Progress and play in EYFS

Ask any Early Years practitioner, what is the one thing keeps them turning up to the classroom each day?  They will tell you – the children.  It’s no secret that seeing the children happy, thriving and making progress is the motivation that keeps us going, even when, often, it feels we are in an uphill battle with outside influences (cough, cough, OFSTED and government…)

Over the past few years, there seems to have been a sharper focus on teaching, learning and assessment in the Early Years and in particular, following the pandemic, how practitioners can ensure that all children are making progress.  Research has shown, despite many settings being still available to children and families during lockdown periods, extended self-isolation periods and disruption to normal routines have left a deficit in language, communication and social skills for many children and in particular those from a disadvantaged background.  OFSTED’s latest research paper, ‘Best Start in Life’, dives a little deeper into these statistics.

The paper also outlines the importance of a curriculum that is well thought out to meet the needs of the children in the setting, forms to building blocks for later learning and considers how to support children with a lower cultural capital.  It also identifies that a mixture of play and explicit instruction are vital in terms of quality teaching in the early years and that a balance between the two is what is needed to ensure that children make the best progress.

What does the research tell us about play?

In the early years, we know that play has a pivotal role in learning and development; here is a summary of the main points from the research and analysis paper:

  • Play is essentials for children’s development
  • To make the best progress, children need a mixture of child-led play and guided play
  • Skilful practitioners plan well-timed interventions in order to harness play and support progress
  • In high-quality settings, children will experience many different types of play. This includes playing during social times with their peers, which also aids their personal, social and emotional development
  • Play can support children learning something new or consolidate previous learning
  • When learning a new concept some guided instruction from the teacher will be required to support children in making connections to what they have previously learnt or experienced
  • Practitioners do not always need to be present to support play, a carefully planned environment can also do this, supporting children to make connections to what they have previously learnt
  • It does children a disservice if they only take part in play in which they have a previous interest or enthusiasm

It is clear from the research that play needs to be at the heart of pedagogy in the early years for children to make the best progress, but it is worth noting that it also highlights that not all play supports progress for children in the same way.

Though it acknowledges that play comes naturally to children, it asks us to consider play and play based learning as having different purposes in learning.  Effective and well-planned environments, well-timed interventions and a curriculum which builds on prior knowledge and provides opportunities for children to make connections are all needed for children to make the best progress.

The paper also outlines the importance of explicit teaching alongside play in order for children to meet learning outcomes at 5 years.

What does the research say about explicit teaching?

Here is a summary of the main take-aways regarding explicit teaching:

  • Explicit teaching is an approach to teaching where the practitioner introduces information or skills through direct instruction
  • Explicit teaching can make clearer the steps of learning, as practitioners demonstrate and explain the steps
  • Explicit teaching should take place over very short periods of time followed by guided play
  • Direct instruction draws the child’s attention to the intended learning, and teaches the vocabulary associated with this. Adults are then able to reinforce children’s understanding of the new vocabulary they have introduced by using it in other contexts

So how can we use play and explicit teaching together to ensure children make the best progress?

The research tells us that in order to make the best progress, children must have a diet of play, guided play and explicit teaching throughout their day, underpinned by a well-thought out curriculum and that meets children where they are with their prior learning and cultural capital. 

But what does this look like in practise?

Here are 5 practical ideas to apply within your own setting:

  1. In reading areas, provide children with props from stories they are already familiar with – perhaps one that has been read many times in the class previously.  This provides children with opportunities to consolidate language and story structures they are familiar with through undirected play.
  2. Follow a short burst of explicit teaching (e.g. learning to zip up a coat) with opportunities to practise this within the setting.  For example, including items of clothing in the dressing up box with zips.
  3. Plan opportunities to model appropriate language in a role-play area.  Don’t assume that children are familiar with the area you have provided.  If it is a vet, for example, play alongside the children in guided play, modelling phrases and actions that are appropriate to that setting.
  4. Practise pausing.  As adults, we can find it very tempting to jump in when a child is playing independently.  Observation is something that we are all used to in a EY setting, but be mindful of how often you are interrupting play during that observation and practise taking longer pauses to observe how play develops.
  5. Traditional playground games are a fantastic way for children to develop social skills, sharing and communication with peers: something the research tells us is particularly lacking in children who have spent most of their life in a pandemic.  Plan opportunities to model and support this type of play to support children in their unstructured playtimes with peers.

Have you read the research?

I would love to know what you thought to it and how it has impacted on our own practice.

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Emma x