Attachment theory is the close emotional and cognitive bond between a child and their primary caregiver. John Bowlby joined the Tavistock Clinic in London to research the theory that good enough parenting was essential for child development and mental health (Howe 2009: 42).
In observation five, I saw Sam being comforted by his key worker after his mother passed him to her before leaving. It seemed as if the mother was implicitly saying to Sam, "you are safe with her," which helped Sam settle at the nursery. I then observed that Sam only needed the reassurance of being cuddled for a short time before running off and playing with the other children. This is consistent with ‘exploration’ within the concept of a secure base where the child feels secure to explore their surroundings.
In week four I noticed that Sam was sitting on his key worker’s lap during song time. In week three he was stuck with writing his name and it was his key worker that he approached for help when he got slightly distressed; this is also consistent with the ‘secure base’ concept. Sam sought reassurance from other nursery assistants but not in a physical way; he would often smile at them as he was passing and would get a smile in return. Older children often need less physical contact and a smile is an adequate signal of availability (Howe 2011: 75).
Sam also appeared to have a secure attachment style, although at times his behaviour suggested an avoidant style pattern.
Mary Ainsworth worked with Bowlby in the Tavistock Clinic where she conducted a series of experiments in a laboratory on the separation and reunion of 12- to 18-month-old children with their mothers; she called this the ‘Strange Situation’. From the findings of these experiments Ainsworth was able to produce patterns of attachment and these have been adapted over time to: insecure avoidant – ignoring parenting; secure – may be distressed on separation but is comforted on reunion; insecure ambivalent – upset/angry on separation, inconsolable; and insecure disorganised/disorientated – a mix of all emotions (Cooper et al. 2011: 152).
During the five observations of Sam, I observed some signs of anxiety when he first got to nursery but these were short-lived, which I link to him having a secure attachment style because he was able to regulate his emotions and manage his anxiety.
He did, however, appear to display a lack of wanting to join in with the other children. Furthermore, in week one when a boy put a toy police helmet on his head he reacted angrily and shouted. This could be seen as Sam not having developed Empathy to Stage 3: Empathy for another’s feelings (Hoffman 2000 cited in Bee and Boyd 2012: 300). Lack of empathy is a sign of insecure attachment.
How Sam views the world and interprets his own reality can be looked at in terms of the ‘Internal Working Model’, which is based on mental representations of the world, including the subject’s set of expectations and beliefs of themself and/or other people; for example, can people be trusted? Howe (2009: 43) suggests that from a very early age children begin to understand that a certain degree of their environment, especially their social environment, is predictable. This often leads children to have strategies to get their needs met and protect them from their anxieties in their world.
On the basis of evidence from these observations, Sam’s internal working model could be that he sees adults as available and trustworthy and that if he smiles at them and gets reassurance from them he is less likely to experience anxiety. On the other hand, maybe he is used to angry adults and this is a strategy for him not to get involved in any disputes. It may also be hard for Sam to have that reassurance from children his age so he may seek being on his own as a way of avoiding anxiety.
Physical and motor development
From my observations Sam appeared to show adequate development in both gross and fine motor skills. It is important to acknowledge that a child’s physical development also depends on his biology, bearing in mind Vygotsky’s emphasis on how environmental issues have an impact on physical development (Sanders 2002: 18 cited in Beaty 2010: 183).
Gross motor development involves the use of larger muscles to complete a physical skill. Most children will naturally learn to develop a level of physical skill in their everyday environment, but not all children will get the opportunity to develop and refine these skills to be able to participate in specific games or sports. This may contribute to obesity (Sanders 2006: 4-5 cited in Beaty 2010: 184). The Child Development Checklist is a sample of behaviours that a child should be able to complete by the age of five (Beaty 2010: 183). Over all the observations, Sam demonstrated five of these behaviours. Firstly in observation five, Sam was able to complete a creative movement while balancing on the sandpit tub and secondly when Sam was running to the sandpit I observed that he could run with control over speed in one direction.
In week one the third behaviour I observed was Sam hopping and the fourth was him jumping; this was while he and the others in the blue group where lining up to have a cookery lesson. The nursery assistant asked them all to stand on one leg; Sam did this and also started hopping, then she asked them to jump with feet together; Sam appeared to enjoy this challenge. The fifth behaviour was when the nursery assistant continued with her tasks by throwing a ball, one by one, to each member of the group. Upon catching the ball they would throw it back. Sam was successful in both catching the ball and throwing it back.
Fine motor development involves the use of smaller muscles to complete a skill such as painting. Beaty (2010: 213) composed a checklist of developing fine motor skills my observations evidenced four of the eight examples.
Firstly in week five Sam showed his ability to play dominos and also made a fake plant in a pot in the sandpit. In week four the second behaviour was Sam making an envelope up using scissors and drawing utensils, which he received recognition for. The third behaviour was in week one when Sam had a cookery lesson; Sam’s chopping skills were observed to be very meticulous when he had to use a knife to chop up red and green peppers. It was commented on that he paid attention to cutting these up very fine.
The fourth behaviour was displayed in all the observations as Sam and his group have snack time at 10 am; this included Sam being asked if he would like water or milk to drink. Sam would ask for milk. The nursery assistant would then pour some milk into a measuring jug for Sam to pour out into his beaker. He was successful at getting all the milk in his beaker every week without spilling any. This is also in line with Beaty’s (2010: 213) checklist.
Cognitive and moral development
In all observations, Sam had a stuffed toy dog with him, which I suspect he could be using as a comforter (see play and peer relationships). In week one he spent a considerable amount of time in imaginative play, pretending to feed the dog and in week five he was pretending to have a conversation with it. This is consistent with Piaget’s theory of the cognitive stages of development. As Sam was 4 years and 4 months old he would be in the pre-operational stage where children have developed language, memory and imaginative play skills and are able to relate to experiences using mental imagery (Harris & Butterworth 2002: 185).
Evidence of language and memory were shown in week four when the blue group played the card game Pelmanism, or as it is more popularly known pairs. It appeared that Sam excelled at this game and won. Although Sam is usually quiet and in previous observations I had mixed feelings about his lack of talking, in this game he was very vocal in a fluent manner. This also reflects Vygotsky’s theory that learning is a social process where a child actively learns from their social interactions in their environment (Rowe and Wertsch 2002: 315).
In week three Sam demonstrated moral development when he took his toy stuffed dog into the activity room. Usually all toys would be placed back in their drawer before the children are allowed to do an activity; this at first went unnoticed by his key worker. After a few minutes she noticed and politely said, "Sam you know you are not allowed personal toys in here, let me put it on the side for you, where you can still see it until you go back into the main hall." Sam replied, "No, he is fine here." His key worker continued "Sam, you will be able to see it throughout the activity." Sam said, "He is fine here," and then his key worker explained, "But it is not fair on everyone else that you can have a toy and they cannot, please give it to me, I will just put it on the side." Sam gave her the toy and she put it on the seat next to me.
Berk (2006: 484) explains that moral development is a matter of internalisation to adopt the right action on one’s own. Sam was reluctant to hand the toy to his key worker, possibly in part because of its role as a comforter and separation may cause anxiety. However when reason was presented by the key worker he slowly came round, although the role of guilt played a part in Sam making the moral decision of handing over the toy, in that it would be unfair on everyone else who did not have a toy because they were not allowed to. It is suggested in Thompson (2006 cited in Berk 2006: 486) that empathy-based guilt is an important motivator of moral action in pre-school children.
Sam’s use of speech was at times limited; I observed him working things out by talking to himself which, according to Alibali & Siegler (2005: 128), is evidence of the linguistic regulation of behaviour and is known as private speech.
In week one, the nursery assistant was looking for two miniature straw hats like the one Sam put on his toy dog; she said, "There should be three straw hats like the one Sam had on the dog." She was continuously looking for them, when she found the other two Sam turned towards me (away from the other children) and counted on his fingers, to himself, one by one up to three. He then turned to the other children and said, "There are three hats."
Vygotsky viewed private speech as the child’s use of language to regulate their behaviour, which will become their inner speech, an internalised dialogue, and is essential to cognitive development (Alibali & Siegler 2005: 128).
At times Sam was observed using complex sentences in week four when he brought his stuffed toy dog into the activity room as the conversation with his key worker although initially defiant but was spoken using complex sentences (Bee & Boyd, 2012: 200).
During week three the blue group took part in a short spelling activity. The spelling activity was made into a game and although Sam did not get all his words right his key worker involved the entire group and ultimately guided their learning. I felt this was a good example of Vygotsky’s zone proximal development, which is where there is a teacher (adult) and/or peers help the child to maximise their learning.
The concept suggests that there is a limited amount that children can learn unaided but with support from adults and/or peers that threshold can be extended so the child is learning at the top end or in excess of their natural capability; this is also linked to scaffolding (Daniel et al. 2010: 180-182).
Scaffolding is a metaphor from construction; it is a temporary structure built to support the construction of a building and when the building is built, safe and secure the scaffolding is removed. Similarly, an adult can play such a role in a child’s development. When Sam’s key worker in week three was helping with spelling she was helping the children say the word by breaking it down to how each letter sounds but never actually said the word. The support that the key worker is giving is like a temporary scaffolding that in time will be removed as the child learns how to read unaided (Alibali & Siegler 2005: 119).
Play and peer relationships
Throughout the observations I observed Sam intermittently having playful relationships with the other children and also playing on his own. Peer relationships are an important part of early child development, and have been written about at length by Piaget (1965) and other theorists (Dunn 1993: 58).
In observations one, three and five Sam seemed to have playful relationships with two girls. In week three they were chasing him and kissing him on the cheek, then in week five one of the girls was playing footsy under the dominos table with him and when they had their photo taken she had her head on his shoulder. It has been suggested that relationships play an essential role in the development of the child’s sense of self (Sullivan 1953 cited in Dunn 1993: 58).
In week one when a boy wanted to play with Sam, the boy put a policeman’s helmet on Sam’s head. Sam shouted and threw the helmet off, which could be Sam displaying poor entry skills. Throughout the observations Sam has had his stuffed toy dog with him and at times has been involved in imaginative play with it. Make-believe appears to be a natural human tendency in childhood where a child forms mental structures called schemas; these are the fundamental foundations for developing wisdom and effective memory (Singer 1994: 10).
This is also consistent with Singer’s (1994: 10) stage two of the stages of play that Sam should be in. This stage is called symbolic play and children from two to five years are within this stage. It is defined by: play that distorts reality; pretend, pure assimilation. Implies representation of absent object; and compensatory play.
Sam’s attachment to his comfort object (the stuffed toy dog) was observed throughout all observations. This object could be seen to him to feel safe, relaxed and comforted, especially when away from his mother.
Winnicott (1971: 1–34) suggests that Sam’s stuffed toy dog could be acting as a transitional object, which is used as a substitute for the child to bridge the transition from close contact with his mother to being a more independent child. This could mean that Sam’s toy dog is his imaginary friend where Sam can confide his enjoyment or anxieties whist separated from his mother.
Sam could be in sub-stage one of ‘Symbolic play’. Piaget describes symbolic play as imaginative play where objects are used as a rehearsal for real life. This was observed with Sam and his stuffed toy dog in all the weeks but in particular in week one when he was pretending to feed the toy dog. However, in week three he got a toy fire engine and was also pretending to feed it. This is consistent with sub-stage one of symbolic play when a child projects symbolic schemas onto objects (Harris & Butterworth 2002: 212–213).
Sense of self
In observations three, four and five Sam had a lot of attention from two girls in the blue group. According to Ruble et al. (2007, cited in Daniel et al 2010: 186) by the age of four or five a child understands gender stability, which has developed from them having a gender identity from the age of two. Gender stability means that the child recognises that their gender is fixed and, in Sam’s case, that he will grow up to be a man.
Throughout the observations Sam seemed very intermittent with group play and would only play with a select three children but never at the same time. Due to this and the fact that Sam never ate snacks with the group but was very precise at certain tasks like playing dominos, Pelmanism and cutting up the red and green peppers I feel that Sam could have a defensive self-esteem, which is when a child appears to have good self-esteem but has low self-esteem traits (Daniel et al. 2010: 190–191).
There are two types of defensive self-esteem, type one and type two. From what I have observed of Sam I feel that he could be more suited to type two, described as children with low self-esteem possibly associated with traumatic experiences and/or issues around conditions of worth which is over compensated by the child striving to prove their ability at tasks (Daniel et al. 2010: 191). This also is consistent with what his key worker said to me in week five about Sam going through a hard time at home at the moment.
However, this is somewhat in conflict to Bandura (1982, cited in Schaffer 1996: 167), who states that boys with higher self-esteem are less conforming, more creative and academically more achieving there their same-sex peers. I observed Sam demonstrating being less conforming and being highly creative while it would appear from my observations that Sam was academically at an equal level with his peers.
In all the observations I felt that Sam was independent and really did not follow anyone, which is also consistent of a child with high self-esteem. According to Bandura (1982, cited in Schaffer 1996: 167), this influences the child’s general emotional state and such children are likely to have a highly developed sense of self-efficacy.
During all the weeks I observed Sam he showed signs of good self-efficacy. Bandura (1995: 2–3) concept of self-efficacy is at the heart of social cognitive theory and is explained as observational learning, social experience and reciprocal determinism in the development of personality; this is summarised by the child’s belief that that they have the ability to complete and succeed at given tasks.
During week four when there was a spelling activity and Sam’s key worker helped the children spell the words, Sam seemed confident enough to try and spell in front of his group while other children seemed visibly uncomfortable with this. Sam took the activities he was set during the observations with what could be seen as a certain amount of seriousness and it looked like he endeavoured to complete all tasks to the best of his ability. Bandura (1995: 6–8) continued to say that children with a strong sense of self-efficacy viewed challenging tasks as problems to overcome, they are enthralled in the task at hand, form commitment to their tasks and recover quickly from setbacks.
The setting, the staff and the culture within the nursery
Throughout the observations the nursery ran a tight timetable with no activity lasting more than 20 minutes. The activities varied from day to day and included free time, maths (counting farm animals), reading, story time, cooking, painting and every two weeks they would go swimming for an hour. Depending on how many children were in blue group (as the amount varied every observation, from six to ten), there was always one member of staff up to and including eight children and two members of staff for over eight children. The nursery seemed to have staff they could call up and come in at a minutes notice.
On my first observation I noticed that in the main hall each wall was a different bright colour and in one of the corners there was a table with a till on it; on the wall behind the till, it said children’s centre vets. This seemed popular with the children and they would make pretend prescriptions for the toy animals. In another corner there was a computer where children could play interactive learning games. On a wall there was a map of the world with a length of string pinned into countries of places staff and children had been on holiday or originated from. The string was then attached to the wall outside the map with either a postcard from that place or a comment about why the string was in that country.
Johnston and Williams (2009: 280) suggested that the learning environment plays a significant part of learning and should be treated as a learning tool. They continue to say that if the nursery respects the environment and setting, then this ultimately reflects in the respect they have for the children. Although I initially had reservations about the building and the awkward lay out, the staff were running a tight schedule and keeping the space they had tidy and presentable was a constant job throughout my observations.
According to Johnston and Williams (2009: 281), the learning environment should be set up in such a way to promote autonomy and suggest that the area could be split up into different environments such as: home corner and role play; creative; small construction blocks; large construction blocks; sand; water; books; writing; malleable and tactile; small world; music and sound making; maths; science/explorations; woodwork; and IT. The children’s centre had fourteen of these areas (excluding woodwork), although they were not all fixed areas, but were dressed for that particular activity.
The staff seemed to encourage the children to learn and develop new skills. Outside the toilets was a big poster with the numbers one to ten printed on it and animals to depict each number, so ten would have the number ten printed but next to it would be ten ducklings.
Every time the children washed their hands, the staff would get the children to count how many children there were and then ask one of them to point to that number on the poster. If they got it wrong then another child would be asked. If the children had to wait until a room was free, either the activity room or the toilets, then the member of staff would ask the children to do a task like balancing on one leg.
Key findings from research have suggested that adult–child interactions that involve sustained sharing and thinking have been linked to good outcomes for children, especially when open questions are used by the adult to extend the child’s thinking (Siraj-Blatchford et al. 2002 cited in Johnston and Williams 2009: 279).