Healthy, happy bairns

Alison Johnstone writes about Scottish Greens’ commitment to play-based learning at kindergarten for three to six year-olds before starting formal primary education.

During a year of restrictions, the thought of so many children being kept indoors and unable to see friends is a sad one, especially when we know that their wellbeing and development are best served by creative play and being outdoors.

This is why the Scottish Greens want to push the school starting age back to seven and instead introduce a kindergarten stage that focuses on play-based learning from age three to six.

There’s heaps of international evidence to show that this leads to better educational outcomes in the long term and is much better for the wellbeing of our young people.

Crucially, it can also narrow the attainment gap between rich and poor, because although children from more comfortable backgrounds have better resilience to the stress of academic learning at a young age, we know all children respond to play-based learning.

Although the Curriculum for Excellence claims to have a wellbeing focus until age eight, the reality is very different. Scotland also has a National Play Strategy, but there hasn’t been joined up thinking on this.

For example, the Scottish Government’s introduction of standardised testing for primary ones was completely wrong headed and flies in the face of international best practice. Five-year-olds shouldn’t be sitting tests, and teachers shouldn’t have the added pressure to ‘teach to the test’, especially for children so young.

Very few countries have formal schooling at all for children as young as this, let alone make them sit tests.

In fact, only the United Kingdom and some of its former colonies start school as young as four or five.

Finland should be our role model, where formal academic teaching starts at seven, when all children are ready. It has one of the best performing education systems in the world.

Kindergarten places an emphasis on opportunities for children to play, along with the development of social and communication skills.

This is good for children’s physical and mental health, especially when that play takes place outdoors.

I’d like to see much more outdoor learning throughout children’s school careers. Too often I’ve heard about classes being kept indoors because it is raining. After COVID, Primary schools should have wellies and raincoats available for children who do not have them with them, so that instead of everyone missing out on active play, it is actively encouraged.

Every child should have access to a residential outdoor education experience without prohibitive costs to the parent. For some young people this is their first interaction with nature, so we need to make sure no-one misses out.

And as I’ve said before, access to local and well-maintained outdoor spaces has become central to many people’s lives in the last year. We need to make sure our green spaces are of excellent quality and available to all.

The pandemic and home learning have shone a light on the importance of children’s wellbeing. As we turn towards the recovery, we should seize the opportunity to leave behind the least effective parts of our education system and ensure we have healthy, happy bairns.