For far too many years childcare has been right at the bottom of the pile.

This goes back as far as the 17th Century, when wealthy women farmed their children out to wet nurses rather than ruin their social lives and their bodies.

Times have changed, but it is only comparatively recently that childcare has been seen as having genuine value for the child. And now we have early education, still a mystery to the average parent.

Education, after all, involves sitting down at a desk, doesn't it?

What's that got to do with what goes on in a nursery or play-group? Well, early years (under-fives) specialists have been arguing for some time that children learn far more in their first five years by doing, copying and playing than they ever will as adults.

Observation led to research and, finally, to the government establishing a foundation stage for children from the age of three to when they leave reception class.

This means that all under-fives in pre-schools, nurseries, play-groups and reception classes now follow a curriculum that literally provides a foundation for more formal learning.

But what does this mean for parents?First, achieving the early learning goals is not like passing an exam. They define the core abilities and skills children need in order to progress in education and nothing more. The really interesting aspect is how you can help your children to achieve them through play.

The goals themselves sound frighteningly abstract. For example, the mind boggles at the implications of knowledge and understanding of the world. But a child's world is small; our task is to make it bigger by exposing them to experiences that lead naturally to subjects such as physics and biology.

It's fun too for the professionals, but an enormous amount of work. As such, activities have to be part of a structured day, forming part of an early years curriculum, embracing all six early learning goals. And fun or not, all childcare settings that offer free early education places are Ofsted inspected. As of September 2001, all childcare providers, including childminders, will be too. That is no bad thing, for it validates at last an valid and innovative, but largely unrecognised branch of education.