It is hard to recall a time when the pedagogy of the Early Years has been under such scrutiny. It seems there is a near-daily onslaught, criticising the strategies employed in Early Years settings across the land. Much of this seems to pay scant attention to the wealth of research we have which explores teaching and learning in this age group, and that is one the curious features of this particular debate. Consequently, play in the Early Years is often challenged, and it’s not uncommon to see calls for a more formal style of teaching to be employed at a younger and younger age. This notion of drawing down Year 1 into Reception is deeply concerning to many Early Years experts.
Perhaps this is why we are seeing mixed messages reaching Early Years teachers. On the one hand we have The Hundred Review: What research tells us about effective pedagogic practice and children’s outcomes in the Reception year and on the other hand we have Bold Beginnings: The Reception curriculum in a sample of good and outstanding primary schools. While there is some agreement in some of the messages to come from each document, it is fair to say we are currently seeing some opposing strategies being employed. This was clear to see when I was recently choosing a primary school for my son.
So what actually works when it comes to our very youngest learners? Educational Consultant Margaret Longstaffe, has some answers. “The things that work with our youngest children haven't changed. They're the same things that have always worked and that's because they are carefully and closely linked to the age and stage of development of the children, their needs and their interests. The magic happens when you link this to children's passions and relevant interests, to what excites them now, to creativity, to joy, to unusual and special things, to the new or strange, different or challenging, to sensory and experiential learning that sparks things in our youngest children that sets off a chain of events that supports them and enables them to learn something new or develop understanding of something they already know or are familiar with.”
Simon Kidwell is head of Hartford Manor Primary School and Nursery. He is confident that the Early Years provision at Hartford Manor is a beacon of excellence, in part due to his belief that there are four key ingredients that have enabled his setting to thrive: “We have highly trained staff, an enabling well-resourced environment, a balance between child- and teacher-led learning, and confident leadership.”
However, Simon sees conflicts in some of the ideas mooted by the powers that be: “I am concerned that the direction of travel from OFSTED and the Department for Education appears to view Early Years as an extended arm of KS1. School leaders must develop Early Years practice that is contextual, purposeful and takes account of different stages of child development.”
Simon’s sentiments are shared by many other experts in the field. Kym Scott, Early Years trainer and consultant points to the great need for play to feature strongly in the Early Years. Kym points to numerous research studies that have demonstrated the importance of play to children in Early Years. The High/Scope Preschool Curriculum Comparison study which explored the relative effects through to age 23 of direct instruction and traditional play-based nursery curriculum models found that in intellectual and academic performance there was virtually no difference between the pedagogical approaches. But at age 15 the direct instruction group committed twice the number of acts of misconduct than the High/Scope group, and by age 23 47% of the direct instruction group was treated for emotional impairment.
“This must lead to us asking the question, what do we want for the children we teach?” says Kym. “We know that over-formalization too early is at best pointless and at worst damaging – there are no longitudinal studies that support this approach as effective in the long run. This is not about giving children a free for all in Early Years. I don’t know of a reception class in the land, for example, that doesn’t provide some short bursts of adult-led teaching. But when children are also given extended periods in which to initiate their own learning within a rich learning environment, they are able to apply and consolidate what they have previously been taught, plus they construct their own knowledge through their play and exploration.”
However, for the vast majority of Early Years experts, key to learning through play are adults, that join children in the places that they choose to play, follow their lead, and interact with them in ways which extend which extend their thinking, language and learning in general. As Kym explains, “Often during these interactions there is an element of direct instruction involved. Take for example the adult I saw joining a group of children who had decided to make their own hairdressers salon. The adult suggested the children make an appointment book. She then directly taught them what needed to feature in it, that they would need to write the appointment time, customers name and who would be doing their hair. The children then eagerly took this on themselves and started to collect appointments themselves from other children. When they struggled to spell one child’s name correctly, the adult taught them the grapheme that it began with. During this episode, it was clear to see that play was providing an excellent vehicle for the literacy learning of the children, but equally, literacy was being introduced into their play by the teacher in a way that made sense and enhanced their play.”
We are fortunate that we have so much research to inform what happens in Early Years. We know that play helps to engage the child’s brain and helps to make learning memorable, and that direct instruction is a valuable tool in the Early Years’ teacher’s kit, so both feature strongly in the Early Years curriculum. And long may that continue. As Margaret explains, “Young children are naturally curious. Planning and developing rich, enabling learning environments that encourage their curiosity, their ability to investigate and discover are key. Children thrive in these exciting learning environments both inside and out. That's what we all want.”
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.