Nursery Education, term universally applied to the education of children aged two to six before they enter primary school. The ages of the boys and girls depend on the admission requirements of the nurseries and schools, the availability of places in the area, and the educational policy of the country.
Most nurseries and playgroups operate policies of learning through play, and activities are informal and flexible to suit the needs of young children. Sand, water, and paint form the basis of many learning exercises. Storytelling, nursery rhymes, and the development of early literacy and numeracy skills are also an important part of the curriculum.
State and private nurseries in the United Kingdom are staffed by qualified teachers and nursery nurses. Playgroups are run by workers with qualifications in the education of young children, helped by parents and volunteers.
But in developing countries nurseries are either non-existent or very few in number.
The day nursery movement began in Europe in the early 19th century as a response to the increasing employment of women in the industry. The absence of large numbers of mothers from their homes during the day led to child neglect, which in turn stimulated a variety of charitable agencies to seek ways of caring for the children of working parents.
In 1816 the socialist and philanthropist Robert Owen opened one of the first nursery schools in the world at the New Lanark cotton mills in Scotland to improve his workers’ quality of life. Another early leader of this movement was the French philanthropist Jean-Baptiste Firmin Marbeau, who in 1846 founded the Crèche (French, “cradle”) Society of France, with the aim of fostering child care. Within a relatively short period, day nurseries were established in many parts of France and in several other European countries. In the United States, the first-day nursery was opened in 1854 by the Nursery and Child’s Hospital of New York. Many nurseries were wholly or partly supported by local and national governments. A large number were set up in factories so mothers could look after their children while they were at work.
Most of the nurseries established in the latter half of the 19th century were supported by charitable organizations. Both in Europe and in the United States, the day nursery movement received great impetus during World War I, when unprecedented numbers of women replaced men in the industry. In Britain, France, Germany, and Italy nurseries were established even in munitions plants, under direct government sponsorship.
As studies of children revealed the importance of the early years in physical, social, emotional, and intellectual development, the nursery school movement gained momentum in Britain and other European countries.
With the outbreak of World War II, the number of day nurseries increased rapidly as women were again called on to work in industry. The expectation that most employed mothers would leave their jobs at the end of the war was only partially fulfilled, and during the post-war years, a widespread movement developed, headed by sociologists, social workers, teachers, and other groups, which sought renewed government aid to meet the need for a comprehensive day-care programme.
Today there is a consensus that education for the under-fives is important in its own right, as well as being beneficial for later schooling.
Nurseries throughout the world normally educate young children in small, informal groups with higher adult: child ratios than in later schooling. Nursery education in not compulsory, but it has become the norm in many developed countries. In the United Kingdom, for example, where children start primary school at the age of four or five, every three- and four-year-old child is entitled to a free part-time nursery place. In the Republic of Ireland, although the chool is not compulsory until the age of six, well over half of four-year-olds and almost all five-year-olds are in infant classes provided by state-funded primary schools. However, in less affluent countries such as India, although the demand for nurseries is high, there are not enough places. In Indonesia, primary school is compulsory from the age of six but enrolment is low. Development agencies are encouraging nurseries in an attempt to boost primary school rolls.
Early years experts regard Denmark and New Zealand as examples of good practice because these countries have developed national early childhood policies that have led to state-funded and integrated education and care services.
In England some experts are concerned about the pressure to formalize the education of children at an increasingly younger age. In 2005, as the Labour government sought to encourage breakfast clubs and after school care in the nation’s primaries, critics, while applauding the investment in the early years, claimed little children were spending too many hours of the day in institutions.
For example, in South Africa, Indonesia, and Australia children stay at nursery school until they are around the age of six, and in Singapore young children often do not start primary school until seven. But in the United Kingdom, although primary school is not compulsory until the age of four or five, many parents are pressurized into placing their children in primary school nursery classes to secure a primary place.
In most countries there is no national curriculum for nurseries, although governments often promote guidelines and examples of good practice. Learning holistically is important, as is learning in fun ways to prepare life-long learning. Typical nursery curricula in many countries include personal, social, and emotional development; communication, language, and literacy; mathematical development; physical and creative development; and responsibility and integrity.
V MODERN DEVELOPMENTS
In 2005 the Labour government in England and Wales published the Childcare Bill. Hailed as a “once in a life-time bill” by early years experts, it promised to guarantee by law accessible, high-quality childcare and education for all children under five.
From 2008 the bill will force childminders and nurseries to follow an early years curriculum from birth until the age of five. Three- to five-year-olds already have to learn core skills but this is the first time the British Government has prescribed what children should learn under the age of three. Critics dubbed the new measure “a national curriculum for babies”.
The bill sets out four different stages of development, from the youngest babies who are “lookers and communicators”, through the stages of explorers (8 to 18 months), players (18 to 24 months), and walkers, talkers, and pretenders (25 to 36 months).
Regular inspections by government inspectors will ensure children receive the early years foundation curriculum.
The bill also sets out a framework for “extended” schools, whereby in 2010 all children will be entitled to wraparound care from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Linda Ann Blackburne