Research School Network: Home Learning and Curriculum in the Early Years

Home Learning and Curriculum in the Early Years

by Research Schools Network
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Julian Grenier, Director of East London Research School – part of the Research Schools Network, outlines the keys to successful early learning and curriculum development in the context of home learning.

Schools face enormous challenges in creating a home-learning curriculum for their children. It’s especially difficult for practitioners working in the early years;yet, that’s when it’s especially important. 

In the early years, children from disadvantaged backgrounds have their best chance of catching up. Professor Iram Siraj and her colleagues sum this up neatly in their 2019Fostering Effective Early Learning (FEEL) report:

“Although the importance of high quality ECEC [Early Childhood Education and Care] for fostering children’s development and learning extends across the gradient of social disadvantage, it is particularly significant for children from highly disadvantaged backgrounds.”

The keys to successful early learning

Even so, high-quality ECEC isn’t the most important factor in successful early learning. It’s the child’s Home Learning Environment that makes the biggest difference, according to the large-scale EPPSE Project.

The EPPSE researchers looked at parents in low-income households who provide their children with a rich Home Learning Environment. They found that their children benefitted much like anyone else’s. Still, it’s much harder to offer your child time and resources for play if you’re on a low income. You need to survive. If that’s how things are in normal’ times, imagine how much more that applies now during the COVID-19 pandemic.

So, why is playing at home with a child so important?

Play and conversation promote children’s language development and their understanding of early concepts. For example, young children, including toddlers, engage in spontaneous mathematics during almost every 30 seconds of free play.

Playful home learning also helps young children develop school readiness’ and self-regulation skills. The EEF guidance report Preparing for Literacy defines self-regulation as children’s ability to manage their own behaviour and aspects of their learning”. Children as young as three can develop their self-regulation in their early mathematical play.

What are the most intelligent steps we can take?

High-quality ECEC is especially important for children who are disadvantaged and therefore at greater risk of missing out on playful home learning. As such, the lockdown period could increase the gap between disadvantaged students and their peers.

To reduce this impact, the Sutton Trust recommends that schools should be making sure parents from all backgrounds have the right support, which is helpful but not prescriptive (given the challenges many families are facing during this time)”. 

One approach which is supported by promising evidence is the use of the EasyPeasy App, which sends parents cheap and easy to follow ideas for play at home. At Sheringham Nursery School –where I am the headteacher – we’ve given all parents free access to the App. Nearly every parent has a mobile phone, whilst access to other forms of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) is more limited. 

The Sutton Trust carried out an evaluation of EasyPeasy and found a significant effect on parents’ self-efficacy regarding discipline and boundaries and on children’s cognitive self-regulation (parent reported)’. For us, there is promising evidence that it’s effective in areas like Newham, where I work, and where there are many children living in poverty.

Developing curriculum in the early years

When things get back to something close to normal, we will need to come back to the question of effective curriculum design in the early years. 

Curriculum design is about what we want children to learn, how we want them to learn it and sequencing learning in a logical way. But, Schools and early years settings will need to make sure that a focus on what we want children to learn doesn’t overwhelm other important things. 

In the early years, many of children’s most important developments can’t be easily mapped out, particularly in play, communication and self-regulation. In particular, developing children’s self-regulation will help them become more powerful learners., which is especially important for disadvantaged children. 

But that’s not to say we have to choose between a curriculum that supports self-regulation and a curriculum that gives children knowledge and skills. For, as the Harvard Center on the Developing Child persuasively argue:

“Interventions that include an explicit focus on executive function skills do not need to be implemented separately from those focused on instruction in early literacy and math abilities. Indeed, the complex interactions that occur among executive functioning, social competence, and academic skills in preschool classrooms underscore the likely value of blending interventions designed to strengthen working memory, inhibition, and attention control with curricula focused on early literacy and math skills.”

Harvard Center on the Developing Child, 2011: p. 9

As our children return from the Covid crisis, a carefully crafted early years curriculum that offers children knowledge and vital self-regulatory skills will be key for every child, but especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

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