Teaching Approaches in the Early Years – Part 1


17th March 2022

Teaching Approaches in the Early Years – Part 1

In this two-part blog series (Read part 2 here), Cornerstones EYFS Curriculum Consultant, Gill Quantrell, explores teaching approaches in the early years and explains how to balance teacher-led and child-initiated learning.

Recent changes to the EYFS framework has left even some of the most experienced teachers lacking in confidence. Conversations I have had with teachers have revealed that there is confusion around what ethos and teaching approaches should be used with early years children.

Teaching Approaches in the Early Years – Part 1

Some teachers I have spoken to have concerns about using a topic approach to learning, but question whether basing their teaching solely around the children’s interests provides enough structure. This uncertainty is often increased by senior leaders who are unsure of what to look for when observing early years teaching.

This blog series explores teaching approaches in the early years and how to get the balance right.

Ofsted’s guidance

The School Inspection Handbook includes a paragraph that explores the complexities of teaching in the early years. It describes the many ways that practitioners can support children to learn and clarifies that teaching in the EYFS ‘should not be taken to imply a ‘top down’ or formal way of working.’

It is important to share this expectation with senior leaders so that they understand what to look for when observing teaching. As part of this, I recommend exploring as a team the many ways you work with children to support their learning, both in teacher-led activities and during child-initiated play.

Prioritising play

It is widely recognised that play supports children’s development. It taps into their natural curiosity and provides opportunities to explore interests and develop social skills. Whatever your teaching ethos, it is essential to remember that play needs to be expertly supported by adults, to develop children’s understanding and support them to acquire specific skills. Joining children in their play and responding, gives valuable opportunities to introduce vocabulary in context, add a narrative to play, and develop learning. It also provides the chance to get to know the children well and understand their interests, strengths, and areas of development.

Play with purpose

It is essential not to turn play into an assessment point though. Rather than bombarding children with questions, it is crucial to have natural conversations. This allows you to be a partner in the children’s play and add value to their experiences, rather than controlling their ideas with your own agenda.

In her book ‘Interacting or Interfering? Improving interactions in the early years‘, Julie Fisher explores the concept of who is leading the learning and how the interactions we have with children can either add value or shut learning down.

When learning is adult-led, the teacher has clear expectations and knows in advance the skills, knowledge, and vocabulary the children need to develop. A natural part of the teaching process is to respond to the children’s needs and plan subsequent learning.

When the learning is child-initiated, the balance shifts. Children take the lead and choose the direction of the learning. Adults respond to their thoughts and ideas, but rather than having a clear plan, this is spontaneous. In these instances, it is essential to take the time to listen carefully, share the children’s experiences, ponder what might happen, and work together to solve problems.

Working in partnership with children as they play, whether adult led or child initiated, provides valuable insights into what and how children learn.

For example, practitioners might join children in their play to:

  • model skills
  • provide support with communication
  • add a narrative to the play
  • support with interactions
  • model language
  • model behaviour expectations
  • introduce and use new vocabulary
  • demonstrate and explain ideas
  • encourage children to explore and explain their ideas
  • undertake informal assessment and plan next steps for learning

What the EYFS framework says

The reformed Statutory Framework for the EYFS is aligned with the School Inspection Framework and recognises that play is essential for children’s development. It does not advocate or ‘prescribe a particular teaching approach’ but explains that to prepare children for learning in year 1, ‘there should be a greater focus on teaching the essential skills and knowledge in the specific areas of learning’ when children are in the reception year.

Teaching with intent

In her book ‘The Intentional Teacher,’ Ann Epstein explores practical strategies for teaching in the EYFS. She concludes that the most effective teachers are intentional teachers. They do not give children control over all their learning, which might result in haphazard learning that lacks purpose and direction. However, neither do they see children as ‘empty vessels’ that need filling with knowledge. To teach with intent, it is essential to have a clear plan of what we want children to learn, why we want them to understand it, and how to teach it.

Getting the balance right

‘If all children are to succeed, teachers need to create an effective balance between learning that is child-initiated and learning that is led by adults.’ – Hyson 2000.

Balance is crucial so that children’s play and ideas have equal value to adult-led learning opportunities. Planned adult-led activities provide the opportunity to introduce specific skills, knowledge, and vocabulary progressively and in sequence. Adult initiated activities enhance the continuous provision and provide children with a springboard for their learning.

However, it is also essential to have a flexible teaching approach and respond to the direction children take when learning. Getting the balance right is very tricky, but by considering the different ways children learn, and the various strategies that can support learning, it is possible to find a way that works for you and the children.

In the next blog, I will explore the fundamental EYFS principles; the unique child, positive relationships, enabling environments and how best to support learning for children in the early years.

Top tips

Make a list of the ways your EYFS team will work with children to develop their learning, to ensure all staff are aware of expectations. This will also help senior leaders understand what to look for when observing teaching and learning.

Want to read more? Discover Teaching Approaches in the Early Years – Part 2.

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