.

In so many ways, pre-schools have been leading the way in teaching us all about how children learn - and we have clear evidence from brain science that they're right. The DES inspectors agree. In their inspections, they want to see children playing. They know that we can train a child to count and recognise letters or colour inside the lines but if we want children to hold on to their natural sense of curiosity, creativity and imagination we have to use a child-centred approach - and the best child-centred approach is play.

The purpose of play is to keep the brain alert and open to possibilities - possible ideas, possible ways of doing things and possible lives. And our world needs imaginative people who can come up with new ways of thinking and new solutions.

In many ways, play is the very opposite to traditional schooling where children sit at desks and learn what the teacher teaches. In play, children come up with their own ideas and follow their own instincts. 'Let the children play', said Plato over 2,000 years ago and now our education system is saying the same thing - not just for pre-school children but for primary school children. It is clearly stated in our national curriculum and quality frameworks, Aistear and Síolta.

What is it about play that is so effective? Play is children's way of trying out and pushing their capabilities, their skills and knowledge. As children play, the brain makes connections between cells. Brain cells that might otherwise die in the ordinary routine of life are developed and kept alive because children exercise them in their imaginary worlds. And of course, children laugh more and exude more energy and joy as they play. Whether you're a child or an adult, that's a good thing.

As every parent knows, children come into the world as little learning machines. They are naturally curious and naturally playful. In pre-schools, children pretend to be a mammy or a daddy or a doctor or an astronaut. An upturned table can become a tractor. A cardboard box is converted into a teleporter that flies through space.

Children argue over how to make sauce or who should take the babies to the babysitter. They are busy making sense of the world. These are critical skills for life and children learn them in the first five years - through playful interaction with the people around them - not through schooling.

Children are mastering maths and science at the same time. They experiment with blocks and water and toys. With the cars, they may be investigating slope and speed. In the sand and water play, they're exploring density and volume. As they hop from stone to stone or kick a ball or walk a plank they're developing concepts such as force and balance. It's all about touching and feeling and using their senses to find out what's going on.

Supporting children's learning through play is a skilful and demanding job. It's the early childhood educator's job to ensure that children are having good educational experiences and developing pride in their ability. It's a job that deserves to be paid decently.

These are all qualified professionals, many with honours degrees and they earn less than unskilled workers. The time has come for us to match our expectations with investment in pay and conditions. It is time not just to inspect, but to respect.

Dr Carmel Brennan, Early Childhood Ireland, the representative body for early education and care in Ireland

Irish Independent

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