THE McGowan twins used to pee in unison. It’s the one thing I most clearly remember from my first months in primary one at St Augustine’s in Coatbridge at the end of the 60s. Their saucer-like faces, their matching Alice bands, their impressive yellow flood across the classroom linoleum.

What I don’t remember is our elderly lady teacher getting angry or even annoyed with them. As the janny came in to mop up, and the McGowans beamed red at their new desks, she proceeded calmly with our interrupted sing-song. I recall being uncomfortable with the stripy ties, the sudden bell rings, the shadowy adultness of the whole building.

I also have memories, before this, of my working midwife mum dropping me off at a playschool: a place full of toys, where I could wear my own Thunderbirds T-shirt.

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But the kindliness and forbearance of that teacher (I’m remembering a Mrs McGeoch) is my most indelible memory from that period: gently handling her anxious room of the only recently regimented.

Cut to my own daughters – the elder in the classic uniform, the younger in a crested sweatshirt – and their first days at Glasgow’s Hyndland Primary, one before their fifth birthday and one after.

The poignancy hasn’t left me: there they are, on the first steps to normalisation and institutionalisation, numeracy and literacy, rights and responsibilities. Going through the big official doors at one fixed time, and out the big official doors at another.

Perhaps ambivalence is the better word.

What occasions this memory rush of schooldays stress? It’s triggered by the latest stage in one of the most patient and dogged campaigns in Scottish public life: the call for a relationship-centred, play-based, public kindergarten system from three to seven years.

The latest significant advocate is the SNP MSP (and teacher of 30 years standing) Kaukab Stewart. She has put down a lengthy and comprehensive motion in Holyrood, advocating the raising of starting school to seven years, alongside the aforementioned kindergarten system.

The motion certainly crams everything in. It holds that “social play is a natural learning drive that helps develop physical fitness, social skills, cognitive capacities and personal qualities”. That the Pisa [Programme for International Student Assessment] ratings of “countries with later school starting ages have performed better than those with earlier starts” (ours can be as early as four – so Scotland is an “outlier” internationally).

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Also, the motion claims that the three-to-seven reform “could contribute to closing the attainment gap and be a significant anti-poverty measure, and that it would help provide a true level playing field for all of Scotland’s children … giving every child time to develop the skills and capacities that underpin educational success, improving long-term outcomes and giving every child the best start in life.”

I’m a long-standing advocate of the power and potential of a more playful, and play-literate society, throughout the lifespan.

The great virtue of this particular campaign is that it starts at the right end, and concerns a stage of humanity – the early years that shape our beloved children – that could hardly fail to attract a big enough consensus.

Thus the importance of the cross-party support for Stewart’s motion (no Tories or Labour yet, though the MSP notes that in “private conversations” there is support). This motion expresses the great policy hope of a proportional democracy. Which is that levels of provision and social support sediment themselves into the system, like the Scandinavian and Nordic countries, and pertain even when party-politics fluctuate between left and right.

We arguably have that sedimentation in Scotland, with policies like no tuition fees and no prescription charges, or the child payment. What likely incoming Scottish government would wheel backwards on those benefits?

So, could we get to a similar consensus on raised school age and play-based kindergarten?

I don’t think the educational research is a barrier. Indeed, it’s relentlessly supportive.

One of the challenging claims of the kindergarten case is that children need much more “outdoors”, “rough-and-tumble”, or (more politely put) “active” play. For a sense of autonomy and self-mastery to be strongly established for the future, things need to be physically built, attempted and stretched for in the early years.

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Will that involve the risk of injury, scratches, livid bruises, even limb breaks? Certainly. So what, might the nervous modern parent say, is the developmental benefit of all that?

A powerful position paper has just been released by the Canadian Paediatric Society titled Healthy Childhood Through Outdoor Risky Play: Navigating The Balance Through Injury Prevention. It asks us to make the crucial distinction between risk and hazard: “A risk arises in situations where a child can recognize and evaluate the challenge and decide on a course of action based on personal preference and self-perceived skill. For example, how high to go on a climbing structure or how fast to run down a slope.”

A hazard, the paper continues, “is posed by situations where the potential for injury is beyond the child’s capacity to recognise it as such or to manage it. For example, an improperly anchored slide could topple under a child’s weight, or a rotten tree limb may break”.

For those who worry about the idea of children at play with tools, fire, balancing, or otherwise bashing around – and that might involve teachers as well as parents – the Canadian paediatrics want us to consider this distinction well.

Intervening to prevent hazard is good; but intervening to prevent healthy risk is damaging and suppressing.

They also make a statistical point about the much lower level of injury involved in free play, as compared to children’s participation in organised and equipped sport.

Here are the Canadian stats, which can’t be that different from ours: “The injury rate from climbing trees (195 cases per 100,00) was between five to 22 times lower than for other popular activities, such as indoor and outdoor soccer (4296 cases per 100,000), falls from playground equipment (4090 cases per 100,000), cycling (2816 cases per 100,000), and skateboarding (881 cases per 100,000).”

The Canadians make a strong recommendation for public authorities, in their framing of risks for children – that matters not be as “safe as possible”, but as “safe as necessary”.

Any scholar of play, particularly if they take a mammalian perspective, recognises the salience of this. What’s “necessary” is that young organisms use their play zones to rehearse essential life skills – not just physical, but also social and emotional – at a time when they have the best chance of bedding in.

As Stewart put it in a recent interview, a new kindergarten system “will enable children to develop the vital thinking, social, interpersonal, and problem-solving skills that will unlock their learning capability by the time they’re ready to begin formal education”.

“Under the current system, a child as young as four could be expected to sit still in class for almost an hour,” continues Stewart. “This is of no benefit to the child whatsoever, where so much more can be gained from experiences of fun, active and social play – particularly with a focus on outdoor play.”

There’s no need to underestimate the shifts required, nor to imagine this shift won’t take time. It can’t be done on the cheap: we need high (and new) qualifications for such kindergarten teachers.

Parents will have to open up channels of thinking and feeling about their children’s development, other than emitting a sigh of relief that they’re finally “in class”.

We also have to be careful about relative deprivation here.

There will be no great willingness from parents to cast children out to play spaces that are filled with the walking wounded.

It’s incontrovertible that a truly child-friendly society requires a general rise in social and economic security.

But do I imagine the future McGowan sisters of 2024 and beyond, freed from their angst-inducing regimen, hanging joyfully from trees instead of peeing passively upon the schoolroom floor?

Yes I do.