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National Practice Guidance on Early Learning and Childcare


Section 6: Early learning and childcare - what do children need?

"Development takes place through interactions with others, being active and involved and learning through exploration and discovery."[34].

6.1 The question of developmental stages

The crucial role practitioners play in supporting children's ELCC and in recognising the impact practice can have cannot be underestimated. In order to do this effectively practitioners need to have some understanding of the pattern of development of young children from birth to 5. It is important to know how children develop and learn from the beginning, how they are developing at any point in time, and how they might develop and learn in the future.

The following section acts as both a reminder and as a point of reflection for practitioners who feel confident in their knowledge about child development but also introduces information for those who are less familiar.

There are certain characteristics that are likely to be shared by children of similar ages. However, age alone is not the predetermining factor in children's development.

Each child will progress in their own way and at their own rate as there are no set rules for when a child stops being a baby and starts being a toddler or a slightly older child. You can usually see this more obviously in areas like walking and talking but it is equally valid for all areas of development.

Sometimes this can be puzzling for the practitioner working with very young children. Progression is often uneven across different aspects of development. This is to be expected and is quite natural. Understanding this helps to provide experiences, opportunities and interactions which are more developmentally appropriate.

Accepting and appreciating that this uneven pattern of development is how children develop and learn will give practitioners the confidence to make changes that will provide the best ELCC experiences.

  • Understanding how children learn and develops is critically important for staff to appreciate as we increasingly have more children under 3 with funded places.
  • It is also true in whichever setting they attend.
  • This has implications in that it is necessary for a practitioner to be able to respond to the child's actual development in order to adapt and provide what is best at that time for the child rather than expect a child to fit into a fixed and pre-determined group programme or plan.

Understanding this will help the practitioner in providing the right type of interactions and experiences within a positive caring and learning environment. Responding to the needs of a child in this way is welcomed by external quality assurance bodies such as Care Inspectorate and Education Scotland.

There are also circumstances where the practitioner will need to draw on their knowledge of child development in order to identify when a child is not making the developmental progress they should. This in turn, with parental agreement, may require additional support or specialist assessment.

6.2 What are the key characteristics of being a baby, toddler and young child?

There are certain aspects of ELCC which are typically more appropriate for different ages and stages of children's development. This is broadly explained below. It is written to provoke thinking and allow staff to reflect on their own practice. For ease of reading it is divided into what a baby, toddler and, older child may need.

6.3 The baby

From birth, babies know how they like to be held, be comforted and who they like to be with. They have already gained a range of skills learned in the womb. These skills help a new-born baby make a secure attachment and reciprocal relationship with their caregiver. They are making active choices, even at this early age, and deciding how they prefer their world to be. They want and need to make relationships with the people around them. They thrive best when they experience relationships which are warm, secure, consistent, loving and responsive. Learning while being carefully nurtured suggests an emotional response and commitment to the child. They are eager and keen to make sense of their world around them. They have an innate power or drive to develop and revise their thinking processes.

Advances in neuroscience and the use of technology now give us an insight into how the baby's brain develops and the potential of the baby's ability to learn and grow. The more practice a baby gets in recognising similarities and patterns in the world around them, the more competent they will become as brain connections increase quickly as they begin to make sense of their world. They learn through being active and mobile, through inquiry, communicating in a variety of ways, discovering new things and interacting with others. They do this by practicing their skills over and over again, returning to previous connections in order to make sense of their world.

Putting the guidance into practice

  • What are your thoughts about your role as an early years practitioner, room supervisor or manager in making sure this happens for the youngest children in your setting?
  • How does the environment promote attachment for babies in your setting? How do you ensure continuity of relationships for babies in your setting?
  • How do you as staff meet the needs of every child, taking into account that children learn and develop at different rates?
  • If you feel practice is already good, what would you consider to improve the situation for young children even more?
  • How would you improve the environment for the youngest children? Make a list of what happens now and what changes you would like to implement.

Think about what you do to make sure that a baby feels safe and secure in your care.

  • Do you have a good relationship with the babies in your care? How could you make it even better?
  • How do you use information from home to ensure individual babies and their parents feel they matter? What could you do differently?
  • How do you provide a warm, affectionate atmosphere where very young children feel valued and eager to try things out for themselves?

Babies tell us what they need by looking, touching, smiling and making sounds which can show they are happy or upset. The skilled practitioner is someone who can interpret these and understand what the baby is trying to communicate, what they want to touch and what they are trying to understand about the people around them.

6.3.1 A focus on babies - what do they need?

Experiences which:

  • Allow a baby to be calm, feel safe and secure.
  • Give individual time with a familiar adult; being lifted and shown different objects, walking around, going outside, being involved in conversations about what the baby has achieved at the end of the day with their key person and parent as they are collected to go home.
  • Offer frequent opportunities to engage in conversations with an adult, listening to favourite stories and playing with favourite objects that they like at home and which helps the baby settle.
  • Encourage regular opportunities to listen to and join in with music, songs, dance and being moved about.
  • Provide sensory and tactile experiences with natural objects to touch, listen to, taste and smell.
  • Encourage playing enquiry games such as peek-a-boo, dropping and hiding objects.
  • Allow a baby to be out of doors and able to interact with the world around them as described by the adult.

Adults who:

  • Promote relationships to become well known to the baby and parent.
  • Provide a regular but flexible pattern to the day which takes account of the baby's individual preferences of eating, sleeping and playing.
  • Encourage people who notice and value the baby's interests.
  • Identify and praise the baby's achievements and develop a method of keeping track of the baby's achievements which can be shared with the baby and parents.
  • Know the baby's developing competence and encourage the baby to try things out for themselves.
  • Are alert to the baby's needs to find things out and explore, and who can respond by interpreting this with the baby.
  • Encourage the baby to play games, to understand words and actions like; big, small, up, down.
  • Understand and work with the baby to practice developing skills such as learning to crawl, turning around, keeping their balance, reaching out and handing a toy to another.

An environment which:

  • Is safe, clean, comforting and predictable.
  • Is emotionally welcoming, secure and respectful.
  • Is home-like, with areas which the baby can recognise and relate to -photos of the baby's family and mirrors to see themselves.
  • Is arranged well for the baby to be beside other babies comfortably or sit up well supported to see all around.
  • Offers a personalised space with preferred toys and favourite things to cuddle.
  • Allows opportunities for play inside and for outdoor experiences.
  • Is a calm and comfortable place where the baby and adult can be together, talking and sharing experiences.
  • Offers opportunities for the baby to touch, hear, see and look at new things.
  • Provides time and space to explore what catches the baby's attention.
  • Gives space for the baby to move freely to explore different experiences without too much furniture to hinder movement.

6.4 Moving on to being a toddler

When the baby starts to be mobile their world changes and the struggle for independence increases. They become more involved in doing things for themselves, learning through their actions, engaging in schematic play. Schemas are "patterns of repeated behaviour which can often be noticed in young children's play"[35]. The skilled practitioner is able to recognise that these distinct patterns of behaviour are meaningful and accommodate opportunities for individual children. For example, children carrying all the bricks from one place to another in a bag; or the sand from the tray to the home corner or pushing a doll around in a pram. This repeated behaviour could be described as Transporting - one of the examples of schematic play. "It is important to be aware that occasional actions and fleeting interests are not schemas."[36] A child's schema will be evident across a range of different situations. It is important for a practitioner to understand that a child is not being disruptive when engaged in schematic play but be able to recognise this as early learning and help to support the child by offering opportunities to test out their thinking.

The toddler still enjoys familiar routines and experiences. Having this gives them the confidence to explore further and take risks. They are still dependent on having a familiar person nearby who gives them support, encouragement and care. It is a testing time for the child and the adult as life is full of frustrations and contradictions, making things at times unpredictable. Toddlers will often become frustrated where they have problems vocalising their feelings and this may lead to difficult phases. Caring for children at this stage requires a great sensitivity to the child's conflicting needs for the balance of independence, risk, reassurance and support.

Putting the guidance into practice

  • Do you recognise the description above for some of the young children in your care?
  • Think of a situation where a child was showing frustration and presented as unhappy. What could you do to help him resolve the situation?
  • What changes would you make to your environment to keep some familiarity for the child?
  • How would you now consider organising the space and experiences differently to better support the toddler's stage of development?

6.4.1 A focus on toddlers - what do they need?

Experiences which:

  • Allow the continuation of the familiar which enable the child to revisit, practise and refine their understanding.
  • Offer new experiences to help a child try new skills and to test and challenge themselves.
  • Allow the child to find out how things work, take things apart and put together and provides a range of boxes, bags, trays, containers so that objects can be put in, taken out, collected together, transported from one place to another, sorted and emptied to move things.
  • Provide interesting things to do, people to talk with, in play, when outside through real life experiences.
  • Promote fun with words, songs and rhymes in a small group and access to a widening range of books and stories.
  • Encourage an interest in early writing skills and opportunities to mark-make in real life contexts with clear mark-making tools, paint, pens and brushes.
  • Develop numeracy skills in play situations, number rhymes, and a growing awareness of early mathematical concepts such as heavy/light, big/small.
  • Encourage the child to express their feelings through music and dance.
  • Encourage creativity through making models, learning to stick using paper, textiles, boxes, tubes trying out glue, sellotape, fasteners etc. free painting and using clay.

Adults who:

  • Nurture friendships, supporting children in learning to be together and enjoying the company of other young children; and adults who patiently help children to reconcile differences, conflicts and understand the frustrations of this stage.
  • Appreciate the child's efforts, recognising their intentions rather than how well they achieve them, and encourage them to share these with others.
  • Model new words and phrases with just enough challenge to take the child forward.
  • Encourage the child to start conversations and ask questions, and give time for the child to find the words and gestures to explain their meaning.
  • Recognise that experiences which are everyday are new and exciting for children, and support their exploration without over direction or interfering.
  • Describe to the child what they are thinking and doing and encourage the child to do the same, asking questions such as: I wonder if, what do you think would happen, questioning, explaining what is happening.
  • Give time for prolonged projects which can be left for children to revisit without feeling the need to constantly tidy away work which the children may need to revisit the next day.
  • Encourage sensitive observation, standing back to allow children to explore and test out their theories and know the moment when the children will welcome support and not before.

An environment which:

  • Gives a place for personally important items from home.
  • Has a thoughtful arrangement of space and furniture to allow the child some control over what they do and how they play.
  • Has resources arranged so that they can see and make choices for themselves.
  • Has a flexible arrangement in terms of times and space to allow some control over quiet and active times.
  • Is a place to share what is important; a space to be comfortably together with others; and, an inviting space to be quiet and alone.
  • Gives regular access to the outdoors to encourage the growing understanding of the world around them.
  • Provides natural resources which help to stimulate all of the senses.
  • Provides time to talk in a supportive, unhurried way with a key adult.
  • Provides resources for pretend play, allows exploration of paint, sand and water. Objects to take apart and build together, interesting items to touch and examine.

6.5 Being a young child

As children get older they become more independent and sociable. They need to be active both physically and mentally as they have a growing capacity to think, inquire and communicate. They enjoy conversations and have a rapidly growing vocabulary. They often show more perseverance in their play and concentrate on experiences which are interesting and personally meaningful. They often have a good sense of fun but can also be serious and purposeful.

The defining feature of being a young active learner is the need to widen experiences and learning in all areas of development. The balance for staff is the urge to determine what the young child could learn through their own interests, balancing areas of the curriculum, and in creating a supportive learning environment to help the child progress.

Putting the guidance into practice

  • How do you organise time and space for children to revisit something they are working on over more than a day? Does the daily programme allow flexibility for children to spend more time if needed on something which is interesting and absorbing?
  • Are you tied by time and tasks and focused on, for example, tidy up time or storytime at certain points during the session? Can this be changed if necessary to better meet the needs of children?
  • Can you recognise when they are highly focused on a learning activity or understand why they are upset? Are you tempted to intervene? How could you improve your skills in these areas? What would support your own learning?
  • How can you use conversations and observations with children to implement support and plan effectively for their needs?

6.5.1 A focus on the young child - what do they need?

Experiences which:

  • Are new and stimulate enthusiasm, new learning and curiosity, balanced with more familiar experiences which can be revisited and tested out in different ways. Develop a sense of risk.
  • Encourage the young child to talk with each other and adults, and the growing awareness of the part each plays in a conversation.
  • Help the young child remember how they have used materials and solved problems in the past and how they can relate this learning to the task in hand.
  • Allow children to determine what they want to learn, form their own plans and gives ownership in discussion with an adult when they want to stop.
  • Give children a sense of wonder and stimulate questioning and ability to reason and test conclusions.
  • Allow children to play outside, fresh air and physical exercise.

Adults who:

  • Help children make sensible choices about their learning by involving them in making decisions about what could be provided and evaluating their own experiences.
  • Understand children will start at different points and encourage them to try activities at the appropriate level.
  • Make time to talk and listen to what a young child is saying and try to build on their meaning and reply in a way that children will understand but also models new language and descriptions.
  • Help children express ideas by singing, making music and role play.
  • Encourage children to try out new things, using children's interest as a starting point.

An environment which:

  • Gives a balance of being in and out of doors so that children are confident in different environments.
  • Encourages children's own sense of self by using their names, both oral and written, and those of friends and family frequently.
  • Organises resources which enable children to make choices, and share in others choices. Resources which are clearly labelled and where children know to find and replace them.
  • Has comfortable places to relax, be quiet and be with friends.
  • Has plenty for the young child to talk about, imagining and creating, reasoning and testing out, sharing and negotiating, talking about the past, present and the future.
  • Reflects the world of print, literacy and numeracy and the increasing use of technologies to support learning.
  • Gives time to persevere with inquiry learning and time to start a project and continue it over several days.

Find out more:

About developmental progress: "From Birth to Five Years: Children's Developmental Progress" fourth edition - Ajay Sharma and Helen Cockerill.

6.6 The importance of transitions

Transitions are a time or process of change and it is natural that change almost always brings uncertainty. In an ELCC setting there are several transitions we expect a child to manage, initially from home to the setting, from playroom to playroom, from person to person. It can be a frequent time of change. Transitions can also be exciting and challenging but it is still essential that these are handled sensitively, inclusively and positively. Dunlop and Fabian (2007) shows that "the way in which the first transitions are handled could potentially have a significant impact on the child's capacity to cope with change in the short and long term"[37].

6.6.1 The question of 2 year olds

The changes in the Act to provide for eligible 2 year olds needs to be carefully considered in terms of transition and an appropriate plan put in place. For example, it is common practice that children are divided into age groups to organise playrooms and staffing within a setting. In many ways this is understandable but this has wider implications for a child's development and how best to meet their learning and care needs as discussed in section 6.4 "Moving on to being a toddler".

We should not expect some younger children, for example a 2 year old, to immediately manage the transition of suddenly being with a larger group of older children without careful preparation. In this instance, it may be helpful to relax often more formal regimes of moving a child from room to room in a setting just because they are a year older, rather than making the decision as to what is actually best for him. We know that, depending on the child's stage of development, they still need the encouragement and confidence of being able to hold on to the familiar things they know as they increasingly let go to enjoy new experiences. On the other hand some younger children are more adept and confident and can make their transition with ease. As we already know, children have an uneven pattern of development. This is nothing new and to be expected.

Therefore you may find that a playroom has an age range of 2, 3 and 4 year old children. This is acceptable provided that the setting has considered the individual care and support needs of each child and that the setting has assessed what is in the best interests of that child and the other children in the room, so that they are all appropriately supported. This means that the skilful practitioner will, in planning for children's learning, give due care to providing developmentally appropriate and meaningful play experiences for all children.

The required staffing levels and space standards must continue to be met where these arrangements have been put in place. This could be seen as a challenge in terms of organisation of numbers of children at any one time but if we are truly committed to providing the best possible ELCC experiences it cannot be ignored. Practitioners need to take time to discuss any transition with parents, building on what the child can do and giving a well thought out rationale based on what is best for the child. There also needs to be an equally well thought out agreed plan for how to make the transition positive for the child and with other staff members. The idea of keeping some of the familiar aspects the child knows and carefully introducing this to the new setting will give the child the security and confidence to move forward.

Transitions need careful planning, effective partnerships and communication between all concerned.

Putting the guidance into practice

  • Think of a child you have known who you recognise from the text above. What would you do differently to help him?
  • Do you focus on finding what helps the child to be most calm and open to learning? What could this be?
  • Do you recognise the situation when adults try to control children to do what they think is correct rather than putting the needs of the child first? If so, what could you do differently?
  • How would you improve consultation with parents and other partners to ensure that transitions are understood and handled, with the needs of the child as the first priority?

6.6.2 Case Study: Community Childminding

Mary, aged 3, and brother Tommy, aged 14 months, were referred to the Community Childminding Service as their mum needed time to recover from an accident and hospital stay. With no extended family living in Scotland, dad had been able to take a week off work but as he had only just started a new job he didn't feel he could take any more time off. His new employers were supportive and offered reduced hours to allow him to take their oldest child to school and back.

The placement with a community childminder for six weeks allowed mum the time she needed to recover, knowing that her two youngest children were being well cared for. They had never been looked after by anyone else and the increased confidence for Mary was very apparent when she had her first nursery visit in preparation for starting after Christmas.

The community childminder went along too and was very pleased to see mum cope with confidence when speaking to the nursery staff as she had been suffering from very low self-esteem. Mary was full of confidence and settled in to nursery without any difficulty, much to the amazement of her mum. The time that Mary and Tommy spent with the community childminder was very positive and extremely good socially for them both.

"The family are over the difficulties they had and have now settled back down into their regular routine. Mary is making wonderful progress at nursery and is a very contented, busy and sociable girl, very confident and capable. Tommy is also making progress consistent with his stage of development." (Family Support Worker)

  • In what ways did Mary benefit from the approach described above?
  • What could have affected this effective transition arrangement?
  • Why is it important to develop effective transition arrangements for children?
  • What could you do to improve on your current practice?
  • Why is it important to ensure parents are part of the transition process?