This post has been written by Michelle Procter
Would you rather…
Have a snack area or a sand tray?!
In an ideal world we’d have it all, wouldn’t we? A spacious EYFS classroom with natural light, windows at a level children could actually see from, displays at a height children could access – maybe even interact with! Aah, the little pleasures in the life of an EYFS practitioner!
Working in EYFS brings its own distinct set of challenges, and I don’t just mean toilet incidents and runny noses! Yes, we play in the sand all day and yes, we don’t take home a truck load of books to mark but there is an enormous amount of setting up, changing and enhancing two environments (indoors and outdoors) and I will forever fly the flag for the EYFS-ers among us. Disclaimer - I obviously am all too aware that there is far more to early years than playing in the sand all day!
The way good EYFS practice has evolved over recent years ensures child-centred learning is at the heart of what goes on in the setting. Practitioners strive to create welcoming and engaging environments for their children; presenting and organising a range of provision areas to promote autonomous learners. Whilst this blog doesn’t discuss the specific areas of provision you may or may not feature in your settings, it aims to outline how practitioners can best utilise their spaces.
We’ve all visited other settings and admired their choice of furniture, their colour coordinated pencil pots and questioned where they got their sturdy wicker baskets that can withstand at least a half term’s use. It’s not unheard of for EYFS practitioners to make legs shorter on coffee tables of a well-known brand of flatpack furniture or spend their weekends acquiring wooden pallets and fastening them to their school’s fencing. I recall experiencing great joy at seeing lengths of artificial grass in a neighbour’s skip and casually flinging some over my arm as I walked by. And who hasn’t walked on a beach getting excited over the length of driftwood that will save them buying one from the catalogue?!
Furniture and resources aside, there are some settings that will have to really prioritise what areas of provision they can offer their children. Some will choose to rotate their sand and water trays, for example, whilst some settings will only offer sand outdoors. There are ways of providing sand on a small scale, however. The value of a child exploring wet and/or dry sand should not be underestimated and it’s important that early years educators do their utmost to provide both sand and water experiences. A deep storage box, or toy chest, either on the floor or at a table could be used instead of a large sand tray. A pair of children experimenting with the properties of wet sand through a sand mill, for example, is far more preferable than none at all.
Most settings usually provide a range of tactile and malleable experiences on a rolling programme. After all, who would want to clean up playdough, cornflour ‘gloop’ and rice all on the same day?! However, there may be occasions when you want to set up the usual playdough plus spaghetti, for example, on a smaller scale. Cat litter trays provide a small but deep container, as do washing up bowls, and these are easily obtained (and stored away too!)
There’s a school of thought on providing a specific writing area or whether having mark-making resources across all areas of provision. Personally, I have always provided both. There’s something to be said about children seated around a table, accessing open-ended resources, exploring their own interests and engaging with their friends accordingly (as well as utilising items put out in line with the theme, if appropriate) and also laying on the floor drawing on a clipboard in the construction area, for example. Both scenarios are of equal importance and, as any good practitioner knows, there will be children who favour one experience over the other. If a setting is really restricted on space, unfortunately they may have to choose whether to have a designated writing area or not. Whilst those handy mark-making caddies, with pockets for various pens, crayons and other tools are indeed a worthy investment, I would always advocate a specific area for children to ‘write’, however small the table may be.
In terms of providing a snack area, some practitioners will prefer to have a timetabled snack time when all the children join together to have their milk and fruit, or other healthy alternatives. The idea of everyone seated on the carpet in a large circle is a lovely opportunity for children to hand out the milk cartons, practise using speech conventions and adults can praise the use of good manners. The social benefits are vast too; children and practitioners chatting informally allows for those all-important relationships to be enriched even further.
However, when some children are in before-school care from 7.30am, they may need a little something at the very start of the school day. In the settings I have worked in, free-flow snack provision was always a hive of activity first thing in a morning with children greeting their friends over a drink of milk. Futhermore, if your setting has ‘an open-door policy’ then parents can join their children for some fruit at this time. For some children, waiting until 10.20am for something to eat is simply too long.
If you struggle for space in your EYFS setting then you may well have to contemplate your priorities. Think out of the box for ways to store some essentials, the aforementioned mark-making caddies are great, but then so are cutlery holders designed for draining boards. Consider malleable, sand and water provision on a small scale and perhaps incorporate opportunities for mathematical learning across all your areas of provision rather than having a specific maths area in class.
Whilst providing environments that are well-thought out is a crucial part of getting it right in EYFS, we must remember to avoid ‘style over substance’, however big or small. There is little point in having an amazing creative area, for example, if the adults don’t invest the time to model how the resources may be used. Children will fill yogurts pots with matchsticks and pom poms until the end of time unless practitioners are skilled in their interaction and ways to develop key skills and learning! Exploring ways of joining resources together, making for a purpose along with cutting the tape or string, for example, are far more important than the colour of the boxes on the shelf.
Whatever the cubic metres of the EYFS setting, however creative practitioners are with utilising the space, at the helm of good practice is sound relationships between children and adults, progress in learning and development and, needless to say, fostering a love of learning and discovery in these fundamental early years.
“I promise you every day your child will learn something. Some days they will bring it home in their hands, some days they will bring it home in their heads. And some days they will bring it home in their hearts.” Valerie Welk