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Children are the most vulnerable people who have innate potentials yearning to be unleashed. It is in their early childhood when they begin to manifest such potentials and since they have yet to develop physically, cognitively and socio-emotionally, they would need supportive adults to guide them towards the right path in optimizing their potentials.
The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) is a resource for early childhood care and education practitioners to support the needs of young children under their care. It sets standards for learning, development and care for children up to five years of age. EYFS provides a wide variety of information on child development to help practitioners understand how children grow and what they need to help them optimize their potentials (Tickell, 2011). The use of this resource will effectively enable early childhood settings to meet the key outcomes outlined in Every Child Matters and to ensure that high quality service is provided to the children.
Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS)
In early childhood, caring for all children involves many considerations. One is to see each child at his or her own developmental level and create activities and opportunities appropriate to their particular levels. The child needs to develop holistically, meaning each developmental area is given attention to so growth and development as a whole person ensues. The crucial areas of development that need to be emphasized in early learning are Personal, social and emotional development; Communication and language Physical development (Department of Education, 2012). Aside from these major areas, the children also need to develop skills in literacy, mathematics, understanding the world and expressive arts and design (Department of Education, 2012) These are all linked together, as in development in one area affects the others. The practitioner needs careful planning and implementation of activities so that children under their care grow in all areas.
The EFYS works around four essential themes namely: A unique child; positive relationships; enabling environments and learning and development (Department of Education, 2012). These themes are briefly explained as follows.
Each child is born with his or her own set of talents and potentials, and these are meant to be developed all throughout his life. The practitioner is to help the child develop his or her potentials to the fullest by providing him with activities and experiences to hone his skills. If the child shows propensity for the arts, the practitioner allows him or her to indulge in creative activities of interest to the child (Tickell, 2011).
EYFS's theme of positive relationships enables children to grow up in environments that make them feel love and security from their homes or learning environments, making them grow up to be self-confident, self-propelling people. Supportive adults help children understand the emotions they undergo, especially if these feelings are negative and confusing to the child (anger, disappointment, jealousy, etc.). In being understood, the children themselves learn to be sensitive to others' feelings and provide the same support and understanding to them, creating a circle The key of positive relationships. The outcomes specified in Every Child Matters are met in such positive environments (Department of Education, 2012).
The theme of provision of enabling environments for children play a key role in helping and guiding children in growing to be capable individuals. This entails a practitioner's keen observation of each child, as to his or her interests, skills, personality traits, etc. and get cues from the children themselves as to how they would like their learning to be structured. Careful planning of activities for children should consider important concepts and skills they should be learning at their developmental level. Again, this agrees with the constructivists' view of children's learning that they are capable of treading their own learning paths they themselves construct of course with the able guidance of a sensitive adult (Tickell, 2011).
Lastly, EYFS's theme of learning and development helps practitioners understand that children develop and learn in different ways and at their own time. Each area of learning and development specified by EYFS is equally important and inter-connect with the others, so practitioners must make sure that they do not concentrate on only one area of learning at a time (Department of Education, 2012).
Role and Value of Play
EYFS recognizes the importance of play in childhood, as it provides many benefits. Wood (2004) contends that in maximizing the potentials of play as a teaching tool, adults have a great role to play in planning challenging environments, engaging children in learning from play activities, facilitating children's language development, observing and evaluating children's learning through play and encouraging its continuity and progress.
Infants, toddlers and pre-schoolers derive much benefit from a play-based curriculum, and under the supervision of knowledgeable and caring adults, it is a powerful method in facilitating the development of children's identities. During play, "children demonstrate improved verbal communications, high levels of social and interaction skills, creative use of play materials, imaginative and divergent thinking skills and problem-solving capabilities" (Wood, 2004, p. 21).
Free exploration is considered Heuristic play by Holland (2003). It is encouraged without adult intervention. Adults simply provide simple materials and allow the child to just be and let his imagination take off . "The child learns from observing directly what these objects will 'do' or 'not do', in sharp contrast to much of the 'educational' equipment which has a result predetermined by the design which has been devised by the adult maker (Holland, 2003, p. 142). Heuristic play will not only stimulate a child's thinking, but it also develops his creativity as he will see in his mind endless possibilities in imaginatively transforming ordinary objects into various things with various functions.
Early childhood curriculum should incorporate play in its design. Play is essential to children's learning, as it is one effective approach to captivate their interest. Teachers should take advantage of this and plan challenging learning environments to support their students' learning through planned play activity. Aside from this, the teacher also needs to know how to support their spontaneous play and help them develop their language, communication skills and other developmental skills through interesting and fun play-like activities. Moyles et al (2001) claim that ironically, a learning environment that relies much on play leads to more mature forms of knowledge, skills and understanding. There is evidence to suggest that through play children develop high levels of verbal skill and creative problem solving capabilities
EYFS and Other Early Years Programmes
Several early childhood programmes share the same philosophy as those espoused by EYFS (Tickell, 2011). These programs have curriculums designed with the child at the center and all else caters to him to support his growth and development and the realization of his potentials. One is the Te Whaariki early childhood curriculum of New Zealand and the other is Reggio Emilia based in Italy.
The Te Whaariki curriculum values play as an effective tool in facilitating children's learning and development. Pedagogical models with strong sociocultural features such as Te Whariki do not leave play to chance but sustains it through complex reciprocal and responsive relationships as well as provision of activities which are socially constructed and mediated (Wood, 2004). Not only do activities promote self-awareness but also incorporate cultural awareness which strengthens children's cultural identities. Webber (n.d.) summarizes what research has found out to maximize children's learning as "incorporating cultural content; reflecting cultural values, attitudes and practices; utilizing culturally preferred ways of learning, including culturally appropriate support; and affirming cultural identity" (p. 9). This means they should be exposed to the songs, stories, games, etc. inherent in their family and cultural backgrounds. Much of these can be incorporated in play situations.
Malaguzzi, founder of Reggio Emilia philosophy (1993) concludes that teachers should be researchers that think and produce a true curriculum centered on children's needs. Teachers develop a curriculum from observing the children and noting down their developmental skills, interests and other possibilities they can discover on their own within the parameters of safety. This curriculum envisions implementation in an environment organized by teachers to be rich in possibilities and provocations that challenge children to explore, problem-solve, usually in small groups while the teachers act as keen observers or recorders of the children's learning. Teachers get to balance their role by sometimes joining the circle of children and sometimes objectively remaining outside the loop (Pope Edwards, 2002). Teachers are on hand to provide assistance or further challenge children's thinking to push them to optimize their potentials. They also observe children's behaviors to see which of their needs need to be met (Lambert & Clyde, 2000) and design opportunities to address such needs either through the curriculum or through their social interactions.
Reggio Emilia schools provide an ideal learning environment for children. Since the approach was conceived in the context of shared learning with the families and other adults in the community contributing to the education of the young, it has the support it needs to implement a curriculum that best suits the needs of the growing child. It is commendable that the families and community members value their children's education seriously that they take time to collaborate with the teachers in projects children do (Early Education Support, 2006).
Knowing that children at the early childhood stage are concrete learners, much emphasis is given to the creative arts that the presence of an atelierista or Art consultant is vital in the program. Children are given several opportunities to explore their artistic side as they are provided with all the materials and conducive learning environment in the "atelier" or art studio within the school. Children's 100 languages are given vent in various forms of art and other developmentally-appropriate activities.
Not to be forgotten are learnings in literacy and numeracy which are likewise essential to children's development. However, since it is the process which is given priority over the product, academics are learned in less structured ways. Learning is evidenced in highly documented portfolios which contain actual works of children, photographs of their projects and even transcripts of their language while working on some activities. Teachers' observations are important since they need to document each child's episode of learning. Each portfolio is vastly different. Teachers and parents discuss children's portfolios at parent teacher conferences to see evidences of progress. Teachers are also using digital portfolios. They may use these to complement the original portfolio of the child or alone. The portfolio assessment gives a clearer and more accurate picture of what children learn in school rather than a report card that serves to summarize learning in a particular period of time.
Inclusion and Diversity in EYFS
Practitioners with a genuine heart for caring for children are not prejudiced in selecting who to care for. According to EYFS principles, "Children should be treated fairly regardless of race, religion or abilities. This applies no matter what they think or say; what type of family they come from; what language(s) they speak; what their parents do; whether they are girls or boys; whether they have a disability or whether they are rich or poor. All children have an equal right to be listened to and valued in the setting." (EYFS, 2007). Diversity is embraced so everyone is welcome to be part of the class.
Inclusion of children with disabilities or special education needs is likewise advocated by EYFS. Inclusion settings should design the environment to accommodate such children like providing ramps for children in wheelchairs. At the same time, they should seek the support of the children's parents and other agencies involved with children with special needs. Professionals from a wide variety of fields and disciplines devote much time and energy in helping these children live comfortable and fulfilling lives with the end view of mainstreaming them into society and the real world. Educators, therapists, psychologists, speech pathologists, physicians, social workers and even government officials join hands in the care and education of these children to ensure their optimum growth and development.
The children may be part of the social care team. They have the ability to help each other in their interactions. Children, both normal and with special needs are subsequently paired in natural settings for social activities.
"The most direct outcome of these procedures has been an increase in positive social responses and peer acceptance. Strategies for peers to use include, soliciting the student's attention, providing choices, modeling appropriate social behavior, reinforcing attempts at functional play, encouraging/ extending conversation, turn taking, narrating play and teaching responsiveness to multiple cues." (Benito & Ramirez, 2000, p. 43).
Such information provided herein helps the practitioner plan a good program for children. Bearing in mind that each child's individual need should be met, a practitioner may group children with similar ages or ability levels together and manage the different groups in accordance to their developmental and individual needs. Practitioners should have enough flexibility in planning activities for children. Following their lead in terms of interests shared by the majority of children is one effective way of capturing their attention and motivating them to develop skills.
To ensure that each individual in the group is provided with the necessary attention and care, the practitioner should be keen in observing their needs and interests so she is mindful of these when planning activities for them. Collaborating with parents is another way of gaining information on each child's interest, abilities and personal qualities.
In the matter of addressing the key outcomes identified by Every Child Matters, EYFS is likewise very much concerned in the well-being of children and attempt to pursue its goals of keeping children healthy, safe, happy and capable, and being healthy, staying safe, enjoying and achieving, making a positive contribution and achieve economic well-being by not going hungry, unclothed or unsheltered. That is why its advocacy is to uphold the best interests of children. These five outcomes go for all children regardless of their background or circumstances. The outcomes are mutually reinforcing, as when one outcome is met, the others are more likely to follow. For instance, young people learn better when they are healthy and safe. Also, education is the best route out of poverty.
With all the support from EYFS, the government and agencies involved with children, early childhood practitioners have no reason not to provide high quality service to their clients. Theirs is the most vulnerable lot and deserve the utmost care, since they hold the keys to the future. Understanding the needs and developmental growth of very young children enables the practitioner to plan very well for appropriate activities that would optimize their potentials.