An Introduction to the Foundation Phase
An Introduction to the Foundation Phase

Amanda Thomas

Amanda Thomas is Senior Lecturer in Early Years Education at the University of South Wales, UK. She has ten years of experience as a primary school teacher. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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and Alyson Lewis

Alyson Lewis is PhD researcher at Cardiff University, UK. She has ten years of experience of working as an early years teacher. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2016


Content Type:

Book chapter

Education Level:

Early Childhood Education

Related Content

International Perspectives on Play

DOI: 10.5040/9781474264310.ch-003
Page Range: 51–72

It is important to note early on in this chapter that ‘getting a broader perspective, looking at international patterns and keys to success, is important but there is no blue print’ (Tornberg and Lindholm, 2009, p. 33). Practitioners need to understand that there are many ways of implementing a curriculum and the delivery is inextricably linked to how play and childhood is understood and valued. Most of the countries selected for discussion in this chapter were chosen because of their relevance and contribution to the Foundation Phase (Siraj-Blatchford et al., 2005), for example New Zealand for its bilingual element and a Nordic perspective for the outdoor element.

How is play understood across cultures?

For thousands of years play has fascinated many stakeholders such as philosophers, educationalists, psychologists, anthropologists and sociologists (Bruce, 2004), and especially over the last 150 years numerous writers have attempted to define play but as yet there is not one single coherent definition (Brown, 2008). It is thought that ‘an understanding of play can be derived from perspectives of developmental, cognitive, behavioural and social psychology as well as theories of education’ (Sayeed and Guerin, 2000, p. 9). For Bruce (2004), play aids logical reasoning and develops interpersonal and intrapersonal skills. It is thought that ‘play is what children are involved in when they initiate the task and work is what they do when they fulfil a task required by an adult’ (Bruce, 1987, p. 17), and for some educators as soon as an adult plans an activity or has a play agenda then the child is not playing but doing work for the adult (Fisher, 1996). According to Bruce (1987), adults should develop appropriate skills that enable them to enter into a child’s play and view themselves as a shared partner in the play process.

According to Sayeed and Guerin (2000) the role and value of play is continuously changing and is a reflection of the socio-cultural values and perspectives of a particular society (Fromberg and Bergen, 2006). Soler and Miller (2003) and Sayeed and Guerin (2000) suggest that many professionals and politicians feel strongly about what is appropriate for young children and often have conflicting views about curricula. Melhuish and Petrogiannis (2006) argue that numerous social factors influence the content of a policy on early childhood care and education.

Curtis (1994) and Bennett, Wood and Rogers (1997) argue that play is at the heart of many international curricula but the way it is interpreted and understood may be quite different. Furthermore, ‘research shows that there is an immense gap between the rhetoric and the reality of play being at the heart of the Early Years curriculum’ (Fisher, 1996, p. 95). Bennett et al. (1997) point out that play is closely linked to learning but the pedagogical principles are often complicated and this frequently leads to misinterpretations. Fisher (1996) strongly argues that regardless of any complications, play should be regarded as a necessity in early childhood and its status should be guaranteed by everyone.

A New Zealand perspective

The ‘Te Whāriki’ (the woven mat, Figure 3.1) Early Years curriculum has recently been established as the first national curriculum guidance, aimed at children aged between 0 and 5 years in New Zealand (Ministry of Education, 1996). Guidance is given throughout the document for infants, toddlers and young children and consists of principles (four), strands (five) and goals. Each strand has goals with specific learning outcomes. For example, the first goal in strand five, known as ‘Exploration’, states that ‘children experience an environment where their play is valued as meaningful learning and the importance of spontaneous play is recognised’ (Ministry of Education, 1996, p. 16).

In New Zealand, practitioners are expected to have a thorough understanding of play and are able to facilitate it by careful intervention. Practitioners believe that children learn by being actively involved in tasks, socializing with others, questioning ideas and events and by using resources in a creative and innovative way (Ministry of Education, 1996).

Figure 3.1. Te Whāriki Principles and Strands ( http://www.education.govt.nz/early-childhood/teaching-and-learning/ece-curriculum/te-whariki/principles-strands-goals/ ). Published by the New Zealand Ministry of Education, copyright © Crown.

The ‘Te Whāriki’ curriculum document states that ‘a reference library should be available for both children and adults as well as information for parents on … the value of play in learning and development’ (Ministry of Education, 1996, p. 83). It is widely known that in many countries parents acknowledge that children play but they don’t always appreciate that their child is capable of learning through play (Curtis, 1994). Both the New Zealand and Italian approaches place greater emphasis on working with and building positive relationships with families, perhaps because they understand that when parents are more involved the quality of play is improved and enhanced (Sayeed and Guerin, 2000). Especially in the early years, it is unquestionable that Italian society places high expectations on parenting (Musatti, 2006).

A Northern Italian perspective

The Italian ‘Reggio Emilia’ approach was founded in 1963 by Loris Malaguzzi and caters for children from birth to 6 years of age (Abbott and Nutbrown, 2001). Reggio Emilia (a city near Parma in Northern Italy) practice began in 1945 when the Second World War ended and it was generally felt that children needed to be educated to understand democracy and act as innovative thinkers (New, 2000). The contributing educator, Loris Malaguzzi, mirrored John Dewey’s main principles: effective collaboration between adult and child, active participation and worthwhile involvement in the learning and thinking process (Soler and Miller, 2003). New (2000) explains that play is highly regarded as promoting holistic development. However, it is not any more significant than the long-term projects that the children get involved with. Play is viewed equally alongside drawing, drama, movement and painting, and documentation, such as, photos, videos and paintings, help children remember what they have done and can be revisited at any time for any reason (Edwards et al., 1998) which is similar to the ‘High/Scope’ model where children are encouraged to review their work.

An American perspective

The ‘High/Scope’ approach (Figure 4, below) is based on three main concepts: planning, doing and reviewing. The children are encouraged to plan their own activities, carry them out and reflect on them with others (Schweinhart et al., 1993). It is thought that when children are given opportunities to choose activities, learning becomes more meaningful and memorable (Bennett et al., 1997). The High/Scope model originated in North America in 1962 and was founded by Dr Weikart. Essentially, ‘it is a philosophy of Early Years education comprising a developmentally appropriate curriculum which advocates active learning’ (Northern Ireland Childminding Association (NICMA), 2004, p. 2). The model highlights the importance of the process of play (Moyles, 1989; NICMA, 2004).

Figure 3.2. The High Scope Model. From Ann Epstein (2014), ‘HighScope Preschool Wheel of Learning’, in Essentials of Active Learning in Preschool: Getting to Know the HighScope Curriculum, 2nd edn, Ypsilanti, MI: HighScope Press, p 9. © 2014 HighScope Educational Research Foundation. Used with permission.

A Welsh perspective

The Foundation Phase in Wales for 3- to 7-year-olds, which was rolled out between 2008 and 2011, regards ‘play’ as a fundamental, meaningful aspect of the curriculum. It emphasizes the importance of play being understood by all stakeholders and that it should be recognized and accepted as an essential element of a curriculum for young children (WAG, 2008b). However, the Play/Active Learning document appears to refer more frequently to the adult planning children’s play rather than supporting or facilitating learning, as in the Reggio Emilia approach. Clarke and Waller (2007) suggest that the Foundation Phase in Wales supports a balanced programme of play-based teaching and learning activities with the hope that children are viewed as co-constructors (shared partners) of knowledge (Dahlberg et al., 2007).

WAG documentation states that ‘children’s ideas can be included when planning topics/projects’ (WAG, 2008a, p. 13), yet in practice this can be very challenging. Interestingly, on page 13 of Play/Active Learning a developmentally staged approach is described, where children will progress and move at different rates within their learning (WAG, 2008b). First, this implies a view of the child as a scientific object that moves through biological stages (Dahlberg et al., 2007), and second, it implies a ‘step ladder’ approach, similar to the Early Years Foundation Stage in England and very different to the Te Whāriki curriculum. Welch (2008) points out that the particular system in Wales and England has ‘accountability’ at the core of the curriculum rather than a child’s best interests, individual personality and characteristics.

The Foundation Phase has been developed from ideas and features from the Italian Reggio Emilia approach, the New Zealand Te Whāriki curriculum and the North American High/Scope model (Siraj-Blatchford et al., 2005), but it is thought that practitioners both in the UK and the USA tend to manipulate the play in which they engage with young children, in contrast to the practice in mainland Europe where adults have less of a tendency to dominate and control play (Kalliala, 2004). Possibly this is because in Europe ‘play is considered to be such an educationally powerful process that learning will occur spontaneously, even if an adult is not present’ (Bennett et al., 1997, p. 1).

The Welsh Government advocates a play-based curriculum in the Foundation Phase where children should have equal opportunities both indoors and outdoors, yet this has been challenging for some settings. Estyn (2011) report the following in evaluating outdoor learning in the Foundation Phase:

Most schools and settings are making at least adequate use of the outdoors … In most cases, children’s enjoyment, wellbeing, behaviour, knowledge and understanding of the world, and their physical development improve, as a result of using the outdoors. However, the outdoors is not used enough to develop children’s reading and writing, Welsh language, creativity, or their ability to use information and communication technology (ICT).

 --(Estyn, 2011, p. 1)

They further report that:

Teachers tend to assess children’s learning less often and less well outdoors than indoors. They do not track the progress children make in developing their skills outdoors well enough. With children spending more time outdoors, this means that important milestones in their development may be missed.

 --(Estyn, 2011, p. 1)

Estyn also comment on leadership and learning in the outdoors, observing that ‘the vision of leaders and their commitment to making the best use of outdoor learning are key factors in overcoming obstacles [and] a few schools and settings are sceptical about the benefits of outdoor learning for children’ (Estyn, 2011, p. 2).

More recent findings from the Welsh Government’s three-year evaluation linked to the outdoor environment found that children were observed outside more regularly by teaching assistants than teachers and that children said they rarely did any learning outside (Rhys et al., 2014b).

Experiencing the outdoors

Williams-Siegfredson (2005) strongly believes that playing outdoors aids a happy and healthy childhood and experimenting with mud, looking for minibeasts, taking risks and climbing are genuine learning experiences (Hammond, 2007) and for young children ‘desirable equipment experiences include swinging, sliding, spinning, springing and scrambling or climbing’ (McConaghy, 2008, p. 18). Jenkinson (2001) explains that diabetes and asthma could be increasing because children do not have enough exposure to the microbacteria in mud. A study carried out at the University of Reading by Professor Derek Clements-Croome found that the higher the levels of carbon dioxide in the classroom the slower the reaction times from the children, and they tended to be drowsier and were less likely to complete difficult tasks because the classroom was simply too hot and stuffy (Bilton, 2010). The study concluded that carbon dioxide and heat levels needed monitoring in classrooms to help improve performance. Therefore, being outside in the fresh air can have many health benefits (Bilton, 2010).

Maynard (2007a) explains that free-flow access to the outdoors which the Welsh Government advocates is meaningless unless it is combined with well-trained, competent, knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff (Ryder-Richardson, 2006) and this is the key to recognizing the potential of a natural outdoor environment. There are significant physical differences between the indoor and outdoor learning environments, the outdoors offering children quality, first-hand sensory (weather) experiences and freedom to move and explore (Ryder-Richardson, 2006; Tovey, 2007).

Play spaces

Jenkinson (2001) claims that practitioners need to look closer at what children do and how they utilize their space and respect what they see, and that they should regularly review the outdoor play space to gain a feel for its success and observe children focusing on the range of play types, the most and least favourite play resources or equipment and the way the children change or adapt their outdoor play space (Casey, 2007). Ultimately, practitioners should ‘develop qualities reflecting eagerness, energy, curiosity and playfulness’ (Clements, 2004, p. 77). It could be argued that to develop such qualities in young children, adults need to be well trained and knowledgeable about child development. Joyce (2012) argues that ‘people who work with young children have to be highly trained … this is a prerequisite to quality care’ (p. 80). Consider at this point your training to date. If you are in a managerial role then consider how well trained your staff are.

Moore (1986) suggests that it is pointless making decisions about resources and allocating money to equipment when practitioners have not considered what the children enjoy doing, where they play and the reasons for their play. What is worrying is that those children engaged in play tend not to be observed or noticed by staff (Bishop and Curtis, 2001). Ward (1990) reminds us that practitioners will assign play areas but undoubtedly children will not use it as planned, and Clements (2004) states that one of the most valuable outdoor experiences for children is when they choose their agenda, which leads to fulfilment and motivation. According to Casey (2007), children are very good at utilizing play equipment correctly to please adults but very quickly revert to using equipment in a different manner. It has been suggested that ‘the landscape might have a functional impact on children’s behaviour and play performance’ (Fjørtoft, 2001, p. 115). Corsaro (1997) explains that children are persistent in climbing to the top of structures and have a desire to be bigger, which allows them to look down on adults so they can regain power. He also suggests that children prefer climbing-type structures because of their unique size, a factor that does not permit adults to use them. In 2009, one of the authors conducted a study as part of a Master’s thesis where nursery and reception children were asked to photograph their favourite aspects of their outdoor play, and the most popular categories of photographs taken by the children turned out to be the climbing and fixed structures. This may suggest that the children were regaining power by climbing high and using fixed structures that were not permitted for use by adults. It is known that ‘children’s time and space are increasingly organised by adults in homes, nurseries and schools, public streets and leisure spaces’ (Alderson, 2008, p. 211).

In 2005, Alison Clark and Peter Moss conducted a study with 3- and 4-year-olds to investigate the use of outdoor provision. They state very clearly at the beginning of their study how the children are viewed, for example as ‘experts in their own lives … skilful communicators … rights holders and as … meaning-makers’ (Clark et al., 2005, p. 5). Furthermore, children are listened to and become involved as active participants in the research and are viewed as ‘beings’ rather than ‘becomings’ (Clark and Moss, 2001). A key component of the approach is the aim of achieving a balance of power between adults and children (Clark and Moss, 2005). This particular way of viewing the child is at the heart of the Reggio Emilia approach, and the contributing educator, Loris Malaguzzi, mirrored John Dewey’s main principles: effective collaboration between adult and child, active participation and worthwhile involvement in the learning and thinking process (Soler and Miller, 2003).

Clark Kjorhølt and Moss (2005) explicitly discuss Reggio Emilia preschools when mentioning the child as a ‘skilful communicator’ and place strong emphasis on the adult helping the child present their feelings through a variety of media. This particular approach allowed Clark et al. to gain an insight into the perspectives of children in Early Years settings by using creative and innovative ways of collecting data. The approach they developed is known as the ‘Mosaic approach’ (Clark et al., 2005). A key component of this approach is viewing children as rights holders with a particular focus on two particular elements of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC): Article 12 (the right to express views freely if capable of doing so) and Article 13 (the right to a range of media to receive information and the right to express ideas in any form chosen by the child) (Clark et al., 2005). However, many adults find it difficult to accept that young children have rights (Alexander, 1995) and the UNCRC is not yet thought about by many people because the way a child is viewed is often very traditional (without rights) (Casas, 1997). Unfortunately, ‘the welfare model of childcare has perpetuated the view that children lack the capacity to contribute to their own well-being or do not have a valid and valuable contribution to make’ (Lansdown, 2001, p. 93).

Understanding pedagogy

Tovey explains that the key issue about quality outdoor play is not the physical environment but rather the pedagogy (Tovey, 2007), which is the relationship between the learner (child) and pedagogue (trained adult) (WAG, 2008a). Pedagogy can also be defined as ‘the performance of teaching together with the theories, beliefs, policies and controversies that inform and shape it’ (Alexander, 2000, p. 540). Moreover, the way children and the curriculum are viewed determines the provision, care and pedagogy of an Early Years setting (Dahlberg et al., 2007). Rosaleen Joyce (2012) states that there has been much debate about whether pedagogy actually exists in the UK! She continues to argue that there appears to be no pedagogical discourse or engagement compared to Sweden: ‘Pedagogy, sustained critical thinking about practice, needs to be at the centre not the periphery of education’ (Joyce, 2012, p. 102). The authors often wonder what is at the core of Early Years practice in Wales. Put simply, what do practitioners (and other stakeholders) value in their practice and what is really at the heart of what they do? Huggins and Wickett (2011) argue that what is needed is a ‘shared effective pedagogy for the outdoor learning environment’ (p. 30). Furthermore, the recent three-year evaluation report about the Foundation Phase by Maynard et al. (2013b) suggested that adults tend to have different expectations of children when they play outdoors, with adults being more at ease.

The Foundation Phase documentation implies that learning in the outdoors should be a significant characteristic of an Early Years curriculum as well as free-flow access between the indoors and outdoors, and is beneficial to holistic development, health and well-being (WAG, 2008b). It claims that ‘the importance of outdoor play to health, development and learning is well recognised’ (WAG, 2008b, p. 34). However, there is a general perception that the outdoors is good for our health but the benefits linked to outdoor play and specific play areas are under-researched (Muñoz, 2009). Siraj-Blatchford et al. (2005) remind us that one of the main principles underlying the Foundation Phase is ensuring that a well-planned learning environment outdoors is provided.

For learning to take place outside, settings must have clear, focused aims and well-planned activities which would apply to any learning environment regardless if it is inside or outside (Ouvry, 2003). It is thought that ‘adult planning, structuring and sometimes directing children’s first-hand experiences outdoors is essential’ (Tovey, 2007, p. 122), and Bilton (2010) asserts that it is unacceptable to have planning (written) for indoor provision and not to have it for outdoor provision. The kind of thought processes that practitioners go through for planning and providing learning opportunities indoors should be applied to the outdoors (Edgington, 2003).

Edgington (2003) continues to claim that all practitioners should have positive attitudes towards outdoor play, be willing to get involved with the children and plan for learning to take place as they would inside. Ouvry (2003) explains that the outdoor environment is best utilized when staff have a shared understanding about the importance and use of the outdoors and have an awareness of their role in developing learning. The inside and the outside environment needs to be viewed in the same way by staff, as denying one to children would be depriving them of that environment and it is their right to have access to both environments (Bilton, 2010).

Challenges and barriers to outdoor play

An evaluation report about the implementation of the Foundation Phase in Wales, conducted by Siraj-Blatchford et al. (2005), found that the outdoor environment was utilized more because of the increased number of adults within their setting. They further reported that the majority of practitioners had interpreted the term ‘active’ as physically active and made more changes to their practice outdoors. Comment was also made on the terminology used in the Foundation Phase and highlighted that the ‘outdoor classroom’ is often misunderstood and misrepresented. One of the difficulties that settings faced in meeting the requirements of the Foundation Phase (during the pilot) was providing outdoor experiences in all weathers. Interestingly, Estyn (2007) reported three years after the Foundation Phase had been piloted (in forty-two settings) that outdoor play was occurring more frequently since the start of the initiative, but in most settings practitioners were not convinced of the benefits and worried about dealing with parental concerns about children being outside in poor weather.

A few documents have been produced by the Welsh Government to support practitioners in settings. For example, in 2007 the Welsh Assembly Government published a document titled Out of classroom learning: Making the most of first hand experiences of the natural environment aimed at motivating staff and helping them understand the learning potential of an outdoor environment. The document, if used successfully, aims to construct more ‘active and sustainable citizens’ (WAG, 2007). In 2009, The Foundation Phase Outdoor Learning Handbook was produced and provides guidance to all staff working with 3- to 7-year-olds on making the best use of their outdoor learning environment. It is a useful handbook that covers a range of topics from managing risk, the benefits of outdoor learning, the forest school approach and general issues relating to organization and storage of resources.


Parents and practitioners often blame the weather for children getting colds, yet research suggests that ‘cold viruses do not live in fresh air, they live in us’ (Bilton, 2010, p. 18). A study carried out at the Common Cold Centre in Cardiff in 2005 suggested that when someone gets chilled they are twice as likely to get a cold, therefore it is imperative that when children play outdoors in very cold weather they are dressed in warm clothing to prevent getting chilled. It seems appropriate here to state a famous Nordic saying, that ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing’ (Joyce, 2012, p. 105).

Non-committed staff

Bilton (2010, p. 102) strongly states that ‘if you are more concerned with the state of your nails, the straightness of your hair or the height of your heels, then go and do something else’. Edgington (2003, cited in Bilton, 2010) asserts that ‘if you are not interested in outdoor play you should not even consider working with young children’ (p. 102). All staff should be supportive of outdoor play if it is going to be successful. Problems may arise if staff do not understand their role when outside. Findings from a Master’s thesis in 2009 clearly showed that staff understood and viewed outdoor play differently and it was expressed that not all staff were positive about outdoor play and did not work together, which may be explained by discussing some of Janet Moyles’ ideas in her paper entitled ‘Passion, Paradox and Professionalism’.

Moyles (2001) suggests that when staff feel pressured into continuously justifying and explaining the value of outdoor play to other professionals and parents they start to lose their passion and eventually sink into the ‘black hole’ (the centre of a concentric circle). She further suggests that staff should allocate time to discuss issues that evoke thoughts and feelings, but many settings do not allocate time to reflect (MacNaughton, 2005). Brunson Phillips and Bredekamp (1998) remind us that time for professional development is an important feature of Reggio Emilia practice in Northern Italy, where practitioners become involved in meaningful discussion about their daily work with children. Tovey (2007) suggests that staff need to be prepared to confront their judgements and their rigid views about children’s play. However, to do this ‘it requires high levels of professional knowledge coupled with self-esteem, self-confidence, paradoxically lacking in many early years, female practitioners’ (Moyles, 2001, p. 89). A comment about ‘better suited staff’ was focused on improving the outdoor learning, possibly suggesting that staff need to show a more passionate understanding or require further professional training (or both), which might make them ‘better suited’. There is always the potential for disagreements, lack of commitment and vision and uncertainty when discussing outdoor play (Ouvry, 2003). There was an obvious tension between members of staff relating to their feelings about outdoor play, particularly about team work and the organization, planning and management of resources, which were reflected in the results. Overton (2009) suggests that staff tend to feel disempowered, devalued and disheartened by other staff members’ deliberate or inadvertent actions towards (in this case) outdoor play.

According to Huggins and Wickett (2011, p. 28), ‘practitioners with a deep knowledge of child development and an understanding of the ways that very young children learn most effectively will be able to see the unique potential in any outdoor learning environment’. This implies that practitioners who do not have a deep understanding of child development also do not fully understand the benefits of children learning outdoors. In 2006, a study carried out by Waite and Rea (cited in Waite and Pratt, 2011) found that staff demonstrated a lack of understanding and awareness of the outdoor environment in Welsh schools. Furthermore, in 2011, Estyn urgently reported that schools, settings and Local Authorities need to provide training for all staff so they become knowledgeable and confident about the benefits of learning in the outdoors. Therefore, it could be questioned whether all practitioners working within the Foundation Phase have a deep knowledge of child development. The report further stated that ‘Senior leaders and managers have not always received enough training on the Foundation Phase to identify good practice, challenge less effective practice, or make cost-effective decisions on improving outdoor provision and facilities’ (Estyn, 2011, p. 1). Similarly, a point was made two centuries ago about effective training by Froebel and Pestalozzi who argued that to make full use of the outdoors, practitioners needed to be well trained and educated about the benefits of the outdoors (Joyce, 2012).


Timetabling play outdoors and interrupted play outdoors can often hinder the learning that takes place. Bilton (2010) reminds us that it can be very frustrating having started something and being engrossed with what we are doing to then be told by someone to stop; at times it can be very difficult to return to the task in question. The concern that Helen Bilton (2010) has is that children spend far too much time revisiting activities rather than spending valuable time in learning new concepts and developing and refining skills and it is thought that children’s skills may regress as a result. Observations from an Master’s thesis in 2009 showed that practitioners adopted a behaviourist approach to outdoor play because they decided on the amount of time children played outside, dominated by learning goals, outcomes and intentions of the adult – inevitably more interruptions occurred. By contrast, with a social constructionist approach the time could have been negotiated with children who could have then decided whether to continue to rest, work or play (MacNaughton, 2003). Huggins and Wickett (2011) argue that ‘children need long periods of uninterrupted time in order for them to become engrossed in their play and learning’ (p. 37). Timetabling play outdoors can give children clear messages about how staff value outdoor play. Consider the example below, written from a child’s point of view, and how having free-flow access could improve the children’s learning experiences.

Bilton (2010) states that it is cruel to tell children they can go off and play when they have finished their work, as she worries about the child who never actually gets to finish their work and consequently never gets to play! It has been stated that ‘if we truly cared for children we would keep them away from schools altogether and just allow them to play’ (Joyce, 2012, p. 23).


Good practice is free-flow easy access to the outdoor environment, but this is not always possible (because historically outdoor spaces have been changed or adapted to save money and the indoor classroom prioritized), and staff need to work together to find a solution. According to Bilton (2010), unless there is a will to make something work then it will not happen.

A Scandinavian perspective

Garrick (2004) points out that locally there is a significant difference between settings in relation to quality resources, staff training, daily use and learning opportunities offered outdoors, and on an international level ‘the significance of outdoor play and learning is not universally recognised’ (Garrick, 2004, p. 2). It should be stated again that ‘getting a broader perspective, looking at international patterns and keys to success, is important but there is no blue print’ (Tornberg and Lindholm, 2009, p. 33). Apparently, early childhood education and care in Sweden is known throughout the world to offer exemplar practice (Martin Korpi, 2007) and according to Melhuish and Petrogiannis (2006, p. 2) ‘their Early Childhood Care and Education is amongst the most developed in the world’; so for this reason we will give some consideration to the Scandinavian countries (Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland).

It is worth noting that Early Years education and care in Nordic countries is financed differently to that of the UK, and practitioners are well trained, often to Master’s level, and autonomy is welcomed within the system. The government does not provide prescriptive guidelines, and settings are trusted to provide a curriculum that is unique, with both practitioners and parents expected to evaluate its effectiveness (Penn, 2008). Joyce (2012) claims that the Swedish system strives towards meeting goals whereas in the UK, goals have to be met. According to Einarsdottir and Wagner (2006), the perception of early childhood in Nordic countries is embedded in cultural, historical, social and economic traditions. Joyce (2012, p. 8) argues that ‘the Norwegian approach is culturally specific and not readily transferable … being outdoors is an important part of being Norwegian’. This is an extremely important point when considering some of the challenges and barriers that have been discussed above.

One of the focal theories of the Danish Early Years curriculum is the development of competency in children, and regular access to outdoor play helps to achieve this (Williams-Siegfredson, 2005). Forest School is a new initiative that is growing fast in Wales but which originated in Denmark in the 1980s. It encourages children to take risks, work collaboratively, initiate ideas and become confident and competent learners (Knight, 2009). The adult’s role in Forest School is to facilitate not to lead or dominate. A study carried out by Whitebread in 2008 (cited in Bilton, 2010) found that children who were instructed to do things were less inventive, less creative and became disinterested and demotivated, whereas children who were allowed to play freely and initiate ideas were more creative, successful and motivated. ‘Forest School is an inspirational process that offers children … regular opportunities to … develop confidence and self-esteem through hands on learning experiences in a local woodland’ (Forestry Commission, 2001, p. 3). Maynard (2007b) suggests that the growing interest in Forest School in the UK could be related to the decline in children’s play.

In Finland there is a significant focus on developing self-esteem, self-confidence and a child’s personal and social development rather than formal academic learning outcomes (Niikko, 2006). In Sweden, children are encouraged to discuss with staff what they would like to do, investigate or learn more about, and there is a very strong emphasis on listening to the child and respecting them. It is very common in Sweden for children to choose whether they want to spend most of their day outside or inside (Sheridan and Pramling Samuelsson, 2001). Their ideology is ‘believing that teaching is not merely the transmission of knowledge, but that the teacher is a facilitator of the child’s learning’ (Bennett, 2001, p. 1). The term ‘facilitator’ is echoed within the Foundation Phase.

Similarly, Fjørtoft (2001) explains that there are preschools in Scandinavia that allow children to spend most or all of their time outside in a natural learning environment because it is believed that children benefit from physical strength and stamina and imaginative and social play. In Iceland, ‘children play outdoors in every type of weather for 1–4 hours daily’ (Einarsdottir, 2006, p. 169). When Johanna Einarsdottir conducted an ethnographic study in Iceland, she concluded that outdoor play was an integral aspect of the curriculum where children are mainly encouraged to exercise and have freedom to play. Climbing trees, swinging from branches and using tools such as sharp knives, drills, saws and hammers are activities associated with a Nordic childhood. More importantly, children are trusted to be competent beings (Einarsdottir and Wagner, 2006).

Interestingly, Einarsdottir and Wagner (2006) compare a Nordic childhood with an American one and explain that early American childhood experiences are governed by practitioners who take on the role of the ‘boundary police’. Einarsdottir and Wagner (2006) further suggest that when an environment is surrounded by fearful staff, accidents are more likely to happen. There is a strong belief in democracy and equality in the Nordic countries (Niikko, 2006) and much of the tradition is about valuing children’s perspectives and viewing them as co-constructors (shared partners) of knowledge and experts in their own lives. Furthermore, children become actively involved in a democratic society before the age of eighteen (Broström, 2006).

Comparison of approaches

Gonzalez-Mena (1993) and Freeman (1998) point out that Eastern cultures (China) promote collaboration with others, teamwork and making connections with society whereas Western cultures (USA, UK, New Zealand and Italy) are keen to encourage individuality, independence, personal progress and achievement. However, it is worth noting what Lilian Katz reports: ‘I am always amazed at the similarities across countries … at least in the field of early childhood education; [the] low status, low pay, and poor or insufficient training that is commonly found’ (Katz, 1999, p. 1).

O’Keefe (2001) describes her impressions and views of early childhood education in China and mentions that when children are given opportunities to play freely the most obvious feature was spontaneity of actions and movements. She also writes that in China there seemed to be more structured, teacher-led activities, larger classes, and a distinct difference between teaching art in China and in the USA. However, she concluded on a positive note: ‘I think we have a lot to learn from each other and it is clear that we care deeply about our children and want them to have the best learning experiences’ (O’Keefe, 2001, p. 3).

Bottery (1990) suggests four main models of the school education system and points out that a ‘child-centred’ approach and ‘social-reconstruction’ model (adopted mainly in Reggio Emilia and High/Scope approaches) disregard the needs of society, and by encouraging children to focus on their personal interests creates a narrow Early Years curriculum. In China, Bottery (1990) links school education to the Gross National Product (GNP) model where the main focus is on training children to match the needs of the economy, with the interests of the children often ignored and forgotten.

When Nancy Freeman (1998) visited China she observed children acting like robots: everyone was working on and completing exactly the same activity with little room for creatively or individuality. She pointed out that ‘teachers expected conformity and a willingness to work toward the completion of a task that was chosen by the teacher rather than the child’ (Freeman, 1998, p. 1). Shenglan (2006) describes a typical day at a Chinese kindergarten and notes that children would generally start at 7.50 a.m. and finish at 4.00 p.m. with a very structured timetable in between, and it is made clear that the children only have one hour ‘free activity’ in an eight-hour day. This seems significantly different from Reggio Emilia and High/Scope practice where children are immersed in a child-initiated environment and free from an adult play agenda. However, Freeman (1998) highlights the importance of being non-judgmental when observing practice that seems very different.

Reggio Emilia and High/Scope are quite different to the other approaches in that they do not have a framework or formalized component with determined outcomes (Soler and Miller, 2003). Schweinhart et al. (1993, p. 34) explain that the High/Scope approach offers ‘an open framework of educational ideas and practices based on the natural development of young children’. In contrast, the Reggio Emilia approach is based upon underlying principles of socio-cultural values and beliefs and is predominantly community based and supported by local people and government, which some may think offers a limited view of the wider world (Soler and Miller, 2003).

Role of the adult (pedagogue)

The role of the adult and the way children are viewed by adults differ significantly across the various approaches. For example, the Italians tend to view the child as an active social participant (with rights) rather than an empty vessel to be filled (Soler and Miller, 2003), or as Dahlberg et al. (2007) would suggest, as a co-constructor of knowledge. Their role is to work alongside the children over long periods of time and facilitate their learning. Adults ensure that children ‘rise to new challenges … [and] express themselves in ways that are more creative, more communicative, and more thoughtful’ (Tarini and White, 1998, p. 178). When one of the authors visited a Reggio Emilia setting, all the children aged between one and five seemed very independent – for example in making choices, getting dressed and eating. They had many opportunities to think for themselves, be creative and utilize resources, and appeared happy and calm. In Reggio Emilia the child is viewed as a powerful partner who ‘actively co-constructs’ the content of the curriculum with a more able ‘other’ (Soler and Miller, 2003, p. 66). The preschool children were mainly engaged in child-initiated tasks, and the relationship between adult and child seemed very positive. It is thought that when children are given opportunities to choose activities, learning becomes more meaningful and memorable (Bennett et al., 1997). Alderson (2008) reminds us that Reggio Emilia practices are widely discussed but are not adapted or copied in other parts of the world because of the economic, political and social power structures, which refuse to admit that children are talented, experienced, knowledgeable and creative.

Visiting a Reggio Emilia setting confirmed the author’s understanding of the importance of valuing, respecting and working with children. Moyles (1989) suggests that teachers should take into account what is written in a prescribed curriculum but ultimately use their knowledge of child development, research and practice and do what they believe is right for the children in their care. The field trip motivated the author to improve her own practice as an Early Years teacher and challenge current practice, views and ideas in the UK, particularly Wales. For example, the structure of the day for young children, the way we view childhood and understand the true meaning of child-initiated learning were some of the main aspects to reflect upon. Moyles (1989) reminds us that there will always be some who refuse to consider play and education in the same sentence. She also points out that change does not happen immediately and takes time. Also, in light of the visit, the author thought considerably about her title as ‘teacher’ and whether it has been misunderstood (by so many) and instead should she be thinking of herself as facilitator of young children’s learning as defined in the WAG documentation: ‘[C]entral to the Foundation Phase approach is the practitioner as a facilitator of learning, with the child at the heart of learning and teaching’ (WAG, 2008a, p. 12).

The High/Scope model is based on ideas of Piaget where practitioners should stand back and observe and monitor progress to extend children’s learning through play (Schweinhart et al., 1993). Piaget mainly saw the adult as an observer, interacting when appropriate knowledge had been constructed, and thought that play facilitated cognitive development, whereas Vygotsky and Bruner proposed that social interaction and playing with others aided learning and viewed adults as active participants, celebrating and embracing socialization (Bennett et al., 1997). It is thought that the Te Whāriki curriculum is underpinned by Vygotsky’s view of childhood, learning and teaching (Soler and Miller, 2003), and according to Dahlberg et al. (2007), practitioners view the child as a knowledge, identity and culture reproducer.

The New Zealand Early Years curriculum is a combination of two cultures (bicultural) – Mãori and Pakeha – a holistic view of the child and a child-centred view (Soler and Miller, 2003). Similarly, in Wales there is the bilingual dimension, where ‘children should appreciate the different languages … and gain a sense of belonging to Wales, and understand the Welsh heritage, literature and arts as well as the language’ (WAG, 2008a, p. 39). Recent findings from the three-year evaluation highlighted that ‘42% of Foundation Phase leaders believed that the introduction of the Foundation Phase had meant an improvement in developing children’s Welsh language skills’ (Rhys et al., 2014c, p. 1). Rhys et al. further report that ‘incidental Welsh was prevalent in the majority of English-medium schools, and was present verbally (e.g. at lunchtime) as well as non-verbally (e.g. on wall displays) around the school’. The report also found that English-medium schools tended to develop children’s Welsh language skills explicitly rather than integrated across the curriculum (Rhys et al., 2014c, p. 1).

The Early Years curriculum in Wales and New Zealand has been developed in relation to a National Curriculum in primary schools (Soler and Miller, 2003), with an essential focus on play. It appears that both the Te Whāriki and Foundation Phase have prescribed goals and targets in place for children to achieve, contrary to the Reggio Emilia and High/Scope approaches. Soler and Miller (2003) suggest that when a curriculum is predominantly prescribed then children become less active, less involved in sharing their thoughts and ideas and have less power to co-construct a curriculum. It is concerning that England still has a prescribed National Curriculum in place for its youngest learners at age five and does not advocate a play-based curriculum. Therefore, the role of the adult in providing a playful pedagogy within the National Curriculum will depend on the quality of the training and knowledge and understanding of the staff. The Early Years Foundation Stage in England (for children aged 0 to 5) advocates that children’s play should be purposeful, and consists of adult-led and child-led activities. It states that ‘play is essential for children’s development [and] children learn by leading their own play’ (DfE, 2014, p. 9). This is a very similar message to that of the Foundation Phase in Wales, yet it does not apply to children aged five and above in England.

There is a view that in the UK the services that are provided and available for young children are essentially associated with a lack of status for professionals, a poor understanding of children’s development and a limited view of childhood (Alexander, 1995). Apparently, ‘if the field of early education is to advance in any innovative, creative manner, we need to be intellectually involved in imagining different existences, constructing multiple new identities, while thinking well beyond where we are right now’ (Johnson, 1999, p. 74).


It would appear that the Foundation Phase has developed some of its ideologies from other international approaches, and the focus on delaying formal approaches to learning until around the age of seven is evident in many European models. Play is a very controversial concept and the way it is understood varies across cultures, but essentially the ideologies that are applied depend on how governments and societies view early childhood education and care. It is clear that the role and status of play is underpinned by how childhood is constructed. Indoor and outdoor play experiences should be provided for children by staff who value them both equally, and this is something that the Welsh Government advocates in the Foundation Phase. The challenge for practitioners in Wales is to rethink the value of play and consider how it can be used on a daily basis to facilitate children’s learning. Essentially a curriculum that has been designed for young children should have a strong belief in play and if this is not a true underlying principle of a curriculum, then it is up to you if you are a practitioner to ensure this becomes a reality. Ultimately children, regardless of where they live, play, grow and develop, have a right to play.

Further reading and information

Bilton, H. (2010), Outdoor Learning in the Early Years . 3rd edn. London: Routledge.

Forest School research: http://www.forestry.gov.uk/forestry/infd-77ldzd .

Knight, S. (2011), Risk and Adventure in Early Years Outdoor Play . London: Sage.

Murray, R. and E. O’Brien (2006), ‘A Marvellous Opportunity for Children to Learn’ : A Participatory Evaluation of Forest School in England and Wales . Forest Research, http://www.forestry.gov.uk/pdf/fr0112forestschoolsreport.pdf/$FILE/fr0112forestschoolsreport.pdf .

Perry Preschool research: https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/181725.pdf .

Reggio Emilia visits : http://www.reggiochildren.it/?lang=en .