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Behind the Gingham Curtain

When I first started my career as a Reception teacher, I had no concept of this thing called ‘Continuous Provision’. My mornings consisted of an ‘integrated day’ approach, which was really just a series of adult planned activities that the children rotated through. The afternoons may have involved some play, but anything the children played with was pre selected by me and put out on a table. 

There was never really an option for children to self select and opportunities for them to lead their own learning were limited to say the least. If an adult didn’t put it out then it stayed in the cupboard or, in my case, behind the gingham curtain (a place of magic and mystery where no child dared venture)!

In 2001 the Infant school where I was Headteacher opened an Early Years Unit. It was a three form entry school with a Nursery, so this space needed to house 90 Reception children and 52 Nursery children (26 in the morning another 26 in the afternoon). We had been used to having 3 reception classes with 5 tables, 30 chairs (and a door)! This new space felt VERY big.

We had decided furnish our new space with Areas of Learning rather than tables. Instead of gingham clad cupboards we had open shelving for independent access. There were a few tables and even less chairs. We had a sand tray and a water tray – at the same time! It felt new and exciting. My team really embraced this new concept of environment, teaching and learning. That was until the children came…


Reflecting on our practice then, there were 2 main ways in which we got it wrong. The first is that we had not been at all reserved in the resources we had given the children to access. If we had it, we put it out. The result being, if we put it out, they got it out. So your environment looks more like a scrap yard than a learning space. Tidy up time ends up taking half an hour. The second was that we were still running an adult led, activity driven approach to learning. So even though we had this amazing environment, adults still spent a lot of their time at tables ‘delivering’ their activities.

What I now know is that Continuous Provision is a whole approach that involves the environment, the resources, the children and the adults. It is not a thing that happens to the rest of the children while you work with a group at a table.

It took a little time and a lot of discussion and reflection to get our Early Years Unit running smoothly with this new approach to play and learning. The key was recognising that child led learning through play is hugely powerful and that the resources and opportunities that the children have access to when they are not working with an adult need careful thought and consideration.

When I talk with Early Years practitioners now about Continuous Provision I often start with the Characteristics of Effective Learning as they embody the essence of good Continuous Provision.

Does your environment provide lots of opportunities for children to play and explore with and without the support of an adult? This characteristic could be a whole article in itself. It is important to reflect on what we understand by the term ‘play’. Do your children only have access to adult planned play opportunities? Do they have the time and resources to initiate their own completely independent play? How have you structured your environment to reflect their individual interests in the play opportunities that you provide?

Is your environment one that enables and is worth exploring? Exploring in this context doesn’t necessarily mean getting your back pack on and trekking into your outdoor area! More, have you created an open ended opportunities that will engage children’s interest but them allow them to explore to reach their own conclusions. Do you have a good selection of open-ended ambiguous resources that encourage individual interpretation and ‘exploration’?

One thing we are at risk of with our Continuous Provision is over theming. As Early Years practitioners, a lot of us love a theme. But, when it comes to Continuous Provision a themed resource should only used as an enhancement to an area of provision and not be the only thing available. If you are talking about space with your children, but your Small World area only consists of some rockets and astronauts in a Tuff Spot, then where is the continuous provision for Small World play? If I am not interested in space or rockets, then I am not likely to come into the Small World area to play.

If however we think about why we have a Small World area, what skills and experiences can be developed in that space, we can begin to create Continuous Provision resources that enable that development rather than close it down through lack of interest or knowledge.

A key phrase of mine when I am working in settings is ‘What was your expectation of play’. Not that you can ever really predict how a child will interpret any resource that you give them, but when you put out the rockets, what did you think that all children might do with them and how does that enhance their development of Small World skills?

Good Continuous Provision supports the adult in their interactions with children but it also had been planned to continue the provision for learning in the absence of an adult. It can only do that if it primarily linked to skill development and experience and then enhanced to reflect theme and interest.

School children and art.jpgWe want our provision to enable next steps development for all children, not just the ones who are interested in the theme.

Does your Continuous Provision encourage Active Learning? Do you observe what motivates your children to learn and reflect that in the resources that you provide? High level engagement will give you the greatest potential for high level attainment. So you need a space that reflects your children’s interests as well as one that contains adult initiated prompts for learning.

You may just add some specific resources to an Area of Provision or, you might set up an activity or prompt linked to interest, but they should always be enhancements to the main body of Continuous Provision in the area they are supporting.

Are you creating an environment where the provision fosters an ethos of Creativity and Critical Thinking? In the days of the gingham curtain I was driven very much by outcome. I felt it was very important that everybody did exactly the same. So everybody made a hedgehog handprint, everybody made a cotton wool ball snowman, and so on. What this approach failed to do was to recognise that the acquisition of a reusable skill is infinitely more important than completing an adult directed activity.

If you imagine that a child’s brain is like an empty tool box, our job is to fill it with tools that they can use again and again and then give them opportunities to use and apply what they have learnt. 
If you show a child a range of resources and allow them to experiment with their use, then they are building up a catalogue of skills to draw on in the future. If a child makes a tiger mask, with an adult, out of half a paper plate because we had all read ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’. They are unlikely to transfer the processes into their own learning and apply them.

Good Continuous Provision has a focus on process and application as opposed to just activity. Provision that is going to support children in becoming creative and critical thinkers should also challenge their learning. Resources should be selected that support skill development in Areas of Learning and impact on children’s next steps.

To create good Continuous Provision, we should use assessment and observation in the Areas of Learning to find out what our children need to know and experience. We can then create Areas of Provision that will support us in providing those crucial experiences. 

When resourcing  the Areas of Provision that we have created we should think about the range of skills and experiences that children can have in that area and make sure that our resources are open ended enough to engage children’s individual interest whilst being challenging enough that they meet children’s development needs whilst supporting them in directing their own play.

Boys playing with cars and trains.jpgWe can then enhance the provision we have set up with resources that may be linked to the topic or theme we are talking about. Often they are linked to children’s interests. Provision enhancements can also link to developing other Areas of Learning  or perhaps a specific skill like moulding, or printing. But all of these things are enhancements based on a solid bedrock of skill development and learning.

The role of the adult is to then observe, record, interact, scaffold, track, enhance and teach all ably assisted by their environment for learning.

If like me your heart sank when you read the recent Bold Beginnings Ofsted report, you might be thinking that if we are to follow its recommendations, then that marks the beginning of the end for Continuous Provision. But, it makes me resolute that we need it more than ever.

There is no doubt that we want all of the children in our care to have a bold beginning to their individual learning journey. 

The dictionary definition of bold is:   

'showing a willingness to take risks; confident and courageous'

Surely all of those attributes will come from a learning environment that values the Characteristics of Effective Learning? Spaces where children can explore, engage, play and learn. Everything that good Continuous Provision should be. 

Children need to be literate and numerate, but not at the expense of their personal and social development.

There needs to be a balance in Reception between appropriate adult directed teaching supported by opportunities to play. The skills children develop need to be real and meaningful, embedded through practical experience and application. 

The report says that:

‘The best schools know how to design their curriculum so that children’s learning and development sets them up well for the rest of their schooling.’

From my experience of working with successful schools this is true, but perhaps not in the way that the report is suggesting.

There is lots missing from the ‘Bold Beginnings’ report, but the thing that is the most startling is the lack of reference or acknowledgement of the importance of wellbeing to children’s success. If a child is feeling afraid, anxious or uncomfortable in any way then they are not going to be receptive to learning, whatever form it takes.

The best schools ensure that the systems and curriculum they provide for their Reception children have a firm basis in children’s personal and social development, recognising that this is the area that all others can grow from.
It is through well planned and effective Continuous Provision that all of these things can happen.

Good Continuous Provision takes thought and planning but its impact on learning is truly powerful and liberating for adults and children alike.

Time to throw open the gingham curtains and use what we find behind them to create a space that gives our children the freedom to be independent, motivated learners who can choose from a range of engaging and challenging resources that will promote learning through their play.


Ofsted Bold Beginnings, 2017

Alistair Bryce-Clegg
Alistair is an award-winning Early Years author, blogger, product designer and advocate of PLAY. His work has been published in a number of books and magazines and he has worked as an Early Years advisor for film and television projects. Alongside support and training for a range of settings and schools, he also works Internationally and with Local Authorities across the UK. Most of his time is spent supporting practitioners in their settings or delivering key notes and training both nationally and internationally. Alistair has an MA in Education and is currently studying for his Doctorate in Early Years. He also finds time to be a husband to Fee and father of 3 boys (now young men!).

Edited by Rebecca

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