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National Practice Guidance on Early Learning and Childcare


Section 7: Putting pedagogy into practice

7.1 What do we mean by pedagogy?

By identifying more closely what we want children to learn and how best children learn we can enhance the range of learning opportunities and try to ensure that whatever ELCC setting children attend they have an equal access to broad and balanced learning activities.

For example, we know that children learn best when they are active, busy learners. They also learn and develop at different rates personal to themselves. The society in which we live expects our children to be competent, capable individuals who achieve well.

If we accept that in order for young children to take part in and enjoy their world they need to acquire a wide range of knowledge, understanding and skills. If we believe that a young child's concern is to an active busy learner, trying to make sense of the world around them in order to take part and enjoy it, we can say they are learning all of the time from all of their experiences.

In essence this is their curriculum.

However, on the other hand, the curriculum is also about what the practitioner wants children to learn within a caring, nurturing environment - the intentional promotion of experiences and interactions which are important for young children to learn. These intentions must be supported by the environment, the experiences and the interactions which are developed and these descriptors are used as a common framework throughout this guidance.

In the book Children's Rights and Early Education[38], Nutbrown talks about the curriculum in this way: "What makes working with young children so exciting is the way the anticipated possibilities planned and provided for by the educator are used by individual and groups of children in spontaneous and dynamic ways. The people, children, parents and educators, who share the experiences, construct the curriculum".

This explanation helps us appreciate that pedagogy is about the interactions and experiences which support the curriculum and the process of how children learn. This is inseparable from what young children should learn - the content of the curriculum.

The current Pre-Birth to Three National Guidance[39] does not formally suggest curricular areas, nor was the intention to do so, but rather it concentrates on four key principles:

  • Rights of the child.
  • Relationships.
  • Respect.
  • Responsive care.

These principles are enshrined in the descriptions and approaches to ELCC as written in this document. ELCC must also take account of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE)[40] as it is designed for children aged 3-18. It is helpful for us to do so as it offers more closely what we anticipate children to learn, through experiences and outcomes and how best they learn as they get a little older and develop. In ELCC settings we can adapt, broaden and deepen the learning opportunities available. In doing so we must always keep in mind young children's experience of learning must be:

  • Integrated.
  • In meaningful contexts.
  • Developmentally appropriate.

Where uncertainties for the practitioner can arise is where there are well-meaning intentions to conform by providing activities which are not necessarily developmentally appropriate or actually relevant to the child's context or world around them.

Why does this happen?

As we are primarily working with very young children, our understanding of how young children learn needs to be better understood and practised by all, including practitioners, parents, the wider education community and adapted to supporting young children's learning more effectively.

There is no need to formalise the curriculum; or implement a list of experiences to reflect the early stages of primary school. If this happens it is likely to narrow the young child's experiences.

The principles of Curriculum for Excellence sit comfortably alongside the pedagogy and practice as described in this document. In the planning for children's learning there should be:

Challenge and enjoyment.

  • Breadth.
  • Progression.
  • Depth.
  • Personalisation and choice.
  • Coherence.
  • Relevance.

Curriculum for Excellence provides a framework of what may be possible and the areas of learning which are considered to be of highest importance. We could not for example say that health and wellbeing is not important for young children as it is integral to their development. Nor could we say that literacy and language are any less important. The journey or continuum of learning is highlighted over the next few pages. It builds on the principles of CfE and Pre-Birth to Three; looks at essential areas of importance which can be linked to CfE; and is designed to make connections across all three stages of the baby, toddler and young child.

Find out more:

About Curriculum for Excellence: www.educationscotland.gov.uk/thecurriculum/whatiscurriculumforexcellence/thepurposeofthecurriculum/index.asp

7.2 Essential aspects which drive early learning

In the following three sections we take a closer look at wellbeing; communication; and, creativity, inquiry and curiosity in terms of the baby, the toddler and the young child. These three areas have been chosen as the principal drivers of early development and learning, for the purposes of this guidance.


No matter what the age of the child from babyhood onwards, health and wellbeing is the principal driving force behind children growing up and learning. The wellbeing indicators of GIRFEC, for children to be safe, healthy, achieving, nurtured, active, respected, responsible and included are implicit throughout this section. It is also well known that a healthy diet and regular physical exercise are fundamental for a healthy childhood. Babies and young children need a healthy balanced diet to support brain development and physical development.

It is important to appreciate what young children need in terms of their emotional, social and physical wellbeing to grow and learn; and, how young children develop their own self-control and understanding of what this means in practice. This is sometimes described as managing their emotions and self-regulation.

In From Birth to Five Years[41], Sharma and Cockerill describe the concept of self-regulation as:

"When children develop their language, social and cognitive skills they also get better at paying attention to what is relevant, managing their emotions appropriately for the situation and thinking and planning events and problems. Regulating emotions does not mean suppressing emotions but expressing emotions effectively and appropriately for safety, getting one's needs met and socialising."

As babies and young children develop so too does their ability to self-regulate their emotions and need for attention. Parents and practitioners have an important role to support young children through these testing times and, as with other areas of development children, will develop at their own rate. What is known is that providing predictable routines, modelling behaviour, helping children take turns, being aware of the emotions of others and helping children become more independent are all necessary in developing the child's concept of self-regulation.

CfE highlights the purposes of health and wellbeing as: "to ensure that all children and young people develop the knowledge and understanding, skills and capabilities and attributes which they need for mental, emotional, social and physical wellbeing now and in the future."[42]


Language, learning and living go hand in hand and being able to communicate influences everything we do. It is dependent on being with others. Young children need real opportunities to express their own ideas and feelings and to understand and respond to other people. It is more than having a wide vocabulary but also about having the confidence and drive to share their ideas with others. We also know that the first five years of life is the optimum time for children to acquire their language skills.

Children learn by asking questions, talking about their ideas, describing what they see and wondering out loud. They also live in a world full of print and they see others using print to communicate in many different ways. They see this as being interesting and powerful and the rise of technologies adds to the excitement of learning.

Promoting curiosity, inquiry and creativity

Children are born curious and with an inquiring nature. All children need access to well thought out experiences which will help them develop their inquiry skills to be successful and competent learners. We know from the GUS research[43] that children who do not have enough problem solving types of activities from the very start are at a significant disadvantage to those children who do.

Inquiry is about being curious and persistent. For young children it is about finding out things for yourself and being able to come to a self-satisfying answer often with the gentle support from a key person. It allows a child to appreciate when something actually has been learned and to know this for themselves. The sense of achievement in inquiry learning is a key motivator to learn more.

Creativity sits alongside inquiry and problem solving. Being creative is not just about painting and model making or making music, although these are highly important for children, but also includes reasoning out, testing and solving problems, putting things together and taking them apart and figuring out how things work. Early mathematics and numeracy are closely interlinked with inquiry and creativity and is best achieved in practical meaningful contexts for children where they make sense of the world about them.

The following sections are again written in terms of some suggestions of what the baby, toddler and young child need to be able to develop aspects of these essential aspects which drive early learning. They should also be read and understood to show progression through each developmental stage in wellbeing, communication, and promoting curiosity, inquiry and creativity.

7.3 A focus on babies - what do they need?

7.3.1 Wellbeing

Experiences which:

  • Allow the baby to respond to voices and expressions where the baby can smile or is soothed and comforted by the practitioner's voice or being held appropriately.
  • Allow the baby to relax by touching soft cuddly toys, and/or by listening to a reassuring voice telling a story.
  • Allow the baby to respond by showing happiness by gurgling or smiling and is beginning to understand routines of the day.
  • Involve playing games which are fun, stretching out and touching hands or toes.
  • Enable the baby to sit supported to watch others, play with toys or roll over to reach items placed just out of reach to encourage movement.
  • Support how the baby likes to be fed, go to sleep and be changed.

Adults who:

  • Notice how the baby shows their feelings and appreciates the challenges babies have when separating from their main caregiver and can respond to the baby's uncertainties.
  • Encourage the baby quietly and sensitively at feeding times in a calm, unhurried way.
  • Include the baby in conversations about what is happening and encourage the baby to reach out and move to get favourite toys, books or objects.
  • Give physical support to help the baby stand up and respond to the baby's efforts in moving around.
  • Encourage physical movement to strengthen the baby's muscles by helping initial attempts at walking or standing by kneeling in front of the baby giving physical help, encouragement and praise.
  • Give reassurance to the baby by talking quietly, never raising their voice as babies are very susceptible to mood, and are quick to pick up on negative actions, but who smile, give reassurance to help the baby manage better when they feel upset or uncertain.

An environment which is:

  • Designed so that the baby feels safe, happy, content and cosy which gives a sense of care and wellbeing.
  • Open in terms of access for the keyworker to see the baby, and respond to the baby's smiles, tears, gestures or for example, the baby's preferred way to be laid down to sleep.
  • Arranged so that the baby can be with others in a small group.
  • Organised so that the baby can see and learn about others in the group and be socially comfortable. For example, reaching out and sharing a toy, an uncluttered space where the baby has room to roll over and crawl.
  • Spacious and attractive with mobiles and toys for the baby to reach, touch and hold, and when the baby is more mobile, a sensible arrangement of equipment so they can move easily from one area to another.

7.3.2 Communication

Experiences which:

  • Provide opportunities to talk with the baby, during play, being included in normal conversations, hearing about daily routines.
  • Give sensory and tactile experiences which allows the baby to reach out, laugh, and make happy sounds.
  • Allow playing with toys which make sounds or books which make noises when pressed. Access to personal stories created with the family, with familiar photos and words.
  • Encourage peek-a-boo and give and take games, songs and rhymes with simple and repetitive words, phrases and actions.
  • Provide picture books with favourite objects and themes and opportunities to revisit these as often as necessary.

Adults who:

  • Recognise how babies communicate their needs through facial expression, gestures, touch and by giving and receiving objects.
  • Engage in "conversations" with babies, pausing to allow the baby to "say" non-verbally what they want and the adult verbally interpreting this and taking turns, e.g. I see you would like me to pass you your bear, here you are.
  • Talk with the baby in a conversation, interpreting meanings from clues the baby gives out, for example, touching, looking intently at something or someone but giving time for the baby to contribute in their own ways.
  • Organise opportunities for babies to communicate with one another.
  • Take account of a child's home language and who makes every effort to incorporate this into daily conversations.
  • Help develop vocabulary, repeating, modelling and practising words and phrases.
  • Create a daily routine of joint picture book reading, sharing and talking about the pictures rather than asking what's that questions.

An environment which is:

  • Arranged sensitively where a keyperson can hold or sit beside the baby sharing and talk about everyday experiences or share a book.
  • A comfortable place to sit which encourages babies to see, touch, look at and play with one another.
  • Supportive of a keyperson being given time to get to know the baby who is trying to communicate through different sounds which tell them they are needed.
  • Quiet and calm with no distracting background noise or constant radio so that babies can listen to speech.

7.3.3 Promoting curiosity, inquiry and creativity

Experiences which:

  • Encourage freedom of movement to kick, bounce and roll about.
  • Are visual and tactile objects to touch and a variety of materials and colours with different properties, e.g. soft, hard, natural, rough or smooth to encourage inquiry and curiosity.
  • Provide toys which stack, roll, rattle that the baby can grasp and hold.
  • Allow the baby to explore paint using their fingers, or explore different textures.
  • Include exploring how things move in the breeze and how things drop and fall.
  • Give opportunities to be outside and explore the natural environment.
  • Enable participation in musical experiences by swaying, clapping, bouncing and singing.
  • Provide treasure baskets filled with sensory, real and natural materials to touch and explore.

Adults who:

  • Sensitively support the baby's efforts to be curious and inquiring without doing it for them.
  • Understand, and can tune in to, what the baby is exploring and can appreciate and respond to what the baby is learning.
  • Respond to the baby's efforts by understanding how a baby expresses interests; for example, facial expression, gazing intently, movement, noises and sounds.
  • Interpret the baby's interests by talking gently; for example, I see what you would like, let me help you reach it, by lifting the baby up to see higher.
  • Provide a range of visual, tactile experiences and talk to the baby about sensations and how they are responding.

An environment which is:

  • A safe, constant space to explore for themselves and develop their movements. A calm, peaceful room without constant background music.
  • Clean and comfortable floor spaces where the baby can be propped up to balance, to hold on and crawl.
  • Not rushed and allows time to concentrate on whatever catches their attention without being rushed around.
  • Has interesting objects which catch their attention to touch, hear, explore, mirrors to see themselves, mobiles to lie back and watch when tired.
  • Has a focus on natural objects to touch and explore.
  • Has access to windows and good light to be able to see outside.
  • Has daily access to the outdoor environment, to be in the garden being held up and shown trees and leaves and the natural world.

7.4 A focus on toddlers - what do they need?

7.4.1 Wellbeing

Experiences which:

  • Give daily access to the outside to look at and investigate the immediate environment which helps the toddler to feel settled, happy and promotes a response from the toddler to show others how they feel.
  • Encourage the toddler to wait their turn with their friends in short games, for example, being outside and having the patience to wait for a turn on a bike, or dig in the garden.
  • Encourage the toddler to walk, jump and run with support if necessary.
  • Support the toddler to understand their emotions of feeling happy, sad, frustrated, calmly and reasonably.
  • Encourage toddlers to be socially comfortable with others by "reading" the messages a friend may give, for example, being unhappy, sad or upset and trying to resolve this perhaps by sharing a special toy or book or giving a hug.
  • Develop physical skills by building with blocks, strengthening muscles by moving in and around objects inside and outside.

Adults who:

  • Understand the toddler's own needs and preferences; for example, when the toddler is in a bigger group and how they may react, or when there are too many people around or it is too noisy.
  • Know what helps the toddler feel secure and settled or when they need to be on their own for a short time.
  • Help the toddler's growing awareness of their emotions.
  • Give confidence and encouragement to the toddler at snack time or lunchtime by sitting with them at the toddler's level and not standing apart.
  • Understand the toddler's emotional outbursts and don't get annoyed or angry.
  • Help the toddler cope with change; for example, if they are separated from their usual friends or are moving to another room.

An environment which is:

  • Clean, comfortable and has floorcoverings which do not get in the way of the toddler standing up and walking.
  • Suitable for quiet restful times and sleep, ensures privacy and dignity for personal care.
  • Spacious and a layout with clear pathways and not cluttered with tables, to encourage the toddler to move from area to area safely.
  • Set up with care so toddlers can play together in different areas but has the security of the familiar and favourite places to be, such as the home corner.
  • Aware of providing materials and toys for toddlers to use to find out how they move or what they are used for.
  • Helpful for the toddler to understand the needs of other toddlers in their group and encourages a growing awareness of playing alongside and together with friends.

7.4.2 Communication

Experiences which:

  • Provide interesting objects to touch which encourage questions and language.
  • Encourage verbal games, learning rhymes and an abundance of stories.
  • Provide a well-resourced home corner and/or other role play areas which combine familiar items with new objects to widen experiences for the toddler for example, pictorial stories or cards.
  • Give opportunities for the toddler to listen both to adults and other children using gestures, visual clues and active involvement to encourage the toddler to participate and explore language.
  • Introduce a widening range of items to make marks, draw, paint, and dress up.

Adults who:

  • Engage the toddler in conversations with interesting things to say and do.
  • Take account of a child's home language and who make every effort to incorporate this into daily conversations.
  • Encourage toddlers to initiate conversations and who extend these by asking well thought out questions.
  • Appreciate that toddlers have a limited capacity to sit in formal groups for prolonged periods of time.
  • Explain and model new words with the correct level of challenge to extend the toddler's grasp of language.
  • Share writing for everyday purposes, explaining why and pointing out signs and symbols and what they mean.
  • Talk about and show interest in what is happening at the child's home and in their life outwith the setting.

An environment which:

  • Encourages and values conversations through play and real life contexts inside and out of doors.
  • Gives opportunities to talk and to listen in a calm and unhurried way.
  • Provides resources which are interesting and stimulate questions and encourage children to communicate with each other.
  • Gives space to play together, a layout which encourages children to move around with attractive book areas, opportunities to draw and mark make.
  • Is rich in environmental print.
  • Provides a range of good quality storybooks, both fiction and non- fiction, magazines and cards.
  • Offers a range of play and real life experiences which encourages children to describe, explain and ask questions.

7.4.3 Promoting curiosity, inquiry and creativity

Experiences which:

  • Help the toddler to see how things work, how objects can be moved and transported around; how similar things can be grouped together; how things balance.
  • Give the toddler time and space to be involved in their own schematic play and adults who support this.
  • Provide resources that toddlers enjoy, such as bags, boxes and containers to put smaller items in, to move, empty out, and scatter about.
  • Give opportunities to mix and combine messy materials.
  • Provide appropriate resources for the toddler to make clear marks with the correct tools and equipment, paint and appropriate sizes of brush; and a selection of paper which is neatly arranged and used appropriately with care and attention which value the child's efforts.
  • Give the toddler experience of everyday activities, splashing in puddles, being blown by the wind, digging holes, making collections of stones or natural objects or items that a child may feel are special.

Adults who:

  • Encourage the toddler's curiosity and ensure the environment is interesting enough and safe.
  • Are aware that the simplest of activities to an adult are often full of potential for a toddler.
  • Observe sensitively and intervene when necessary to extend the toddler's thinking without over-direction and who do not interrupt moments of intense concentration.
  • Use techniques such as wondering aloud, explaining what is happening but all the time allowing the toddler to find out for them what will happen next.
  • Know when to stand back and allow the toddler to try things out, and the moment when a toddler will be receptive to support.
  • Use their skills by reminding, sharing and keeping previous accomplishments of the toddler as a basis for new learning.

An environment which:

  • Is interesting and filled with opportunities which help the toddler to explore and inquire; for example, the properties of sand and water, clay, paint.
  • Has furniture which is sensitively organised to give space for the toddler to move around safely. Objects placed within the reach of the toddler.
  • Gives frequent access to resources with which a toddler shows interest until they come to a self-satisfying conclusion for themselves.
  • Allows access to outside areas, walks and visits to extend the toddler's curiosity and interest in their immediate world.
  • Gives space to build, construct and take things apart and time to practise these skills over and over again.

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

7.5.1 Wellbeing

Experiences which:

  • Encourage an understanding of others' emotions; for example, talking about why a child is upset perhaps because others have excluded them from playing in the house corner.
  • Help young children become independent in managing conflict.
  • Highlight a growing awareness of the need for some rules and why this is important and being able to respond to basic structures. For example, why is it important to use your own box or tray to keep important items, or why is it necessary to take care of things on display.
  • Allow opportunities to play and learn together, to share ideas and interests, to reconcile differences and to begin to develop a sense of fairness.
  • Encourage children to contribute their own ideas and be involved in decision making about their day.
  • Engage children in daily energetic play, which supports and extends their developing physical skills, stamina and strength.
  • Use real tools and equipment to help coordination of fine movements; for example, combining items together using different fasteners, preparing snack, using a camera or keyboard.
  • Encourage physical skills, such as finding out about distance and speed by throwing, chasing, running.

Adults who:

  • Involve children in making sensible choices about their own learning by helping them to plan and evaluate their own experience.
  • Encourage the young child to think, helping them to solve problems and giving the child time to come to a satisfying conclusion from the child's view and then taking time to discuss this together.
  • Recognise differences in starting points of the individual child and encourage them at the appropriate level.
  • Encourage children to see another's point of view through joint projects and cooperation in play.
  • Praise the child's growing physical capabilities and challenge them to take the next step.

An environment which:

  • Is thoughtfully arranged to give access which enables the young child to make choices and share in other people's choices.
  • Is easily accessible to the practitioner to observe the young child and support them to express their feelings.
  • Provides a balance of both being inside and outside experiences to increase children's confidence in a variety of environments.
  • Promotes the young child as an individual within their community where their own names and those of their friends and family are used frequently.
  • Creates opportunities to be with others and empathising with them, encouraging opportunities for new friendships.
  • Is organised to promote physical development, movement and spacial awareness inside and outside.

7.5.2 Communication

Experiences which:

  • Provide a range of events and exciting experiences which encourage children to share their thinking, talk about their interests and help them imagine their theories.
  • Encourage children to listen carefully to each other and gives space and time to allow others to talk.
  • Allow children to use their imagination in role play, making models, painting and drawing.
  • Encourage children to play with rhyme and rhythm, songs and silly words to have fun and enjoy.
  • Draw children's attention of words, both verbal and in print, and helps them realise print has meaning; for example, labelling their own pictures, writing during shop or home play, writing cards and letters and signs or labels on resources.
  • Provide opportunities for small groups of children to listen to a story together, where they can see the illustrations in a book but not in a large setting where engaging with the story is physically too difficult.

Adults who:

  • Give time for children to explain their interests in a calm unhurried manner but also elaborate on what the child has said by asking probing questions to further extend the child's use of language.
  • Offer different ways and words to children to extend their vocabulary.
  • Create opportunities for children to "write" in different play situations and for different purposes without this being conducted in a formal way.
  • Encourage children to talk together with their friends and create situations where children take turns and listen in small groups.
  • Take account of a child's home language and who makes every effort to incorporate this into daily conversations.

An environment which:

  • Provides areas for children to engage in conversations, small cosy spaces, occasional large groups to talk, listen and share their ideas.
  • Is rich in opportunities for children to engage in conversations, imagine and create, find out and reason answers.
  • Encourages conversation about the here and now, the past and future and discussions about the world around them.
  • Has appropriate resources; for example, dark coloured felt-tip pens which make a clear mark on paper, a selection of paper organised in different sizes, shapes and colours, cards and stickers which are relevant for children to use.
  • Has a library rich in books, favourite stories, fiction and non-fiction books, books children have made themselves, recordings of experiences and stories they want to share and tell.
  • Provides for oral storytelling and books with more limited illustrations when a child is ready to enjoy these.
  • Uses environmental print recognisable to children to help a growing understanding that print has meaning.
  • Uses technologies to widen children's experiences of different methods of communication.

7.5.3 Promoting curiosity, inquiry and creativity

Experiences which:

  • Help children remember how they have solved a problem in the past and how this learning links to a current challenge.
  • Give time for children to find out similarities and differences in simple problem solving activities.
  • Create a wealth of interesting situations, both inside and out of doors, questions for a child to ask and consider possibilities.
  • Give opportunities to incorporate different technologies and use this in their learning.
  • Provide opportunities which encourage children's understanding of living things and the local and natural environment.
  • Give the young child experience of how materials change, by heating, dissolving, freezing, mixing etc.
  • Provide opportunities to express their thoughts and feelings in pictures, paintings, using an increasing variety of art techniques and media.
  • Provide opportunities to find out how artists and musicians express their ideas and for children to try out their own.
  • Give opportunities to learn about tunes, rhythm, timing and patterns of music.

Adults who:

  • Encourage a young child's learning by suggesting they try things out, inspire curiosity and see that this is essential to how children learn.
  • Are not afraid to change their own plans and take the lead from the child and who are able to act as a support to the young child when needed.
  • Will admit when they don't know but offer to help to find out together and see this as valuable both for the child and themselves.
  • Encourage children's ideas, allow them to make mistakes, can offer a further suggestion and praise their attempts.
  • Pose questions which encourage inquiry such as, I wonder if, why do you think that, to extend the young child's ability to verbalise their thoughts and actions.
  • Ask children I wonder what happens if… to help children make sense of what happens when you try things out.
  • Provide a range of resources to talk about which encourages children to be creative.
  • Help model techniques and strategies with children and encourage this new learning in the child's new challenges or suggest a new context.

An environment which:

  • Encourages inquiry and invites discussion and exploration with interesting objects to talk about and explore, stimulating curiosity.
  • Is supportive of giving time for the young child to persevere with their thinking and inquiries, to test their own theories out over several days or re-examine the same experience again over time in a variety of ways. For example, how to build a bridge across an area of the playroom using different materials without being constrained by overly formal routines of the day.
  • Offers daily access outside to the wider environment which is rich in opportunities for inquiry learning.
  • Uses internal spaces flexibly as children test out their possibilities. For example what they could use to measure distance to the front door from the playroom or respond to changes of interest in children, such as extending an area for large construction as an immediate response to children's play and learning.
  • Is well organised to allow young children the freedom to select equipment and materials that they wish and also appreciate they need to accommodate the choices of others.