Building a curriculum with firm foundations

Something that has always bemused me is the opposition that arises whenever it is suggested that what children learn in the foundation stage should prepare them to be ready for year one. The standard response to this is that the foundation stage is important in its own right and does not exist as a warm up for what comes later. It is there, so it is said, to lay the foundations for future successful learning in terms of child development rather than any specific content.

The passionate advocacy of the foundational role of the prime areas of communication and language, personal, social and emotional development and physical development for all future learning is something I would also champion. Abundant research finds that a strong foundation in the prime areas by the time a child is five is essential if a child is to thrive academically. Without these essentials in place, further learning will be drastically impeded. So any curriculum development that undermines the building of these firm foundations is foolhardy at best. Rushing to build the superstructure before the foundations are secure is a doomed enterprise: foundations being, er, foundational.

However, it is perfectly possible to assert this, and assert it vigorously, while at the same time thinking about the kinds of specific content which might provide a context within which the prime areas can be developed, content that might also be foundational for later more specific learning. It is a false dichotomy to think that it is a case of either promoting the prime areas or having a curriculum that includes specific knowledge and skills that will be built upon in the rest of schooling. Considering the latter does not necessarily undermine the former. It could, of course, done badly. Generally I’m against doing things badly.

For example, there are many concepts in geography where future understanding will be greatly strengthened if this can be built on prior experiences gained in the Early Years. For example, a child who has played with mud, sand and water in the mud kitchen will more readily understand concepts such as erosion and permeability than a child who has not has these first hand experiences. The concept of trade begins with role playing in a shop. Map work needs solid understanding of spatial relationships, and whether or not the revised Early Learning Goals for maths include shape, space and measure, the Early Years curriculum needs to include them as they are foundational for later geographical understanding. (They are foundational for later mathematical understanding too and should form part of any Reception curriculum, whether or not there is a corresponding Early Learning Goal.) Population and the complex idea of population density begins with a firm understanding of conservation of number. Understanding the concept of atmosphere needs foregrounding in experience of power of the wind, of talking about the weather, the sky, looking at clouds. Experiencing lots of different kinds of plants, flowers, trees, mosses, ferns, cacti, seaweed, pondweed, fruits and grains builds firm foundations for understanding the diversity of vegetation. Understanding the crucial role that water plays in our world is supported by experience of water tray play, freezing, evaporation, exploring puddles, rain collection as well as trips to whatever is local, be that a pond, a river or the sea.

Seeing a mountain might be an everyday occurrence for some settings and a logistical impossibility for others, but we can all read stories with a mountain setting and look at pictures and videos of mountains, deserts, marshes, rivers, jungles, the North Pole, the South Pole. We can all look at globes and maps and begin to learn about climate, learning that the poles are very cold and the equator very hot, and they we live in between the two. Don’t underestimate the role of small world either. It may or may not be easy to visit a farm, but everyone can experience small world farm animals, or play with tractors, or the Arctic or a jungle.

Apparently during a recent Ofsted inspection of a nursery, the inspector asked how the setting was preparing the children to be future geographers. Now I fully understand how different this line of questioning is and how at first glance one might be tempted to answer (at least in one’s head) with a rather rude response, as of course the prime areas are everybody’s first (or prime) concern and we are used to thinking about our provision in those terms. However, now that the question has been posed, why shouldn’t we also think about how the environment we provide, the things we talk about, the trips we go on and the books we read can play a part in building firm foundations for understanding the world? Why shouldn’t we think about what foundational geography might consist in? So I would suggest should any Early Years professional or geography leader be asked about how Nursery provision ‘prepares children to be future geographers’ they direct the questioner to the sand and water trays, the mud kitchen and the building blocks.

Physical geography and science are rather easier to think about in this way as they involve concrete things you can touch. (And hats off to the Reception class I visited last week which had a tuff tray full of root vegetables including what I though was an enormous, leafy, soil-encrusted carrot which I then learned was actually a sugar beet!) Foundational RE can use artefacts. Visitors and visits are easier for some locations than others. Stories of course are crucial here, and again small world play can reinforce what has been talked about or experienced first-hand.

History is necessarily more abstract in that the past is, by definition, not here right now. The familiar activities of thinking about one’s own development from babyhood (done sensitively of course with regard for those children whose early life is not typical) are central, but we don’t have to stop there. Just as with geography, there are historical concepts we can begin to lay the foundations of understanding for. Encountering kings, queens, princes and princesses in stories and in role play lays the foundation for understanding what monarchy means. Castles, knights, armour and shields may or may not be easy to see on a school visit, but we can all tell stories featuring these and provide role play opportunities to give children opportunities to use the new vocabulary they have learnt. Concepts such as democracy and government begin with personal, social and emotional development. Can we always get our own way? Why do we need rules? What do we do when two people want different things? Or the same thing but there is only one of them? Voting for things, talking about fairness, respect and tolerance are all essential pre-requisites for later historical understanding (as well as being important in their own right, of course).

Stories play a vital role in making the abstract past immediate. If we want young children to understand the world, we need to tell them stories that take them beyond the familiar, whether in time or in space, so that their world expands beyond what is immediate. So stories about notable people and events from the past need to feature in our Foundation Stage curriculum. Where there are places locally we can visit, then visit them, but not everybody is in a place to do this easily. Everybody can invite in an older person to talk about what it was like in the past (you know, the olden days, the 60’s). We can all easily share art works of people and places from the past.

None of this necessarily involves a particular pedagogy. I’m no advocate of a wholesale ‘in the moment’ planning way of doing things, but I can’t see why a well-resourced environment with knowledgeable adults couldn’t do ‘in the moment’ and simultaneously think along these lines. Yes, the prime areas are prime, but they can be expressed within contexts that expand our children’s worlds. I don’t know and have never visited @Oakwood Foundation, (nor know the extent to which they use in the moment planning), but I’d suggest having a look at their inspirational Twitter feed to see children who are being exposed to the wonder and variety of the world. Recent photos include children looking at photographs of various buildings from a ‘Beautiful Yorkshire’ book then using blocks to build a variety of impressive buildings (science, history and geography right there), some beautiful spider pictures after a child was curious about spiders (the setting has a collection of spiders in plastic blocks) and I will always remember being blown away by the fantastic art work the children did based on blood – red cells and capillaries galore.

The role of adults here is of course central, not just in planning the environment but in their own knowledge and understanding of the world.[1] If you want to extend children’s understanding about spiders, then you will have to know at least something about spiders. During an inset day looking at our Foundation Stage curriculum at my previous school, we spent time expanding our knowledge of wolves (since we were about to do some work based on fairy stories featuring wolves). This was not because we were going to have specific lessons on wolves, but so that we could extend children’s learning because we knew lots about them. Otherwise it was easy to limit our interactions to saying wolves were fierce. As a result, we found out, among other things, that wolves only live in the northern hemisphere. How easy it would be to show children a globe and explain that wolves only live in the top half ‘which we call the northern hemisphere’ but not the bottom half, ’which we call the southern hemisphere.’ Then another time that penguins live here ‘the South Pole, in the southern hemisphere’, and polar bears in North Pole, in the northern hemisphere.’ We made sure we knew the name of where wolves live, what their babies were called, how many babies they usually had, what different colours of wolves here are. We thought about the technical language used to describe wolves, that they have fangs and snouts and paws, that they were hunters, carnivores, predators. As a result, our own ability to talk about wolves was richer and more fluent. Then we did the same for other topics. Of course you can’t be an expert in everything a four year old might want to talk about, but you can do what you can, and that isn’t a reason for not doing it at all.

Since children build upon what they already know, it we want children later in their school careers and beyond to be able to think critically about population density, fair trade, sustainability and so forth, we need to ensure they already know the essential pre-requisites without which they will not be able to understand these more complex concepts. Some of this knowing will be the embodied knowing that comes from playing with sand or water. Some of it will be through listening to stories. Some of it will be through visits or listening to visitors. Some of it will because our teachers tell us about it. Lots of it will be reinforced through role play or art or music.

Curriculum development therefore should not start in year one, with the foundation stage cut off and isolated, detached from the rest of the school. We don’t call it the detached stage after all. Yes it has a unique focus in providing those essential foundations of child development upon which later learning will be build, and this should always be at the forefront of our minds. But that does not preclude also thinking about how our provision, our curriculum, prepares (lays a foundation) for what comes later in other ways as well. The two need not be in opposition. When a builder builds foundations, the kind of foundations are determined by what comes later. Light buildings have shallower foundations than tall or heavy ones. You don’t use raft foundations for skyscrapers or pile foundations of a one storey house. The foundation exists and is shaped by what comes next.





[1] Yes of course they also need to know about child development. Of course. That’s fundamental.

Building a curriculum with firm foundations