Sunday, 2 October 2011

Equipment for the EYFS: balancing child-led and adult-initiated learning

One of the trickiest dilemmas in the early years is how to balance adult-chosen planning and resourcing with opportunities for children to follow their individual interests.

This balance is something which can easily get knocked off centre, in my experience of working with nurseries and playgroups. Some practitioners try to ensure that all their planning is led by the interests of individual children, usually by having a ‘target child of the week’ type of system.

This means that planning tends to shift focus radically from one week to the next, in keeping with the rota of focus children. Yet for those children, one week is rarely enough for them to widen their experiences and develop their skills much. It is also very difficult to build up a good range of resources to deepen children’s interests, with such a short timescale. As a result, the materials to support the children may be insufficient to generate real enthusiasm. 

A topic- or theme-led approach allows staff to collect resources over longer periods of time, but has its own drawbacks. Usually, if you look closely you will find that many of the children will either have no idea of what the topic is, or have little interest in it. They will want to play with the things they like, with their friends, whether the topic is supposed to be ‘transport’ or ‘houses’.

I recently worked with a staff team as they dug a collection of materials out of the cupboard for the ‘people who help us’ topic. When we looked at them together, we wondered whether any of the children would really see the overarching connection of the topic. Yet not long ago, one of the children had been in the family car when it had broken down, and then been fixed by the AA. 

The drama of this event ‑ the arrival of the van and the range of tools and electronic equipment ‑ all made quite an impact on his imagination. He talked about the event and drew some pictures; but if the nursery had had a collection of mechanic-related resources at hand, this could have prompted some wonderfully rich play.

This is why I think that early year practitioners might want to think about maintaining and developing collections of resources for special play opportunities, in addition to developing the core set of materials that are available for the children to access themselves.

Children’s interests do not exist in some kind of vacuum, to be observed by practitioners. An important role of early years education is to widen their experiences, to introduce them to new and stimulating things. So, whilst I am a strong advocate for free-flow play, we have to be very careful in our management of time and resources to ensure that children experience a broad curriculum that promotes their development.

If a child has a language delay, for example, they might choose to spend much of the day playing very purposefully with materials that do not involve any talking. This may pass the time very well for both child and adult alike, but the child’s prime needs will have been neglected. As learning becomes increasingly language-based later in school, the child will struggle – and may even be seen as a child who did very well in the early years but was ‘let down’ by the teachers in Key Stage One and beyond. We need to think carefully not only about the range of resources, but how each area of resourcing helps a child’s learning across the whole curriculum.

As well as thinking carefully about children’s interests and free-flow play, I think that practitioners should also consider whether the same resources should be available throughout the year. I would argue not. If lots of new children are starting in September, then it is a good idea to limit the number of resources that the children can access.

Few children will be used to managing an environment with a hundred or more different types of resources. It probably makes more sense to have a high-quality but restricted range of equipment at first, along the lines of Kate Greenaway Nursery School’s ‘Core Experiences’.

The time spent teaching the children how to manage these resources will increase their autonomy and make things run more smoothly throughout the year – young children quickly learn how to mix paints, clean out paint pots, brushes and glue pots, and how to put everything away where it belongs.

The resources which are offered to the children should be carefully structured to promote their learning. For example, three different sized dolls, each with their own specific cot, nappies and baby-grows will provide many opportunities for exploring size and matching; a random pile of dolls in a crate with a load of different clothes will not.

The same approach can be taken with other sets of resources. For a child interested in cars and vans, the standard set of early years equipment must seem terribly dull – either a collection of identical plastic cars, or a heap of battered cars, different in scale and size.

A nursery in Tower Hamlets which I visited recently was much more inspiring – there was a small set of well-chosen cars to play with, all the same size, and all the right shape to use with the garage set and other equipment. Instead of a roadway mat, the children used blocks to make roads, bridges and flyovers. But best of all was the resourcing for those children with a developing interest.

The nursery had a carefully looked-after set of scale models of contemporary cars and vans, with the right logos and model numbers on them. In some cases, they had brochures or print-offs from the internet to go with them. A small group of children were absolutely delighted when a nursery nurse took these out and they spent a long time engaged in both play and discussion about brands and models.

Other special collections can work just as well, and putting these collections together gives scope to staff to be creative, responsible, and take pride. Recently, I watched a child new to a Tower Hamlets nursery play for over an hour with a collection of beautiful stones and pebbles, some shiny, some rough, large and small, colourful and plain. Collections of natural materials like this have endless fascination to children and can provide starting points for wider investigations into the natural world.

Images from Lighting the Fire by Community Playthings
Many years ago, the Oxford Pre-School Project identified the particular value of adults grading equipment like construction kits, and keeping some back for the right time. The child who is really competent building with Duplo is likely be thrilled when an adult sets up a new and more challenging construction experience – perhaps Lego, or Meccano – especially for him or her.
Books, songs, rhymes and poems should also be carefully selected and structured, and resources collected to go with them. The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) has produced a useful guide to developing a ‘Core Book’ collection. A small collection of high-quality picture books, along the lines recommended, will certainly be much better than a large number of books of variable quality.

Planning across the year should aim to familiarise the children deeply with all of the core books. This will mean that every week, there will be a planned read-aloud programme, consisting of a book the children love and are familiar with; a book they are getting to know; and a new book to introduce.

Each core book should have a range of resources – a story sack, magnet board play and dressing-up clothes, for example. A similar approach can be taken with poems and songs. Across the whole collection, you will want to ensure that songs cover a range of pitches and tempos and books represent different cultures, and show boys and girls engaged in a wide range of roles and play activities.

Non-fiction books are also important, and can extend other resources well –for example, books about churches, mosques and other places of worship can inspire children’s block play.
Finally, storage and organisation are hugely important. Where children can easily see what is in boxes and trays (either through labelling, or the use of transparent boxes), they can manage the environment much better as they play and when it comes to tidying-up time. If ten paint brushes are available, all splayed and jammed into a plastic pot, then children can only choose to do painting which involves big movements and marks.

On the other hand, if brushes are graded and displayed from the smallest to the largest, and the bristles are looked after, then a child can make a choice about which brush suits her purpose. Everything should be presented beautifully, with care, in a way which encourages children to make informed choices and look after the equipment.

Thank you for permission to use the photos: Community Plaything - Early Years furniture

Kathy Sylva, Carolyn Roy and Marjorie Painter Childwatching at playgroup and nursery school 
Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) The Core Book List 
Kate Greenaway Nursery School and Children’s Centre Core Experiences for the Early Years Foundation Stage 
Lighting the Fire

This article was first published in Nursery World


  1. Dear Julian

    I just wanted to thank you for such an inspiring article.

    I have just taken over as manager of a small pre-school in an area where parents have very high expectations about what children should achieve.

    The pre-school has got lots of lovely resources, but we feel something has been lacking in some way, and that some of our children are already getting bored. The deputy and I have been struggling with this tension between planning for children's interests, while at the same time ensuring we are providing an interesting, challenging environment for them.

    Your article has helped me to bring my thoughts together in a much clearer way and I am quite excited about the 'Core Experiences' idea.

    Allison Aves

  2. Thanks Allison - I'm really glad you found the piece useful and wish you well in your important work with the preschool. Julian