Last reviewed 15 February 2022

Rachel Dearnley, early years consultant and trainer, looks at how some of the curricula and philosophies in early years are visible in the EYFS, and where we can turn to for inspiration in our practice.

The Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) 2021

This is the statutory document for all early years registered settings, and forms the basis on which Ofsted inspectors make their judgements during inspections. Ofsted inspectors recognise that early years providers have the autonomy to follow a specific philosophical or pedagogical approach. The inspection handbook for Ofsted-registered early years provisions (2021) states: “The choice of teaching methods is a decision for providers, within the confines of the EYFS” (paragraph 181). Inspectors will make judgements on the impact of the teaching methods and curriculum on children’s learning, looking at the breadth, depth, richness, and the setting’s high ambition for every child. Within the EYFS itself, there are clear references to a range of pedagogical approaches. Having an underlying knowledge of a range of approaches helps us understand “why we do what we do” in early years.

Reggio Emilia

Developed by Loris Malaguzzi in the 1940s, this pedagogy centres on the child as strong, capable, resilient, and ready to explore. The Reggio Emilia approach puts value on the non-verbal languages by which children communicate, for example, gestures, emotions, glances, movements, etc. Malaguzzi’s poem “No way. The hundred is there” depicts the “100 languages of children” and how education and culture try to take this away. It identifies how children can build their own learning, without instruction but with adult support. Focussing on exploratory and child-led play, the Reggio Emilia approach allows children to be curious, to problem-solve in their own time, to follow their own ideas and interests and thus create their own curriculum. The environment is seen as the third teacher, and the learning process considered far above the end product. Parents are highly valued in this approach. They play an active part in their child’s learning process and create a connection with the community.

The teacher’s role in Reggio Emilia is:

  • co-constructor of knowledge

  • creator of the environment as a third teacher

  • facilitator of play

  • supporter of the competent child

  • observer, documenter of learning and researcher

  • partner with parents

  • a listener, provocateur, and negotiator of meaning.

Where does the influence of Reggio Emilia sit in the EYFS?

The EYFS has four overarching principles that must shape the practice in early years settings.

  • Every child is unique and can be resilient, capable, confident and self-assured. The characteristics of effective learning, “engagement”, “active learning”, and “creative and critical thinking” describe the behaviours children use in order to learn effectively. These attitudes and abilities make children strong, capable, and resilient, enabling them to make good progress in all the areas of learning.

  • Children learn to be strong and independent through positive relationships. Involving parents in their children’s learning can make a crucial difference to children’s outcomes. Priority for good-quality partnerships is emphasised in the EFYS 2021 and Birth to 5 Matters 2021. The quality of the home learning environment is an important predictor of children’s future outcomes.

  • Children learn and develop well in enabling environments with teaching and support from adults who respond to their individual interests and needs.

  • Importance of learning and development, and the characteristics of effective learning. The learning and development requirements define what providers must do, working in partnership with parents/carers, to promote learning in all children in their care.

For more information, see the topic covering the Early Years Foundation Stage.


The study of how the nervous system develops and functions is being used to understand how minds develop. The importance of early brain development is discussed more and more among multi-professionals to help early years practitioners gain a deeper understanding of how to respond to the needs of young children. Science shows us that adverse experiences of young children in their early lives can affect the physical architecture of the growing brain in the following ways.

  • Toxic stress and the release of cortisol. Young children experiencing serious ongoing hardships, such as abuse and neglect, with no support from caregivers can be adversely affected. The build-up and release of increased amounts of cortisol can damage the basic architecture of the brain, leading to the risk of a lifetime of health and development problems.

  • Children in their earliest years have more pronounced brain plasticity. Children take in enormous behavioural, social, linguistic, environmental, and cultural information in their earliest years. Given that the brain is hypersensitive to trauma and environmental experiences, it follows that the experiences they have with their caregivers, positive and negative, shape the health of their brains.

  • Cognition, learning and brain architecture are linked. Having an understanding of how to support the emotional health of children is conducive to their learning and development.

  • Language development. Research has looked at what’s going on in a child’s brain as they learn language. The scientific study found a relationship between turns in a conversation and activation of Broca’s area, a language centre of the brain. The more children engage in sustained conversations, the more Broca’s area of the brain is engaged.

Where does the influence of Neuroscience sit in the EFYS?


Self-regulation is part of personal, social and emotional development (PSED), one of the EYFS’s seven areas of learning and development. The educational programme for PSED includes an early learning goal for self-regulation. It states that “strong, warm and supportive relationships with adults enable children to learn how to understand their own feelings and those of others. Children should be supported to manage emotions, develop a positive sense of self, set themselves simple goals, have confidence in their own abilities”. The Birth to 5 Matters guidance points out that developing self-regulation requires the attuned and attentive support of relationships with the caregiver.

Key person system

The EYFS educational programme for PSED states that it is crucial for children to “lead healthy and happy lives”, and how fundamental it is to their cognitive development. “Attachments and strong, warm and supportive relationships enable them to learn how to understand their feelings and those of others”. According to the Birth to 5 Matters guidance (p 30), the key person system helps children to feel “known, understood, cared about and safe” and involves a “triangle of trust” with the child and family. For more information, see Key Persons.

Communication and Language

The educational programme for communication and language states that “children’s back and forth interactions form the foundations for language and cognitive development”. The quality and number of conversations a child engages in every day is crucial. The Development Matters non-statutory guidance emphasises a strong focus on communication being good for every child. For more information, see Communication and Language.

Further pedagogical approaches and theorists


All areas of learning are linked and impact on each other. Play that is initiated by the child indicates their motivation and engagement. Starting with what the child can do is more important than starting with what they can’t yet do.


Advocates self-directed play, hands-on learning and collaborative play. Children make choices in their learning and highly trained teachers provide appropriate activities to guide them. Children can work in groups or individually to discover, explore and make meaning of the world. They develop their maximum potential at their own pace. Curiosity is at the heart of learning; it exists in all human beings and this builds a solid foundation for life-long learning.

Margaret MacMillan

Margaret Macmillan promoted the use of outdoor spaces for children to move in with freedom and her legacy still lies within the Forest School approach today. She also advocates for caring for and educating the whole child, taking their social and economic circumstances into consideration.


His theory of learning is based on the social interactions and powerful meaning-making that a community causes in children. His theory of scaffolding learning through the zone of proximal development is evident in the EYFS 2021, and endorsed in the Early Years Inspection Handbook 2021, paragraph 185, with the definition of teaching in the early years: “Teaching should not be taken to imply a “top down” or formal way of working”. It goes on to state that play is the medium through which children learn, that adults play, communicate, model language, explain, demonstrate, explore ideas, encourage, question and recall, etc.


Steiner, an Austrian educationalist, believed in understanding each child as a unique individual. Protection and respect for the dignity of childhood are at the heart of this education, along with a calm and homely environment. Its fundamental characteristics promote love, interest, and self-initiated play with natural open-ended materials, allowing children to imagine. Young children learn through imitation, sensory input and movement, artistic activities (storytelling, music, drawing, painting, rhythmic games), practical activities (eg baking, gardening, household chores), and the celebration of seasonal and other festivals.

Te Whariki

Te Whariki is the early years framework of New Zealand’s Ministry of Education, introduced in 1996. It has a vision that sees children as “competent, confident learners and communicators, healthy in mind, body, and spirit and secure in their sense of belonging”. The approach is play and exploration based and makes use of the natural, social, physical, and material worlds. The document focusses on well-being and learning, age-appropriate content, tolerance and respect for cultural values, and diversity. Te Whariki is not a set of developmental milestones. Educators encourage school readiness in the form of resilience and risk taking, and use learning stories instead of testing to reflect on children’s progress.


  • The Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage (2021) is the basis for compliance with the Ofsted Early Years Register.

  • Ofsted do not have regard for any specialist approaches to learning in the early years, providing it works within the confines of the EYFS.

  • There are several commonalities between the EYFS and the Reggio Emilia approach to learning.

  • Neuroscience is providing evidence that adverse experiences early in life can adversely affect the growing brain.

  • Early years practitioners can provide the right emotional environment to support children’s wellbeing, which can positively affect the architecture of the brain.

  • There are many other pedagogies and approaches that practitioners can look to for inspiration in the own approaches to the care and education of their children.

Further information

Beyond the 30-million-word gap

Birth to 5 Matters

Development Matters

Conkbayir, M., Early Childhood and Neuroscience, Bloomsbury, 2017

Edwards, Carolyn, Lella Gandini, and George Forman, The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Experience in Transformation, Praeger, 2012

Fisher, J. Interacting or Interfering? Improving interactions in the early years, Open University Press, 2016

Froebel Trust

International Association for Steiner/Waldorf Early Childhood Education

Interactions Matter

Montessori Approach

Reggio Emilia Approach

Shanker, S: (2013) Calm, Alert and Happy