Four to Five Years

Depending on what has happened in the first four years and the stage each individual has reached, the competent four-year-old really races ahead. He still watches, listens and imitates but can also think of an idea and carry it out, take a sustained interest in a game that progresses, and re-start a game from where he left off instead of having to go back to the beginning again as a three-year-old would. He can play with a group of children and benefit from their ideas, and learns both to lead a group and be led. To play different roles and accept a different status at different times. By five, children who are used to being in a group can usually make an easy approach or at least respond to other children and adults.

Again depending on what has happened in the early years, the four- and five-year-old period is often the time when a child becomes self-confident and very competent within the limitations of what he is allowed to do. His vocabulary develops fast as he seems able to assimilate any of the words he hears being used, provided there is some concrete experience or situation associated with them. One of the most valuable aspects of development in this year is that, given the right adult support, he learns how to find out about what he doesn’t know -’ Let’s look in a book/ask at the library/ find out if there is one in a museum somewhere/see if the greengrocer, milkman, policeman, doctor at the clinic, garageman can tell us’, or nearer home ‘Let’s experiment and see if we can find out.’

Some nearly-fives have a wide variety of interests, some have an all-absorbing interest in one particular subject. The boy who is interested in cars may make this a central or jumping off point for everything he does. His happiest hours are spent watching an older brother strip down a car engine and put it back together again, quietly absorbing all the technical language and terms (and some of the less desirable words) that go with this activity. Through this play-theme he learns to count, grade and sort, works out spatial relationships, sharpens his perceptive abilities, increases his vocabulary, develops manual dexterity, learns basic skills and how to use tools which will be useful in other spheres later on, plays with other children, and practises various roles and learns to read and write using names of cars. (His parents are lucky. Dinosaurs would have been much more difficult to cope with than cars.) These early interests may die a natural death but they serve their purpose very well and pave the way for children to take a deep interest in other subjects later on.

Outside the home the four-to-five can usually function quite happily as an individual without his mother for a reasonable length of time (the commonsense interpretation of that rather indeterminate phrase would be the normal period between meals, I.e. about three hours in the morning or the slightly shorter space between midday meal and the early tea most children seem to need). But, and it is a big but, this only happens if there is plenty of material and other children to interest him, if he feels safe and happy in this non-home place and most important of all if there is an adequate number of adults who are good at their job. It is fatally easy to be misled by the apparent confidence and competence of approaching-fives to think they need little adult attention. Certainly they need less ‘mothering’ than the threes-to-fours and equally certainly they learn a great deal from the peer group.

Even when a child ol three to five spends some part of his day at a nursery group he still spends a great deal of time at home. Those children who for one reason or another do not go to a nursery group are going to rely entirely on their home and family to provide all the experience and stimulation they need. In the meantime it is vitally important that in our enthusiasm for what has perhaps unfortunately been dubbed ‘pre-school education’ (with its overtones, undertones and implications of a structured, formal programme of professionally planned teaching and a flavour of school-nursery rather than nursery-age learning) we do not overlook, disregard or underestimate what the good home offers a child. Home is the place in which a child learns to give and take affection and the security, responsibilities and limitations of being part of a group to which he inevitably belongs whether he likes it or not. He learns through close observation the role of father, mother, sibling, the skills of cooking, cleaning, laundering, making and repairing, house decorating and sewing, and diat adults may have absorbing interests which are nothing to do with their primary occupation.

We are already producing a generation of little boys who seem to have a very hazy idea of what fathers do when they leave the house every day unless their fathers have a job with which they can identify – ‘My dad’s a bus driver and he drives a great big red bus and it has a horn and a steering wheel and it’s hard to climb in because it’s high up where the seat is.’ The child whose father works in an office or a factory may fix his ideas on one specific aspect of such work-’My dad does a lot of telephoning’ or ‘He looks after a lot of big machines’ – but his limited experience can leave him very puzzled. Woe betide us if we allow a generation of children of either sex to grow up not knowing what a mother has to do. It may be that what a child learns from a limited home is not as much as we would like him to learn – but however good a nursery-school teacher is she can only show a child how a good nursery teacher behaves. Should the unlikely day ever arise, as one sometimes hears advocated, when children of two are taken into full-time nursery education we shall be depriving them of the most valuable, vital learning experience they will ever have at just the right time for them to benefit and learn from it.