Naturally, our whānau want to know - why should they leave their tamariki at The Forest until aged six? So many reasons, and we will explain! But firstly - WHY do Kiwi tamariki often go to school at five?
Let’s go back to the beginning…..
The age of five has been set as a societal convenience rather than a decision based upon the developmental needs of our tamariki. Initially, with the first education act in 1877, New Zealand adopted a very evolved ‘seven’ as its school starting age, and this was lowered to six in 1964. It is interesting to note that those Countries who are listed as the top ten in the world for experiencing the best educational outcomes, have an average school starting age of 6.1 years. Yet many of our Kiwi tamariki go to school as a societal norm at the age of five.
Fortunately, as whānau learn more about the holistic development of their tamaiti, this tide is beginning to turn. In the past, there has been a belief that if a tamaiti does not attend school at five, their development might be impaired. They might be left behind. Slowly but surely, these myths are being debunked as society begins to understand just how actually the reverse is true, and we acknowledge the delays that are caused to normal and healthy development by reducing play, and enforcing formal learning too early.
Both evidence based research and experience has taught us that starting our tamariki at school at age five is much more a traditional right of passage than an educational ‘best for children’. Top NZ Neuroscientist Nathan Mikeare-Wallis explains, "Research shows that the majority of children are disadvantaged by starting school at age 5 and the children's brains need them to be physically active as the neuroscience shows that movement and learning go together." The key word for Early Childhood Development is responsiveness - to make changes that assimilate what we know to be best for children, and to allow current research to guide our best practice - as daunting as that may feel going against societal norms!
Let’s look further at this rapidly growing supporting research…
The research available to assure us our children belong outside as much as possible for as long as possible rather than in a classroom is ubiquitous and very underestimated. Another quote that reinforces the value of nature based, play based learning that resonates with our programme is ”...it not only develops children’s physical, cognitive, linguistic, social and emotional competencies, it also keeps them healthy. The research shows that children who spend a significant length of time outdoors each day have better social skills, are more attentive, have fewer infections, have fewer conflicts have better brain function, have better language development and learn vital life skills.” (Wiillams-Siegfredsen, J. 2017).
A report produced by the World Economic Forum (WEF, 2016) identified 16 skills that students need to ‘Thrive in the 21st century’. As you can see in the below image, almost every one of the foundational literacies, all of the competencies and all of the character qualities for successful lifelong learning are represented and fostered within our Forest curriculum.
Play based learning is our curriculum. Nature is our curriculum. Care and love is our curriculum. Your tamaiti and our relationship with them is at the very heart of our curriculum. Our curriculum is holistic, culturally aware and based upon current research, rather than ‘doing what we’ve always done, because we’ve always done it that way.’
Play based learning is a system that humans have developed over thousands of years to facilitate the development of our higher intelligence. Nathan Mikeare-Wallis tells us that what you will get from Play Based Learning is the attitudes that underpin your child’s learning, and that is where our curriculum supports your child to thrive. We must think about setting our children up long term, your child’s attitude to learning will be with them for the rest of their life and therefore is a vital indicator in their future success. Play is important for health and wellbeing, and essential to the curriculum as it teaches the child to be creative.
Thinking about the future and setting our tamariki up to thrive..
Here’s another perspective for you to consider, there are a lot of opinions out there stating that many of the jobs there are now won't be needed in the future, and many of the jobs that our children will grow up to do don't even exist yet. In fact, some even say that a whopping 85% of jobs that will exist in 2030 haven't even been invented yet. How do we prepare for that? We believe by supporting creative, innovative and ‘outside the box’ thinkers. Creativity is a big part of what makes you intelligent, and intelligence is essentially the ability to solve problems. If our children are fearless learners and confident in themselves as learners, we don't need to teach them what to think, and we simply can't when you consider what we don’t even know yet.
We can however, teach them how to think, set them up with positive attitudes towards themselves as learners, then they are equipped to confidently take on anything the future has in store for them. An example Nathan gives us that resonates with our kaiako, “when a child dams a river for the first time, do they succeed that first time? Or do they in fact have to fail 99 times before they successfully dam the river? So your child has just learned to persevere through 99 failures before achieving success. This is the GOLD that we get from Play Based Learning.”
In our unique and natural environment, tamariki are agents of their own learning. Their learning is broad and rapid simply because they are following their own interests, in their own way, at their own pace. Our kaiako are their resources, stepping in when invited, when safety calls or when a tamaiti can be scaffolded to a new level of understanding. Tamariki are not compared to anyone else, measured against a system of credit or deficit, and their self esteem and self belief are paramount. We pride ourselves on having an assessment system of recognising tamariki strengths, not to identify areas of weakness, but to further promote and encourage their strengths to thrive.
What about when it’s time to go to school?
So how do we support the NZ curriculum (primary school) in our ECE setting? How do we ‘prepare’ your tamaiti for school? In so many ways! And certainly not just for our older tamariki, who are looking at beginning their journey to school, we create habits of learning that start from the beginning of tamariki learning with us. All of our tamariki are exposed to all of our curriculum while they are with us, which prepares them, at their own level, to make this transition smooth and comfortable for them. We explain some specifics for you;
The schools that we talk to to discover what they believe they need us to do to set a tamaiti up successfully for school share with us their ideals. Working in partnership with schools, these are all things that we teach in our programme. First and foremost - self management skills.
Tamariki need to be able to care for themselves, regulate their temperature, put on and take off layers of clothing, put on and take off their shoes, make sure their property goes into their bag so it is not lost, go to the toilet, wash their hands and maintain good personal hygiene, ensure they leave enough food from morning tea until lunch time, remember to drink water to stay hydrated - all the things that once they leave ECE they will no longer be reminded to do. So much to remember, and they’re still just babes!
And there’s so much more… Being able to communicate effectively, articulate their needs, socialise successfully with their peers, resolve conflicts, and self-regulate (calm themselves in a stressful situation). These skills require social competence, self esteem, self regulation, conflict resolution, negotiating, sharing, kindness, resilience, inclusiveness and empathy. This is a great deal to teach a child in their early years, and the longer they can focus on these things, the better they will get at them, allowing them the space to have constructive and happy relationships, which in turn allows them to focus on other learning when they get to school.
Literacy, mathematics, science…. it’s all integrated throughout everything we do…
Literacy skills - decoding pictures in books that give clues to the text that tells the stories is a valuable tool to successful reading. Holding their pen and pencil correctly. Listening to stories, singing songs, conversations and questioning. When children are ready for writing, they indicate this themselves. They start making meaningful marks on paper, with sticks in the mud, in a myriad of different ways. Prior to this time, we are modeling this mark making to them constantly - knowing that children are mimics and are watching us constantly, ready to take their own turn. This is when the kaiako scaffold them to do this in their own way, in their own time, ensuring that their disposition to learn remains positive.
In regards to early reading, some myths need busting. Contrary to what many whānau believe, teaching children to read from age 5 (or younger) is not likely to make children any more successful at reading than a child who learns reading at a later age of 7. In fact, the Steiner educated children who have excellent reading skills do not start decoding text until they are 7 years old - as developmentally, this is when the brain is ready to do this, thus the process is much easier and progresses much faster.
In 2007 the groundbreaking Psychology PhD research, conducted by Dr Sebastian Suggate on one international and two New Zealand studies, each one backing up the conclusions of the other stated, “...there is no difference between the reading ability (from age 5) and late (from age 7) readers by the time these children reach their last year at Primary School”. What we find instead, from our experience, is that children who are schooled academically in their early years instead of left to make sense of the world and problem solve in play, are in fact missing out on vital developmental stages and urges that they would experience during unstructured play.
Literacy is all through our beautiful curriculum. It is found in our conversations, our rich library of pukapuka (books), experiencing symbols and text, our researching together, our singing, our conversations questioning. It’s in our dramatic play, pre-writing and mark making.
Numeracy is woven throughout our beautiful curriculum. It’s in our heuristic play where we observe children naturally following the urges of patterning and seriation. It’s in counting the trees, estimating the group size, measuring the depth of the water, assessing the length and girth of our eels, the height of our animals, the volume of the mud. It’s in adding our sheep up each spring, and dividing up our bread loaves that we bake each day. It’s in the weights and measures and temperatures of our cooking projects. By adding mathematical language to our conversations, we assist with future mathematical fluency and proficiency, and normalise mathematical concepts.
Science is woven into our beautiful curriculum. In our ngahere (forest), where science abounds, how could it not? There is biology within our kararehe (animals), our flora and fauna, chemistry within our campfire cooking, and the science of our constructions as we build and create in our Forest. Our mahi is guided by our seasons, and we experience each series of weather systems, watching it change our environment and our learning. We watch liquids turn to solids in Winter, and solids turn to liquids as we enjoy the sensory delights of mud.
Some Neuroscience for you…
In ECE, we take the privilege of our position in the educational window of each and every tamaiti very seriously. We believe that we have the MOST privileged place in your tamaiti education, as the growth in their brains between birth and five years is exponential - a child’s brain will have developed to between 85-90 percent of its adult size by age six. This is when we are alongside them, and we know how much this counts toward the success of their ongoing learning journey and their positive outcomes as an adult.
The brain is the command center of the human body. A newborn baby has all of the brain cells (neurons) they’ll have for the rest of their life, but it’s the connections between these cells that really make the brain work. Brain connections enable us to move, think, communicate and do just about everything. The early childhood years are crucial for making these connections. At least one million new neural connections (synapses) are made every second, more than at any other time in life.
Different areas of the brain are responsible for different abilities, like movement, language and emotion, and develop at different rates. Brain development builds on itself, as connections eventually link with each other in more complex ways. This enables the child to move and speak and think in more complex ways.
The early years are the best opportunity for a tamaiti brain to develop the connections they need to be healthy, capable, successful adults. The connections needed for many important, higher-level abilities like motivation, self-regulation, problem solving and communication are formed in these early years – or not formed. It’s much harder for these essential brain connections to be formed later in life.
Once your tamaiti is attending school, we are happy to be able to offer you one day per week for them to continue their play-based, interest-based natural learning journey at our Te Miro Forest School. We have found that tamariki who maintain these connections are settling happily and successfully at school, which is incredibly gratifying to our kaiako. We have noticed that more and more schools are taking on the value of play based learning, and their early years classes are more geared toward this type of education - ask them about it when you are deciding where to send your child.
We will leave you with another quote from Nathan to reassure you that we are setting your tamaiti up for school in the best way for them, from aged three until aged six, at which time they legally have to attend formal schooling.
“The more play that your child has under seven years old, and the less structured learning there is, the better all their outcomes are. That may seem counter-intuitive, but remember, it’s not how early you learn the alphabet or to write your name that predicts your success as an adult, it’s the amount of play that you have in your early childhood.”