Why quality is criticial to ensure the ‘twoness of twos’

December 4th 2011

This week the chancellor announced that the government will extend the free entitlement of 15 hours of nursery education to every disadvantaged two-year-old over the next four years. This expansion will be funded by an additional investment of around £300 million per year so that by the end of 2015 about  40 per cent of all two year olds (130,000) will benefit from the new entitlement.

Good job for Mr. Osborne and a possible sop to many disenchanted women who are bearing quite a lot of the brunt of the ongoing economic slump.

The arrival of more two years olds under the free offer may be good news for many settings, especially as the grant for two year olds currently covers the real costs of provision, unlike the grant for the three and four year olds.

The rationale for providing places for those two year olds from disadvantaged backgrounds must be predicated on the research, showing how good quality childcare can improve the child’s life chances and pay dividends to the child, the family and society as a whole. It’s clearly an investment with a serious social return. Sarah Teather MP tells us that

Our priority is to increase social mobility by helping children from the poorest backgrounds in their earliest years. High quality early education is the key to making a difference early on in a child’s life. It’s crucial for their healthy development and means they’re not falling behind before they have even started primary school.

Sarah Teather MP

However, the most powerful words here are good quality. There is also a raft of research that demonstrates what good quality needs to look like, only it’s not always either interpreted or applied consistently. Ofsted still find that the lowest quality childcare remains in the poorest and most disadvantaged neighbourhoods. It’s shockingly unacceptable.

One aspect of quality is the ability to understand the developmental stages of children.  For two year olds this means recognizing and celebrating the twoness of two.  There has been an inclination to overly focus on education to the detriment of care (yes I know the two are integral, but I fear not everyone knows that!), pushing small children into an inappropriate and unsuitable curriculum or environment.  Two year olds are just recent babies, and this needs to be considered as we welcome them into our nurseries and help them become independent and confident little people. It’s a skilled and sensitive role for those adults working with this group of children, and one not to be underestimated.

The experiences children receive in their early years are crucial to overall brain development. When a child has an experience, connections are formed between brain cells; so the cells are dependent on experience to create these connections. After eight months a child exposed to a nurturing and stimulating environment may already have 1,000 trillion connections created; so again these connections physically grow and develop the brain.

As such, it is primarily the early experiences and warm and consistent parents, who cuddle and talk to their children and provide fun learning experiences, that largely determine the basic strength and function of the brain’s wiring system and so promote healthy brain development for their children. By contrast, babies who do not receive consistent and caring responses to their cries, or those whose cries are met with abuse, develop brain connections to prepare them to cope in that environment. As a result their ability to learn and respond to nurturing and kindness may be impaired.

The brain organizes through a ‘use it or lose it’ process: the brain eliminates or strengthens connections in an effort to become more efficient. So, experiences that are repeated frequently lead to brain connections that are retained. It is Repetition That Makes Strong Connections. And consistency is key. The brain feels comfortable when it knows what to expect. When children learn, through repetition, that a parent (or care provider) will be there for them when needed, they can relax and feel safe.

In short, providing loving interaction, adequate amounts of sleep, healthy nutrition, time playing outdoors, physical activity, lots of creative play and exploration contributes to a child with a healthy brain.

To further explore this crucial aspect of development in the early years, we are starting a working group of staff at LEYF who care for and really understand two year olds.  We have already learnt from the Two Year Old pilot that we need to set simple benchmark assessment, help people revisit their understanding of what it means to be two and figure out a way of engaging parents to better understand and support their two year olds at home. But we cannot stop there.

If you have any thoughts or specific experiences in relation to this topic, please do add your comments below.