Research School Network: The role of the Adult in the EYFS – Why are interactions so powerful? We do, in fact, play all day in a language rich environment, where every high-quality interaction is important


The role of the Adult in the EYFS – Why are interactions so powerful?

We do, in fact, play all day in a language rich environment, where every high-quality interaction is important

Kate Pritchard, Research Associate at Billesley Research School, delves into the subject of how communication and play go hand-in-hand in the EYFS.

Working with our youngest children is a huge privilege. Families often remember their child’s nursery and Reception teachers for life. This is mostly due to transition, induction processes, the open door policy of EYFS settings, and because it is usually the first place in their lives that children attend unaccompanied. Parents have to be present at doctors appointments, visits to the dentist and soft play centres. Yet in nurseries and Reception settings, the children are expected to separate freely and spend the day being cared for by adults who are not related to them. With this in mind, it makes us consider the responsibility that comes with this role.

Children and families expect high quality care and education in early years settings, The 2021 framework stresses the importance of this in order to improve outcomes for all children. Language is integral to every aspect of the EYFS curriculum and Early Learning Goals. Indeed, nearly all of the Early Learning Goals contain some element of talk in order for a child to achieve the age-related standards. DfE research suggests that a child who is not at the expected standard in language at the age of 5 years old is 11 times less likely to achieve the expected level in Maths aged 11 years. This is why it is vital that we get it right in the early years.

So, what is the role of the adult in the early years? All I do is play all day and read stories most of the time, and I love it! Play is central to good early childhood development and the role of a skilled EYFS practitioner is to understand when to involve themselves in children’s play, when to interact with children and when it is best to stand back. In the book, Interacting or Interfering? Improving Interactions in the Early Years, Jule Fisher discusses important interactions that can enhance learning, thinking and understanding. However, this is not always easy, and, subsequently, practitioners often interrupt children’s thinking, resulting in learning being interfered with. For interactions to be effective, practitioners must talk with children and not to them. This is where we need to perfect the art of a serve-and-return conversation, where practitioners effectively extend and enhance children’s communication and language through natural, genuine, and warm conversations’.

I will always remember a pupil called Finn’. He refused to answer the register and would try to hide under his jumper if you asked him a direct question during discrete carpet sessions. Any interaction with Finn was usually a directive towards the whole class or a superficial comment (like a greeting). Gaining evidence for his speaking ability was becoming impossible when moderating as a team. One morning, I found myself walking alongside him as he came into class. There was no threat, eye contact or fear. He skipped beside me and, when I commented on his haircut, he said, yes, I’ve been to the barbers, haven’t I? They used the clippers, number 2 on the sides. I sat in a car and I was sooooo still!’ I talked about my haircut experience and he then said, ‘ You wouldn’t go to the barbers. It’s a place men go. You have long curly hair. It’s red. Mine is different. It’s brown and not curly.’ Intonation, tense, full sentences, clarifying, vocabulary- all in one short serve and return conversation.

I had tuned into a way to effectively communicate with a child who was not comfortable with interrogation’ about his learning, and instead encouraged further communication through a genuine, warm and interesting conversation. Later in the morning, I found Finn in the home corner. He was recreating his time at the barbers with his friend. He said, get in the car’, clutching a wooden block (standing in for the clippers!). When I asked him if he was taking his son’ to the barbers in the car (intimating that he was perhaps playing the role of his father), he looked at me like I had gone mad…’no, he [Finn] sits in the car. It is a seat inside the barbers, not a real car. He can’t drive. He’s not big!’. The conversation easily flowed into a two-way discussion about cars, how old you have to be to drive, and the car he wanted to drive when he was older. We maintained the momentum of the interaction using sustained shared thinking strategies. This opportunity could have been missed if I hadn’t noticed that he had had a haircut and I hadn’t commented. This is why talk should be valued at every opportunity throughout the day, and staff should make time for this.

Sustained shared thinking was a term officially coined within early education in 2002 and then explored further by Kathy Sylva et al. as part of the EPPE research in 2004.

Formally, it is defined as:

[A]n episode in which two or more individuals work together’ in an intellectual way to solve a problem, clarify a concept, evaluate activities, extend a narrative, etc. Both parties must contribute to the thinking and it must develop and extend. (Sylva et al, 2004: 36)

However, working together’ in a meaningful conversation was explored by Vygotsky in 1978 . He believed that it was:

something that happens between two or more people. This will most frequently be between an adult and a child, but it may also be between children, if one child is a more knowledgeable other.’

Sustained Shared Thinking was included in the 2008 Early Years framework under the Characteristics of Effective Learning – Creating and Thinking Critically, which raised the prominence of making time for children, establishing strong and effective relationships, and modelling and contextualising vocabulary.

Many EYFS practitioners are using SST strategies in their everyday interactions without realising. These include: clarifying; recapping; reinforcing; reflecting; questioning; reminding; and summarising.

Some good questions to encourage and extend thinking as part of an exploratory conversation could be:

I wonder what would happen if…?

What do you notice…?

What happened when…?

How do you know…?

I wonder why…?

You said you were…? Did that work?

Can you tell me more about…?

More recently, the EEF have published the ShREC approach to support high-quality interactions;

Sh = Shared attention. Getting to the child’s level. Showing genuine interest and warmth. Displaying open body language.

R = Respond. Nodding, agreeing, making a brief comment about what they can see, hear…

E = Expand. Repeat and offer full sentences in response.

C = Conversation. Engaging in a two way conversation. Allowing children time to listen and respond.

Hand-in-hand with these approaches are the Leuven Scales for Wellbeing and Involvement. Children who feel valued and part of the class will feel safe and secure within the setting. In turn, they will be open to trying new things, make links in their learning, show energy and enthusiasm in all that they do, and review/​evaluate their play and activities using interesting and sophisticated vocabulary.

So, yes, we do play all day in a language rich environment, where every high quality interaction we are having within this play is making a difference to the life chances of, and opportunities for, our youngest learners.

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