Why you are both right. Early Years vs Traditional teaching

This blog has taken an age to write. Partly because I realised I needed to read more Early Years research before wading in and partly because I am genuinely torn between the teaching approaches informed by what cognitive science teaches us about memory – the stuff labelled ‘traditionalist’ and by what is held up as good early years practice.  I can read something like this by Quirky Teacher and completely understand where she is coming from, yet also believe she is misunderstands why Early Years style play is important. Similarly, when I read Early Years people bang on about play and independence, creativity and curiosity I can’t help thinking that Early Years practice could be transformed if only Early Years people knew more about how long term memory is built through retrieval practice and the central place of knowledge in enabling independence, creativity and curiosity. I was going to call this blog ‘Early Years vs traditional Teaching: why you are both wrong’ before remembering the wise saying of F.D.Maurice.  ‘A man [sic] is most often right in what he affirms and wrong in what he denies.’  Hence the revised title. What we really need is a genuine conversation and willingness to learn from one another. I hope this goes some way towards this, though I may well just end up annoying both ‘sides’ equally.

Sometimes when I cross the threshold into our Early Years unit, I feel like I’m entering a different time zone. They have lunch at 11 30! Perhaps they operate under Central European Time here? Or, given the sturdy outer clothing they are wearing as they fearlessly interact with children in the middle of a raging blizzard, maybe it’s more like Moscow standard time? There are other differences too, in some ways reminiscent of visiting the USA; two places divided by a common language.

I jest and exaggerate, but nowhere is the difference more felt than in the understanding of the word ‘play’.  In ks1 and 2, playtime is that time where teachers run around like mad, getting ready for the next lesson while also trying to fit in a trip to the loo and, if they are really lucky, a cup of tea, while the children are outside being supervised by someone else, also running around like mad but often forgetting to fit in a trip to the loo until the bell goes. In ks1 and 2, most teachers don’t really take much heed of what the children actually play during breaks, unless whatever it is, is such a cause of friction that they are forced to consider it. Whereas in the Early Years, play means something altogether quite different. In Early Years circles, the word play is spoken in reverent hushed tones. Play is where the serious learning happens. Here, teachers are fully, 100% involved in attending to this play, sometimes gently nudging it in fruitful directions, sometimes giving it a big old heave, sometimes leaving it well alone, their finely tuned Early Years antennae letting them know which course of action to take when.

Sometimes outsiders don’t quite get this play and think it’s just common or garden, letting-off-steam-before-maths play. They perceive the adult’s role – particularly if the play is happening outside, to be akin to being a playground supervisor, and a particularly lacklustre supervisor at that.  Since they do not (yet) possess their own set of Early Years antennae, they are completely unable to perceive the rich learning possibilities unfolding before their eyes.  They just don’t get that very young children need time to learn with their bodies as well as their minds all sorts of things we forget we once didn’t know. Things that you discover rather than get taught. That water flows downhill, that metal feels cold but wood doesn’t, what ‘heavy’ feels like, how a cube fills up space in a different way to a sphere to name but a tiny proportion of the folk physics that very young children need to learn. Or the folk biology; this is what an ant looks like, bugs like hiding in cool dark places, grass feels crunchy underfoot when it’s frosty and goes brown and dry if you pick it.   Then there’s learning to share and to negotiate and to be assertive and to apologise and generally get along with people. We could call that folk psychology. In fact, David Geary has written about these forms of biologically primary knowledge.  Our brains, he contends, have evolved in such a way that naturally disposes us to learn about our environment and how to interact with others. We learn this stuff – folk physics, folk biology and folk psychology – when we are young through play and exploration. Folk psychology enables us to understand other people, folk biology enables us to understand other species and folk physics gives us an understanding of the physical world. Our brains evolved to do this because humans who could cooperate and compete with other humans, and who knew how and where and what to hunt and, crucially, how to avoid being hunted themselves were more likely to survive and reproduce than humans who were were less good at these things.

And all of that is before we even begin to realise that bodies of Reception aged are not quite finished being made and certain muscles are still developing, so learning how to negotiate space, how to balance or use scissors is a big ask. Very young children need time and encouragement within the safe context of play if they are to learn to use their bodies effectively in the future. The phrase ‘not developmentally appropriate’ does sometimes appear to be banded about by some EY practitioners in a way that seems to mean ‘I don’t like it’, but it is actually true that having the muscle development required to hold a pencil properly does depend on a whole load of precursor skills that some children at the start of Reception may not yet have acquired and that play can help develop (alongside some pretty direct teaching where necessary).

building blocks of writing

Animals, including humans, have evolved to develop biologically primary knowledge through play.  The environment enables mammalian young (perhaps other classes of animal too?) to learn this, with a bit or parental prodding along the way. For humans, with the added complication of language, a lot more than just prodding is needed.

Geary’s work is cited to argue against schools specifically teaching creativity, collaboration or problems solving as things in their own right.  Rather, schools should teach the hard stuff we are not evolutionarily evolved to learn, the biologically secondary culturally derived knowledge that takes hard work to acquire and is much more efficiently taught than left for each generation to discover for themselves afresh. Once we’ve got some of this hard stuff, then we’ve got something we can problem solve, or collaborate and be creative with.

For Early Years children though, the biologically primary knowledge acquisition is for most children not yet completed, even by Reception. This is why play is so central to effective Early Years practice and why Early Years professionals work hard at creating environments that enable children to acquire this biologically primary knowledge as effectively as possible.

But why, you might ask, do they need to do this if the capacity to learn biologically primary knowledge is in-built? Surely it will just happen? However biologically primary knowledge is in-built to happen within an environment that enables it.  Take away that environment, and this vital learning does not happen, with undesirable consequences. Rats, for example, deprived of playmates, grow up to be adult rats with anger management problems or social anxiety. Yes, really![1]

Modern Western culture, for all its joys and benefits, does not necessarily provide our young with the best kind of environment in order for them to fully develop the biologically primary knowledge they need. As marvellous as modern human culture is, it takes us away from direct interaction with the natural world, particularly if we live in cities. Our ability to acquire all the folk biology and physics we need is therefore curtailed.  Our ability to develop the folk psychology we need to thrive is also limited by modern patterns of social organisation. Our nuclear families remove the swings and roundabouts of living with extended families and the wider tribe.  All the more so if we live in cities or within our individualistic Western culture where there is less social pressure to conform. So, if our children are to develop their full potential, we need to recreate a bit of the environmental immediacy and wider social interaction we would have experienced were we still hunter-gatherers.

So no, we can’t assume that biologically primary knowledge will just happen, cos ‘evolution.’  It need the right environment and positive, caring adult relationships that support children in exploring and taking risks.  What is more, evolution is not known for its inclusivity. We don’t run our schools along the lines of an episode of Blue Planet, with those whose environment is not sufficiently enabling gobbled up by any passing predator. In fact, we go out of our way to identify those whose early environment has not been enabling enough for them to thrive and actively work to compensate for that. This is not to indulge in blaming parents of all disadvantaged children. When you live in an overcrowded flat with no garden; when anti-social, dysfunctional adults congregate in the parks purportedly ear-marked for young children, it’s going to take longer to acquire biologically primary knowledge because the environment is less congenial to acquiring it. In these circumstances in particular, access to space and time to discover, explore, run about, climb, make, break and repair friendships is crucial. Learning outdoors will be especially important for children who don’t get to play outdoors very much. And some parents are dysfunctional, some home environments totally chaotic or totally controlling. There are many ways in which a young child’s development can be thwarted. It is not surprising that this American report found that pre-K education (i.e. Nursery and Reception education in the UK system) was most beneficial for economically disadvantaged children (and dual-language learners for obviously different reasons).

And I haven’t even mentioned the vital role of play in developing language. Teachers of older children are rightly so concerned with teaching tier 2 and 3 words that they perhaps forget that for many children in the Early Years they are still expanding their tier 1 vocabulary. And of course there’s a lot more to learning to talk than just acquiring vocabulary – syntax, morphology and pragmatics (appropriate use of language in context) all of which are developed through play, and in particular imaginative play, be that with other children without adult input or with an adult skilfully enriching the language to which children are exposed. For children who arrive in our schools already with a huge word gap, this skilful adult enriching is absolutely essential .

So I really do understand that play is not just important in the Early Years curriculum; to a certain extend it is the Early Years curriculum. The 50-million-dollar question being, of course, to what extent is play the Early Years curriculum? What about culturally derived biologically secondary knowledge?  To what extent can that be taught through play and how much of precious curriculum time should be allocated to it. Remembering that all our choices have an opportunity cost.  Time can be spent only once – time spent on the carpet learning phonics cannot be spent again developing language through role play – and vice versa. This is where the debate becomes…interesting.

A few weeks ago, Ofsted published Bold Beginnings, the broad thrust of which is arguing that for too many Reception children the curriculum they receive does not enable children to acquire biologically secondary knowledge effectively or early enough. To recap, biologically secondary knowledge (like reading, writing and maths) is culturally specific and has to be explicitly taught rather than discovered. This blog by David Didau explains it well.  (Note: I am the one framing this all through the lens of David Geary’s work, not Ofsted).  In Bold Beginnings, Ofsted were arguing that reading, writing and maths are not sufficiently prioritised in too many Reception classes and that as a result this has the avoidable consequence that some children – particularly disadvantaged children – fall behind their peers and do not end their Reception with sufficient numeracy and literacy to do well in year 1 and beyond.

If Twitter is an accurate gauge of opinion, this has not gone down well with many Early Years practitioners.  There has been much asserting of why play is so important, and why its place must be safeguarded within the Reception timetable, and not just for personal, social and emotional development or the other prime[2] areas. I hope what I have written above not only shows that I understand that, but helps those that are not EY practitioners understand why they bang on and on about it.

However, some (some, not all) of the opposition to Bold Beginnings seems to equate any discussion about more formal learning in Reception classes as akin to opening a portal to Hell. Partly this is because the Early Years is often misunderstood by those who do not work within it. Since, for many teachers of older children, play is what you do when you are not working, any emphasis on play can seem like a frivolous waste of time that could and should be used for ‘proper learning.’  This obviously irritates Early Years teachers no end, and rightly so. It is a view point born of ignorance.

There is a real cultural fault line here, exacerbated by mutual misunderstanding. However, I find Geary’s work really useful in looking afresh at the assumptions of both ‘sides’ in the debate.

Could it perhaps be that while it is true that the importance of play in the Early Years is often misunderstood by non-practitioners, it is also true that biologically secondary culturally derived knowledge is not best learnt through play, but through more direct modes of instruction?  Some Early Years practitioners argue that anything can and should be learnt through play. The reason for this line of argument lies in a strong belief in the centrality of the ‘Characteristics of Effective Learning’ a document that acts as a kind of ‘Ten Commandments’ for EY practice.


At the very heart of Early Years practice is the belief that education exists in order to enable children to become creative and critical thinkers and that in order to do this, children must be able to play, explore and discover things for themselves; to be given space to be the active learners they naturally are.  Direct ‘lesson’ modes of teaching are often seen as intrusive, eating into time that would be better spent letting children discover things independently. Indeed, some would go so far as to see explicit whole class teaching as actually harmful, in that imposing adult goals onto what a child is learning is inherently damaging to curiosity and self-advocacy, particularly if the goal is perceived as being developmentally inappropriate[3].  It would be wrong to present Early Years thinking as monolithic and there is a range of opinion as to the extent play should be coaxed or guided towards learning goals decided by adults and how much whole class teaching is too much. Those who think children should be totally ‘free-range’ are themselves in a minority. However, the overwhelming consensus is that to question the role of play or of active learning as the chief source of learning is damaging the likelihood of children becoming independent, creative, critical thinkers and life-long learners and is therefore heavily resisted. Indeed, there is often a desire to extend the characteristics of effective learning beyond the Early Years – at least into Year 1 and possibly throughout the whole school. After all, what could be more important than developing creative, critical thinkers?

As I said, I am well aware of the reverence with which the Characteristics of Effective Learning (or CofEL) is held be Early Years practitioners, and how devotedly it is defended.  However, I must now turn iconoclast.  CofEL confuses ends with means, is ignorant of the ways in which biologically secondary learning differ from biologically primary, overlooks the role of adult teaching in developing executive functioning and doesn’t understand about the importance of building long term memory or the limits of working memory. It promotes an overly romantic view of learning which, if it were consistently followed, would leave children having to rediscover the riches of centuries of intellectual thought for themselves.

Creative, critical thinking is, of course, the ultimate goal of education. However, it is a mistake to think that this end, excellent in itself, is best achieved by children of any age simply doing lots of creative, critical thinking.  It is even more of a mistake to think that explicit teaching of knowledge is somehow the enemy of creative, critical thinking, rather than its midwife.

Characteristics of Effective Learning deconstructed
Engagement: Playing and Exploring
What CofEL says My commentary
Finding out and exploring

Showing curiosity about objects, events and people

Using senses to explore the world around them

Engaging in open-ended activity

Showing particular interests

Important biologically primary knowledge is mainly learnt through play in a carefully planned, stimulating environment, with adults seeking ‘teachable moments’ and extending language within child initiated play.


However, there are limits to what can be learnt through exploring the world through senses alone – at some point teachers need to introduce biologically secondary knowledge and introduce exploration of the world through learning about what others have already discovered about it, for example sharing a non-fiction book with the class about the life cycle of a chick.


Particular interests may be a starting point but we cannot limit learning to this alone. We have a duty to introduce children to aspects of the world they may initially have no interest in at all.

Playing with what they know

Pretending objects are things from their experience

Representing their experiences in play

Taking on a role in their play

Acting out experiences with other people

Important biologically primary knowledge is mainly learnt through play with adults seeking teachable moments, extending language and also guiding play.


Adults guiding of role play needs to extend language and help children practice executive function skills of inhibitory control, developing working memory and cognitive flexibility.


There is also a place for whole class role play with a specific learning goal (e.g. retelling the story of Little Red Riding Hood, counting how many people there are on a ‘bus’ as people get on and off) as well as child initiated or adult guided role play.

Being willing to ‘have a go’

Initiating activities

Seeking challenges

Showing a ‘can do’ attitude

Taking a risk, engaging in new experiences and learning by trial and error

This is about developing the executive function of cognitive flexibility. Play certainly needs to play a part in developing resilience, but more formal learning equally plays an important role.


These skills can be explicitly taught, including during cognitively demanding activities such as learning to read or write or work a mathematical problem, and then subsequently practised during play.


interventions that include an explicit focus on executive functioning skills do not need to be implemented separately from those focused on instruction in early literacy and math abilities.’[4]

Motivation: active learning
What CofEL says Commentary
Being involved and concentrating

Maintaining focus on their activity for a period of time

Showing high levels of energy, fascination

Not easily distracted

Paying attention to details

The problem with this section of CofEL is that is assumes that motivation is best achieved through ‘active’ learning, the ‘active’ being implicitly contrasted with so called ‘passive’ learning that is assumed to take place during whole class explicit teaching and/or when adults rather than children decide the goal of the learning.


However, what is actually being describe the executive function of inhibitory control: managing distractions, overcoming frustration and disappointment and deferring gratification. While social play is an important practice ground for its development, it is even more important to scaffold the importance of inhibitory control when teaching biologically secondary knowledge that children have not chosen for themselves and may find hard.  If we only seek to develop children’s ability to concentrate on activities that they themselves have chosen to do, far from encouraging a life-long love of learning, we are building them up to expect learning always to be easy and fun. Biologically secondary learning is not always fun, easy or fascinating, particularly at the beginning. It is hard work and learning to deal with the feelings of frustration and powerlessness that learning something new often entails is crucial.  The pay-off for this is the feeling of satisfaction that occurs when we ‘get it’. This involves learning to defer gratification.


Research into the development of executive functioning in young children has shown that this can be actively taught and that

The complex interactions that occur among executive functioning, social competence, and academic skills in preschool classrooms underscore the likely value of blending interventions designed to strengthen working memory, inhibition, and attention control with curricula focused on early literacy and math skills.’[5]


To be sure, teachers need to know how to weave teaching about executive functions and literacy or maths together. Much of this is classic ‘growth mindset’ territory and as applicable to learning number bonds to 10 or how to spell high frequency words or write an ‘s’ as it does to figuring something out during sustained problem solving within play. More guidance on this would be very useful and gratefully accepted by teachers of all age ranges.


Ben Newark describes the wrong-headedness of trying to help children persist in learning by providing them with ‘fun’ activities that attempt to disguise the fact that children are learning well in this blog  (it’s about much older children but applies equally well to much younger children as they begin to learn biologically secondary knowledge.)

The role of the teacher was to sugar the pill by wrapping the unpleasantness of learning up in fun activities in the same way my mum used to disguise paracetamol by crushing it and mixing it in jam.’


Instead we need to exude high levels of energy and fascination in our explicit teaching. This will then rub off onto the children.


And children also need to ‘test for themselves the skills that adults have been scaffolding for them[6]’ within play.  Play is not unimportant here, but its role has been overplayed.


Willingham here discusses the research about how teachers can help children develop self-regulation. Of interest is an American programme called ‘Tools of the Mind’ which explicitly teaches executive functioning through guided play. As we know, what play is, let alone what guided play is, is a contested concept. It would appear from their website that their idea of guided play is very far removed from the kind of child initiated, discovery learning that is often advocated in EY classrooms. For example, children draw a ‘play plan’  before staring an activity and learning, while using play, is very adult directed and scaffolded. This programmed approach takes up 80% of each day. I do not know enough about Tools of the Mind to comment further, but it would be interesting to find out more.


The work of Adele Diamond is mentioned in the Hundred Review (p25) to stress  the importance of supporting the healthy development of executive functions as they are critical to enable children to succeed in school and beyond. This is not contested. What is contested is whether ‘active learning’ through play is the only or the most effective way these vital skills can be developed. Diamond mentions a range of adult led learning experiences that have been shown to develop this (not all applicable to the EY classroom – e.g. Taekwondo!).   The Hundred Review mentions Diamond’s work on executive functioning without mentioning that her findings lead to the conclusion that developing this arises in adult-led experiences.

Keeping on trying

Persisting with activity when challenges occur

Showing a belief that more effort or a different approach will pay off

Bouncing back after difficulties

Enjoying achieving what they set

out to do

Showing satisfaction in meeting their own goals

Being proud of how they accomplished something – not just the end result

Enjoying  meeting challenges for their own sake rather than external rewards or praise

Thinking: Creative and Critical thinking
What CofEL says Commentary
Having their own ideas

Thinking of ideas

Finding ways to solve problems

Finding new ways to do things

This is the most problematic section of CofEL.

All of these are great things to be able to do. The problem with CofEL is that is massively downplays the importance of having knowledge in order to do them. Children cannot think with nothing. They need knowledge to think with.  Children cannot link nothing with nothing. To make links you have to know stuff.  The stuff we are talking about is biologically secondary knowledge which needs to be taught, not discovered. More advantaged children who come from homes where books are read, museums, parks, art galleries and historic sites visited, where conversation involves a wide vocabulary and complicated syntax, where board games are played and maths songs sung might well thrive in this environment for they have picked up background knowledge and language by being taught it at home. For others who do not enjoy these advantages, leaving the acquisition of knowledge and development of vocabulary to what the child might choose to discover through their play is only going to further widen the gap between the word and knowledge rich and poor.

Many settings use focused activities to prevent learning being totally ad hoc.  It is worth settings asking themselves is this is always the best use of time, as a practitioner will have to repeat a focused activity several times over with different groups? Would not a brief, whole class explicit teaching session cover the ground much more efficiently, leaving more time for the practitioners to then spend quality time exploiting ‘teachable moments’ during child initiated play?

Making links

Making links and noticing patterns in their experience

Making predictions

Testing their ideas

Developing ideas of grouping, sequences. Cause and effect

Choosing ways to do things

Planning, making decisions about how to approach a task, solve a problem and reach a goal

Checking how well their activities are going

Changing strategy as needed

Reviewing how well the approach worked

This is mainly about the executive function of cognitive flexibility. As mentioned above in the section labelled ‘Motivation’ by CofEL, while play provides a good practice ground for this, development will be more effective is the practice is preceded by explicit teaching. This explicit teaching can take place as part of the explicit teaching of literacy and maths. For example, writing a sentence involves planning what to say, making decisions about what sounds to use, solving problems such as not remembering how to write a ‘b’  by consulting a chart, checking what you have written so far so that you know which word comes next, changing strategy from sounding out to retrieving a non-decodable sight word such as ‘the’ from the long term memory, and then reading the final completed sentence to review how well you have done.

Narrating these executive functions to the children as they do them helps children realise their importance to the learning process.


But to reiterate – play also provides fertile ground for this too.


The other glaring omission from CofEL is a column entitled ‘Remembering.’  Readers who have read my previous blog on the difference between episodic and semantic memory might see that the CofEL way of thinking about learning is very much about promoting learning through episodic memories rather than through building long term semantic memories. Young children are just as much in need of teaching approaches that build semantic memories as older ones – indeed, more so, since having been alive for a shorter time, they necessarily have less knowledge stored in their long term memory; they literally have less to think with.  This puts more strain on their working memories, which are in any case less well developed. In Reception, we are expecting children to begin to acquire the culturally derived biologically secondary knowledge involved in learning to be literate and numerate.  We do them a huge disservice if we do not build into their everyday learning regular opportunities for retrieval practice. If we are going to teach children cognitively demanding things like phoneme-grapheme correspondences or early addition, the very least we can do if help them store what we have already taught them in their long term memories using the best techniques cognitive science has to offer. To not do so is to mean that children have to learn these things afresh each time. Some children are genetically predisposed to store things in their long term memories easily: most are not. To refuse to do so out of some personal dislike of so-called ‘drill and kill’ is to rob children of the very thing they need to become independent, creative, critical thinkers. Children need to practice their sounds and their sight words daily. They need to subitise quantities to five and then ten, so that their recall of number bonds becomes automatic. Having these schemas in the long term memory massively cuts down the cognitive load involved in reading, writing and maths and sets them up for life. To help children acquire these is to give children the gift that keeps on giving.

This blog is long enough as it is. I had intended to write about why EY practitioners in good faith believe that the research base entirely backs up the CofEL approach. Instead I shall leave you with these links for you to peruse at your own leisure, should you so wish. They explain why this is so much better than I can anyway.












[1] Potegal, M. & Einon, D. 1989. Aggressive behaviors in adult rats deprived of playfighting experience as juveniles. Developmental Psychobiology, 22, 159-172.

[2] The prime areas of learning in the EYFS are Communication and Language, Personal, Social and Emotional Development (including executive functioning) and Physical Development.

[3] For Willingham’s take on developmental appropriateness, read this.

[4] https://46y5eh11fhgw3ve3ytpwxt9r-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/How-Early-Experiences-Shape-the-Development-of-Executive-Function.pdf  p10

[5] https://46y5eh11fhgw3ve3ytpwxt9r-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/How-Early-Experiences-Shape-the-Development-of-Executive-Function.pdf p 10

[6] https://46y5eh11fhgw3ve3ytpwxt9r-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/How-Early-Experiences-Shape-the-Development-of-Executive-Function.pdf p5

Why you are both right. Early Years vs Traditional teaching