Tune in to children's natural curiosities

In the part two of her series exploring high quality provision for babies and children, Yasmin Mukadam looks at the importance of them being actively involved in planning their own learning experiences.

Effective strategies can be implemented to ensure that all children participate fully in a range of learning opportunities, within an inclusive and language rich early years learning environment.

Promoting a play-based curriculum

To be effective, an early years curriculum needs to be carefully planned and structured to provide rich and stimulating experiences, and support children's needs and interests by building on what they already know and can do. Play is universal to children all over the world and considered a primary mode of learning in early childhood education (Cutter-Mackenzie et al, 2014). The term ‘play’ is used in all early educational settings to emphasise the way in which children learn.

Piaget emphasised the centrality of children being active in their learning, through processes such as discovery and exploratory play. His work remains very influential and substantially influenced the notion that children learn naturally through play. This is supported by scientific research suggesting that babies are born with an innate capacity to learn (Gopnik et al, 1999). This emphasises the importance of providing child centred learning opportunities for babies and children. The statutory requirement for play is highlighted in Section 1:1.8 of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) Statutory Framework, which clearly states that ‘Play is essential for children's development, building their confidence as they learn to explore, to think about problems and relate to others' (DfE, 2017). Reflect on your own recollections of play and its importance for you.

Emphasis on children's interests to support learning

Tuning into children's natural curiosities, needs and interests continues to take priority in early years settings, and is an aspect of practice Ofsted will want to see being demonstrated and documented. A child-centred approach to learning gives children confidence and self-esteem to be involved in planning and directing their own learning, placing the child as a leader of their own learning with the adult acting as a facilitator rather than providing direct instruction (Mukadam and Salter, 2014). Discovering each child's interests when they start at the setting is a very important part of the settling in process. As a new or experienced early years teacher or practitioner, how do you ensure that children's interests are at the heart of what you do, and why do you think this is so important?

As they become familiar with their surroundings, it may be observed that children's needs and interests may change and develop from day to day. It is important that this is captured through a range of observation methods that Papatheodorou et al (2012) suggest can be interpreted by the observer to understand the child and explore the meaning and essence of emerging key themes.

EYFS and areas of learning

‘The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) sets the standards that all early years providers must meet to ensure that children learn and develop well and are kept healthy and safe’ (DfE, 2017:5). The Prime Areas are the foundation blocks and the most important areas of focus for teachers and practitioners when supporting the development and learning of children. ‘Children develop quickly in the early years and a child's experiences between birth and the age of five have a major impact on their future life chances’ (DfE, 2017:5). Alongside high quality experiences, positive relationships with parents provide the foundations for children to grow their thinking and develop experiences to support their confidence, social and emotional wellbeing.

A holistic educational programme focused around the prime areas of learning is beneficial in shaping children's love of learning, curiosity and critical thinking during play-based experiences. As stated in the EYFS (DfE, 2017), ‘providers must also support children in four specific areas, through which the prime areas are strengthened and applied’. Table 1 provides activity examples to ensure a holistic learning experience across the prime areas of learning.

A holistic educational programme focused around the prime areas of learning is beneficial in shaping children's love of learning, curiosity and critical thinking during play-based experiences.

Table 1. Activity examples across the prime areas of learning
Table 1. Activity examples across the prime areas of learning
Area of learning and development Babies (birth–20 months) Toddlers (16–36 months) Pre-school (36–60 months)
Physical development (Indoor and outdoor opportunities) Explore treasure baskets; empty and fill material boxes; mirrors and reflection; CD and instruments for music and movement; food tasting; sensory play; mark making with paint; eating snacks; exploring indoor and outdoor spaces to encourage free movement, rolling and stretching; explore sounds and sights; discovery bottles Make playdough; explore a range of textures and malleable materials; obstacle course; pouring and filling containers with water and sand; feeding themselves; rest and sleep opportunities; movement games with cones, beanbags and hoops; construction play; easel painting and drawing Cooking, painting, singing activities with actions; range of tools for cutting, creating and design work; construction equipment and writing tools; outdoor opportunities to walk, run, cycle, build; free movement and exploration of spaces; yoga; rest times; forest school activities
Personal, social and emotional Support transitions; one-to-one time; sitting alongside others, sharing toys; explore sensory toys, being attentive; share and reflect with parents; respond to interests; follow their lead; share familiar rhymes, words, objects from home; cosy and quiet spaces to be calm; books reflecting feelings, comfort objects from home; free play activities that encourage spontaneity Encourage playing alongside others, co-operative games with familiar adults, encourage child-led play to build self-confidence, encourage making choices, create stories exploring feelings of the characters, talk about sharing, modelling this, share learning with parents, support children to manage their feelings, areas for rest and quiet time Space and time to work together, share ideas, turn-taking activities, making choices, expressing preferences, sharing and talking about what they did and how they felt, share thoughts and feelings, use personal dolls to help consider feelings, range of music to capture different moods, rest periods to support wellbeing, use pictures to show children with SEN expected behaviours
Communication and language Use key words in home language; singing new and familiar rhymes; follow children's lead, repeating sounds and words; commentary to support understanding during play (e.g. ‘clap our hands, 1, 2,3’); short stories to read aloud; puppets, materials and objects that can be explored; listening to others; repeating sounds Choose and share favourite books; Encourage role play to develop language; display pictures and talk about objects, and events; welcome, check feelings and emotions; listen and respond to news; ask questions to encourage speaking; allow time for responses; creating stories and narratives Story time and circle games indoors and outdoors; picture story boards created with children; learning new songs and repeating; role play and drama; group reading; describing events, activities and feelings; Encourage sharing and reading books; learning sounds, words and developing written and spoken language

The role of the adult

The role of the early years teacher and practitioner is to support and promote the learning and development of children through play, so that they reach their full potential within a nurturing and supportive environment. Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) states that ‘Children have the right to relax and play, and to join in a wide range of cultural, artistic and other recreational activities.’ Therefore, as professionals working with children it is important to consider that play activities must be appropriate to the age and stage of development of the child, and that the role of the early years teacher and practitioner is to facilitate children's learning and development (Mukadam and Kaur, 2016). Alongside this is the ‘key person’ role, assigned to take the initiative to build a positive relationship with the child and create connections with parents and the home environment (Elfer et al, 201). A final key ingredient to a quality early years provision is the collaborative team approach by the staff, usually consisting of new and experienced team members. Agreeing a common mission to provide the best learning opportunities that support children's interest, promote their wellbeing and contribute to their progress and next steps, creates a more harmonious environment.

Below are five strategies to ensure that all children participate fully in learning opportunities. These are aligned with the seven areas of learning and development and aim to support the holistic development and overall wellbeing of children. The strategies aim to ensure that all children participate fully in educational programmes, with a range of play-based activities and experiences that develop their physical, social, emotional, communication and language skills, as the foundation skills, building upon the prime areas and across the specific areas.

Know the children you work with

The first step is to know the children that you work with by carrying out a range of observations to identify their needs and interests. Review and reflect on your observations with others and then identify clear next steps to progress the learning and development of each child, evidencing this in your planning. Which areas will you focus on and why? If you note any concerns then how will you address these? Next, plan the learning environment by looking at it objectively; have a good knowledge of each child's interests and follow their lead; assess the space and then brainstorm creative ideas, experiences and activities that you can resource to support their learning and development. Children need a caring, stimulating and playful environment, which is both safe and secure, and where they can be happy and valued as individuals. When entering your room and play-based learning environment, does it enable play opportunities that are age appropriate and can be accessible by the children? Continually reviewing and adapting your planning to suit the children is a key aspect of providing a quality provision.

Carry out a plan, do and review approach

Carry out a consistent plan, do and review approach to enable you to evaluate the impact of the setting's provision and teaching methods on learning. For example, build on what children know and can already do, providing purposeful experiences that support opportunities for children to engage in activities planned around their interests by adults and initiated themselves. Ensure that all children feel included, valued and are acknowledged as individuals, giving them time to express their needs from the moment they enter the setting. Develop systems to assess, track and monitor that they are progressing well within all areas of learning. Create a welcoming approach, learning key words used from a child's home language if English is an additional language. This will foster a sense of belonging. Also, consider if children's home languages are reflected in the displays, resources and daily talking points during the day.

Take a positive approach

Take a positive approach to ensure that all children feel included, secure and valued. It is crucial to build positive relationships with parents in order to work with them and to support their child's learning and growth. Early years experiences should build on what children already know and no child should be excluded or disadvantaged with the home and setting working together to achieve a common goal. Identify and note children's achievements clearly to form a purposeful learning journey and continue to identify next steps to extend learning.

Case study – At one setting, a 2-year child showed an interest one day with dinosaurs, then a few days later about going to the park, and choosing a book about healthy foods. The practitioner planned a visit to the local park, with a walk to the local shops to buy fruit so that the children could make a fruit salad, eating their daily healthy snack in the park. She extended the dinosaur interest with excavation camps and building a home for the dinosaur using sand, water, flour and wooden blocks selected by the child. Remembering that if a child is interested then they will learn. If the child's interest is at the heart of what you do, this reflects in the sustained thinking and interest demonstrated by children, and is a starting point to igniting their learning.

Start with the end in mind

Starting with the end in mind is an effective and forward-thinking approach to creating and achieving a holistic, playful and meaningful learning experience for all children. The passion and willingness of each early years teacher to observe, assess and support learning regularly is a crucial starting point for making a difference to the wellbeing, learning and development of every child within the setting. This should incorporate understanding and consideration of children's unique interests, strengths, stage of development, achievements and emotional needs during the daily routine. An awareness of the potential of the environment, how to organise it and the ability to reflect and improve will enable practitioners/teachers to create purposeful opportunities for play and learning. Using play as a medium to support learning, it is important to acknowledge the interactions, relationship forming and interventions that play opportunities create (Moyles, 2010).

Create a wellbeing setting philosophy

Sharing ideas and creating a setting philosophy that underpins a wellbeing pedagogy is highly dependent upon a team that is passionate and motivated to support children's mental health and encourage children to form relationships, express their feelings, and manage conflict through self-regulating. Additionally, giving children time to adapt to changes and encouraging listening and opportunities to express and manage thoughts, feelings and emotions. Giving children a balanced and nutritional diet and regular physical play activities supports their physical and mental health.


The role of early year's teachers and practitioners in supporting children, and maximising learning opportunities is fundamental in creating a play environment that enables creativity, originality and self-expression. A play-based curriculum sets the platform for providing an educational programme that supports the holistic learning and development of children. The activity examples provided in this article are interchangeable and adaptable to suit individual needs of children. Facilitating learning and development opportunities requires careful planning, creative thinking and implementing with a good understanding of the benefits to children's development and wellbeing.

Key points

  • A play-based curriculum provided by knowledgeable and skilled early years teachers and practitioners enables an educational programme that supports purposeful learning opportunities
  • Starting from the children's needs, interests and curiosities enables effective learning opportunities
  • Consider a consistent approach within daily practice, applying some or all of the strategies to support children's participation in a range of activities and learning experiences

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