Last reviewed 10 August 2020

Rebecca Fisk is an early years consultant with over 30 years of experience in education. In this article she highlights the importance of the prime areas of learning and development, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic situation.

What are the prime areas?

The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) outlines the learning and development educational programmes for early years providers to implement in England. These consist of seven areas of learning and development, three of which are prime areas that underpin further learning in four specific areas. All areas of learning carry equal importance in a child’s development and are interconnected.

Prime areas

  • Communication and language

  • Physical development

  • Personal, social and emotional development

Specific Areas

  • Literacy

  • Mathematics

  • Understanding the World

  • Expressive Arts and Design

It is worth noting that in 2021 the areas of learning and educational programmes are due to receive some adaptation by the Department for Education.

Why are the prime areas important for children’s learning?

Children learn by building up their knowledge and skills, from an initial foundation of learning where early developmental skills are forming to more specific learning. For example, children learn to communicate their needs and interests through their relationships with others, by having positive interactions and a wide range of experiences that introduce them to talk and conversation. This is the foundation to later learning to communicate through reading and writing.

The prime areas are fundamental to a broad and balanced base of learning for children. The EYFS states that they are ‘crucial for igniting children’s curiosity and enthusiasm for learning, for building their capacity to learn, form relationships and thrive’.

The prime areas and Covid-19

During the Covid-19 pandemic there are many children who may not have been able to continue to develop these early skills due to lack of available experience whilst at home. Some children, for example, have no siblings and have not been able to play with other children, so for several months they may simply not have had the social experiences to support interaction and cooperation skills with others, like taking turns or waiting for a turn. Some have been unable to access large spaces to run and climb and play with a ball, for example. On the other hand, there will be children who have accessed more physical opportunities on their daily exercise than in their normal routines, who have been able to have enhanced quality time with parents and have engaged well in home learning opportunities. This highlights the need to work closely with parents to learn about how each individual child and family have experienced the lockdown and the months away from childcare provision. Try and find out about the quality of interaction children have experienced, the types of issues that may be affecting parents and others at home which impact on a child’s wellbeing, and the opportunity they have for receiving nurturing relationships.

What do the prime areas involve?

Communication and language skills support children to interact and express themselves confidently. This can be achieved by giving children a rich and varied environment full of language experiences in meaningful contexts. For example, the way a mother talks lovingly to their child when having a cuddle to the way siblings shriek excitedly on an outing, to a calm bedtime story with a grandparent. The daily life experiences that a child receives where others connect with them, show interest in them and share conversations with them are fundamental to developing a child’s brain and their communication skills. Early years providers can draw on and extend these experiences for children, widening their vocabulary, enhancing their listening and attention skills and support them to understand verbal and non-verbal communication in context. Excellent resources from the Communication Trust can be accessed at https://www.thecommunicationtrust.org.uk/early-years/. The resource ‘Universally Speaking’ outlines typical communication and language development for children aged 0-5 and makes recommendations for what to do if you are concerned about a child’s development https://www.thecommunicationtrust.org.uk/media/363847/tct_univspeak_0-5.pdf.

Physical development is about giving children opportunities to be active, to move and learn about their bodies. Through developing different muscles groups, type of movement and balance skills children can learn to negotiate obstacles, walk, run, dance and climb with confidence, for example. Physical development involves gross motor and fine motor skills, it involves self-care such as hygiene skills too. Children need lots of opportunity to be active every day and government guidelines outline the amount of physical activity for different age groups, with a recommendation of 180 minutes (3 hours) per day for children aged 1-5 years old. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/829882/1-physical-activity-for-early-years-birth-to-5.pdf

Personal, social and emotional development supports children to see themselves and others in a positive light, to form good relationships with others and to develop their social skills. They learn how to recognise and manage their feelings and behaviours and to gain confidence in their own abilities. Children’s sense of self-esteem and self-awareness is developed by opportunities to engage with others in meaningful interactions, to name and talk about feelings and to learn how their actions can affect others. Children learn through experience how to play alongside or with other children, how to regulate their emotions and how to start to make friends, with sensitive and kind adult support. Confident, happy children are supported to be so by loving connections with others. Early years practitioners and parents working together to understand and support children through positive relationships is essential.

Summary

The prime areas are fundamental building blocks for children to develop well. They draw on basic human nature to connect, to play, to move and to love. An enabling environment and positive relationships with others are crucial to developing children’s learning and experiences in the three prime areas. Some children may have not had pleasant experiences during lockdown and this may have affected them deeply, so it will be more important than ever to build warm and trusting relationships with the children and their families to support them to develop their skills in the prime areas, and to signpost families for additional help as appropriate. The prime areas are central to recovery after this unusual and difficult time for children and families. They also offer practitioners opportunities to connect, play and interact with children through positive relationships and an enabling environment.