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UK Early Years: First Principles

UK Early Years Ed- First Principles

The UK’s EYFS

The Department of Education requires all providers of early years care and education to adhere to the principles set out in the EYFS Statutory Framework 2021 to foster learning and development that delivers the early years outcomes as defined in the 7 areas of Learning:

  • 3 Primes - Communication & Language, Physical Development, Personal Social & Emotional Development: typically focussed on in the first 2 years of life
  • 4 Specific - Numeracy, Literacy, Understanding the World, Expressive Arts & Design: typically introduced and then reinforced throughout the 2-3 yr old age group and then structured into more of a curricula programme in preschool by age 3-5

In this, we follow the principles outlined in Birth to 5 Matters as the guidance in how to track, model and assess children in our setting and use digital tracking software that has been built on those principles (see help for EY Log / Famly / Blossom Education). And we deliver this through a mixture of child-led learning and adult initiated or focussed activities as the children mature to preschool

Development Matters

What is Child Led Learning?

The theory of child-led learning is well established and posits that children, particularly in the early years, learn best through play. This is fundamental to all children and some might argue, to all adults. In fact, there is a debate raging throughout educational policy as to whether the traditional adult-led / teacher instructive (or what we would call “didactic”) models of teaching are relevant for a future that requires children to think less mechanically (i.e. you tell me what to do, I’ll try and remember and then replicate) and more iteratively (i.e. creatively and exploratively). 

The early years is the only segment of the educational life cycle of a child that fully employs the theories of learning through play. The topline principles are set out in the Birth to 5 Matters framework:

It speaks to the need to understand that every child is unique and if presented with nurturing relationships from a skilled educator, in an environment that is replete with the exciting materials for him / her to acquire knowledge and skills through, then learning and development will occur. It is the very reason for continuous provision - the way you lay out your rooms with resources to challenge and excite the children to self-explore, learn and develop freely. See how we do continuous provision in our Practice Procedures below

See this blog for some useful guidance on continuous provision and some further thoughts here from Alistair Bryce-Cleggs. Another useful source is Evaluating Early Years Practice in your School, by Ann Langston.

Adult Led / Focussed Activities

But as the children get older and move into preschool, there is more of a requirement for the educators to become more “active”. There is a balance between what the child is capable of achieving and learning on their own and what needs to be introduced - as concepts / ideas or themes - by an experienced educator to expand the child’s horizons. The theory is based on something called the “zone of proximal development”, first posited by Lev Vygotsky, as that space between what is known and what is not known by the learner, the space in which an educator stands to guide, nurture, encourage, facilitate and steer the learner to acquire more knowledge. 

The challenge of the educator is to find that balance: to know what the child knows and what he / she doesn’t, to present new information to him / her in a way that is appealing and exciting and then to act as a guide to steer the child to learn him or herself, grasping concepts and moving forward with them independently. As Julie Fisher writes in her book, ‘Starting from the Child’, the educator (adult or child peer) needs to be informative without being imposing: a balance needs to be struck. 

And that kind of makes sense. After all, letters and numbers are intrinsic to our adult life but are wholly alien concepts to a child - they would not arrive at understanding what constitutes a numeral and its relation to computation without an educator steering them towards that knowledge. And that is why we have talking time, letters and sounds, and Jolly Phonics as fun, play based but definitively adult-led activities. The theory was defined by Jerome Bruner as “scaffolding”, where we incrementally build knowledge, step by step.

The Importance of Routine

Leading on from this is the importance of routine in establishing active learners in the early years. The Highscope methodology, based in the US, is entirely rooted upon this theory and is still, to date, the only early years practice that has a longitudinal study that backs up its efficacy against control groups (see the Perry Preschool Study). The principles are simple: that with established routines, children take comfort and draw confidence in their learning, predicting what they can expect by way of activities they can pursue. 

The educators base this in and around what they call a “Plan | Do | Review” cycle, which would allow the children to sit together to discuss a topic or idea, how they can take it forward individually or collectively, and then to take stock, come the end of the activity, and discuss what they liked, didn’t like, what they learned and how they would like to take it forward: a child led approach to preschool education that is thematically driven by educators.

Moreover, structure and routine is fundamental to the effective delivery of bilingual practice. Without it, there is always the risk that one language takes precedence over another - either because of a more dominant practitioner or out of natural preference for one language by the children. To mitigate this, we rotate lead practice between our two teachers.