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How to Get the Best Outcomes for Children in the Early Years

An exemplary environment should enable toddlers to explore and satisfy their quest for knowledge with a choice of activities and experiences, says Fiona Bland…

Fiona Bland
by Fiona Bland
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How is exemplary practice different to good practice, and why is it important? There are lots of definitions of ‘exemplary practice’ – for example, ‘deserving imitation’, ‘commendable’ and ‘so good that is it an example for others to follow’. For the purpose of a new series of online courses from NDNA, exemplary practice is practice that practitioners should be striving for to maximise best outcomes for children – in order to ensure they have access and opportunities to a stimulating, exciting environment, and experiences and provocations that maximise their learning potential. Exemplary practice also supports staff development, parental confidence in the provision, business sustainability and good outcomes from inspection visits. Does implementing exemplary practice require expensive resources? No, it’s about utilising your practitioners and environment, as well as about having a good understanding of how children develop, working together as a team and being creative and innovative with your resources. This can happen in any setting, big or small, from a sessional playgroup to a multi-chain nursery setting, once you have an understanding of what exemplary practice is. What should an exemplary enabling environment for babies look like? Consider each stage of development, from sitting to cruising, then make sure the setting has the resources/environment to support each one. There should be safe, comfortable places to sit; materials to explore, grasp, bang and drop while sitting; safe open spaces and pathways for scooting and crawling on the floor; and ramps and steps for crawling to different levels.

Outdoors, babies need a place where they feel safe and secure that they can explore. Provide areas that stimulate their senses – wind, light and sound, sensory plants, etc. Use sturdy, low-level planters to enable babies to pull themselves up and stand and introduce plants with a range of smells and colours. Provide scarves and other materials so they can look at them moving in the breeze and offer natural materials for exploration like shells, cones, leaves, bark, mud, stones and feathers. What are the key aspects of exemplary practice with toddlers? Toddlers experience a year of superfast development and learning as their bodies grow, and they learn new words every day. They become more mobile and learn coordination, refining their fine and gross motor skills. As an exemplary practitioner, you should know how to support the acquisition of language and provide positive relationships to support development. An exemplary environment should enable toddlers to explore and satisfy their quest for knowledge with a choice of activities and experiences. How does caring for a two-year-old differ from caring for a toddler? ‘Terrific twos’ affirm themselves as individuals with a unique personality and firm views on what they want to do. Because of this, balancing adult-directed play with child-led play is vital and you need to ensure this balance is correct for this age group. The key is to observe your key child and talk to their parents to understand their uniqueness, current interests and fascinations. How can you balance an activity between adult-led and child-led? When you know a child well, you can use a PLOD (possible line of development) form. For example, a child has a special interest in dinosaurs: this form will help practitioners to focus on the key interest and plan some learning and development experiences across all areas of learning. It helps you to build on a child’s prior learning experiences and plan activities to build on the skills they have already achieved. This is much better than trying to fit an interest into a pre-planned activity.

What principles underpin exemplary practice with three- to five-year-olds? Practitioners need a range of strategies in the preschool room, particularly as this room houses the largest age range of children in the nursery. It’s vital practitioners understand their stages of development and develop individual learning plans that support each child’s skills and abilities. Learning autonomy, risk taking, problem solving and the Characteristics of Effective Learning are key aspects of an exemplary environment for this age group. What kind of relationship do exemplary practitioners have with preschoolers? Practitioners are ‘facilitators’ for children. They help to create an exciting enabling environment, aid positive relationships and strong attachments, and provide activities and experiences to suit children’s individual stage of development and current interests and fascinations. They support children’s curiosity and stimulate their excitement for learning, ensuring continuous provision contains resources to develop children at various stages of development; they understand how to communicate and carefully plan language and questions to scaffold children’s learning. Most of all they have fun learning alongside the children!

Fiona Bland is an early years adviser at NDNA. NDNA’s accessible 90-minute online courses on exemplary practice are split into four main areas: babies, toddlers, two-year-olds and three to five-year-olds. Each one provides activities, strategies and theories for practitioners to use in their settings. Find out more and buy them online at or call 01484 407 070.

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