When I was little, my mother – desperate for some adult company as much as anything – cleared out our basement and started a play group come pre-school. Friends and others she met in the city we had recently moved to, started to join in and share the running of the group – a loose co-operative sort of pre-school emerged.
We were a small group of children who got to know each other’s mums who read to us and supervised our play, making things inside and digging, swinging and paddling outside in the garden that the basement led out onto. Our mothers now took care of their children in the company of others for some hours of the week. They also reclaimed time to do some work and time for themselves – feeling their children to be secure, nourished and happy.
Such a simple idea but today an impossible dream. Some years ago, I asked my mother if she could help me do the same thing on my street in Peckham – but of course she explained, it’s impossible: a myriad of regulations – from the position of the toilet and the kitchen, to the lack of my qualifications make anything beyond the odd play date illegal.
Today the debate moves further in the direction of industrialised care. Further in the wrong direction. Everything we know about early years tells us that one adult cannot provide the care, love and nourishment to 6 two year olds at once. You cannot take 6 two year olds on a walk. You cannot make things with 6 two year olds. Little in the structure of GCSE’s suggest that their possession makes for great child care either. My own mother does not have GCSEs – her age rules her and over half the population out – but her creative talents and experience, the love she has to give makes her beloved by many not just her own grandchildren.
And then there is play. Is this not what these years are about – it is through play that our children learn to be caring, rounded adults themselves. It is through play that the emotional development that is really important for our society is developed.
Packing small children into highly regulated environments might save money in the short term but it is once again building in longer term problems. We need to open up the debate and value and invest in relational child care.