The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) principles are designed to celebrate the importance of play and learning, by putting the child back at the heart of early years practice. Sally Jaeckle, senior regional adviser for the EYFS, South West, discusses

We have such a long tradition of excellence in nursery education in this country, reaching back to the McMillan sisters at the turn of the last century and before. Our nursery schools were once the envy of the world; and in 1978, Margaret Donaldson, describing children totally absorbed in their learning in a school garden, wrote:

‘As I watched this scene on a morning in May 1977, it occurred to me that a visitor to the school who knew nothing about our society might have been inclined to think that he had found Utopia, especially if he had been told that the children he was watching came from families living in a somewhat underprivileged part of one of our large cities’. (Donaldson, 1978)

She recognised, though, that for many children the promise of the early years remained unfulfilled, and they were leaving school ‘with the bitter taste of defeat in them, not having mastered even moderately well, those basic skills which society demands, much less having become people who rejoice in the exercise of creative intelligence.’ She could see that failure at the top end of the school system was leading to pressures for change at the lower end and warned that ‘this change would be gravely retrogressive.’

To Donaldson, it was clear that changes to the education system were necessary if the aspirations and prospects for school leavers were to be improved, but her concerns about the impact of this on the earlier years were well founded. Gradually, the world started looking to America, New Zealand or northern Italy for examples of excellence in early education, and although the philosophies of High Scope (Hohmann et al, 1995), Te Whariki (1996) and Reggio Emilia (Edwards et al, 1998; Rinaldi, 2006) all acknowledged their roots in the great British nursery tradition, for a while our Utopia was lost.

The legacy of the Desirable Learning Outcomes (1996)
Early years practitioners experienced a rocky ride in England at this time, trying to negotiate a path through a confusing web of policies, culminating in the Desirable Learning Outcomes (DLOs) in 1996. The DLOs signalled a shift to more formal approaches to learning in the early years, aimed at magically improving outcomes for children at the end of their primary education. Playgroups became preschools and Reception teachers in particular found that they were at the sharp edge of change. The downward pressure Donaldson had feared, had come to pass, and continues to cast a long shadow more than a decade later.

The lasting legacy has been one of doubt as to the most appropriate approaches to early learning and development for children from birth to five. Practitioners and parents, wanting to do the best by their children, were no longer clear as to what this meant. Had the child-centred approaches of the 60s really been an educational disaster? Would a return to traditional teaching methods actually stand young children in better stead for the future? Amidst the confusion, we lost our ability to listen and to trust the voice of the child.

Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage and Birth to Three Matters
With the publication of the Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage in 2000, closely followed by Birth to Three Matters in 2003, a sound set of principles for effective early years’ provision was established, all of which celebrated the importance of play and active learning. But, now steeped in the rhetoric of the DLOs, many practitioners had lost confidence in the exuberance of play, and instead turned Development Matters, the Stepping Stones and the Early Learning Goals into a prescriptive and often narrow curriculum led by adults, not children.

Early Years Foundation Stage
The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) is a conscious attempt to set the principles that informed those guidelines in the foreground, recapturing the Utopian spirit by putting the child firmly back at the heart of practice. For some, this represents a major cultural shift and the challenge should not be underestimated. But if practitioners reflect on the journey they have travelled so far, the EYFS should help them to look to the future with renewed enthusiasm and confidence.

The emotional and cognitive conditions for learning change little with age – we all learn best when we are motivated, interested and happy, engaged in experiences that both fascinate and challenge us. Our confidence in ourselves as learners flourishes when we know that our thoughts and feelings are both sought after and valued. In the EYFS, adults and children are seen as critical partners in the learning process; and if adults are to model and ‘scaffold’ the skills that they would prize in their children – skills of enquiry, creativity and critical thinking, problem-solving, reasoning and conflict resolution – they must also have the capacity to embrace for themselves the risks and challenges that all new learning brings.

The four themes and principles of the EYFS provide a map that is just as relevant for practitioners on their learning journeys, as it is for guiding the children on theirs.

The unique child
EYFS principle: Every child is a competent learner from birth, who can be resilient, capable, confident and self-assured.

This principle celebrates the uniqueness of every child and urges practitioners to take the time to observe, listen and tune in, to understand what it is that makes each child tick. As children’s strengths, interests, preferences and different developmental pathways begin to unfold, practitioners can plan responsively to capture experiences that are meaningful and tailored to individual needs.

The EYFS urges practitioners to constantly build on their previous best practice, through an ongoing process of reflection and self-evaluation to improve the quality of their provision. This will mean that practitioners also need to be aware of their own unique strengths and capabilities, their own learning preferences and ways of being, so that they too can embark on their personal journeys of quality improvement with confidence.

Positive relationships
EYFS Principle: Children learn to be strong and independent from a base of loving and secure relationships with parents and/or a key person.

Creating a secure emotional environment is paramount if everyone in the setting is to flourish. No-one learns effectively when they are worried or afraid and both adults and children should be able to try new experiences, explore new resources and share their thoughts and feelings in an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect.

When we are encouraged to think creatively and know that our ideas and contributions will be valued, we develop positive attitudes to learning and confidence in ourselves as learners. Mistakes are then seen in a positive light, as a natural part of the learning journey and an opportunity to grow and learn, rather than something to be ashamed of. A happy ‘can do’ attitude is infectious and everyone benefits – children, practitioners and parents.

Enabling environments
EYFS principle: The environment plays a key role in supporting and extending children’s development and learning.

In Reggio Emilia, the environment is sometimes referred to as the third teacher; and thoughtful planning, inside and out, is the key to really effective early years provision – the EYFS acknowledges the critical importance of both the emotional and the physical environment. Practitioners who view themselves as co-researchers working alongside the children will be able to see the environment from the child’s point of view and reflect on the possibilities that it has to offer.

  • Are there sufficient opportunities for children to get deeply involved, discover new lines of enquiry, experiment, explore, represent their thinking, and solve problems?
  • Is the environment full of inspiration, with provocations for learning that will capture the child’s imagination?
  • Does the environment enable children to be independent and make their own choices of materials and resources?
  • Are there quiet spaces where children can ponder and play as well as larger open spaces for them to test their new physical skills?

When the environment is right, there is a contagious sparkle in the air, the children are deeply engaged in their learning and practitioners’ confidence soars as they are free to support each child constructively on their learning journey.

Learning and development
EYFS Principle: Children develop and learn in different ways and at different rates and all areas of learning and development are equally important and inter-connected.

Children learn from everything they do. This principle finally casts aside the old legacy of confusion, and establishes a pedagogical approach for learning and development in the earliest years, that is firmly rooted in internationally respected research.

The EYFS affirms that young children learn best through carefully planned, play based experiences that start with their strengths, interests and capabilities. It acknowledges that young children are active learners and that they need opportunities to explore and make sense of the world, supported by knowledgeable, interested and sensitive adults.

The principle recognises that all areas of learning are interconnected and that while children will need to be taught new skills, these should always be balanced by opportunities for them to independently apply, practise and consolidate their new learning through a richly resourced environment, inside and out.

The EYFS places the child firmly at the heart of the learning experience and demands an informed approach to supporting children’s learning and development, gained through observational assessment and genuine partnerships with parents.

Utopia at last?
The EYFS does not signal a return to the laissez-faire approaches of the 60s, but instead stipulates a robust pedagogy that recognises the sophistication of young children’s thinking and the complexity of early learning and development.

The four themes and principles of the EYFS actually describe the conditions necessary for life-long, life-wide learning and apply equally to learners of all ages. Could this then be the new Utopia? We can only wait and see but we can feel assured that the journey will be worthwhile.


  • Birth to Three Matters, 2003, DfES Sure Start
  • Carolyn Edwards, Lella Gandini, George Forman, 1998, The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Approach – Advanced Reflections.
    Ablex Publishing Corp, US
  • Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage, 2000, DfEE/QCA, Ref: QCA/00/587
  • Desirable Learning Outcomes, 1996, The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA), ISBN 0 85522 7737 PP3/33655/498/153.
  • Donaldson, Margaret, 1978, Children’s Minds. HarperCollins
  • Early Years Foundation Stage Framework, 2007, DCSF, 00012-2007PCK-EN
  • M. Hohmann, DP Weikart, and AS Epstein, 1995, Educating Young Children: Active Learning Practices for Preschool and Child Care Programs. (3rd Ed.) High Scope Educational Research Foundation, ISBN: 978-1-57379-354-4
  • Rinaldi, C (2006) In Dialogue with Reggio Emilia: Listening, Researching and Learning. Routledge, London
  • Te Whariki. The New Zealand early childhood curriculum, 1996, developed under contract to the New Zealand Ministry of Education. Downloadable from