The topic of school readiness stirs emotion and provokes debate. Some educators fear their children will struggle with the primary school transition – socially and academically. Other educators are concerned about the unnecessary pressure on children to reach benchmarks because early childhood education is about being and belonging, not just becoming.
Even if educators are committed to a play-based curriculum, they may offer structured activities to satisfy the expectations of families and colleagues.
The school readiness debate extends to criticism of primary education. Are children starting school too early? Is the primary curriculum too intense? Instead of making children ready for school, perhaps schools should become ready to support their new students.
What does school readiness actually look like?
Across early education services in Australia, school readiness often looks very different. These are features of some school readiness programs:
Children eat packed lunches, open and close lunch boxes, and peel their own fruit. They learn to care for their belongings and complete toileting and handwashing independently.
Children are expected to complete tasks (e.g. sitting quietly during a story, standing in a line, sharing toys, taking turns) or develop personal qualities (e.g. resilience, patience, positive self-esteem, agency, respect for diversity).
Educators liaise with primary schools to build relationships and smooth the transition. They visit schools with the children who will be attending. Children practice wearing their uniforms at preschool.
Some services develop checklists of skills they want all children to achieve. Examples include cutting with scissors, counting to ten, identifying shapes and colours, and reciting the alphabet.
Group times are planned around school-readiness themes. Educators may teach specific skills to a group or facilitate child-led discussions about going to school.
Children learn to recognise and or write their own names. Name tags are used at the lunch table. Children “sign in” as they arrive in the morning and practice handwriting at a designated table.
No ‘specifically labelled’ readiness program
Some services choose not to have a ‘specific’ readiness program, but rather a holistic approach reflective of the service philosophy, providing for children’s individual needs through play. Educators plan for the present. Self-help and social skills are embedded in their program, starting from birth.
A primary teacher’s perspective
Samantha Lonsdale, an ECT in a primary school setting, says “Early childhood educators need to continue advocating for children’s social and emotional development as the foundation of school readiness.
“We want children that are confident and resilient and are able to engage in discussions, can question, create and problem-solve. These skills all develop during a quality, play-based program that provides for extended periods of uninterrupted play and the inclusion of a language-rich environment.”
Learning through play
The debate on school readiness is often about teaching methods, not learning outcomes. A child can learn how to draw a circle before they start school by completing stencils while sitting at a desk. Alternatively, that child can draw circles in mud while talking about shapes they see in the clouds.
There is an underlying assumption that school readiness is always teacher-led with structured learning experiences. However, children can gain skills for primary school and later life through a play-based curriculum like the Early Years Learning Framework EYLF).
When designing a school readiness program, educators can ask themselves two questions:
- What do I want my children to learn before they start school?
- How will they learn these things best?
It’s also a good idea to think about how you will communicate these points and your service’s perspective on school readiness with parents.
Communicating with parents
Be prepared to discuss school readiness with families, especially those who challenge the effectiveness of learning through play. Many educators still face challenges explaining to parents and other stakeholders the value of play as a foundation for the early years curriculum and the fact that children actually learn through play.
The EYLF describes play-based learning as ‘a context for learning through which children organise and make sense of their social worlds, as they actively engage with people, objects and representations’ (EYLF, 2009, p. 46).
Early education providers Goodstart provide a clear and concise explanation of play-based learning to ensure that families understand the benefits of what may be seen to be a less structured and formal approach:
Play-based learning is all about the process that children embark on, rather than achieving a specific outcome. It’s an approach that is led by the child and supported by teachers and educators by recognising ‘teachable moments’ during play, or by carefully planning play experiences that open up opportunities for learning.
They further elaborate on the benefits of play-based learning for babies, toddlers and preschoolers in separate articles.
The Wonder School in Throsby have an orientation night at the beginning of each year to explain their preschool program. The orientation covers information about how their program helps children get ready for life now and in the future, including school readiness.
“This really helps families to understand the kind of things we focus on in our curriculum and that there is rich learning happening,” says Director Susan Foy. “We found that the school readiness question continued to come up especially around halfway through the year so our preschool lead educator and educational leader worked on a brochure to explain what our preschool program aims to achieve and how.
“I really try to get parents to rethink their ideas of school readiness. I think we should be viewing how we can support children where they are now and build upon their skills for a rich and happy life.”
The EYLF, the nationally approved framework for prior-to-school education should be the foundation of all Australian school readiness and preschool programs. EYLF for families can help educators explain the value of a play-based curriculum.
Further government resources covering school readiness
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