EYFS Best Practice: All about ... Design & technology

Using simple tools with simple rules will reward children with a wealth of learning and skills development, says early years consultant Linda Pound.

Human resourcefulness and inventiveness means that we have created a world that is filled with objects that have been designed and made - buildings, clothes, vehicles, books, toys, even the food we eat and the natural spaces we create. The well-known inventor, James Dyson, has suggested that 'design and technology is about making things that people want and that work well. Creating these things is hugely exciting; it is an inventive, fun activity.'

Addressing design and technology in the early years can enable children to make sense of the 'made world' in which they live. By making, changing and modifying (or designing) things for themselves, children can come not simply to a greater understanding of their world, but to a sense of agency - of being able to change and modify their environment. Design and technology enables children to gain knowledge and understanding of their world.

Design is not just about drawing, but about thinking. Creating a pizza or designing a new Lego structure require no drawing, but both involve some experience, some imagination and a willingness to change and modify ideas.

Technology, on the other hand, is about doing - making something for a purpose. It involves putting ideas into practice and having an awareness of the possibilities and limitations of different materials. Children need to experience at first hand the consequences of the decisions they have made, rather than quickly being shown by an adult how to get it 'right'. Purposeful making involves creativity, imagination and fun - as well as making mistakes.


Using young children's natural creativity and offering opportunities for investigation, designing and making can enable children to learn a great deal about their world. Design and technology is inextricably linked to exploration and investigation. Babies and toddlers engaged with treasure baskets or heuristic play are exploring and investigating a range of objects and materials, both natural and manufactured.

Through their senses children come to know a great deal about what things can do and what can be done with them. They begin to identify similarities and differences, identifying common patterns and exceptions. For example, one familiar common pattern is that large objects are heavy. However, stones and balloons are clear exceptions to that pattern. Similarly, fabric and paper both can be scrunched up, but fabric usually opens itself up again whereas paper generally stays crumpled unless it is deliberately smoothed out.

Through exploration, children can begin to explore cause and effect, which over time will lead them to questions about how things happen and how they work. Wind chimes, shadows, or balls rolling through tubes offer many opportunities to explore these ideas.

Exploration does not stop in infancy. Whether building with blocks, making three-dimensional models out of recycled materials or using malleable materials, children are taken by exploration of new ideas to new levels of thinking and doing - designing and making.

In exploring a wide range of objects and materials with different textures, shapes and sizes, and weights enables children to develop new insights and skills related to all aspects of the curriculum. The knowledge and understanding of the world that children learn when designing and making contribute to other areas of learning and development, while learning in other aspects of the curriculum can contribute to competence and interest in design and technology.

Personal, social and emotional development

  • - Creating something that has a purpose and which can be modified at will can bring particular satisfaction to learning. Confidence, excitement, enthusiasm and perseverance can emerge from and contribute to success in designing and making.
  • - Greater confidence and self-esteem may also be apparent as children develop greater understanding and awareness of their world.
  • - Increased ability to share, take turns and collaborate may emerge as children engage in group interests and design topics.

Communication, language and literacy development

  • - Discussing ideas with others develops language for communication and for thinking.
  • - Talking about what they have made offers children opportunities to explain their choices and evaluate their own work and that of others.
  • - Stories, created by children or drawn from books or television, can be an excellent starting point for developing design and technology projects.
  • - Many of the manipulative skills demanded in making things contribute to handwriting skill.
  • - Making birthday cards, notices for a shop or menus for a cafe provide opportunities for giving reading and writing a purpose.

Problem-solving, reasoning and numeracy

  • - Problem-solving is at the heart of both mathematics and design and technology - similar skills are involved.
  • - Measurement, counting, calculation and awareness of shape and size support design and technology.
  • - Positional language is used in many elements of design and technology, such as in talking about block play and using other types of construction material, modelling with clay or making a birthday card.

Knowledge and understanding of the world

  • - Information technology includes many useful tools which support designing and making, such as computers, photocopiers and cameras.
  • - Less complex mechanisms such as hand-drills and whisks (sometimes known as 'warm technology') have the advantage for young children of making the way in which they work visible.
  • - Promoting children's sense of time and place introduces them to many different artefacts and tools. This opens their minds to the possibility of many 'right' ways of doing things - a vital element of imagination and creativity.

Physical development

  • - Children use a range of tools and equipment, developing control and skill in vital physical skills as cutting, joining and folding.
  • - Gross motor actions also contribute to understanding of both design and technology. Den building, for example, can support the development of a range of making skills at the same time as involving them in problem-solving. Questions such as 'how many people can fit in here?' or 'how can I ensure this tent stands up?' require the imaginative thought characteristic of design and technology.

Creative development

  • - Sensory experiences, expressing and representing ideas are key to design and technology.
  • - Imaginative play contributes to design and technology development.
  • - Good design requires aesthetic awareness - an often neglected aspect of development.


Children can make progress in design and technology through:

Open-ended play This enables children to explore materials, to work with tools and to observe and play with natural and manufactured objects. Firm foundations for more purposeful designing and making in future will be laid by:

  • - investigating through heuristic play, treasure baskets, and collections of natural and manufactured resources
  • - playing with everyday objects such as empty boxes. blocks and construction materials
  • - experimenting with tools such as scissors, hammers, hole punches
  • - making use of fixing and joining materials such as sellotape, masking tape, string, pipe cleaners.

Producing items which represent other objects Early efforts at making things, as with drawings, are often quite ambiguous. The box covered in glue with scraps of paper, paint and fabric stuck to it might be a house or a car - or a trap for monsters.

Producing items that look and function more like purposeful objects

  • - Early interest in playing with dough (or even pastry) may become more focused on producing something which can actually be eaten.
  • - Children may begin to want to make bags for their shop, create signs for their library, put a lighting system into their cardboard house or explore ways of channelling water.

Progress may also be supported by introducing a wider range of tools and materials:

Cutting - scissors (ideally different ones for paper and fabric, as paper blunts the scissors, making it harder to cut fabric), knives (for cooking), safety snips (for card and plastic), saws (for wood)

Using more demanding materials - including fabric, card, foil, plastic, wood

Making holes - single hole punch, tapered reamer, hand drill.

Increasing challenge by including different thicknesses of card, cardboard cylinders, plastic bottles - of card, cardboard cylinders, plastic bottles

Moulding and squeezing - sand, play dough, clay, bread dough, papier mache

Joining or linking papers, boxes, trucks, fabrics - with string, glue, masking tape, treasury tags, elastic bands, plastic nuts and bolts, clothes pegs.


Design and technology can be developed in every area of provision, wherever children have opportunities to:

Make things move - not just vehicles but pulleys, water and balls, using guttering, wind chimes

Construct - using everything from tiny Lego to crates, ladders and tyres

Squash and squeeze materials - clay, dough, wet sand

Explore natural phenomena such as floating and sinking, magnetism and electricity, shadows and the effects of wind

Fold, cut and decorate - including paper, card, fabric

Taste and make - exploring foodstuffs. Special attention should be paid to food technology. In many settings this will be a trolley or even just a box, but labelling, hygiene and dedicated tools are essential.

Creative workshop

The creative workshop is likely to be the area where the tools and resources are most conveniently sited for design and technology. In setting up and resourcing this area, try to ensure:

  • - a location where interruptions and distractions will be limited
  • - sufficient space and time for both independent and collaborative work
  • - appropriate siting for tools and materials which staff feel should only be used under close supervision
  • - clear labelling (ideally words and pictures) with silhouettes for tools that are to be replaced on a board or shelf in a particular position
  • - an absence of clutter - 'a place for everything and everything in its place' is vital if children are to make informed choices and keep themselves safe.


Act as role models - designing and making, having good ideas and showing a willingness to change those ideas in the light of experience.

Challenge stereotypes which limit both boys' and girls' achievements by ensuring that women practitioners do not always send for a man to mend a truck or change a fuse.

Engage parents by organising workshops and displaying children's design and technology work with labels describing not simply what has been made but the process that led to a particular model or outcome. 3D work is difficult to display (and takes up a lot of space), so photographs may be used.

Observe children carefully so that appropriate support or challenge can be offered.

Encourage children to talk about what they have made, how they made it, what it's for and perhaps even how they could make it better. Ask questions that help children to explore alternatives.

Plan for variety, interest and challenge. Provide different types of construction sets with different means of connecting. Build on children's interests, including schemas. Challenge thinking by including activities such as melting chocolate (which is reversible) or cooking an egg (which is not). Include surprises - the tiny box that holds a very long scarf; balls that look identical, but include some that make a noise.

Offer meaningful choices, ensuring that children have opportunities to turn their own ideas into action.



Many activities that involve challenge - and this applies to many of the activities and tools described on these pages - are limited unnecessarily because practitioners are overly worried about injury to children.

Many practitioners say that they limit risky activities because of parental pressure. Yet forest schools, which include wood carving and tree climbing, are very popular with parents.

Professional responsibility should include weighing up not simply the risks involved in undertaking particular activities, but the risk to children's learning and development if we do not help them to learn to manage potential dangers.

Sticking to a few simple rules will help children and practitioners manage the elements of risk and enjoy the challenges of design and technology.

Agree and teach simple rules, ensuring that new children are introduced to them as soon as possible. These may include:

  • - Using scissors only for cutting paper and fabric, safety snips for card and plastic
  • - Using a tapered reamer or single hole punch rather than scissors for making holes
  • - Holding wood in a vice for sawing or hammering and not blowing sawdust
  • - Keeping fingers away from blades - scissors, knives and hacksaws
  • - Treating tools and materials with respect
  • - Ensuring adherence to hygiene procedures in preparing food.

Model good practice and supervise children's use of tools carefully.

Maintain the tools, keeping scissors sharp and free from glue.

Regularly review and discuss practice. A practitioner who is showing anxiety is not helping children to manage risk. However, since we all worry about different things, it's worth asking the team which aspects of practice could comfortably provide more challenge.


Every early years setting has wonderful opportunities for design and technology. Here are some examples which grew from children's own starting points and all of which could be extended in a number of ways.

Treasure map

Five-year-old Isabel drew a treasure map and decided to create a physical representation of it. Using cushions, chairs and lengths of fabric for rivers, mountains, and caves, she recreated her island. She hid some toys at the end of a trail and invited some younger children to explore with her.

The play was extended as other children joined in sometimes leading, sometimes modifying what Isabel had done - but sometimes just happy to search for the treasure. The next day, staff provided den-building materials outdoors as well as carpet off-cuts in addition to the usual crates and tyres, so that similar play could be further developed.

Fox scarers

Concerned that foxes were digging up their vegetables, a group of three- and four-year-olds decided to create some (humane) means of scaring them away. Many ideas were impractical and even fantastical, but some children produced sound-makers or artefacts that reflected light and placed them in the garden. This interest provided opportunities at many levels for designing and making, thinking, talk and action.



  • - Howe, Alan and Davies, Dan (editors) (2003) Teaching Science, Design and Technology in the Early Years. David Fulton
  • - Ansell, Hilary (2003) Design and Technology: Early years activities for early years education. Belair Publications
  • - Use a browser to find out about community scrap schemes or scrap stores near to you and local stockists of reamers and snips


We will be running a seminar on 'Core values: the essentials of good early years practice' at our show in London on 11-12 February. For more information on the seminar programme and to register, visit: www.nurseryworldshow.com

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