Curriculum and pedagogy in the Early Years

    Published: 28 June 2021

    As we move towards September 2021, when the new Early Years Foundation Stage statutory framework should be applied, it is more important than ever that early years educators feel confident and clear in their understanding of curriculum and pedagogy.


    Happy children


    So what is an Early Years curriculum?

    Put simply a ‘curriculum’ is the content of what we want children to know, understand and be able to do. Here are a few things you will need to consider when planning your early years curriculum:

    1. what your children already know.
    2. how learning builds sequentially – by building knowledge, skills and learning behaviours from what the children already know and can do towards identified end points or outcomes
    3. the role of adults in moving children’s learning on
    4. the accessibility and suitability of resources
    5. how children's interests are utilised and valued
    6. the statutory requirements in each of the seven areas of learning outlined in the Educational Programmes statements in the EYFS statutory framework.
    7. how you want to prepare children for their next stage of learning and life in modern Britain

    Remember your curriculum MUST be broad, balanced, inclusive and tailored to the specific needs of your children. It should be informed and developed by all stakeholders; children, staff, parents, local community, governors/management teams. It is a working document and as such needs to be fluid & easily adapted according to the children who attend the school/setting at any one time.

    Inspectors will particularly consider the intent, implementation and impact of the school’s early years curriculum. They will evaluate the impact that the quality of education has on children, particularly the most disadvantaged and those with SEND.

    OFSTED School Inspection Handbook (321)

    Maybe take some time to reflect on your curriculum and consider:

    The needs of your specific children:

    • what experiences have children already had that you wish to enhance and embed?
    • what is missing from their understanding and cultural capital that you, as a school or setting feel is important

    Where children need to get to and their next stage of education:

    • what will be required of children in their next phase of education?
    • how can you best lay firm foundations so that they are able to access and thrive in your environment?
    • what core knowledge, skills and behaviours do you want children to leave with?

    Practitioners and teachers can plan and set their own individual curriculums. Non-statutory guidance can be used to complement, inform and develop staff knowledge in connection with the statutory requirements outlined through the education programmes for each area of learning. OFSTED does not have a prescribed format for a curriculum should look but the ‘Quality of Education’ judgement will be affected by its quality. Further help is available.

    It is important to remember that the core rationale of the new September 2021 EYFS statutory framework recognises that access to high quality early years provision and practice is a strong indicator of children’s lifelong success influencing their attainment in GCSE, further education and ultimately future salary. Yet the recent early years MORI survey led by the Royal Foundation found that still there is evidence that 40% of the socio-economic attainment gap at age 16 is already present at age 5. So there is still much work to do.

    Key drivers in the EYFS statutory reforms are to:

    • make the ELGs, clearer and more specific: easier for teachers to make accurate judgements, there was an need to ensure ELGs are based on the latest evidence in childhood development
    • improve outcomes for all children
    • strengthening the language and vocabulary development to particularly support disadvantaged children, especially as this is an area of learning that underpins holistic development
    • increase emphasis on reading and mathematical learning
    • reduce teacher workload
    • encourage teachers to use their professional judgement, promoting the valuable role of adults, the importance of their professional judgement and not relying on unnecessary evidence to justify their assessments

    If you want to find out more about the EYFS reforms please read our blog ‘The EYFS reforms’.


    Child playing with blocks



    Alongside curriculum it is essential that early years educators consider how children will be offered learning opportunities in their schools and setting. Put simply pedagogy is how we encourage children to learn effectively. 

    Just like the children who attend them, each school or setting is unique. Rich with its own community, environment, leadership and staff. These factors will all impact the pedagogy that evolves. It is important to take time to discuss this and encourage the views of all stakeholders so that everybody can articulate the uniqueness of your school or setting and understand why you place priorities as you do.

    Here’s our ‘ask an adviser’ top tips to support your own pedagogy:

    • write out your class list, without looking, to identify which children are last on your list (forgotten you might say!). Ensure interactions happen more frequently with that group of children
    • resource rotation is a powerful tool to maintain curiosity, awe and wonder. Rather than overloading your learning environment with everything, rotate resources constantly to ensure your learning environment inspires and provokes curiosity, awe and wonder. Add objects that instil a desire for children to want to explore and ask ‘what is this…’ Let the journey of exploration begin.
    • invest time in building relationships with other adults and promoting the value of team work as it will save so much time later on!
    • walk around the classroom and check to see every child is represented in some way; a photograph, a painting, a model....Remember every child is unique and so their use of materials and contribution to displays will be.
    • there’s nothing quite like the great outdoors to develop all aspects of the EYFS curriculum whilst supporting children’s wellbeing and connection with nature. Develop ‘classrooms’ without walls to facilitate all aspects of learning in the EYFS.

    When we discuss pedagogy we stand on the shoulders of giants, many of which spent years and even lifetimes researching, evidencing and philosophising about what supports children to learn and develop well. As we develop the pedagogy of our settings it is important to remember that you may dip into many approaches which could complement and enhance each other. Some commonly seen early years pedagogies are briefly outlined below but please note this is a very brief and superficial summary which you will undoubtedly want to delve deeper into with your own research.


    Early Years children with young plants


    Montessori - Maria Montessori was an Italian doctor and educator, the method she developed was formulated from extensive observations. The method promotes independence in learners through carefully designed self-directed activities and environments both inside and outside the classroom.

    Key points

    • environment encourages hands-on learning
    • resources are natural and open-ended
    • adults play a crucial role in supporting development in children’s own time
    • 5 curriculum areas; sensorial life, practical life, mathematics, language and culture

    Reggio Emilia - Named after the Italian town in which it was developed after the second world war, by Loris Malaguzzi, this approach places children at the centre of practice. Children are seen to have unlimited potential where adults support and promote the children’s interests.

    Key points:

    • children are encouraged to express themselves and the ‘100 languages’ metaphor explains the many varied ways children demonstrate understanding
    • promotes independence, resilience and exploration
    • adults should support not instruct learning

    Forest School - Originating from Denmark in 1950s, but incorporating a heritage of outdoor learning dating back to 19th century, the Forest School pedagogy focusses on child-centred, hands-on experiences in a natural setting. Risk and vulnerability are central themes.

    Key points:

    • long term process of regular sessions
    • takes place in woodland or natural setting
    • learner centred
    • builds resilience, confidence, independence and creativity
    • build opportunities to take supported risks
    • run by qualified Forest School practitioners

    Froebel - Friedrich Froebel was a German educator who invented the concept of kindergarten. Play is of central importance in the Froebelian approach and believes that by experiencing the world children can being to understand it.

    Key points:

    • high emphasis on self-discipline and self-regulation
    • children are offered developmentally appropriate play based opportunities
    • constructive play is of high importance
    • high value on the importance of skilled practitioner observations

    The Curiosity Approach - Developed by Lydnsey Hellyn and Stephanie Bennett. This approach takes ideas from Steiner, Reggio, Montessori and Te Whāriki. It centres on providing a safe and comfortable environment for children to be curious.

    Key points:

    • real life resources
    • neutral décor and natural materials
    • promotion of children being independent thinkers
    • homely environment so that children feel safe and comfortable

    Athey and schemas - Building on the work of Piaget, Chris Athey popularised the idea of schemas (repeated actions that cluster and later develop into concepts)

    Key points:

    • identification and enabling of key patterns of behaviour (schemas)
    • Athey’s schemas were: dynamic vertical, dynamic back and forth, dynamic circular, going over and under, going round a boundary, going through a boundary, containing and enveloping space.
    • adults role is key to observe and enable opportunities for schemas to build and develop

    And there’s more… you might also want to take time to learn more about:

    Steiner/Waldorf - Holistic development of pupils' intellectual, artistic, and practical skills in an integrated manner

    Te Whāriki – Creation of homely environments and positive relationships originating from New Zealand

    Bandura – Developing social learning theory

    Piaget – Explaining children’s mental model of the world and assessment theories

    Bowlby – Exploring attachment theory

    Watson – Behaviourism

    Bruner – Understanding children as active learners and ‘scaffolding’ learning

    Vygotsky – Exploring the value of play and impact of environment

    Goleman – Development of emotional intelligence

    Freud – Development of personality and impact of relationships

    To name just a few…

    We hope this blog has inspired you to reflect on the pedagogical approaches and curriculum you have on offer and how it meets the needs of your children and the families you serve.

    Links to HfL services and resources:

    Curriculum design in the Early Years Foundation Stage: a step-by-step guide

    Early Years advisory and consultancy services for schools and settings

    HfL training for schools & settings

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