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The 3R' s Re-imagined

We often think about the 3R’s, Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic, in the context of an old, traditional style of schooling. However, I feel they still dominate what is supposed to be the broad and balanced curriculums of education today.  Testing and inspection regimes put a huge emphasis on Mathematics and Literacy, which in turn leads schools and settings to devote incredible amounts of their energy into these areas. In the early years sector I have concerns that the prominence of these subjects can sometimes overshadow the prime areas of learning which are so vital to the development and progress of young children.

I want to make it really clear that I am in no way saying that maths and literacy are not a vital part of a child’s learning.  I think it is really important to provide high quality teaching in these areas and I understand that they are critical to children being able to access learning in other areas. What I do think, is that there is a debate to be had about how far they should drive the curriculum.  Maths and literacy skills and knowledge are essential tools, but having excellent tools in a kit is by no means sufficient for repairing, creating or inventing something.

With the recent changes to the Ofsted framework, educators have been giving a great deal of thought to the curriculum they have on offer and what their central intent is in offering it. At the same time, the early years sector is musing over what the changes to the EYFS will bring. I also think that the current pandemic has prompted many of us to consider what is important in life and what sort of provision we want to make for our children. I have been reflecting on what my 3R’s for an early years curriculum would be. What three things could support children towards becoming effective learners? A curriculum should be flexible and respond to the needs of those who receive it and to the times in which it is being delivered. 

At the moment, my 3Rs are Resilience, Relationships and cReativity.



Perhaps the arrival of Coronavirus has heightened the importance of this in my mind but I have always felt it is a crucial disposition to develop as a learner. It is something which has many dimensions to consider. The first point I would like to make is that, although a crisis may demonstrate how resilient we are, resilience is not developed through hardship and suffering.  It is stability, consistency and feeling loved and cared for which put children in a good place to deal with difficulties that come their way.  It is important for providers of early years education and care to consider how effective their own practice and environment is in providing this and how they can support families who are struggling. 

Another aspect is that of role modelling.  The behaviour and attitudes of adults around children impact on how they develop their own resilience.  It is certainly very difficult at this time and we, as practitioners, may not be happy about some of the situation we find ourselves in. However, when we are around children we need to maintain self-control and demonstrate positive mindsets as we talk with and in front of them.

One thing I passionately believe will support children to develop resilience is helping them to develop a positive attitude to mistakes and errors.  Everyone makes mistakes in both their learning and in their personal lives but seeing these as an opportunity for further learning and development can be transformational in terms of moving forward in life.



In this period of lockdown and self-isolation the one thing people have probably missed above everything else is the ability to maintain their relationships in the usual way. Relationships are what make things happen for the better and can be what make the world fall apart. They are wonderful but also tricky and are the heart of what we do in the early years. It makes me feel very proud to work in a sector which has such a depth of understanding about supporting young children to develop and maintain positive relationships.  It is life affirming to work with people who demonstrate such warm and caring relationships with children.  As staff and children work with each other, relationships become an extremely important vehicle for the development of communication skills, verbally and in many other ways.

One dimension which is perhaps thought of as part of the hidden curriculum is that of a setting’s relationships with parents. It could be argued that it is actually part of the taught curriculum as we model attitudes and interactions with family on a daily basis, very often in the sight and hearing of children.  If we pay attention to and develop learning around the children’s interests and the ideas and knowledge they bring from home, often referred to as ‘funds of knowledge’, we bring these home/school relationships into the heart of the taught curriculum. This can provide for a rich seam of exploration and development, it can tap into real intrinsic motivation for learning and can help to build a child’s confidence and self-esteem as they see their own experience and culture being acknowledged and respected.

When thinking about relationships there is often an emphasis on adult to child and child to child. There is also attention paid to family and community relationships.  In addition, it is worth thinking about a child’s relationship with themselves, as a good self-image will help them to develop good relationships with others. Do our environments provide spaces that cater for individual exploration and development, do we have spaces and time for children to reflect or explore on their own? How many opportunities do we provide for children to express themselves, is there a balance with directed activities? How proficient are we at really listening to children and hearing what they are trying to tell us? Over the next few months we may need to pay much more attention to this as children come to terms with a changing world around them.



Creativity is not the domain of the arts and expressive design but something which can thread its way throughout the whole curriculum.  Recent work on STEAM rather than STEM subjects is a great demonstration of the cross-curricular nature of using creativity.  Creativity is something that makes use of prior learning, for example manipulating a resource that we have become familiar with, using a skill or piece of knowledge to solve a problem, or expressing an idea in a new or imaginative way. This is what I was alluding to when I said that I thought of numeracy and literacy as tools at the beginning of this article. So, as well as being taught knowledge and skills, children need to be able to explore, experiment and play with their own theories. This can be really motivating and is central to children becoming successful learners.  These approaches are well described in the current EYFS as Characteristics of Effective Learning and I have always made sure to refer to these in professional discussions with colleagues, in information for families and most of all in discussions with children about their own learning.

Early years providers are going to have to be creative as they start to provide learning environments with stripped back and limited resources.  They are also going to be scaffolding children’s creativity as they encourage them to make the most of the learning opportunities in changed circumstances. It will be important to avoid being over-structured with what we now have available.  Effective observation of children will probably find us being amazed at some of the novel and ingenious ways children adapt and use these renewed spaces.

I believe creativity is essential.  Its value has been highlighted recently by businesses who have changed track to produce or help design essentials to help with the coronavirus crisis. We need to encourage children to think broadly and inventively to enable them to contribute to a safe and stimulating world in the future.

I have noticed some debate around curriculum on social media recently, especially around the fact that they are social constructs and that people learn without them.  Whilst it is true that children often learn despite the curriculum, almost all educational establishments have some sort of curriculum or structure which is based on a combination of experience, knowledge, research, national requirements, available resources and values. As we move into a new style of provision in the short term and a revised EYFS in the near future, I think that there is an ideal opportunity to reflect on what we think is important for young children and their families.  I am not advocating that everything underpinning a curriculum should contain an R or indeed that we should limit ourselves to three aspects.  However, this has been a useful starting point for me to consider what really matters now and over time.  I know things are busy and uncertain, and that providers are grappling with a lot of guidance and paperwork but I think that it would be extremely valuable and timely for teams to take a moment to evaluate the principles and pillars that drive the offer that they provide.


So, how do you re-imagine the 3Rs?

Leslie Patterson
Leslie is a freelance early years consultant. She was Headteacher of a maintained Nursery School for almost eleven years, where she focused on improving teaching and learning and the Nursery went from Satisfactory to Outstanding. Leslie became a National Leader of Education and the Nursery School became a lead school of a teaching school alliance. Leslie is involved in professional development and supporting schools and settings. She also has many years of experience in teaching and leadership roles in primary schools.

Edited by Jules

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