Developing physical environments and routines in EYFS

Reception classes need an environment that is stimulating and enables children to put their learning into meaningful contexts. Neil Farmer explores practical ways to make the classroom the optimal place for learning and discovery

Author details

Neil Farmer has a background in early years education as a nursery and reception class teacher, advisory teacher, deputy head, Foundation Stage consultant and head of early years. He has made countless visits to numerous settings and schools, has...

Once you have your agreed Vision Statement, a good Reception class should be like a favourite shop: lots of new, interesting and fascinating things, a good line of solid stables and response to the clientele. This will help you to think more creatively.

Imagine that the children are your clients and the environment is theirs, not yours

Imagine that the children are your clients and the environment is theirs, not yours. This means your environment and routine need to fit in with their needs and interests – this will help engage children who will take ownership of their environment and progress. It also helps to put yourself in the shoes of a five year-old and ask: ‘Is my environment stimulating and interesting? Are there new and exciting things to explore and cosy places to go?’

Think about the ‘Characteristics of Effective Learning’: can you identify ‘Active Learning’? Is there opportunity for children and adults to think creatively and critically? Is there time for prolonged periods of playing and exploring?


You also need to check whether there are appropriate resources – the best are usually used for a range of tasks in different ways and are open-ended to allow children to be creative. Also think about what your resources offer the children in terms of long-term learning.

Think about what your resources offer the children in terms of long-term learning

Following on from your agreed Vision Statement, you need to develop a routine that matches your intended outcomes for the children. It needs to be flexible while also allowing you to mediate learning, play, teach new skills and knowledge, and observe.

The following steps are a blueprint for a day. The key is to take ownership of it and adapt it to suit your purposes and circumstances.

I have used this model in a number of schools. For example, Winterbourne Nursery and Infant School in Croydon used this and saw an increase in the number of children achieving a good level of development, greater adult engagement in the learning process and a serious narrowing of the gap. The main reason for the success was due to the time allowed to be with the children, moment by moment coaching and scaffolding of learning.

How does this model run?

Initially time needs to be spent coaching the children on expectations: this is what we do here, this is how we learn.

  1. When children arrive, there are differentiated challenges which are linked to previous inputs or interests. The children work their way through these during the course of a week. 
  2. If parents are in the class at this juncture, they say goodbye and the children join the adult at the carpet. After the initial ‘hello and welcome’ the main focus is on the learning that the children have already done. Open ended questions support this (‘Did I see you…? What did you discover?’) This can be worked on a Rota basis. The focus is on children talking about their learning and gaining confidence to talk to others. 
  3. Ideally, complete the phonics teaching as soon as possible so children have prolonged periods of time to apply learning. The key is to communication between the adults. The adult introduces the challenges of the day and the children use talking partners to plan their learning.
  4. Following prolonged, uninterrupted learning time, have an adult nearby to support learning and language development. At Salford Primary the team had a wonderful snack time complete with price list. Children were given tokens to ‘purchase’ their snack, (a good application of mathematical understanding), an adult was stationed in the area to support language development and key skills such as use of cutlery and cutting. Do look at focus activities as interventions: what do specific children need in order to move forward? Adults can support children in self-initiated activities and observations can be carried out. At the end of the session, children focus on what has been learned through recapping and supporting.

The afternoon session that follows is a blueprint of a very successful model (without the phonics input). I have omitted assembly times and other parts of the day that you might have to adhere to (e.g. ICT suite and PE) but it gives you a structure to adapt.

Setting out your physical environment is key and, depending on the space you have available, you might have to compromise or extend.

Non-negotiable areas include:

  • cosy and comfy book corners (do ensure that books permeate all areas)
  • role play (indoors and out)
  • Construction and Creative
  • writing opportunities throughout
  • signage and key prompts for question streams to support adults
  • displays that reflect learning and give children ownership of what goes on the display, for example: ‘I am proud of this because…’ Also include the ‘wow’ moments from home to strengthen the home/school link – these can be used as a display in the entrance foyer.

Look at each zone and ensure that there are opportunities for mathematical thinking and application (ideally have number lines and 100 squares readily available).

To deal with any outdoor problems, zone off the area into different learning bays with resources the children can access independently – storage trolleys are excellent here. Children can help adults by deciding what they want and where, and having a responsibility to put things back afterwards.

Last Updated: 
16 Jul 2018