Early years teachers will help light up young brains

Lighting up Young Brains has a wonderful resonance. It is the title of the recent Save the Children report and sums up so aptly what we are aiming to achieve with our children in the early years.

Nurseries, childminders, nursery schools and pre-schools aren’t just providing safe places while parents are at work.

They aren’t just giving young children opportunities to develop independence and mix with and share people and resources with other young children.

And they aren’t just preparing children for school – important as all these purposes are.

The driving force of early years settings is to open up the world for children, to fascinate them with rich experiences, to engage them with everything and anything and, yes, to light up their brains.

The report is subtitled how parents, carers and nurseries support children’s brain development in the first five years. “The science is clear,” it begins. “In the first few years of life, a child’s brain develops rapidly, driven by a mix of experience, environment and genes. Children will continue to develop throughout childhood and into adulthood, but in the early years their brains are particularly sensitive. By contrast, the science shows that as a child grows older it becomes much more difficult to influence the way their brain processes information.”

Nature and nurture is revisited. The report confirms that it’s not only a child’s genes that determine their brain and language development but their experiences and environments support the process of early language and brain development too.

The challenge is clear. Throughout the first two years, a child’s brain is growing very rapidly. By the time they are one, the size of a child’s brain is on average already 72 per cent of adult volume and by age two it has grown to 83 per cent. Everyone who spends time with babies and young children must be able to provide the very best opportunities and stimulation that will enable them to make vital learning gains at this crucial time. Everyone who works in a baby room or toddler room must be helped to understand brain development. More education is needed.

Early years teachers are best placed to train and lead their colleagues in developing this knowledge and understanding. They are capable graduates who have studied early child development and have met rigorous national teaching standards specific to the under-fives. To achieve early years teacher status they have also demonstrated that they know how to lead and support their colleagues in their professional development, to demonstrate and model positive attitudes to learning and lead and model ways of engaging in sustained shared thinking with the children.

And parents, too, will look to the professionals who care for their child to open their eyes to the way they too can lighten up their children’s brains - at mealtimes, bed times, walking along the street, doing everyday things in and around home. Babies and toddlers don’t need constant entertainment or soft play centres. They need positive interactions with their parents, shared eye-contact and following their parent’s gaze to objects so they learn that sounds and objects go together. Parents need the confidence to understand this, to realise that money for expensive outings isn’t needed, that all their young children need is their time, sharing books, chatting about everyday chores and routines and having fun.

A very reassuring point the report makes is that although starting as early as possible is important, studies also show that changes to the home environment can have an impact on children’s early learning, even if introduced after the first year or two. So parents needn’t feel guilty and the professionals needn’t feel it’s been left too late if this approach hasn’t been started as early as it could have been.

The report calls for every nursery in England to be led by an early years teacher by 2020. Speaking from the privilege of training and seeing the quality of early years professionals and early years teachers over the past 12 years, I wholeheartedly agree.

Maureen Lee
Director of Early Years at Best Practice Network

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