Learning and Development

How do we promote personal development in early years?

  • How do we promote personal development in early years?

From fostering emotional literacy and championing inclusivity to boosting independence and resilience, there are countless opportunities to support each unique child, says Sue Cowley…

In the early years, we have responsibility for three crucial aspects of early childhood: the care, the learning and the development of the children who attend our settings.

A child’s overall development is of critical importance: it includes the widest possible developmental aspects, those ones that touch on every area of a child’s life.

From our children’s health, their happiness and their socialisation to their character, their emotional wellbeing and their attachments – personal development is all about the concept of the unique child, which sits at the very heart of the EYFS.

Helping children to develop

In early childhood, healthy child development happens through serve-and-return conversations, multisensory play, an enabling environment and a range of rich experiences, in the company of attentive and warm caregivers.

To ensure that they develop as well as possible, we need to provide children with an environment in which they feel safe and secure.

This is typically what happens in what are sometimes described as ‘advantaged’ homes – with those parents or carers who have the time, space and financial circumstances to be able to give their children a range of opportunities.

These experiences feed into the overall development of the child – a visit to soft play supports the child’s physical and social development, a trip overseas builds an understanding of diversity.

This is not to say that children from ‘disadvantaged’ homes cannot equally have parents or carers who provide rich experiences for their children, but clearly it is much harder to do this if you have fewer resources to call upon.

Where a parent is working night shifts, or holding down three jobs to try and make ends meet, or is a single parent trying to survive on the minimum wage, these factors are bound to have an impact on the experiences you can offer.

This is where settings play a vital role for children from more disadvantaged situations – we can help plug those gaps for parents who might not be in a position to offer these opportunities themselves.

Personal development and the EIF

Thinking about personal development within the Ofsted’s new Education Inspection Framework, a key focus is on a “rich set of experiences”.

In a speech to the National Day Nurseries Association in June 2018, HMI Amanda Spielman explained that inspectors would be looking at “what you do to care and educate children in the broadest sense”.

This judgement looks at areas such as developing emotional literacy; promoting equality and diversity, challenging stereotypical behaviours; helping children build confidence, resilience and independence; supporting physical and emotional health; and creating secure attachments.

Snack time

Snack time offers the perfect opportunity for boosting personal development in the early years, because you can introduce the children to new, healthy foods and also support social development through a shared dining experience.

In our preschool setting, the children learn so much from snack time – from handling small tools to cut up the fruit and vegetables and counting out the right number of portions, to talking about healthy eating choices and pouring drinks for their friends, the learning in this part of our daily routine is invaluable.

Outdoor learning

Outdoor learning supports numerous aspects of personal development, particularly the important areas of self-regulation and resilience.

Forest school provision offers a challenging environment in which the children can learn how to assess and manage risk, face challenges and also participate in physical activity.

Whether it is making fires, climbing trees or building dens, the outdoors is the perfect place for building children’s confidence to cope with a range of challenges.

Even if your setting is not able to offer forest provision, giving the children the opportunity to free flow between indoors and outdoors can help build independence and personal responsibility.

The children make decisions about where they play and when, and learn how to put on their coats/boots and how to be responsible for putting them away afterwards.

As an added benefit, being outdoors can be great for our health and tends to be a place where we are more physically active.

Inclusion and equity

A key aspect of personal development is the ability to understand how people should act within an inclusive society.

In our setting we use Makaton to ensure that all our children are able to communicate – we teach a new sign each week, using the signs the children have learned during carpet and snack time and when singing nursery rhymes together, and asking the parents to use the signs at home as well.

Equality and diversity are crucial aspects of an inclusive setting and it’s well worth doing an audit of your resources to ensure that your children see a wide range of peoples and cultures represented in the toys and books that they use.

When the term ‘British values’ was first introduced, we saw some instances of a ‘tokenistic’ approach with images of Union Jack flags, Buckingham Palace and afternoon tea.

Golden rules are a great way to explore the idea of how people can work together in a respectful way as a society. Talk with the children about why we need different rules and the benefits that they bring for your community.


Sue Cowley is an author, presenter and teacher trainer. She has helped to run her local early years setting for 10 years. Her latest book is The Ultimate Guide to Mark Making (Bloomsbury, £19.99).

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