Implementing a Knowledge Rich Curriculum in the Early Years

It has taken me a long time to feel brave enough to write a blog about this topic, Up until recently I found the whole idea of embedding new approaches and practice in Early Years dauting and going against the grain, not wanting to unbalance the scales! Tipping the balance has pushed me to the limits of disequilibrium and made me feel uncomfortable but boy am I glad I did. I write this because the impact within my changed practice has been profoundly positive for both myself and the children in our setting. I wanted to share my experience, not because I now go against the principles of EYFS far, far from it. I embrace and am passionate about children learning through play, exploration, awe, wonder and their interests. My degree, at the time, was full of the greats… Piaget, Vygotsky, Donaldson, Brunner, Bronfenbrenner, Skinner, Chomsky, Reggio, Steiner, Montessori, Rousseau to name but a few, all having huge amounts to offer in understanding children’s learning and development. I write this because change can be (and should be) uncomfortable for lots of us. Challenging long held ideas and vast proven practice is difficult to critically argue with sometimes but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look to new/different research and ideas that can potentially add to or enhance practice. Its healthy practice to ask the ‘why’.

Bear with me here ……After working many years, over a broad variety of settings (nurseries, infant school, junior school, all through primaries, MAT’s, families homes) and within different roles including Preschool Manager, Governor, Pastoral and Behaviour Mentor, Family Support Practitioner, HLTA etc I can wholeheartedly say that children and families are as positively individual as beautiful snowflakes and all have positives to offer in terms of cultural capital. I can also unsurprisingly say, in my humble opinion, that EY is without doubt the foundation of which almost everything sits from the emotional to academic. It can be a profoundly challenging, confusing and frustrating stage (as are many others!), yet deeply rewarding, fascinating and most definitely humorous.

We all know that these beautiful little human beings, even before they are born, need utmost love, care and attention to meet their needs as well as supportive, attuned, nurturing adults around them to begin the very first few layers of these foundations. Delivering this idyllic model isn’t always possible, all of the time, after all no one is the perfect parent or the perfect practitioner all of the time. That’s ok, isn’t it? Because we have family, friends and professionals to support us parents when things get tough, don’t we? Or has western society become so disengaged with other humans and so egocentric that me, myself and I (and my smartphone of course!) has become the norm? I believe in the saying ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ and in that village there are supportive family and friends, an inclusive school full of supportive, knowledgeable professionals, a community centre of professionals and a doctors surgery where you don’t have to wait a month for an appointment, oh and don’t forget the decent restaurant and family pub! A parent recently moved her family to the UK after living in Uganda and her mention of the stark contrast in the ‘non-available community’ in the UK struck me hard across the face.  Working closer as a supportive community for children and families in these seemingly egocentric ‘non-human’ times and having available professionals to support the rewarding task of imparting knowledge to families should potentially be priority if we are wanting children continue to emotionally, personally and intellectually evolve (a bit deep maybe?). Back to the point…..

As practitioners we have a part to play in this ‘village’. Practitioners, with everyday amazing energy and passion ensure focus is put on building; strong, supportive, nurturing, attuned relationships with young children (key), enabling environments, play based learning with expertly delivered adult support etc delivered day in day out with awesome enthusiasm ideas and practice.  

In tipping the scale, I just think there are a few key things that could make outcomes for children even more fantastic.

Below are some ideas and food for thought. They have had the biggest impact in enriching our setting and children’s experiences, learning and development so far. They are based on and informed by a mix of several key approaches/theories/research including ED Hirsch – Knowledge rich curriculum and cultural literacy, Engelmann’s– Direct instruction, Dylan Williams – Cognitive load and retrieval practice and the Thrive approach.

For context – We are based in a school funded Preschool ages 2-4, not all children attend all week and our socio-economic demographic is broad. Our curriculum topics build over a two year cycle and directly feed into reception and year 1 curriculum planning.

EYFS Development areas – Communication and Language, Knowledge and understanding of the world and Literacy

  • Serve, return, recall, question or fact – in short children serve a misconception or phrase, the adult returns the rephrase, children are encouraged to repeat it back, praise given, the adult then uses professional judgement as to whether extend by asking a question for the child to answer or give a fact that the child repeats (happy to explain this more if required).  
  • Snack Facts – A Knowledge rich moment in the day that doesn’t take away from child led learning but that has had a big impact on language and understanding.  They are based on the months overarching topic (which is continually informed by the children’s interests) and have significantly supported children’s language use in free play. Whilst having snack I share the snack facts and we speak about the picture; children ask questions. There is a key highlighted sentence with key language on each page (4-5 in total, same every snack time for a week). Using choral response, I say the sentence, children repeat it back to me. The children absolutely love it, they get excited about snack facts and we hear the language and knowledge learnt in free play, a lot.
  • Book of the week at carpet time– Having a book of the week; read every day with energy, enthusiasm and love, means that children’s knowledge of characters, setting, refrains etc etc builds over the week. As well as an increased enjoyment for books the children’s critical enquiry and questions have become more detailed, it has improved understanding and use of language. We now have a story shelf and children retell the story with incredible detail with the story props but also use the language from books during role play and forest school free play – ‘My snake is in his high log pile house’ is a favourite phrase for one of our 2 year olds.
  • Mini non- fiction library, as well as lots of fiction books readily available – children are choosing to spend more time with books and are asking adults to read with them more during the day.
  • Picture wall and picture blocks in small world play – we’ve added a picture wall to a cupboard door at child level based on the overarching topic. Children notice the pictures and ask questions about them; we discuss what they are. This has encouraged children to ask more questions about their environment including letters, shapes, numbers and other items of interest. We’ve added pictures of volcanoes, waterfalls, plants, trees etc to small world play blocks to enrich play experiences and language. Children create all sorts of worlds and speak about the pictures within it and why they are there. This has increased the amount of language used whilst playing.
  • We use the tapestry communication platform to do a weekly mini newsletter for parents to let them know what the children have been learning, including some snack fact knowledge that we’ve shared.  

PSED  – We are lucky enough be able to embed the incredible Thrive approach at this early age, which is steeped in the latest neuroscience and supports all children to communicate their social and emotional wants and needs. Children are more self-aware and beginning to self-regulate, children are beginning to think of themselves in positive terms, they are using the language of emotions to express themselves with each other and conflicts have reduced.

  • Attuned adults ensure that children’s emotions are noticed, spoken about and navigated supportively
  • Children learn about themselves in positive terms and supportive adults encourage a positive self through play and exploration
  • Supportive adults share activities with children that explore and name different emotions and why they happen (age appropriately).
  • Children are encouraged to speak to each other about how they are feeling and problem solve together.
  • Children are taught that it is normal to experience a whole range of emotions and that its ok to express themselves but in appropriate ways that don’t hurt others
  • Supportive adults attune to children during their play and help navigate and problem solve to resolve conflicts and find compromise, age appropriately

These are just a few things, along with the other great practice that is concrete in EY, which we have added to our provision along with weekly experience sessions of music and movement, forest school, kitchen garden, P.E, STEM and cooking, in the hope of helping support children and families in our community. We have many more ideas around new maths research that’s coming out of the East London Research school and we are continually striving to improve for our children, families and community that we serve.

I hope that in some small way other practitioners may find this useful or thought provoking.

Be critically kind folks.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: