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Wednesday, May 12, 1999 Published at 09:00 GMT 10:00 UK


Warning against stressed-out toddlers

Infants should play without pressure, say nursery experts

Pushing young children into learning too much too soon is more likely to produce stressed-out toddlers than high achievers, say nursery experts.

The Pre-School Learning Alliance has presented a report to a conference in London on Wednesday claiming that the government's plans for a nursery years' curriculum will put unnecessary pressure on infants.

Instead of achieving an improvement in learning, the report says children put under pressure to meet learning targets could be affected by symptoms of anxiety, such as tantrums and bed-wetting.

But the Education Minister, Margaret Hodge, has rejected the claims, saying that the proposals for setting "learning goals" for three to five-year-olds would "raise the quality of experience a child enjoys".

[ image: Margaret Hodge says learning and playing can work hand in hand]
Margaret Hodge says learning and playing can work hand in hand
The government has put forward proposals for a "foundation" stage for pre-school children, which would set targets such as children being able to write their own name and count up to 10 by the time they approach school age.

This emphasis on education would be at the expense of allowing children the freedom to play and would put pressure on infants without any evidence that it helps children's long-term development, argues the Pre-School Learning Alliance.

"Effectively, children now start school at four without any evidence to support the efficacy of such a change. There is no compelling rationale for children starting school at four and there are increasing fears - on the part of concerned parents and among early years educators - that it may actually be harmful," says the Pre-School Learning Alliance's report.

"Young and vulnerable children are often intimidated by an early start to their schooling and may revert to bed-wetting, nightmares or show other classic symptoms of stress."

Rather than improving the abilities of children entering the formal years of learning at primary school, the National Association of Primary Education has cautioned that "a lowering of the standards achieved in primary education could well result".

But Margaret Hodge rejected the criticisms, saying the targets put forward for early years' learning were not excessive and did not exclude play.

"Play, care and education are seamless. They're not different for children and learning can be fun," she told BBC Breakfast News.

Giving the example of learning a nursery rhyme as an activity that could combine pleasure with finding out about numbers, she said the government's proposals were aimed at ensuring "appropriate" teaching for the early years.

Three-year-olds would not be under pressure to learn lessons that were beyond their reach, she said, but would be encouraged with basic skills such as speaking.

"A lot of three-year-olds come into a nursery class without having developed speaking skills... If you don't know how to speak, listen or how to work as a group, then you can't start learning how to read, write and count and develop the literacy and numeracy skills which are so important in later life."

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