In Early Years, every day involves the practitioner observing, reflecting, and acting on instinct, in order to help create or support inspirational, fun, and memorable learning experiences. The aim is to inspire a love of learning. Teaching and learning in the Early Years is all about fun. And it should involve a lot of play. However, statements like these are applied less and less in schools, even with our youngest children.
Let me give you an example of one day as a teacher in my class. In the morning I could be helping construct a fantastical vehicle, teaching joining techniques, and researching components. There will be a back-and-forth conversation, whereby, in the best-case scenario, both the child and I learn a little more about vehicles, as we both extend our knowledge through these “mutually constituting processes”.
In the afternoon, a large tray is transformed into an animated match of air hockey with a small wooden plate becoming a puck. I am privy to this experience but not central. I pick the right moment to encourage scoring, which is lapped up by the participants.
Mark-making, counting, taking turns, hand-eye coordination, and gross motor movements are all contained within this one game. Not forgetting the smiles, excitement, and feelings of achievement the children experience by being empowered to create their own learning. Being independent and developing a sense of self is a prime area of the EYFS within Personal, Social and Emotional Development (PSED) and is a characteristic of effective learning (EYFS framework, 2021).
“Being independent and developing a sense of self is a prime area of the EYFS.”
This is why I care so much about my work in Early Years. Co-constructed learning allows the luxury of following the children’s interests and teaching to their needs.
I originally trained in primary, where plans were set weeks in advance. As I taught the youngest children in primary, I felt this method of teaching – in one-hour blocks, hour after hour – was disrupting the children’s love for learning any subject, and my enjoyment of teaching.
In Early Years, my plans are fluid and can be adjusted at a moment’s notice. An example of this was when the class received a construction vehicle Duplo set. The children loved this new toy and became very interested in these vehicles. As I reflected and observed, I brought in trays with sand and wooden bricks. They enjoyed this for a while but I noticed they were building larger models from Duplo. So I brought in large foam bricks which were then used to build forts, pirate ships, and castles.
But they returned to the construction vehicles, curious about the machines and their functionality. Noticing this, I organised a trip to a construction site and we studied the book Goodnight Construction Site. We animated the story, moving to the words and exploring the new vocabulary. This is language and communication at work, a prime area of learning and central to the EYFS framework (2021).
“The children trust me to take their ideas seriously and I trust them to know how they learn best.”
I always look to the children for inspiration and try to view the world through their lens. Encouraging ownership of their classroom and what they learn is as important to me as it is to them. I find out what inspires them through our weekly meetings.
We sit together and look at our photographs of the week’s activities. We discuss what we enjoyed in terms of what I “taught” them in carpet time, as well as what they chose and experienced in play. We talk about resources and ways to improve our classroom. On the rare occasions that they don’t have any ideas, I give them several, not linked to an “outcome” but from what I have observed they have enjoyed. These conversations are personal and establish trust. The children trust me to take their ideas seriously and I trust them to know how they learn best.
Bringing joy into the classroom has become my priority. This often occurs naturally in “experiential learning”. Over the course of the year, we do tastings to understand “sour”, and take a trip to a chocolate factory to experience a museum, smell chocolate, then describe it. I’ve brought a hamster, dog, and baby to school to inspire interest in living things. When developing an understanding of maps, we read “pirate” treasure maps to dig at the spot marked X in our garden and find the box of Haribo. These experiences support language development and understanding of the world. They inspire the children to love learning.
Further, I have come to fully respect the unique and competent child. Approaches such as Reggio Emilia, and experts such as Julie Fisher (2016) and Anna Ephgrave (2018) have led me on the path to understanding that children are an inspiration to one another, and don’t always need adults or a curriculum to inspire them. We can stand back and admire what they can already do, in the environment we have developed with them.
The sad thing is that often teachers of other phases, educationalists, politicians, and even parents, do not understand the learning in Early Years. This is why the joy and magic can be lost. They see play and learning as two very different paths, which as Einstein himself would tell you, is not the case.
“Children are an inspiration to one another, and don’t always need adults or a curriculum to inspire them.”
Play often involves problem-solving, negotiation, imagination, and of course maths and writing. Yet it is viewed as something unimportant and separate from “real learning”, which is often believed to be a teacher-directed approach.
For several years, I have read posts on social media from Early Years teachers early in the academic year, deeply concerned with academic requirements that are not statutory, but grounded in fear and worries over Ofsted and senior leader directed requests that are not reflective of child development.
Teachers are under pressure to do a certain amount of writing and phonics and are required to use “workbooks” in each “subject”, which is often writing, maths, and topic. It is obvious that these specific areas of learning are being focused on rather than the prime areas of Physical Development and Communication and Language [PSED], as set by the EYFS Framework (2021).
These teachers talk about “lessons” and how there is almost no time for play. As Early Years teachers and practitioners, we know this is wrong. Yet often we are scared to speak up.
How can we ensure our children are always inspired in Early Years? What will we do to protect them from adult initiatives and academics they are not ready for? We must remember how it felt to be lost in the moment as a child; truly happy and joyful in play. We must remember that the learning we experienced in our own childhoods revolved around trying something out that we had chosen. That has to be the inspiration for us all.
“How can we ensure our children are always inspired in Early Years?”
My advice is to remain strong. Keep Early Years as the inspirational setting it has always been for young children. Show whomever you need to the EYFS Framework and its stipulations. Insist on play. As the experts in our field, we know how children learn and understand the foundations they need to continue to become life-long learners. We need to have the confidence in our craft.
Imagine if we all did this; stood our ground and stood up for childhood; refusing to formalise the curriculum early and ignoring unnecessary pressure that early academic learning often puts children under. What a fantastic place schools would be for all children.