Early Years Pedagogy 101:
The Simple Guide
Seven different approaches to learn about and try.

Trying to get your head around every early years pedagogy out there can be a bit…messy, can’t it?

Of course, in the UK we have concrete learning frameworks which you must follow, but the tools you have to use beyond that rely heavily on your knowledge of early years pedagogy.

After all, every situation that you’re in and every child you look after is different. The more you know, the more prepared you are to approach different situations and challenges. Learning about a different early years pedagogy doesn’t mean you have to adopt it overnight, it just adds new tools to your kit.

So whether you’re in for a bit of a refresh, or you want to pass some knowledge onto your team, it’s time for a bit of learning and self-reflection.

What is an early years pedagogy?

Before we start, it’s important that we make clear exactly what an early years pedagogy is.

Most simply, pedagogy is about how we educate children and help their development. It’s the techniques and strategies you can use to provide opportunities for development and how your relationships and interactions with children can affect them.

An early years pedagogy can be many things, but it may touch on things like:

  • Development – Focusing on how and why children change in terms of their learning and development over time.
  • Behaviour – How a child’s experiences shape their behaviour.
  • Relationships – How children change and learn in relation to those around them.
  • Culture – How family life and culture impact learning and relationships.
  • Critique – Inviting you to challenge assumptions and issues around power, equality, and curriculum expectations.
Early years pedagogies

Now, you won’t find every early years pedagogue here. In particular, there are many earlier pioneers who didn’t make the list partly because their work has been followed by pedagogies that can give you more concrete ideas to take into your provision.

As we get underway, remember that these pedagogies don’t necessarily disagree with one another. You don’t need to just pick one and run with it. In fact, research suggests that general pedagogical approaches with lots of different influences tend to be the most effective.

Take onboard what inspires you and start improving your early years practice one little step at a time.

1. Froebel

Friedrich Froebel was a German educator who invented the concept of kindergarten. The Froebelian approach promotes the importance of play, because it allows children to understand their world by directly experiencing it.

What are the basic principles?

  • Childhood is more than just preparation for adulthood.
  • All learning is linked, and so every different area of learning can impact others.
  • Child-initiated play is very important as it means that the child is motivated and engaged.
  • Always start with what children can do, not what they can’t.

How can it affect my provision

  • Froebel puts a lot of emphasis on self-discipline. Consider whether you’re providing an environment in which children can concentrate and remain focused on the task at hand.
  • How well do your practitioners know their children? A key part of Froebel’s early years pedagogy is that each child is offered play opportunities that are right for their stage of development. Make sure your practitioners know how to simplify certain activities so that every child can confidently and happily play.
  • Children need opportunities to make choices, errors, and decisions. This is how they learn what is right for them as an individual.
  • Constructive play forms a large part of the Froebelian approach, as well as plenty of opportunities to talk, listen and communicate with adults and other children.
2. Montessori

Maria Montessori was an Italian physician and educator who developed the Montessori method based on thousands of scientific observations. It focuses on each child’s individuality, encouraging curiosity through a carefully designed environment.

What are the basic principles?

  • Crafting a safe, ordered and nurturing environment that encourages self-directed, hands-on learning.
  • Features a range of natural, often open-ended resources that match the five Montessori curriculum areas.
  • These five curriculum areas are: practical life, sensorial, mathematics, language, and culture.
  • Practitioners play a crucial role in providing the right materials for children to explore at the right point in their development. Every resource has a specific place and a role to play.

How can it affect my provision

  • If you’re not ready to incorporate Montessori specific resources, consider providing more open-ended resources that allow children to direct their own play and make choices for themselves.
  • A calm, focused environment is a core feature of a Montessori education. Could you cut down on some of the clutter in your setting and create a more ordered space?
  • Are you hand-holding children too much? Montessori emphasises opportunities for independence as early as possible in daily tasks, including cooking and preparing food or tidying away. This develops life skills and encourages respect for things.
3. Steiner/Waldorf

Rudolf Steiner was an Austrian educationalist, who set up his first school for the workers of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart. Steiner believed in an environment that is calm, peaceful, familiar, predictable and unhurried.

What are the basic principles?

  • Learning should be experienced through the course of regular daily tasks and activities.
  • The environment is central, and shouldn’t overstimulate children. It should be familiar to them.
  • Natural, open-ended resources feature heavily, leaving room for the child’s imagination.
  • A homely environment is prefered in order to make children feel welcome, and each child should have a place where their things belong.

How can it affect my provision

  • To Steiner, ‘doing’ is learning. Therefore you should give children as many physical activities as possible and opportunities to learn from the real world in order to ‘grasp’ the world around them.
  • Use language to allow all activities to encompass different areas. Mathematics can be learnt while children prepare food, for instance, as you give them the language of adding, subtracting, weighing and measuring.
  • Routine and repetition are important as they help children to find their place in the world. It also helps to support good habits and give perspective to the day. Consider whether your routine could be less chaotic and more comforting for children.
4. Reggio Emilia

The Reggio Emilia approach was developed by Loris Malaguzzi alongside parents after World War II. It is a heavily child-centric approach, with a focus on the many ways children can express themselves. The practitioner is an observer and promoter of the child’s interests.

What are the basic principles?

  • Every child should be seen as strong, capable and resilient, and ready to explore.
  • Children are natural communicators, and it’s important that we understand the ‘100 languages of children’ – the many different ways children express themselves.
  • Children can build their own learning, and require adults to help support it, not instruct.
  • The focus on exploratory and child-led play is meant to improve problem-solving skills in particular.

How can it affect my provision

  • Children should be made to feel like their conversations with adults are an opportunity to learn and search together. It is a process. For that reason, practitioners need to have the time and patience to really engage with children and pay attention to what they’re saying.
  • Consider how your practitioners engage with the children by undertaking peer observations. Ensure that they’re acting as a guide and not interrupting or quashing children’s interests.
  • Emphasise a hands-on approach to learning, as this is what best allows children to communicate using their hundred languages. This includes drawing, dancing, painting and pretend play, music, sculpting. Giving children opportunities to express themselves is key.
5. Forest schools

The forest school pedagogy focuses on giving children the opportunity to learn through hands-on experiences in a woodland environment. Originating in Denmark in the 1950s, the forest school ethos is now seen throughout the world, including at the UK’s preschool of the year 2017.

What are the basic principles?

  • All or almost all learning takes places outside in a woodland or natural environment.
  • Children are trusted to explore and discover, and allowed to engage in risky play.
  • Encouraged to choose their own learning and to develop a close, positive relationship with nature.

How can it affect my provision

  • The increased physical exercise is a huge benefit of forest schooling. Are you doing enough to develop physical learning opportunities at your setting?
  • You don’t need to go all in with forest schooling, but many nurseries now experiment with part-time forest schooling. See if there are any places you can pair with in your area.
  • Risky play is a huge part of forest schooling. It’s easy to be overprotective of the little ones, but teaching them to engage with risk and understand their limits is important too. Consider reassessing your balance between risk and safety.
6. Bandura

Albert Bandura’s work is mainly focused on something called Social Learning Theory, which is all about behaviour. In particular, his experiments have shown the importance of adults as models, whose behaviour children observe, consider, and then later often copy.

What are the basic principles?

  • Children were shown by Bandura to copy aggressive actions made by those they trust unless those actions were criticised. This led to the theory of adults as models for behaviour.
  • This includes modelling calm, respectful behaviour, as well as the way we interact with one another.
  • Bandura also emphasises the importance of displaying thinking out loud to show thought process, and for adults to have problem-solving discussions between themselves to demonstrate cooperation.

How can it affect my provision

  • Adults need to carefully consider their actions, knowing that their behaviour can and will be copied by children. For example, are your practitioners eating with and displaying good eating habits around the children?
  • Don’t be afraid to have discussions together to solve problems in front of children. You are modelling good cooperative behaviour.
  • Consider talking through your thought processes out loud in front of children to model conscious thinking and consideration.
7. The Curiosity Approach

The Curiosity Approach is a pedagogy developed by Lydnsey Hellyn and Stephanie Bennett. It takes ideas from Steiner, Reggio, Montessori and Te Whāriki, but most importantly it’s about providing a safe and comfortable environment for children to be curious.

What are the basic principles?

  • As we found out in our interview with Lyndsey and Stephanie, one of the key principles is using natural materials and neutral backgrounds that prevent overstimulation.
  • Children should become independent thinkers who can explore their environment with curiosity.
  • A homely environment is the key to making children feel comfortable and safe.

How can it affect my provision

  • Real-life resources rather than indestructible plastic teach children risks and consequences. Could you add a few more fragile, real-world resources to your setting?
  • Is your setting full of bright colours? They might be overstimulating your children, leading to behavioural problems. Consider a lick of paint and some more natural display backings.
  • Items that spark curiosity are important. Think about recycling or reclaiming things from charity shops and car boot sales that are will spark interest in your children.
8. Athey and Schemas

Chris Athey built on the early work of Piaget to popularise the idea of schemas, the fascinations that children obsess over during different stages in their development. Understanding and encouraging children to develop within these schemas is key to this early years pedagogy.

What are the basic principles?

  • The main thread of Athey’s thinking was about identifying and encouraging these patterns of repeated behaviour that we call schemas.
  • Athey’s schemas were: dynamic vertical, dynamic back and forth, dynamic circular, going over and under, going round a boundary, going through a boundary, containing and enveloping space.
  • The adult has an incredibly important role to play in the schema framework. They must observe, understand and then provide opportunities for the child to explore their schema further.

How can it affect my provision

  • Education of your practitioners is key. Like all observation, the skill comes from being able to recognise different schemas at work, so that we can both assess a child’s development and provide more opportunities for them to learn in a way that engages them.
  • Schemas can be very helpful in understanding what might look like ‘bad behaviour’. Is the child throwing objects around, or are they experimenting with trajectories? Are they obsessed with ruining your carefully curated playspace, or are they fascinated by transporting? Understanding schemas can help clarify these questions.
  • We cover schemas pretty widely in our free guide on next steps. Take a look and pass it onto your practitioners.
Wait there’s more…

This is absolutely not an exhaustive list of every early years pedagogy out there. If you want to explore more pedagogies, here’s a list of some other philosophies and thinkers that you can look into:

  • Piaget – Helped us understand how a child constructs a mental model of the world and brought in many theories on assessment.
  • Vygotsky – Focused on the value of play and how children learn based on their environment.
  • Te Whāriki – The New Zealand curriculum that focuses on a homely environment and strong personal relationships.
  • Watson – Developed behaviourism – that learning is developed through how we connect things.
  • Bowlby – Focused on attachment and how these close relationships aid development.
  • Freud – Had many groundbreaking and controversial ideas, connecting relationships with development of a unique personality.
  • Bruner – Coined the term scaffolding and expanded the idea of children as active learners.
  • Gardner – Encouraged respect for different forms of ‘intelligence’, with none seen as better than the others.
  • Goleman – Worked particularly in developing emotional intelligence in young people.
  • Mcmillan – Had a key role in influencing positive early years practice after the war.
  • Bronfenbrenner – Gave us a better understanding of the effect of the environment on the child.
  • Erikson – Developed various stages of development with positive vs negative potential results at each stage.
  • HighScope – Advocates for daily routine and daily plan-do-review.

Early Years & The Environment Guide

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