Beyond "recovery": Opportunities in the early years foundation stage

Emma Tibbitts, NACE Associate

There are many challenges for EYFS settings this September. It has not been possible to make the usual extensive preparation that would have been carried out to support transition for children, parents and carers. Assessment sharing has been reduced, and with limited or non-existent opportunities to meet new children and families, practitioners will have very limited knowledge of each child. Added to this, many children will have higher anxiety levels than usual around change and separation from families this year, while the lengthy period of social distancing has heavily compromised opportunities to develop relationships, especially for the youngest children.

Government guidance for school reopening states:

“For children in nursery settings, teachers should focus on the prime areas of learning, including: communication and language, personal, social and emotional development (PSED) and physical development. For pupils in Reception, teachers should also assess and address gaps in language, early reading and mathematics, particularly ensuring children’s acquisition of phonic knowledge and extending their vocabulary.” – Guidance for full opening: schools (updated 7 August 2020)

Due to pressure to prioritise vulnerable and low-ability pupils, it is likely that many settings will have placed little emphasis on preparing to identify and support the more able. This is not new. At NACE, we regularly hear from school leaders and practitioners who are striving to improve provision for highly able young people but who face barriers to doing so, and this September will be no exception!

It remains important to address the myths and misconceptions surrounding this group, and to continue to ensure that even our youngest more able pupils are not overlooked, as they too are entitled to a high-quality education. Without appropriate challenge (too low, or too high or unsupported), a learner’s motivation levels will drop, frustration is increased, and children become in danger of coasting.

  • Providing for more able learners is not about labelling, but about creating a curriculum and learning opportunities which allow all children to flourish.
  • Ability can be revealed across a range of specific domains or more generally, and not only in traditional academic subjects. (Taken from NACE core principles)

An effective EYFS learning environment which carefully plans for and reflects the seven areas of learning is an excellent foundation for providing children with a variety of rich learning opportunities. However, current hygiene guidance will impact on the range and type of resources practitioners can now safely provide.

Could this be viewed as an opportunity to adopt a fresh creative licence to use and develop your practice in planning for a greater repertoire of open-ended activities? Research within EYFS shows that using the same resources in a variety of ways is effective in challenging pupils to develop their metacognition, similar to the principle of the mastery approach of “finding many different ways”.

The following set of questions could be helpful to think through when planning for or setting up a challenging learning activity:

  • Does it reflect the interests and curiosity expressed by children?
  • Have you spent time predicting how the children might interact with the resources you provide?
  • How will you present the resources in an open and accessible way?
  • How could you re-use familiar resources in different ways?
  • How many opportunities will this activity give to enable children to make links to other learning or their own ideas?

A strong emphasis is also being placed on opportunities to learn outdoors, supporting requirements to ensure that only small groups of children are present at any one activity at a time. The government guidance reminds practitioners to “Consider how all groups of children can be given equal opportunities for outdoor learning.”

Maximising outdoor learning time presents a perfect opportunity to develop outdoor provision – a brilliant platform for planning in challenge and open-ended activities for more able learners too. Outdoor learning has always been valued and the EYFS curriculum highlights the importance and value of carefully planned, daily outdoor experiences for children’s physical learning and development. Frequent outdoor learning challenges give children the power to change their perspective – a key underpinning that fosters natural curiosity, active learning, playing and exploring, critical thinking, and creative problem solving – all the things children need to learn how to learn, as stated in the EYFS characteristics of effective learning.

In summary, it is right that much effort should continue to be focused on children’s wellbeing, but we must also ensure that all children (including the more able through effective identification) are given the opportunity to meet their full potential on return to school in September.

Although some “normal” practice will need to be reviewed in order to meet COVID-19 guidance, the preparation and delivery of a broad and ambitious curriculum must not be delayed. There could be serious setbacks to children’s progress if too much emphasis is placed on proposed “catch-up curriculums”, particularly within the reception phase as this is the first stage of formal education for these children.

Unlike other year groups, our new school-starters won’t have missed out on any formal teaching prior to September. We know that it is our very youngest children that have the potential to develop at astonishing rates. It is at this stage where neural pathways need to be built which will enable them to make connections in their learning.

“Stakes are high in social and academic development at this stage when the brain’s connections are at their most malleable.” – The National Strategies: Early Years: Finding and exploring young children’s fascinations (2010)

Get set to embrace these incredibly thirsty young learners, an opportunity that should not be missed!

Further questions to consider:

  • How will you provide for the emotional needs and wellbeing of the children whilst ensuring that learning content is not delayed unnecessarily?
  • How do you plan to identify more able learners starting with you this term?
  • How will you need to adjust your physical learning environments to ensure compliance to guidance whilst still seeking to maximise learning engagement, including challenge?
  • What is the vision for your setting? Where do you hope the children will be by the end of the half-term? How do you plan to achieve this? How will you ensure you have a clear direction, with the flexibility to respond to barriers imposed by the pandemic and the individual needs of all learners, including the more able?

Not yet a NACE member? Starting at just £95 +VAT per year, NACE membership is available for schools (covering all staff), SCITT providers, TSAs, trusts and clusters. Bringing together school leaders and practitioners across England, Wales and internationally, our members have access to advice, practical resources and CPD to support the review and improvement of provision for more able learners within a context of challenge and high standards for all. Find out more and join today!

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