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At ToucanLearn we promote a 'learning programme' for children from birth to 5 years, and although we hint at how this is derived in our FAQ, we don't offer an in depth description of the processes we took to devise at our 'programme' - we'd like to offer that detail here.
At the outset, we examined a number of key texts in child development theory. Although these are based on science and academic rigour, they propose differences in the understanding of how children learn and develop. We don't favour a single theory of child development, but instead looked at the practical components and created our own 'scale' based on what different proponents offer. ToucanLearn is built on many different sources but some of the key sources include work published by The American Academy of Pediatrics, we borrow from the unique longitudanal study still ongoing as Child of Our Time and presented by Professor Robert Winston, and the work of eminent child psychologts such as Dr. Richard Woolfson, Professor Tanya Byron, Professor Linda Pound, Jennie Lindon and other less well known, but no less important, individuals.
Common to most of the developmental literature and sources was the way that they break down 'development' into a number of key areas. These aren't static, but there are key skill areas examined by child psychologists and practitioners. We concentrated on four particular areas that were largely common to developmental analyses, and devised our own scale unique to ToucanLearn, but based on the experiences of different proponents. These areas of development are:-
- Fine motor skills
- Gross motor skills
- Cognitive skills
- Language development
In order to offer this to a broad audience rather than the scientific community, we refer to these as 'Making', 'Moving', 'Thinking' and 'Speaking'.
We created a scale of milestones for each of these four broad areas of development. We took the first five years of development and created a chart based on age, from day 0 when a baby is born, to day 2,190 when our programme ends (when a child turns 6). For example, our scale pinpoints the day when a child should be able to pick up an object, when they should be able to clap, when they should be able to understand instructions, tell a story and so on. Our chart, which we don't publish, has hundreds of milestones across these four broad areas. Some of these achievements are trivial, others siginifcant, but to a parent or childminder, all of these are significant in the context of their own children.
We then created hundreds of activities aimed at encouraging each developmental milestone, no matter how significant. We categorised each activity against our derived scale. Every activity is categorised across all four areas, with a score relating to the age of a child in days, pinpointing the day on which a child should be able to complete the activity. Each activity has a single overriding focus, and this is the focus that we state for each activity, offering each as a making, moving, learning or language based activity.
Unfortunately for us, not all children develop at the same rate and although many of these milestones are linear in that they will be acquired in a certain order (for example, a child learns to stand before they can walk, and jump before they can hop), our 'programme' has to offer deviation to account for differences in development. There is also a potential disjoint between developmental theory and real children! This is where 'feedback' comes in. We offer the option for every adult participating in ToucanLearn to 'feed back' in our blog area as to whether each activity was too difficult, too easy or just right. This is a positive feedback mechanism that does two things.
First, we track the progress of each ToucanLearn child along four axes, one for each key development area, and depending on the feedback, we move them up or down each scale. The scales relate to age, so if an activity aimed at teaching a child to clap is found to be too easy, we increase their 'fine motor' or 'making' score so that we take account of their ability; if it's too hard, we decrease their score. This ensures that the activities offered to them are appropriate to their capabilities. At the outset, we offer activities appropriate to their age in days across each of the four skill areas. Over time and with feedback they are awarded a 'handicap' for each skill area that may be positive or negative. This accounts for differences in the development of our different children across different skill acquisition.
The second feature of 'feedback' improves the placement of every individual activity. Our scale derived from developmental literature might have walking or talking in the wrong place, but the collated feedback of each participant pushes the activity backwards or forwards depending on the response. Over time this will have an averaging effect that refines the position of every activity thus feedback for each individual improves the experience for everyone.
Because our scales are based on age, if a parent registers their children at birth and participates intensively in our programme for a few months, but then goes away for two years and then comes back, the activities presented will still be relevant to the child. If a childminder registers one child in order to access activities for several children of a similar age, then our programme falls down, because the benefit of individual tracking is lost. That's not to say that activities won't be broadly relevant, but it won't be possible to drive each child according to their unique abilities.
Our feedback mechanism also allows for our programme to be used for children with special needs or different learning disabilities. Although it can't be completely accurate for every situation, we believe that the core experience remains relevant for such children. Their initial participation in our programme needs to adjusted according to their capabilities, and progress may be different to other children, but the linear nature of development across our key areas remains relevant and we can work with parents and carers to ensure that they remain on a suitable path.
Every activity is also rated according to the UK government's Early Years Foundation Stage Areas (EYFS) of Learning and Development. This information is offered only to Premium Members as an enticement for people to subscribe. We have to derive enough revenue to continue offering our service because we don't currently receive any governmental or other sponsorship! EYFS is very much the 'icing' on a programme based on child developmental psychology, anyone participating in ToucanLearn will benefit from the underlying science whilst also being able to fulfil and track their progress through EYFS.
If you're still reading at this stage, then clearly you are interested in the route that we took to bring ToucanLearn to market and we hope that you have understood and agree with the path we have taken. We conceived our initial ideas early in 2007 and spent over two years researching and developing the service before our formal launch in June 2009. Every child is different, but we hope that our programme will remain broadly relevent to the majority of participants and whether the science is important to you or not, we hope that we can stimulate an interest in learning and development and foster a strong one to one relationship between every child and their parents and carers regardless!