EYFS Best Practice: Be Specific ... Expressive Arts and Design

The name change from Creative Development to Expressive Arts and Design gives practitioners the chance to rethink how they support creativity within early learning, says Di Chilvers, advisory consultant in early childhood.

In the revised Early Years Foundation Stage, the area of learning that connects to the child's growing creativity and expression is now called Expressive Arts and Design - rather than Creative Development. This change presents a great opportunity for practitioners to reflect on the place of creativity within early learning, what they are doing to support it and how these experiences can be improved and linked to children's thinking and learning across the EYFS.

Children's creative development hasn't always been given the attention it deserves in some settings, and there are signs that it is slipping further in practitioners' list of priorities.

Experimenting with thick, freshly-mixed paint in rich colours, with a range of brushes on large sheets of high-quality painting paper seems to be on the decline. Likewise, experiencing large pieces of soft clay to shape, build and manipulate are infrequent, as are opportunities to develop imaginative play.

The decline can often be explained by the pressure that practitioners feel under to engage children in more formal learning - resulting in ever shrinking amounts of space and time allocated to children's creative endeavours. However, some settings have tended to view Creative Development on the margins of the EYFS - a view partly encouraged by the fact that it always seemed to appear last in the curriculum guidance!

Now, with Expressive Arts and Design as a Specific - rather than Prime - area of learning, and still last on the list, it's important that practitioners don't lose sight of its importance in early learning.

Creative opportunities can be seen as a 'magnet', potentially drawing in elements of all areas of learning, as well as many of the dispositions required for life-long learning - the 'how', rather than 'what' children learn which is captured in the Characteristics of Effective Learning. Just think of the maths, science, gross motor skills, descriptive language, co-operation and determination involved in creating a large group model outdoors!

The Statutory Framework reminds us too that 'All areas of learning and development are important and inter-connected' (2012, page 4) which means that we need to see the seven areas of learning (Prime and Specific) and the Characteristics of Effective Learning as being woven together, with many connections and overlaps.


Expressive Arts and Design is trimmer but not dissimilar to the Creative Development area of learning, with both focusing on the exploration of materials, ideas, movement and music and how these can be interpreted in expressive and imaginative ways: The Statutory Framework for the EYFS states: 'Expressive arts and design involves enabling children to explore and play with a range of media and materials, as well as providing opportunities and encouragement for sharing their thoughts, ideas and feelings through a variety of activities in art, music, movement, dance, role-play, and design and technology.' (2012, page 5, para 1.6)

Guidance for the EYFS stated: 'Children's creativity must be extended by the provision of support for their curiosity, exploration and play. They must be provided with opportunities to explore and share their thoughts, ideas and feelings, for example through a variety of art, music, movement, dance, imaginative and role-play activities, mathematics and design and technology.' (Learning and Development Card -Creative Development, 2008)

The notable omission is the reference to children's curiosity, exploration and play, which lie at the heart of their creative and expressive experiences. These words describe children's dispositions for learning, not just in Expressive Arts and Design but across all areas of learning.


There were four aspects within Creative Development:

  • Being creative - responding to experiences, and expressing and communicating ideas
  • Exploring media and materials - 2D and 3D representations
  • Creative music and dance, and
  • Developing imagination and imaginative play

That number has now shrunk to two:

  • Exploring and using media and materials
  • Being imaginative.

However, this reduction is due to aspects being combined rather than omitted.

Exploring and using media and materials

'Exploring and using media and materials' focuses on how babies, toddlers and young children engage with the many materials and creative experiences presented to them. For children within the EYFS, this will be through their senses and whole-body movements, as they discover the properties of materials (what they can and can't do), the way that music urges them to move rhythmically and with enjoyment, and how they can express themselves through, for example, music, dancing and colour.

It is through this variety of experiences that children recreate their world and interpret their own ideas. This lies at the heart of creativity and expression and has many links to the other areas of learning.

Being imaginative

'Being imaginative' focuses on how babies, toddlers and young children express themselves imaginatively through play, role play, dance, music, drawing, paint, design, technology, malleable materials and stories.

It recognises that children's imagination and imaginative play support their ability to invent, express and share their thoughts and ideas and will lead to them making links and connections in their learning, including between stories and poems and creating their own storylines.

Babies being imaginative

Early imaginative games of peek-a-boo and 'Where's teddy gone?' all shape babies' imaginative thinking. Playing with treasure baskets and open-ended materials lays the foundations for good exploratory and imaginative play and feeds inquisitive minds. Singing songs, clapping rhymes and daily routines contribute to the foundations of musicality, the expressive arts and children learning about the rhythm and rhyme of words, stories and reading.

Toddlers being imaginative

As a baby's world and experience broadens so does their imagination and drive to imitate and recreate the everyday happenings around them. They begin to role-play familiar experiences like feeding dolly, putting teddy to bed, hugging teddy and making a drink or stirring a pan.

Toddlers need plenty of opportunities to pretend and act out and to have playful adults supporting them in their play by watching and joining in.

Cardboard boxes and other open-ended materials like fabrics, blankets, containers, drain pipes and guttering provide opportunities for toddlers to be creative and imaginative.

As toddler's curiosity and inquisitiveness grow, so do their ideas. Rhymes, poems and stories remain a large part of their imaginative world, as do moving to music and dance. Toddlers already recognise favourite pop songs or theme tunes.

Young children being imaginative

At this stage, children are more independent and so are more able to express themselves in many different ways. Their role play can now include everything from dragons and superheroes to cars and cafes - the opportunities are endless and stem from children's interests and fascinations.

Children are learning how to represent their ideas through their play, often involving others to help build the 'story'. This includes negotiating roles, deciding when and where events will take place and solving problems as they arise.

Frequently, in this type of play, children will want to draw and write, as they see the connection between their thinking and how to formalise it to show others. The narratives within their play are often wonderful stories, and if recorded through photographs or film can be turned into a book, by using PowerPoint to combine the pictures and words together.

Vivien Gussin Paley (1991, 2004), an American kindergarten teacher, always involved her children in recording their imaginative play, including what they said and did, and how their play and ideas had unfolded.

Early literacy and numeracy

Unfortunately, the connections between children 'Being imaginative' and how this underpins their early literacy and numeracy skills are not explicit in the EYFS guidance, apart from the references to 'the link between imaginative play and children's ability to handle narrative' and 'create imaginary words to describe, for example, monsters or other strong characters in stories and poems' (Development Matters, 40-60+ months, page 47).

It is the child's ability to think imaginatively that enables them to make the leap in their play from the concrete (of the here and now) to the symbolic (in which a cardboard box, for example, can represent a spaceship). It is these same imaginative (and cognitive) processes that enable children to enter the abstract world of numbers and letters.

Being able to write down what they are thinking, rather than acting it out, represents a huge shift in children's learning but one that is made easier and more pleasurable if they have first been able to experience and enjoy lots of imaginative play.


Expressive Arts and Design tells practitioners what children should be learning in two particular aspects, 'Exploring and using media and materials' and 'Being imaginative'. So, for example, the following points suggest that a child of 40-60 months in 'Exploring and using media and materials' could,

  • Understand that different media can be combined to create new effects
  • Manipulate materials to achieve a planned effect
  • Construct with a purpose in mind, using a variety of resources
  • Use simple tools and techniques competently and appropriately. (Development Matters, page 45)

If we then look at the Characteristics of Effective Learning, we can see how children will learn and experience these aspects of development. The example of Vinnie (see box) clearly shows how the Characteristics of Effective Learning combine with Expressive Arts and Design. Vinnie is using his previous knowledge and experience of various materials and tools to express his ideas - in this instance to create a monster - and explore new ways of working.

The characteristics are about the creative process unfolding as children work out ways, either collaboratively or individually, to put their ideas into action. As children become involved in executing their ideas they will learn the skills and techniques they need to use, for example cutting with scissors, mixing colours and deciding on the right length of string.

However, it is important to remember that this is about the child expressing their creative ideas, not what the adult thinks they should express. So, Christmas or Diwali cards that all look the same are not an expression of the child's creativity, neither is colouring in a pre-drawn outline or painting along the lines. These are all activities that require little or no expression or imagination by the child and are completely adult directed.


To support children's creativity effectively, we need to give real thought to the time, space, materials and opportunities provided - aspects of provision that are not explicit in the revised EYFS documentation.


All children need lots of time to explore, experiment and play with the resources around them. Understanding what you can do with a piece of shiny paper and Sellotape may require lots of trial and error before children feel satisfied with their efforts.

Important too is that the time is uninterrupted. Only then can babies, toddlers and young children become truly involved, absorbed and inspired. If the session/day is constantly interrupted by adult-directed activities and routines - phonics time, snack time, group time - children will quickly learn that it is not worth becoming involved as they will soon have to stop. Constant interruptions limit the possibilities for children to explore, use media and materials and be imaginative and creative.


Having too much or too little space can make creative possibilities a challenge. A large hall for singing or dancing can be intimidating for a three-year-old, while a small area can be frustrating when you want to paint on a large scale. However, as practitioners, we need to find ways round any limitations on the space we have available. For example, creating something on a small scale with junk materials inside and then recreating it on a large scale outside with natural materials such as stones, conkers, fir cones, canes, tent pegs and ropes can be exciting for children. It also enables the children to work collaboratively, exchanging ideas and helping each other.

Likewise, having the space to paint on an easel as well as on a flat surface (floor, table or outside) provides the scope for children to work alone or collaboratively, express themselves on a small or large scale, explore 'big' ideas and experiment with more delicate techniques.

Pushing back the furniture to make space or ridding the room of some tables can often lead to inspirational, creative experiences, including dancing and singing. And always make the most of the outdoors.


The kind of resources offered to babies, toddlers and young children greatly affects the development of their imagination and the opportunities they have to explore, be inquisitive and learn about the properties of materials and how to use them to express their ideas.

To be imaginative, a child needs to use and develop their imagination from babyhood, and the best way to achieve this is through offering children open-ended and inspiring materials (in Reggio Emilia they call them 'intelligent materials').

Open-ended materials offer many possibilities and can be used in all sorts of inventive ways. For example, a basket of silk scarves can become flags, fairy ribbons, a secret path to the magic cave and a magic potion in a big pot; a collection of stones, shells and leaves can be turned into patterns or used to recreate and personalise the story We're Going on a Bear Hunt.

The materials we provide need to be of a high quality - for example, a range of paints that are well mixed (children can help with this), includes sharp colours and a variety of shades, doesn't drip and run everywhere and is presented in clean pots alongside good-quality brushes and paper in varying sizes and shapes.


We need to be sure that babies, toddlers and young children are given as many opportunities to experience all aspects of this area of learning including music and song - even if we don't know much about it or can't sing. Children have a real affinity to music, just as they do to being outside but we have to provide the opportunities and experiences for this so that they are well embedded into everyday practice rather than only something you do on a Wednesday when the pianist comes in. This means finding many opportunities - some planned, some spontaneous - to dance and sing together to many different types of music.

Providing opportunities also means following children's interests and taking them as the starting point for learning, rather than always planning an adult-directed activity. Expressive Arts and Design is an area of learning where children's imaginations, ideas and fascinations can come to life and they are able to recreate them in all kinds of ways with adult support and encouragement. This also links with the statement in the EYFS Statutory Framework on ensuring that there is a balance between child-initiated play and learning and adult -directed activities. (2012, 1.9 page 6)

Language and talking

The final point to remember, but definitely not the least, is that creative experiences are full of opportunities to talk, chat and develop language. They enable children to communicate their ideas in many ways, from singing and dancing to painting and modelling - remember the One Hundred Languages (Loris Malaguzzi). Tina Bruce expresses this well by saying, 'Creativity is part of the process through which children begin to find out they have something unique to 'say' in words or dance, music, or hatching out their theory' (2004, p14).

Vinnie and Lacy are in the reception class at Watercliffe Meadow Community Primary School in Sheffield, where thinking and learning truly is a creative adventure


Characteristics of effective learning

Playing and Exploring

Finding out and exploring: Children need lots of time to play with and explore materials so that they can develop and refine their ideas.

Playing with what they know: Drawing on their past experiences and current skills and knowledge enables children to become independent and supports their imagination as they make/construct something with a planned purpose.

Being willing to 'have a go': Children are eager to engage in activities that enable them to express their ideas and enjoy creating something that has captured their imagination. They are open-minded about how materials can be combined.

Inspired by Where the Wild Things Are, Vinnie and his classmates decide to create a monster. Vinnie has been using a variety of materials and is manipulating Mod Roc to create the monster's feet.

Active learning

Being involved and concentrating: If a child is interested in expressing their ideas, this sense of purpose will almost certainly encourage them to concentrate for long periods of time.

Keeping on trying: Understanding media and combining them effectively involves a lot of trial and error. Children need to view failure positively and as a means to learning new skills and ideas.

Enjoying and achieving what they set out to do: Children derive a great feeling of satisfaction and self-esteem when they have a sense of purpose and are able to express their ideas. For them, the 'doing' - or process - is often more satisfying than the end product.

Vinnie was engrossed in soaking the Mod Roc and ensuring that it was just the right consistency to smooth on to the monster's foot. He repeated the process and showed the other children how to do it.

Vinnie and Lacy chatted about what they were doing - making sure the Mod Roc was smooth became very important to them.

Creating and thinking critically

Having their own ideas: Being able to manipulate and combine materials means that children can start to express their own ideas in much more sophisticated ways, either in two or three dimensions. Being able to create what you imagine is a truly creative process.

Making links: To construct with a purpose in mind, children have to decide which materials, tools and techniques will enable them to fulfil their ideas.

Choosing ways to do things: Having decided what materials and tools to use, children have to plan what to do (in their heads or by talking to others), problem-solve and constantly review the construction process.

Vinnie decided to move on to another creation and to make a 3-D picture using straws. He was still inspired by monsters and transferred his thinking and skills to this new challenge.

Sometimes the tool is your hand!

The monster developed over a week, as all the children contributed their ideas and decided on its personality. The collaboration of ideas and working out how to express them through the materials was an engaging creative process.


Cultivating Creativity for Babies, Toddlers and Young Children, T Bruce (2004, second edition), Hodder Education

A Child's Work: The importance of fantasy play, V Gussin Paley, (2004) University of Chicago Press

The Boy Who Would Be A Helicopter: The uses of storytelling in the classroom, V Gussin Paley, (1990) Harvard University Press

The Hundred Languages of Children - Narrative of the Possible, T Filippini and V Vecchi (Ed) (1996) Reggio Children (www.sightlines-initiative.com).

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