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Is a shared understanding the key to effective learning?

Maureen Hunt

A child starts learning in the womb, but real learning is perceived to start much later and is certainly not often associated with the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS).  Real learning is often perceived to start in school at Key stage 1 and is typically defined by a child sitting with a pencil in their hand, or by an adult talking to them, so how can we ensure that learning in the EYFS is valued and what principles can we take from the pedagogy?

In early years, it looks to the untrained eye as though children are ‘just playing’.  Play is a crucial element in good early years practice, but if you look carefully you will see the child learning and practising new skills, extending their vocabulary, exploring and testing themselves and the world around them, developing socially, learning societal and cultural norms, expressing their needs and developing self-confidence. When you consider all this, it certainly looks like ‘real learning’, indeed to the child there is no distinction between play and learning. In early years settings, the adult plays a crucial role in their interactions with children at play using careful questioning techniques to promote discussion and encourage further exploration as well as providing the resources needed for children’s next steps in their learning. This requires accurate assessment of children’s starting points and using their knowledge of child development to assess whether this is within typical development parameters or whether the child may need extra support. Planning is centred around what the child can do and what their next steps in learning are, usually incorporating the child’s interests and catering for their specific needs. Activities can be wholly or partially child or adult led and may gradually move towards more formal teaching, but it isn’t a straight line of progression as different desired outcomes require different methodology. This is highly skilled work as decisions need to be made on the spot about what each individual child needs next, including when to intervene and when to stand back, when to instruct and when to follow the child’s lead, and yet we often hear it referred to as ‘only play’.

This pedagogy is central to the EYFS, because it considers the holistic needs of the child, and their age and stage of development. Very few countries move away from this pedagogy as early as we do in the UK, with many children not starting formal learning until they are 6, but a child of just sixty months can enter key stage 1 in a UK school and this can cause issues, especially for those who are disadvantaged.

“Child development tells us that children’s learning needs in Year 1 are broadly similar to those for children in the Reception year and that children should not go from being seen as a ‘unique child’ to a ‘Year 1’ in one small step down the corridor”[1]

There are many good reasons why it becomes more difficult to have a play based pedagogy in Year 1, ratios may be higher, there is more pressure to fill books with work so that progress can be evidenced, a new curriculum and the looming pressure of tests etc. but for many children this sudden abrupt change in the way they are expected to engage with their learning is difficult to adjust to and can cause a dip in progress as a result. Effective transition needs to be a smooth and gradual process, building on and extending what has gone before and there is a need for teachers to develop a shared understanding of what has gone before and what follows after.

Transition is not just a physical move to a new room, it needs to be about aligning practice, developing shared understanding and building bridges for children to cross, not hurdles for them to leap over. By exploring issues such as culture, expectations, assessment, pedagogy and the demands of the curriculum staff are better supported to ensure the child’s journey through school is seamless.


Achieving Early Firm Foundation – Top Tips

  • Make transition a journey not an event
  • Ensure all Y1 staff fully understand EYFS practice and that EYFS staff understand the curriculum requirements of Key stage 1
  • Establish shared planning arrangements for children so that the needs of the child are fully met when planning the learning
  • Carefully plan the environment
  • Ensure transition is carefully planned so that children feel secure, comfortable and successful
  • Get to know the children and their interests
  • Introduce change gradually
  • Ensure Y1 staff understand how children are assessed in the EYFS – consider joint observations and assessments
  • Make sure the most vulnerable children are fully supported
  • Involve the children in the planning
  • Make time for parents and involve them in the process
  • Consider how resources can be used effectively, eg outdoor space, teaching assistants
  • Plan joint activities where it is sensible to do so
  • Challenge the status quo


[1] Julie Fisher: Moving on to Key Stage 1

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