Early Childhood Education/Early Years

Debra Laxton and Marilyn Leask with inputs from the MESH Early Years Editorial Board | View as single page | Feedback/Impact
Early Childhood Education/Early Years
Effective learning
Activities and Types of Play
Case Studies

The child’s understanding of their world

The research indicating the importance of the different forms of play is referenced elsewhere in this guide (see Section 1). The advice which follows shows how a child can be helped to understand their world through play. Understanding the world is one of four specific areas of learning within the English Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) framework. ‘Understanding the world involves guiding children to make sense of their physical world and their community through opportunities to explore, observe and find out about people, places, technology and the environment’ (DfE, 2017).

Element Knowledge/ Experiences/ Strategies/ (Evidence)
Background/ Theory
  • Humans are instinctively curious and use discovery through senses from birth to make sense of the world (Beeley, 2012).

  • Children make sense of their physical world and their community through opportunities to explore, observe and find out about the environment, people and technology.

  • As with all EYFS areas, cross curricular learning occurs and as with all learning for young children, characteristics of effective teaching and learning are:

  • exploring and experimenting - children investigate and experience things, and ‘have a go’

  • active learning - young children need to handle real objects to learn about them. They have not yet developed the ability to learn in the abstract. Children concentrate and keep on trying if they encounter difficulties, and enjoy achievements

  • creating and thinking critically - children have and develop their own ideas, make links between ideas, and develop strategies for doing things.

People and communities (Citizenship)
  • From songs, games and stories children learn local traditions and cultural practices and start to understand how to live in their community.

  • Songs, games and stories can help a child understand the past and present in their own lives and to understand the similarities and differences between themselves and others.

  • All ages will enjoy listening to stories and rhymes and songs from their own culture. Encourage parents and people from the community to provide a wealth of stories and songs to share with the children.

  • Children need a very strong sense of who they are, where they come from and what their culture is.

  • In times of crisis, providing as much of the normality they previously experienced helps them to cope with the changes in their lives.

  • Role play is a natural form of expression for children where they can act out and make sense of their world.

  • During crucial changes in a child’s life this activity will be very therapeutic in helping them to come to terms with and adapt to new circumstances. Provide plenty of time for this activity to flourish and, where appropriate, some props to facilitate play. See also emotional development.

  • Maintaining a strong cultural identity is important part of this.

  • Individuals to share knowledge, skills and experience – challenging stereotypes when possible, volunteers, positive role models

  • Parent/ carer/ grandparent volunteers to come in and cook, read, garden etc

  • Visitors with global experiences to share

  • Visits to the local community

  • Group times – sense of belonging and getting to know each other, similarities and differences

  • Drawings or photographs of children where possible displayed and/or made into simple books

  • Use of positive images in the environment that challenge stereotypes and promote aspiration

  • Use of stories to support the development of empathy

  • Role play should take into account inclusion and diversity of culture

  • Provide opportunities for children to learn about the characteristics of solids and liquids e.g. cooking

Time (History)
  • During group times talk about periods and times of the day, days of the week, dates and month

  • Visual timetables and/or discussions to show periods of the day e.g. arrival, play, lunch time, outside

Place (Geography)
  • Imaginative play with drawn maps and discussions about place

  • Visits to local community

  • Observe landscapes through first-hand experience and images

  • Observe the range of tools and technologies that are in use around them

  • Through play, and activities including role play, they learn to select and use tools and technology for particular purposes and work out which is the most effective

  • Discuss technology in the environment and recreate as appropriate in role play e.g. traffic lights

Exploration & Investigation (Science)





The headings used to categorise here are taken from (Brunton & Thornton, 2010). Some examples of ways to support learning and development are provided, there are many more.

Children benefit from opportunities to discover the natural world as well as the made world. Through exploration they can start to understand basic science and the environment. Handling natural materials, mud, clay, sticks, stones and leaves and coming to understand the properties of water, fire, air are ways their understanding of the world develops.

  • Follow children’s current interests and preoccupations to cultivate scientific exploration

Living things, Habitats and Sustainability, The Human Body and Healthy Living

  • Life cycle observation and exploration with plants and creatures

  • Planting seeds and growing plants

  • Create areas where creatures will habitat so children can carry out bug hunts

  • Use snack and meal times to promote and discuss healthy eating

  • Active physical exercise and a reflection of the impact on the body e.g. heart racing, red face, ‘puffed out’

Properties and classification of materials, forces, friction, air and water

  • open-ended materials, natural and reclaimed, to encourage children to investigate, developing their curiosity, imagination and creativity e.g. Loose Parts play

  • Musical washing line from kitchen utensils to explore sound

  • Create adjustable ramps using available materials and explore speed and friction using varied objects

Magnetism, electricity, sound, light, shadow, colour, reflection

  • Exploration of light and dark – dark rooms, dens, torches, light table

  • Sunlight and shadows – drawing around shadows at different times of the day, measuring shadows

  • Identify shiny materials in the environment for reflection exploration

The solar system, the earth structure, weather patterns and rock formation

  • Discuss the seasons and weather when playing outside and through songs e.g. it’s raining, it’s pouring, books

  • Create a daily weather chart

  • Stones, pebbles and rocks available for exploration

Through all these activities:

  • Offer provocations (Ephgrave, 2018). Additions that create thought e.g. a question, an object

  • Encourage conversation and ask open questions that encourage children to compare and contrast

  • Allow time for self-discovery

As well as the ideas presented elsewhere in this Guide, here are some for specifically developing and understanding of the natural world and local environment:

  • With the collections described here, you can promote children’s language, sense of touch and understanding of the materials in their world.

  • Notice the ways in which individual children select and handle the items in the collections – how they select and discard objects, how they explore them using their senses, how they move them about, or how they look closely at how things work all the time learning about what the items or materials will do.

Here are examples of collections:

  • Everyday item collection which the children explore and investigate using all their senses e.g. kitchen utensils, balls, brushes, shiny things, or different fabrics for the children to handle independently.

  • A scented collection e.g. lemons or oranges, herbs

  • A natural collection – shells, large pebbles or polished stones, leaves of different shapes and sizes, large seed pods and pieces of tree bark.

  • A materials collection – interesting objects made from natural materials.

Specific age related ideas for

2 - 3 year-olds

Children of this age are very eager to explore the world around them by being curious about what they see, hear, and touch, and by asking questions. Your answers help them develop their language as well as understanding.

  • Encourage children to explore the world using all of their senses – have fun guessing what covered up objects are by touching them, listening to them or smelling them.

  • Provide a small bag or container to collect different pebbles, stones

  • Where there is access to nature, show children buds and new shoots and talk to them about growing things, show them how to touch them gently, as well as smelling flowers and blossom and listening to the birds.

  • Some children enjoy drawing and mark making.

  • On a sunny day, try a shadow hunt with the children – look at the shapes, sizes and positions of the shadows. Try to catch your shadow.

Specific age related ideas for

4 - 5 year-olds

By the time a child is four or five he will have developed interests and fascinations which you could support to encourage his learning across all areas of learning and development.

  • Listen carefully to what each child has to say when they discover something of interest; try challenging them  to explain their ideas to you as this will help them to develop their thinking skills.

  • Activities might include watching and talking about any insect life or wildlife eg  birds, snails, spiders, insects. The child can then discover how a variety of things live and behave.

  • Water provides the opportunity to look at reflections and to talk about where water comes from and where it goes.