Anyone who has watched a young child learn and develop is aware of how rapid learning is in the earliest years. You have only to think of how children acquire their first language and compare that with your own attempts to learn a new language as an adult to realise that there is something special about the learning that takes place in these years. This realisation is not something new. Those working with young children have been aware, for centuries, that the first few years of life are crucial. It is only in the last few decades that a neurophysiological explanation for this has been found, as researchers have been able to demonstrate that the connections between brain cells (the physiological basis of learning) are formed most rapidly during these years. But what is more exciting and more challenging is the realisation that these neural connections are most effectively and rapidly laid down with each new experience a child has.
For those working with young chilren, something they intuitively knew now has some basis in research findings. Those working with young children knew that children needed a rich and stimulating environment in which to grow and develop. That is why nurseries and playgroups offered children toys to play with, sand and water to explore, clothes to dress up in and songs to sing. And many children benefited from the stimulating environments in which they found themselves. More recently, however, awareness has been growing that the provision of many different activities per se is not enough. Attention has shifted to examining the role of the adults working with young children and looking to see how adults can best support and extend children's learning and development.
There are many workers within the settings and facilities available for the care and education of young children before they reach compulsory school age. Some of them are qualified teachers, others are qualified nursery nurses. Some have been trained as Montessori teachers and others have followed Pre-School Alliance training programmes. Some have trained as nurses or as social workers. Many have had no formal training to work with young children, but have found themselves doing this work because it fits in with domestic requirements, because they like the company of young children or merely because they have fallen into the job. So in the United Kingdom there is a huge body of workers-mainly women-with years of experience, highly developed skills of observation and a genuine and deep