What else have the Romans ever done for us?

Even long standing friendships can sometimes be tested, so recently when a friend of mine commented “well isn’t a nursery just babysitting on an industrial scale? ”, I was close to offering him extended work experience in one of our toddler rooms. At this point it was tempting to climb onto the soap box and talk about the philosophy of play-based learning, or how a child’s brain is 80% developed by the age of three, or that a two year old can ask up to three hundred questions a day, or that a child of four could have a vocabulary of nearly fifteen hundred words, but instead I turned to technology for inspiration. So armed only with my trusty iPad (other tablet computers are available), I set out to explain some of the mysteries of nursery life.

Since we first opened our doors nearly ten years ago, we have seen five major legislative changes to the early years sector, the latest being the Children and Families Bill, set to become law in December 2013. With each change comes more responsibility for our staff in managing the development and care of children before they go to school.

An essential and ever increasing part of a practitioner’s day is the observation and assessment of their key children against the learning intentions of the EYFS (Early Years Foundation Stage). This includes monitoring a child’s development in areas such as communication, language, physical, personal, social and emotional as well as creativity, maths and understanding the world around us. There is now even an assessment for children when they reach the age of two. The whole process is a vital part of our role, in that it provides the reception class at school with a baseline starting point for each child.

Traditionally, the EYFS observations are made by nursery staff using a combination of handwritten notes, sticky labels, cameras and index files. This evidence then has to be organised and pasted into a scrap book, which becomes the child’s profile or learning journey. So how can a device like an iPad, which seems mostly to be used for email, web browsing and Angry Birds, possibly have a place in our nursery? My friend was beginning to glaze over, so I fired up the EYFS app and showed him an example.

Milo saw Oran was crying, so invited him to come and join his game with multi-coloured blocks. When Anne the key worker asked Milo what he was doing, he said “ I’m having a party with Oran because he was crying and I made him a rainbow centipede” Apart from wanting to award Milo the Turner Prize for artistic achievement, Anne felt it was a perfect moment to record what she had seen.

Ordinarily before making the observation, this would have involved Anne in finding the digital camera with the dead batteries, arming herself with a post it note and pen, manoeuvring herself into position, and then if the children hadn’t already wandered off, recording the observation. Sometime later the photo would be downloaded to a computer, printed and then matched up with the post it note before cutting and pasting everything into Milo’s scrapbook. This could take 8 to 10 minutes per observation.

Without wishing to sound like a shopping channel presenter, let’s replay that process with the iPad. Firstly, select a photo of Milo on screen to bring up his own record, take a number of pictures with the front facing camera, use the on-screen keyboard to type the observation, identify the learning intentions from a pop up list, then hit send. The whole experience is forwarded by wi-fi to an email account and central record where the observation can be printed off and filed. Time taken, 2 to 3 minutes. In addition, the observation can be emailed to parents and carers, who can then add their own comments before sending back to the nursery.

One of the other key reasons we have adopted tablet computing is in response to the changing nature of parent demand. Most children attending nurseries today are part-time, which means that we have more key children on the register and thus more EYFS profiles to complete than we had a few years ago. Irrespective of whether a child attends two mornings a week or is full time, the EYFS requirement for the learning journey is the same.

Sometimes computing creates as many problems as it solves, but having now used the iPad in the nursery for the last year, we have not only been able to significantly improve the EYFS information we collate, but the faster process allows us to spend more time engaging with the children. It was also very gratifying recently when Ofsted inspected the nursery, that we were awarded outstanding in meeting the needs of children, in no small part because of the use of tablet technology.

Finally, as I closed the iPad, I could see my friend was beginning to re-think his earlier comment about babysitting, and borrowing a phrase from Monty Python, he said “ OK, that may be so, but what else have the Romans ever done for us?”

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