The right mix

 Bringing Early Years learning to life

When four complementary approaches to pedagogy come together in the right way, Early Years learning really takes off, suggests Matthew Silvester.

Designed for growth

Babies are born incomplete, their brains designed to transform as they master and adapt to their environment. The earliest years of life are a critical phase of human development within which a child’s innate urge to interact, explore and understand leads their own development and learning. It is through their experiences and interactions that a child builds their brain architecture.

Within a school environment the experiences and interactions provided are key in improving learning. The intentional decisions that teachers make regarding their planning, provision and practice guide these experiences and interactions. When we worked on the design of the International Early Years Curriculum pedagogy, or what the teachers do to lead learning, it emerged as distinct from the other phases of the International Curriculum, celebrating the complexity and uniqueness of early learning. This pedagogy brings to the fore a repertoire of four interdependent approaches that are nurturing, responsive, playful and brain-based to guide teachers as they lead learning and development.

1.  Nurturing

Learning and development within the earliest years of life are non-linear and varied, with children examining, investigating and experimenting as they learn about and understand their world and the objects, people and places within it. Due to the dynamic nature of early learning environments, a child’s interests, fascinations and curiosity create learning and development opportunities that are individual to each child.

With this in mind, the IEYC seeks to nurture high levels of well-being and involvement within each child to harness their natural curiosity as they explore, express and extend their ideas and capabilities. High levels of well-being and involvement contribute to a mental state referred to as ‘relaxed alertness’ which promotes flow, an optimal state of intrinsic motivation within which the child is completely absorbed in the task at hand.

A child’s agency and involved approach to learning and developing their own capabilities needs to be nurtured. Through planning, provision and practice that promotes high levels of well-being and involvement, children’s natural curiosity will emerge, encouraging agency, enquiry, action and learning and development.

2. Responsive

Learning spaces should entice young children into independent and interdependent experiences that provoke curiosity, enquiry, action and learning. Both child-initiated and teacher-scaffolded experiences provide meaningful contexts for young children to progressively explore their social world, developing confidence and competence as they learn to interact with places and people.

Environments that respond appropriately, authentically and meaningfully to curiosity support children’s ability to extend and deepen their own enquiry, action and learning. An environment that is enabled for learning is one within which children can play, explore and learn in safety through planned and spontaneous experiences, allowing social interaction, emotional development and personal learning to flourish. IEYC learning spaces are shaped over time, through collaboration between children, teachers, and families.

Reflective practices, both within and across experiences and interactions, are central in supporting teachers in providing the meaningful, concrete and multi-sensory experiences that young children need as part of their ongoing learning and development. Teachers, children and families should collaborate to revisit and reflect on learning experiences, interpreting what and how children are learning and considering how best to extend and deepen agency, enquiry, action, learning and development.

Using responsive planning, provision and practice, teachers invite and enable children to access a range of developmentally appropriate experiences, alone and with others. An early years’ learning environment should invite and scaffold learning and development through meaningful responses to children’s interests and interactions. As teachers strive to make learning more interesting, students are more likely to become curious and motivated to learn more.

3. Playful

Play is an essential part of young children’s learning: development, research and experience show it is a rich habitat for young children’s curiosity, development and learning. It is a right that is enshrined within the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and is a central part of being human. However, although we are all able to identify ‘play’ is when we see most of us struggle to define it.

Playful learning experiences are an emerging social construct between all participants, whether child or adult, that can be placed on a continuum describing the locus of control within the episode. At one end there is free play, at the other, playful instruction. The IEYC’s playful pedagogy focuses on how to improve what happens between these two extremes: put simply, the ways in which teachers and children collaborate within and across episodes to co-construct playful learning experiences.

For it is within this broad band that the interesting interactions happen: joint culture creation, scaffolding, and sustained shared thinking all require shared ownership of the learning experience. This shifting nature of shared interactions allows teachers to engage with children’s intentions and priorities within and across experiences to reframe, challenge and develop children’s thinking and ideas.

Adapted from: Learning through Play: a review of the evidence, LEGO Foundation: DK

Through playful planning, provision and practice, teachers can scaffold experiences that allow children to pursue their interests and curiosity, through which their capabilities, as a thinker and as a learner, are nurtured and stretched. This moves the teacher away from providing answers, towards drawing questions out, scaffolding activities to help children persist with and extend their enquiry and developing their ability to ask questions, think deeply, and consider the ways in which answers may be found. To improve learning, teachers must become players within the learning environments they provide.

Playful experiences are:

  • engaging, allowing children to expand their own interests, ideas and learning;
  • socially interactive, encompassing a range of independent and interdependent contexts;
  • dynamic, encouraging investigation and experimentation;
  • motivating, providing a meaningful context which values, nurtures and stretches creativity and capabilities;
  • rigorous, enabling children to remember, apply and transfer their Knowledge, Skills and increasing understanding
4. Brain-based

Within the earliest years of life, a child’s brain changes both physically and in its capabilities. A child’s independent and interdependent experiences and interactions drive this transformation. Concrete, multi-sensory and meaningful experiences are essential. As a result, the child’s developing brain forms connections within and across different areas of the brain, creating the pathways that scaffold current development and lay the foundations for later learning.

Early learning environments need to acknowledge the importance of the cognitive processes that will emerge during the earliest years of life, in addition to a child’s learning and development. Executive Function, Self-Regulation, and Theory of Mind are all known cognitive processes that develop rapidly during the earliest years of life. These processes need to be sensitively facilitated and supported.

Striking a balance between introducing new learning and consolidating existing learning can also help to strengthen long-term memory and recall. We need to provide children with the time, space and pace to consider, process and enjoy their learning and experiences. Continually striving to gain new knowledge and develop new skills may not improve learning.

Independent and interdependent learning experiences provide a context to develop thinking skills and learner identity. Early learning environments need quiet spaces that encourage and nurture reflection and metacognitive thinking. Teachers should work to make children’s thinking visible to them. As children become more aware of their own thinking, they are developing their understanding of themselves as a learner, and therefore their ability to be metacognitive.

Four complementary elements together

These four approaches are interdependent, complement and build on each other. The IEYC’s holistic curriculum encourages links between these key approaches, regarding all four as key to improving learning within the earliest years of life. The IEYC aims to guide and challenge teachers, children and families as they make the decisions that lead and manage the different and diverse learning journeys within the learning environments they provide.


Matthew Silvester is the International Curriculum Manager – Early Years at Fieldwork Education





All images kindly provided by Matthew