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Childhood policy straight out of fantasyland

PATRICIA EDGAR
October 19, 2009 - 7:13AM

Get up and Grow, the guidelines for healthy eating and exercise in early childhood, part of the Federal Government's anti-obesity drive, are nearing release. They recommend children should be banned from watching television until they turn two and from two to age five viewing should be limited to one hour a day.

Such policy recommendations emanate from a fantasyland where officials never seem to learn from the past or understand the real world where most of us live.

Television is omnipresent and a powerful means of educating young children. It has always been true that one-third of children do two-thirds of the viewing and many of these heavy viewers are children who live in disadvantaged families. This fact of life provides educators with an opportunity.

There have been only two comprehensive educational experiments that have attempted to fundamentally change the focus of early childhood education through television. The first was Sesame Street developed 50 years ago to address disadvantage among American preschoolers; the second was Lift Off, developed in the '90s by the Australian Children's Television Foundation. In both cases the television program was the centre-piece for a nationwide community outreach program with support materials designed for families, carers and teachers.

Lift Off exemplified the way in which the media and the education system could work together with parents to create a valuable resource for the education of children. The process of collaboration worked, but the ABC, for its own political purposes, took the program off air and the project collapsed.

As a concept, Lift Off was ahead of its time but that time has come again with the Government acknowledging the vital importance of early childhood education.

Education does not begin when children go to preschool or school for the first time. Eighty five per cent of brain development takes place in the first few years of life. Research has taught us that infants and toddlers' brains are voraciously active from birth and that disadvantage in society is born when young children's education is neglected.

The major influence on children's learning comes from the home, from parents, without a formal teacher, with no clear curriculum and with few conscious goals. Community, culture and place are important influences. So the starting point of all formal early childhood education has to be each child's unequal and diverse family and community background and an attempt to expand each child's horizons beyond what has already happened to them.

That means working with parents as much as with children and ensuring the broader social environment – the neighbourhood playgrounds, shopping centres and mass media - supports and enriches the experiences of every child as they grow.

Former British education minister Alan Milburn, in his recent report Unleashing Aspiration, emphasised the central importance of "pushy parents". So did US President Barack Obama in his "no excuses" call to the underprivileged to improve their lot.

But parents need government to help them make a difference. Some children are born into a world rich in resources and experiences while others are deprived from the start. And this is where the Government should focus its attention.

The kindergarten movement began as a philanthropic attempt to redress working-class disadvantage; the maternal and child health system was set up to ensure every parent had access to professional health care and sound advice on child development; child care was to ensure a safe environment for the children of employed parents; primary schools were made free and compulsory to help remove the disadvantages of the working poor. None of these reforms were meant simply to develop services for the already privileged.

So what of the new policy initiative from the Council of Australian Governments (COAG)? The first Early Years Learning Framework for Australia is intended to make sure all children from birth to five years and through the transition to school get off to a good start in life. It has recently been released for trial and comment.

In the introduction, the document states that the Framework "has been designed for use by early childhood educators working in partnership with families, children's first and most influential educators". Following that acknowledgement the document has nothing further to say to parents but goes on to address, in professional jargon, only those educators working in formal child care and preschool settings.

The Learning Framework for birth-five skirts round the inequalities and disadvantages that exist for many children by addressing the general themes of "Belonging, Being and Becoming" - goals that remind teachers that every child needs to be included, to feel they belong, that they should not be pushed too quickly towards formally defined educational outcomes.

The framework's five outcomes for children are listed as having a strong sense of identity; feeling connected with and able to contribute to their world; having a strong sense of wellbeing; being confident and involved learners; and being effective communicators.

These are worthy objectives but missing is the content and the means by which each of those objectives can be achieved for the diverse child population entering preschool. There is no notion of how child care or kindergarten teachers can overcome gaps in wellbeing or confidence or communication skills that derive from the home. The framework is not informed by a theory of intelligence or developing competence.

Apart from a list of desired outcomes there is no discourse on what sort of experiences the child-care centre or playgroup or kindergarten might provide to expand the horizons of children from disadvantaged homes, or on the effectiveness of praise for effort and process rather than results. The dominant philosophy is "play-based learning" with a nod in the direction of teacher-directed play and with few mentions of the need for teachers to use the ever-more potent media technologies at the disposal of most children.

This blinkered approach, which makes only passing mention of learning outside formal child care and kindergartens, will do nothing for the development of most toddlers in their vital formative years and leaves parents out in the cold without help and guidance at the same time as too many children are falling through the kindergarten gap (The Age 14/10)

Soon parents are to be informed they should ban their children from watching television as part of the Government's anti-obesity drive. The onus is to be thrown back on parents to cope, with government abdicating a role in ensuring the television programs available to children during these years provide educational and entertainment value appropriate for their rapidly expanding brain power.

The important early years at home are being ignored within our first national framework and the education revolution, which began with such a bang, is wandering along through assorted bureaucratic tunnels with no one looking at children's environment as a whole. A critically important opportunity for integrated child policy is being missed again.

The new Early Years Learning Framework for Australia is still in development. It presents an opportunity to reach parents, to use constructively the ubiquitous media and influence those who shape the wider social environment of Australian children, as well as teachers, with a comprehensive statement on early childhood education.

Dr Patricia Edgar is an author, educator and founding director of the Australian Children's Television Foundation. Her latest book is The New Child: In search of smarter grownups. www.patriciaedgaranddonedgar.com