EYFS best practice in schools - The young ones

What are school nurseries doing to best meet the needs of the two-year-olds in their care, asks Charlotte Goddard

Little Squirrels was set up by Redgate Community Primary amid concerns about Reception children's communication skills
Little Squirrels was set up by Redgate Community Primary amid concerns about Reception children's communication skills

Across England, 1,220 primary schools take in funded two-year-olds, up from 290 in 2014. There are currently 12,300 funded two-year-olds attending primary school provision, around 8 per cent of all two-year-olds who access funded early education.

Many schools see the benefit of widening their existing nursery provision to encompass disadvantaged two-year-olds. Establishing early, supportive relationships with parents in a more informal setting and picking up problems earlier can help to narrow the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers before they start school.

Children also benefit from a better transition into Reception, since they and their parents already have strong links with the school and staff, and the school has a good idea of their strengths and difficulties. Supporting children with practical issues such as toilet training or learning to put on their coats also eases the transition.

‘Sometimes in areas of deprivation, the head or early years staff say we would benefit from having the children younger because when they come to our three-year-old provision, they are still in nappies, they are still using buggies and bottles and dummies,’ says Kay Rooks, early years learning and teaching adviser at CPD centre Focus on Learning.

‘Having an extra year with the children means that the practitioners can support the children and their parents to move on from bottles, nappies and dummies, thus supporting a smoother transition into the three-year-old provision. Usually schools start with around eight two-year-olds, so they can really build up a good relationship with the parents, through stay-and-play sessions, for example.’

Little Squirrels


While there are benefits to disadvantaged two-year-olds attending school-based provision, there are also concerns. Some in the sector fear a top-down mentality, with two-year-olds treated as smaller versions of older children, rather than benefiting from provision tailored to their own unique stage of development.

‘The issue with schools sometimes is the two-year-olds are seen as school children when they are still very young,’ says Ms Rooks. ‘This is especially a concern for disadvantaged two-year-olds who may have poor language and social skills and emotional difficulties. The curriculum needs to be built around where these children are developmentally and not where we would like them to be.’

Early years consultant, author and trainer Penny Tassoni also has concerns. ‘There have been times, for example, when young children are encouraged to go into assembly,’ she says. ‘It’s well-meaning but for very young children it can be daunting.’ Other examples of inappropriate expectations and practices might include prolonged circle times, or children being sat at tables to concentrate.

Parents may also have a different attitude to school provision than they would to daycare. ‘Parents often associate schools with formal teaching, and practitioners have to explain to parents “your twos will go home messy and wet, they are very hands-on”,’ says Ms Rooks.

Little Squirrels has led to more children joining Reception at expected levels

Unique needs

Two-year-olds have unique emotional, physical and developmental needs. ‘They are more likely to play on their own; as individual children doing their own thing, their social skills are just developing, as is their imaginary and symbolic play, and we must remember that being two is a distinct phase in child development,’ says Ms Rooks. ‘They are always moving about, so the people you choose to work with them have to be prepared to be up and about and moving around a lot.’

Two-year-olds want to be independent but can exhibit challenging behaviour such as screaming, shouting, biting and throwing things when they are unable to work out how to communicate their feelings in an acceptable way, or how to have a need met.

It is vital that staff working with two-year-olds have a knowledge of child development. Children of this age use their parents and other attachment figures as a secure base to explore from, and a safe haven to return to. Building trusted relationships is crucial when it comes to two-year-old provision. Schools need a strong key person system, where the key person spends focused time with their key children, there is daily communication between parents and practitioners, and a transition period that takes place over a prolonged period of time.

Ms Rooks describes one school’s approach to helping two-year-olds feel settled and secure, ‘They have very strong links with the family, with pictures on the wall, and they make little books so children can look at their family,’ she says.

Ofsted will consider the extent to which leaders and staff are knowledgeable about the typical development and Characteristics of Effective Learning for two- and three-year-olds, including their emotional and physical dependence on adults, as part of an inspection.

A strong key person system will support a child’s communication and language development, something which is often a key driver for schools. ‘Two-year-olds’ clarity of speech is often poor because the development of their tongue muscles means they can’t yet make many sounds, making them difficult to understand unless you have spent a lot of time tuning in,’ says Ms Tassoni. ‘When a child spends a lot of time with the same adult, that adult knows what they are saying and can respond appropriately, and that encourages the child to speak more.’

Children may also talk about what they have done earlier in the day, which is why the handover period is key. ‘From a language and emotional point of view, what two-year-olds need is a consistent adult, not wonderful resources,’ says Ms Tassoni.

Mixed age groups

Some schools mix two-year-olds with their three- and four-year-olds, while others have a separate provision. Jan White, strategic director of Early Childhood Outdoors, believes mixed provision is best. ‘When I have seen space separately provided for two-year-olds, I have not seen children’s needs met as well.’

However, Ms Tassoni believes mixed provision can be challenging. ‘Their needs are different from three-year-olds, and a noisy, busy play environment can make it difficult for them to settle and to always be in close proximity to the key person,’ she says. ‘A bit of mix and match to engage with older children is helpful, but it is not helpful when all the children are mixed together all the time, in my view. The danger is they are not then closely tied in with any particular member of staff.’

A two-year-old is constantly on the move, and this movement is vital to their development, says Ms White. The learning environment must reflect this, indoors and out, with plenty of space to move about.

‘There is a lot of research showing the links between movement and cognitive development,’ she explains. ‘The amount of time two-year-olds need to be outside is more than people think. Schools may be starting with the idea of “playtime” – that you go outdoors for 15 minutes to “let off steam”, but they need at least three hours a day outside.’

Little Squirrels

Schools need to provide a rich outdoor environment that children want to spend time in. ‘What two-year-olds are fascinated by is natural processes, such as how raindrops run down a window,’ says Ms White. They need to make things happen, so an outdoor space needs to build in lots of opportunities to act; for example, turning on taps makes water run out.

Places to snuggle

The outdoor environment also needs to support closeness and intimacy. ‘There should be comfort, places to snuggle,’ explains Ms White. ‘It is not just about boisterousness although that is needed as well. Outdoors also needs nooks and crannies, seats and hammocks, and little spaces in the bushes.’

Two-year-olds also require a lot of space indoors, as well as resources tailored to them. ‘These children are much smaller, so a lot of the tables and chairs that were bought for the nursery children are too high,’ says Ms Rooks.

‘They need nice soft cushions, a homely environment. These children need bigger equipment, and they need stuff on the floor and at lower levels where they can access it. They don’t need as many things as the older children – they are still at the stage of moving and transporting things about so the more little bits you have out, the messier your room is going to be.’

Two-year-olds are one of the most exciting groups of children to work with, but can also be the hardest. If the trend for schools to take on more funded two-year-olds continues, training around child development is crucial to make sure the needs of this most vulnerable group are met.


Earlier this year, Ofsted published a new Education Inspection Framework, setting out how schools and early years settings will be inspected from September 2019. While two-year-olds in childcare settings will be inspected under the guidance of the Early Years Inspection Handbook, provision for two-year-olds in schools will be assessed as part of a whole-school inspection using the guidance provided in the Schools Assessment Handbook.

‘That does throw up some issues,’ explains Ms Tassoni. ‘How long would an inspector spend looking at two- and three-year-olds as part of a whole-school inspection? Also, the schools framework has been particularly designed for fives and over, and it is not focused on practice and policy surrounding two-year-olds in the same way the Ofsted handbook for childcare is.’

Inspection of school two-year-old provision is really lacking when it comes to attachment, says Ms Tassoni. ‘Two-year-olds’ significant emotional needs are not focused on in the schools handbook, but young children being separated from their primary carer face significant challenges. This is a sensitive area that really does need to be thought about and checked. The EYFS stresses the importance of the key person, but the Ofsted framework does not focus on that at all.’

The schools handbook has also lost any mention of the EYFS Prime areas of learning, although it still mentions the Characteristics of Effective Learning. Other elements of the EYFS, such as the key worker system, will not be inspected in schools either.

It is particularly important to get inspections right, says Ms Tassoni, because some schools may not have the best understanding of child development. ‘The best schools don’t need someone to come in and check provision and policy for youngest children because they are doing an excellent job, but it can motivate weaker provision to reflect on practice,’ she says.


Robert Mellors Primary and Nursery School, Nottinghamshire

When Robert Mellors widened its nursery provision to include two-year-olds last year, the school decided to invest in a brand new building, designed for two- to four-year-olds. ‘We wanted to meet the needs of two-year-olds but integrate them with three- and four-year-olds,’ says Juliet Clark, assistant head teacher. ‘We asked Early Excellence to come and help plan and design the perfect learning environment for us.’

It was important the pre-school design allowed even the youngest two-year-olds to access independently all the resources, set at different heights for different children.

Ms Clark visited Pen Green Children’s Centre in Northamptonshire for inspiration, as well as drawing on her own knowledge of child development as a qualified early years teacher with a Master’s qualification in the early years.

‘Pen Green had a kitchen in the middle of the baby and two-year-old room, so if you were making tea or preparing bottles, the child could still see you,’ she says. ‘Our kitchen is also open plan, it is fantastic because the little ones have strong attachments, and they can still see you and you can see them.’

Robert Mellors also took inspiration from Pen Green in another way. ‘We do home visits for all our children, but we got from Pen Green the idea of additional home visits every term for the two-year-olds, discussing their development reviews and having ongoing discussions about how parents can support their children,’ says Ms Clark. Nursery staff are all early years trained, many holding the NNEB qualification with its strong emphasis on child development.

The new unit has a changing area and space to store potties built into the provision. ‘Changing nappies is not a new thing for us, as children joining us at the age of three are often not toilet-trained,’ says Ms Clark. ‘We would not expect two-year-olds to be anywhere near being toilet-trained when they join us, but as they get older we can have that conversation with parents, and we are now finding more are toilet-trained at three than have been in the past.’

Robert Mellors started taking two-year-olds last year

Redgate Community Primary School, Liverpool

When early years lead Louise Dean joined Redgate Community Primary as Reception teacher, a private provider was running an on-site nursery. The school wanted to extend the hours offered by the nursery, but the provider was not willing, so Redgate decided to launch its own provision in 2015, Little Squirrels. The move was also driven by concerns about poor speech and communication abilities among children entering Reception.

‘My background is in early years and I knew what a difference it can make to reach children early,’ says Ms Dean, who holds an NNEB qualification and spent 18 years working in PVI settings.

Earlier this year, Little Squirrels was highly commended in Pearson’s Shine A Light Awards, which celebrate innovative work in developing children’s communication skills. The nursery gained accreditation as an Elklan Communication Friendly Setting, an award given to schools which have trained and supported all staff in communication and language development. Ms Dean also took part in Language Champion training delivered by the local authority. ‘It was about understanding the journey children have to go on when it comes to language development – sometimes they come to us with gaps in that journey,’ she explains.

Little Squirrels aims to help children develop their vocabulary in a fun and interactive way, involving parents as much as possible. A recent outdoor classroom day, for example, set out activities which parents could replicate at home, such as hunting for sticks, and modelling vocabulary such as “shorter”, “longer” and “fatter”. The setting employs a dedicated practitioner as key person for all the two-year-olds in the setting, with the number limited to four per session.

Little Squirrels’ impact on children’s attainment is clear. Redgate’s Reception teacher has just completed her baseline assessment for this autumn’s cohort. ‘All of the children from Little Squirrels are at expected levels, apart from a couple who have good reasons not to be,’ says Ms Dean. ‘None of the children who came from other settings are at expected levels.’

Case study: Castle View Primary School, Derbyshire

Castle View began to take in two-year-olds four years ago. ‘There was very little uptake in our area, settings were not wanting to take funded two-year-olds on,’ says head teacher Clare Peat. ‘From our point of view, children coming into the nursery were not ready, especially when it came to personal, social and emotional development.’ The school now has more than 18 two-year-olds on roll and is the largest provider for funded two-year-olds in the area.

Castle View had to go on what Ms Peat describes as ‘a massive journey’ to understand the needs of two-year-olds, and develop the school’s outdoor area to cater for their physical development needs. ‘We quadrupled it in size. When the nursery was designed it didn’t take into account the fact that two-year-olds want to climb and run, they don’t have the ability to manipulate their bodies in a small space. We were rethinking what we could do, where we could move fences, open and close areas.’

For Castle View, outdoors is not only about physical development. ‘We have got our own Forest School area, it is a fantastic site in terms of open space, so children can go out as much as they can, and get a sense of weather and season changes,’ says Ms Peat. ‘I think the essentials are woodland with its different, changing light and open grassland so the two-year-olds can roll, play and climb.’

Ms Peat recommends thinking flexibly when it comes to resources. ‘We prefer multifunctional resources that can be used to be creative and not defined as one product, because that flattens children’s learning,’ she says. ‘Children can build a den, then make a rocket, and before you know it, it has become a magic carpet.’


Two-year-olds: My space’ and ‘Two-year-olds: The 3Rs’ – on Relationships, Routines and Reflective practice – by Julia Manning-Morton

‘Two-year-olds: Tune in’ by Anne O’Connor

Penny Tassoni’s 12-part series on supporting two-year-olds

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