EYFS Best Practice: Prime time - Under threes ... Communication and Language

Clare Crowther
Friday, August 31, 2012

To create a communication rich environment for their charges, Norland Nursery staff studied their own communication patterns. By Clare Crowther


Within the revised Early Years Foundation Stage, the time-sensitive area of learning Communication and Language has been separated from Literacy. This shift highlights the importance of Communication and Language in life-long learning. At Norland Nursery we have embraced this change for our youngest children, allowing it to truly impact upon our practice. We have always recognised that babies are skilful communicators from birth and that they embark on a journey into language before establishing literacy skills. Indeed, research into sociability and early communication skills has shown that babies are imitating adult behaviours, such as blinking, opening their mouths and poking out their tongues, within minutes of being born (Colwyn Trevarthen, 1993).

With babies instinctively tuned in to communicate, it is vital that we, as early years practitioners, recognise, promote and reciprocate communication and language, thus establishing the foundations of learning.

In Developing Learning in Early Childhood, early years pioneer and educationalist Tina Bruce highlights the importance of verbal and non-verbal communication, noting that, as humans, we communicate not just through language but also through our body language, expressions, gestures, sounds and movements.

She concludes, 'One of the greatest pleasures of working with young children is to see their fascination with and eagerness for communication of many kinds. We owe it to them not to destroy or damage this faculty and to cultivate it with respect and sensitivity' (page 69).

One of the staff team activities that we have completed in order to heighten our awareness of communication was to observe the many ways that we communicated with each other and their impact on our involvement and well-being. It was a process that produced some interesting findings and offered a great springboard for reflection on our practice. You may want to try this within your setting too.


Within the revised EYFS, Communication and Language has been divided into three aspects:

  • Listening and Attention
  • Understanding, and
  • Speaking.

We felt that in order to promote these aspects we needed to create a communication-rich, communication-friendly environment. We started by exploring how children were communicating and developing language.


After observing our babies, we concluded that their communication development stemmed first from a growing understanding of themselves that gradually expanded into the world around them, including making connections and exchanging meaning with others.

We recognise that babies and young children need to be immersed in opportunities where they can move, make sounds and engage in sensory explorations - visual, tactile and taste.

Some of the learning opportunities that we have found to be successful in promoting Understanding include:

  • using real Treasure Baskets, as devised by pioneer Elinor Goldschmied and championed by Cathy Nutbrown and Jools Page in Working with Babies and Children: From Birth to Three. Importantly, Treasure Baskets enable even the youngest of children to follow their interests and so engage in learning
  • developing a range of ever-changing sensory objects, small enough to be gripped and held by even the youngest of the children. Our sensory bags are filled with items with different smells such as tea, peppermint or cinnamon
  • providing baskets full of fresh fruit for smelling, feeling and tasting
  • encouraging the exploration of malleable materials, such as clay, gloop (cornflour, water and sometimes paint/glitter to add colour) and 'clean mud' (shredded tissue paper, grated soap and water), using both their hands and objects such as lolly sticks
  • providing opportunities for children to express their understanding, for example, through mark-making, sculpture and dance. Loris Malaguzzi advocates this idea in The Hundred Languages of Children poem which is explored by Edwards et al in the book of the same title, The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia approach advanced reflections.

Listening and Attention

When exploring the aspect 'Listening and Attention', we first addressed our listening and attention skills as adults. Bruce suggests that when there is good communication between team members and between practitioners and parents, the interaction between parents, practitioners and children enables 'learning that develops with quality'.

Peer observations, although initially a little daunting, were a great tool for observing our own listening and attention skills. It raised our awareness of how effective we are at communicating our needs, how we respond sometimes subconsciously through our body language and the unsaid messages that this can give.

We also identified some vital aspects of practice including effective role modelling and listening through staff being attentive, responsive listeners. Some key ideas that were generated included:

  • taking turns in making noises with babies to instill the idea of 'conversation'
  • using key 'listening indicators' such as getting down to the level of the child, maintaining eye contact and responding with appropriate body language
  • working alongside children with activities to allow them to sustain attention with adult guidance or support.

We found that by seeing the nursery from a child's eye view, it helped us to generate new ideas to create 'enabling environments' that promoted listening and attention, such as:

  • creating shakers from tubes filled with objects such as shells, small bricks, feathers or bells
  • setting up a 'listening station' of story CDs and books for children to explore independently
  • making musical instruments readily available for the children to explore
  • having a music system available to play different music, to dance, listen or enjoy
  • making the most of key family time to promote child-to-child conversations through peer scaffolding, for example, turn-taking. (See also Part 2 of this series: Prime time - under-threes ... PSED, at: www.nurseryworld.co.uk/news/1144216)



Development Matters in the Early Years Foundation Stage provides guidance on language development. Gopnik et al, cited in Bruce's book, Developing Learning in Early Childhood (p78), discuss how babies and young children 'crack the language code' identifying that 'the learning mechanisms that drive children to make coherent sense of the world also lead them to pay attention to the words they hear and to learn how to use those words themselves'. As a team we reflected upon what this meant for us as practitioners and for the children in our care. Our reflections led us to:

  • ensure our babies were talked to and encouraged to communicate. This involved making some simple changes to our practice, such as removing the feeding trays from our babies' low chairs so that they could sit at the table to share in mealtimes
  • add prompts above the nappy-changing station to remind practitioners of the importance of making the most of care routines by, for example, singing rhymes while changing a nappy
  • promote conversations by creating a display of items of interest
  • pose 'I wonder' questions to the children, rather than simply offering an explanation
  • make for each child a personalised box of special words that represents their interests
  • add props and factual books to activities that stimulate questions and information gathering
  • ensure that we gave children enough time to express their thoughts, feelings and ideas, while maintaining our full attention.

The Development Matters statements also highlight the importance of speech development in children with English as an Additional Language (EAL). Children can face greater difficulty in developing two languages without the support of sensitive adults. Some ideas to help support children with EAL that you may want to develop are:

  • knowing as a key person important phrases within a child's primary language
  • displaying words from a range of languages around the nursery, including signs or books
  • giving a child additional time to express their thoughts
  • ensuring that a range of dual-language books are available
  • inviting parents and carers with English as an additional language to spend time in the setting.



We are fortunate at Norland Nursery to have an environment that is flexible and so we are able to meet the needs of the children within our care. Feeling inspired by the Communication Friendly Spaces approach developed by Elizabeth Jarman, we have created a range of safe spaces that help children to become confident, to acquire language and to express themselves. For example, we have:

  • created darker, cosy spaces for children to retreat to with an adult or a book
  • developed light, bright, airy spaces that encourage louder and more physical communication
  • sectioned off areas with different activities to explore, so allowing small group interaction. Space set aside for small-group work with an adult encourages turn-taking, listening and expressing emotions appropriately
  • created spaces that children can retreat to when seeking calm or privacy, such as indoor swings and hammocks
  • provided resources such as sheets, blocks, clothes pegs and other joining materials for the children to create their own spaces. Free from adult supervision, these areas are ideal for helping children to develop their social skills.


The role of the key person is paramount in the development of young children's communication and language, as this person should be aware of the child's individual circumstances, such as any previous speech and language worries, and be able to understand the child's noises or developing speech.

The adult role is not to provide answers but to encourage children to find their own answers through exploring and experimenting. By using 'I wonder ...' questions, adults can encourage children to think creatively, rather than leave them feeling there is always a right or wrong answer.

Adults should also be aware of the importance of noise when working with babies. Any noise is an expression of emotion or feelings and should always be responded to with sensitivity and consideration. If a baby is crying, or wanting to be picked up, consider why this is - perhaps the child doesn't like the texture of the carpet, or is seeking closer adult interaction. When looked at in this way, even a baby's 'noises' can be used as a tool for communicating.


  • Supporting Language and Literacy Development in the Early Years by Marian Whitehead (Open University Press)
  • Developing Learning in Early Childhood - 0-8 Years by Tina Bruce (Paul Chapman Publishing)
  • Working with Babies and Children: From Birth to Three by Cathy Nutbrown and Jools Page (Sage Publishing)
  • The Communication Friendly Spaces Toolkit available from www.elizabethjarmantraining.co.uk
  • 50 Fantastic Things to do with Babies, and 50 Fantastic Things to do with Toddlers by Sally and Phil Featherstone (Featherstone Publications)

Clare Crowther is head of Norland Nursery Bath www.norlandnursery.co.uk

Clare and her team were involved in the consultation of the revised EYFS, trialing the revised framework at Norland Nursery, together with the know-how guidance for the two-year-old checks. Clare and the team are sharing their experiences of working with the youngest of children at the forthcoming Norland Conference, What Matters to Children? (13 October 2012).

With special thanks to Laura Mealing of Norland Nursery for her support

Photographs by Paul Box at Norland nursery, Bath.

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