How To Make Your Early Years Displays
Work For The Children

Make displays child-led again.
  • Too often early years displays are made for adults, by adults, or at best, built from closed-off, adult-led activities.
  • Early years displays that are within the room are most effective when they’re child-led, meaningful, and celebrate the journey or process of learning, rather than the end result.
  • We’ve got tips on how to self-reflect on your own displays, and discuss one approach that truly celebrates each child’s individuality.

Looking to rejuvenate your early years displays?

Well, like everything else in your setting’s enabling environment, your displays should serve the children you’re educating. That’s why we produced this guide to child-led displays that reflect the child’s learning, rather than the practitioner’s skill with a laminator.

Later on, we’ll talk about the Learning Journey Display Approach, one way to create a display that is truly child-led.

But first, why does it matter that we make early years displays child-led? And where do practitioners often go wrong?

What’s the problem with early years displays?

It’s easy to get too caught up in making displays that are finished, final, pristine.

One of the biggest challenges is getting your practitioners to understand that their displays aren’t really a reflection of them. Or at least, not in the way some of them might think.

They don’t need to look perfect or show off something to other adults. After all, how does a display for adults, by adults, or one filled with adult-led, identical pieces of child work benefit the child in your setting?

You put the child first in everything else when it comes to the environment. So why not your displays too?

This thinking when it comes to displays has led to things like:

  • Themed displays that stay up for months.
  • Beautiful, extravagant borders and filler that take away attention from the children’s work.
  • Reproduced activities that show no real ownership or creativity.
  • Carbon copy drawings where children can’t even recognise their own work.
  • Information for parents or practitioners within the play environment that children can’t decipher.

Instead, it’s time to give ownership of the displays back to the children.

Next steps and British Values

The early years rumour mill loves to spread myths about displays. Two classic culprits are next steps and British Values.

The British Values are something that need to run through every part of your practice. You can’t just tick it off by making a display about it. In fact, by getting children involved in display-making to begin with, you’re actually more likely to encompass key british values like Democracy.

Dr Sue Allingham recently wrote for us about rethinking next steps, and among other things, she explained why next step displays can be damaging. By focusing too much on linear attainment, and by putting those expectations up for all to see, you can actually be preventing children from reaching their potential.

Why are child-led displays important?

So if we want to move away from pristine displays with carbon-copy work on, what’s the alternative?

To start with, practitioners need to let go of the idea that displays are finished things. They should reflect a process, not an endpoint of the child’s learning.

When done right, displays can actually help you to deliver child-led learning, which is a main focus of the EYFS, and give them the sort of empowerment and involvement in the decision-making process that is laid out in the Children’s Act 2004.

Here are just some of the benefits of involving children more heavily in the display-making process:

  • Children are more likely to engage with and reflect on their displayed work.
  • It can help them to become self-aware and self-confident learners.
  • They are actively engaging with the process of their learning.
  • It gives them increased ownership of their environment.
  • It lets them take pride in the work they’ve created.
  • Knowing it’s temporary, they may feel more confident to push the boundaries of what they create or display.
  • It gives them a chance to recall and revisit their work and learning.
How to self-reflect on your early years displays

Just like any part of your provision, any change has to start with some self-reflection.

Here are three themes to get you started, along with some questions to ask yourself. Some of these questions are more leading than others, but if you want to simplify the whole process then just ask yourself one question.

Why?

When you ask yourself why, you make sure that your decisions are conscious and backed up with reasons, rather than just because it’s the way it’s always been done.

1. Content

Where to start? Well, a display isn’t really a display without something in it. Here are some questions to consider the type of work and content your putting in your displays.

Questions

  • Who are my displays for?
  • Why do I want work on display?
  • How much of what’s on display is made by the children?
  • Who decides what’s on the display?
  • How old is the display?
  • Do adults talk with children about the display?
  • Do the displays seem creative and varied, or reproduced and similar?
  • Can I include the child’s voice in the display?
  • Are the displays about the outcome or is there a focus on the journey?
2. Location

To be truly child-centred, your displays have to be accessible to the children. That means getting on the floor and seeing what they look like from a child’s perspective.

Questions

  • Why do I have the displays where they are on the wall?
  • How do I want children to interact with the display?
  • When sitting on the floor, can I see the displays?
  • Can I make displays outdoors too?
  • Would a child want to sit near and reflect on the display?
3. Design

One of the biggest conversations happening in the early years for some time has been about bright coloured backgrounds vs a more neutral approach. While the former can often be more fun and engaging, research suggests that busy bright displays can distract and overstimulate children.

Questions

  • Why have I chosen that background? And who for?
  • How has a change in display or decor affected child behaviour?
  • Can children properly see and recognise everything on display?
  • Is the display inviting and engaging or off-putting
  • What stands out to me about the display from child-level?
  • Do my SEN children move away or become stressed when near the display?
The Learning Journey Display Approach

Now that you’ve had some time to self-reflect, here’s an example of one approach to early years display that might inspire you in your setting.

The Learning Journey Display Approach is all about setting out a display that celebrates individuality and reflects the journey, not the destination.

1. Give each child a section

Start with a long, low section of wall that the children can all easily see and interact with.

Next, choose your prefered backing, considering colours, overstimulation and everything we talked about above. Use borders to divide it into equal sections, giving each child a section of their own.

The idea is to give each child ownership of their section of the display, turning them into active participants, not passive observers.

2. Start with some photos

Each section should begin with a photo of the child, and then ask them to bring in photos of their family, carers, friends, pets – the people important to them.

This makes it feel familiar and inviting, while promoting a sense of self-awareness.

3. Show children what you’ve done before

With the start of a new year or when new children join, sit down with them and show them what children have done with their sections before.

Show them photographs of what other children have added or talk to them about what they might like to add, so that they have some ideas and know it’s their choice.

4. Put up stuff

Maintain a conversation with the children about what they want to put up. Explain to them that things can go on, and come down, so they challenge themselves with what they want to display.

You can add photographs of play, activities, or creations. You want the child to take the lead with what goes up. Once new things go up, you can keep the old notes, photos, messages and work in a folder.

5. Add the child’s voice

This is where you can work with the child to add context around the work. Speech bubbles about what they said. Short texts about the child’s interests. Detail the words and language they were using while their play was going on.

It’s important that the child is a part of this process, so sit down and write these speech bubbles with them, so they know you’re using their words.

Respect the process

This is by no means the only way you can have displays that contain the child’s voice and their interests in your setting. But hopefully it might inspire you to rethink the way you approach display, and come up with your own interpretation that works for you.

It can feel scary to move away from finished, polished wall display, but once you get into the swing of things, you’ll see how this approach to display in your setting can give ownership of the environment back to the children.

And once you’re up and running, it should be giving you meaningful learning time back with the children, rather than spending hours making displays that look like they should be in a gallery.

Further Reading

The Complete (and free) SEN Guide

Interested in more? Download the full guide to preparing an inclusive environment for every SEN child.