After 17 years working with babies and toddlers, Kerry Mortlock is heading up the new Baby Education and Daycare Centre at King’s College Madrid, which will take little ones from the age of 16 weeks and nurture the first precious 10 to 12 months of their life with “lots of cuddles” and exploration based on the EYFS curriculum (Early Years Foundation Stage) introduced into British education in 2008.
“My aim in the baby room is to focus on personal, social and emotional development,” says Kerry whose youngest son is just eight months old. “We want them to have lots of tummy time to strengthen their muscles and we will be focusing on the fine motor skills, encouraging them to post objects or pick things up with three fingers to work hand and eye coordination, for example. There will also be messy play, heuristic play [exploring the properties of objects], sensory and tactile activities and group singing and story sessions.”
Starting with the premise that each child is unique and using an extremely flexible study plan, the EYFS has strong parallels with the Montessori approach to education, according to the Montessori Society AMI, which says, “There is a strong concordance between the themes and principles that underpin the EYFS and those that guide the Montessori practice… The EYFS theme of ‘A Unique Child’ is based on the principle that ‘Every child is a competent learner from birth who can be resilient, capable, confident and self-assured.”
With a degree in Early Childhood Studies under her belt, Kerry has spent the last four of her 17 years’ experience at King’s but she previously worked in schools where both the Montessori method and the EYFS system were employed. “Lots of the traits are the same,” she says. “We both use open-ended resources, such as curtain rings or old cotton spools – basically anything that triggers their imagination instead of the plastic toys you buy in the shops. And both methods give children a choice of activity. But while a Montessori school will leave the child alone with its chosen activity, we look at a child’s interests and, without taking over, encourage them to take them further. We will plant an idea and see their reaction. It’s impossible that the child is going to do everything alone.”
Due to open in spring, King’s new baby unit is equipped with a separate nappy changing room for hygiene and its own kitchen and is designed to allow for plenty of natural light and access to the garden where crawlers and toddlers can start to reap the developmental benefits of being outdoors.
As the educational charity, Council for Learning Outside the Classroom notes, increased fears over safety and technological advances has meant that children are spending more time inside. Yet access to outdoor play remains essential to their development, boosting problem-solving skills, nurturing creativity and providing ample opportunity for building resilience.
When the weather gets warmer, Kerry aims to have the door to the garden open at all times so that the mobile babies can come and go at will. ”It’s good for them to make the choice of where they want to be,” she says. “They need to explore and understand the outside world rather than be stuck in a room that can become like a jail.”
Sixteen weeks may seem on the young side for a British education, particularly for non-English speaking families. But, aside from the fact that there will be a native speaker in the unit, there is a non-academic advantage to exposing an extremely early learner to the second language they will subsequently be educated in. Once a child reaches the age of 20 months, for example, they are, according to Kerry, far more cautious and difficult to settle. Leaving a toddler already anxious about leaving mum in an environment with an unfamiliar language can feel like getting into a cold bath. “The transition to the pre-nursery class is much smoother if they come from the outset,” says Kerry. “If I was going to educate my child at a Spanish school, I would take him to a Spanish nursery from the start.”
The stage at which each individual baby will be moved up to pre-nursery depends on their development and the point at which they find their feet. “They need to be sturdy walkers and then we will make the transition gradually, taking them for an hour a day for a week or so to get them used to it,” says Kerry. “When children are nurtured, they grow like flowers so the less change they have the better.”
Parents will be kept abreast of every small detail in this regard with access to feedback from carers at drop off and pick up and contact books which parents are also expected to write in, not to mention the photos of activities and milestones sent directly to parents.
Initially, this charting of the early learner’s progress woven into the EYFS curriculum triggered controversy as the stage was considered too early for achievements to be measured. However, naysayer Dorothy Lepkowska, the Press Relations Lead for UCL EDUCATE, did a U-turn on this when her own daughter started nursery in the UK.
“Daria was only 10 months old. We wondered what on earth the staff were going to talk to us about,” she wrote in The Guardian, referring to a parents evening for their daughter. “But there, beautifully presented, was a folder of our daughter’s ‘work’: finger and table paintings and photographs of her plating and taking part in activities, with notes and comments on her reactions and progress. It was a wonderful insight into the part of Daria’s life that was hers alone.”
The EYFS, dubbed “the nappy curriculum” by the media aims to prepare children for ‘real’ school, at the age of five. In the case of an international school, throw in exposure to the language they will be taught in and they are doubly prepared, their executive function well and truly triggered, allowing them to take bilingualism and whatever else in their tiny strides.
For more information about King’s College Baby Education & Daycare, head to our website by clicking here.