A call for an Early Years Programme

I have been teaching in Early Childhood for almost 20 years, and in IB schools for nine of those years. I am passionate about the rights of children to play, to follow their interests, and to be leaders of their own learning. Over the last several years, I have  been on an inquiry path, exploring, and testing out ideas on how I can create the best early years practise within the IB PYP. I have concluded that there needs to be an Early Years Programme (EYP), alongside the PYP, MYP, DP and CP. What follows are my thoughts on where we are now and why I believe this programme should be created. I also begin to explore what I envisage an EY programme could be.

Photo by Caroline van der Merwe

(Please note that I don’t have all the answers and am writing with 3 and 4-year-old’s in mind. I do not mean to leave out 5 years old’s but I do understand that developmentally, they are on the cusp and as such there are different expectations of five-year-olds in most IB schools. However, I do believe that all children have a right to play and happily include them in the EYP!)


The IB PYP was introduced in 1997 and is designed for children 3-12. The programme has grown and adapted over the years and sets a high standard for inquiry teaching around the world. However, it was not until 2015/16 that it was acknowledged that the needs of our youngest learners were different from the rest of the elementary school. A document was created that gave significant guidance and support to teachers in the early years. This document saw play as the vehicle through which all children learned best and gave teachers the professional autonomy to open up their units to begin following children’s interests.

“The processes of learning and teaching are crafted to support students’ individual and emergent pathways of development.” (IB PYP The Early Learner, 2015)

These changes gave a stronger voice to early childhood teachers, providing not only  guidelines for teachers, but also principals, PYP coordinators, and even single subject specialists, finding a common understanding on the importance of play. 

However, even in the most play-based of environments, all PYP teachers must follow units of inquiry, and that means that the majority of the planning is completed in advance. The pre-planning of each unit, even with the best of intentions, still involves deciding what the children might be interested in, and what the learning might be. This has resulted in some early years classrooms continuing to live up to the expectation of having units and inquiries that are designed with the whole class in mind; and the curiosity, interests and wonderings of individual children are often not acknowledged or documented. 

Walk into any early years classroom, and you may well see what inquiry the class is doing, how they have tuned in, found out, sorted out, gone further and taken action. What can be harder to find is the documentation on each child’s inquiries outside of the scope of a unit. It is in these spaces where children learn to see themselves as learners, to dig deeper and go further. As it currently stands under the PYP, there isn’t an authentic space for those individual inquiries to happen, and this is what early childhood education is all about.

As PYP teachers, we plan the central ideas, sort out lines of inquiry, and decide on the concepts, learner profile and AtLs for each unit. In doing so, we are removing space for children to discover and explore on their own. Over the years, I have advocated for central ideas to be broad and open, and explored starting a unit with no lines of inquiry. These have helped me to create an environment that honours children’s play, their ideas and thinking; however, this comes with no guarantees. I am fortunate in the support I receive from colleagues, my PYP coordinator and principal, their understanding of the importance of play, and their trust in me and my knowledge gives me this freedom to explore. I have been in professional development settings where I have been told that what is done in a Grade 5 classroom can “just be simplified for a class of 3-year-olds”. An early years classroom is not a mini elementary classroom, and it never should be. Teachers should not have to compromise what is best practice to meet the expectations of others, who with the best of intentions, don’t always understand that play is how children learn best and that it is each child, not a unit, that drives this play. 

It is because of this unfamiliarity (which so often leads to misunderstanding) of early childhood, that I believe we need an Early Years programme — giving everyone a greater understanding of what our youngest learners’ needs and challenges are and the vital role that play has in each child’s learning. 


Reggio Emilia is an educational philosophy and pedagogy that acknowledges that the needs of our youngest children are different from their older peers. This philosophy was developed after World War II and is an approach that is student-centred and constructivist, with a focus on relationships. 

“We don’t want to teach children something that they can learn by themselves. We don’t want to give them thoughts that they can come up with by themselves. What we want to do is activate within children the desire and will and great pleasure that comes from being the authors of their own learning.” (Loris Malaguzzi, Your Image of the Child: Where Teaching Begins 1993)

Anji play is an early childhood curriculum developed by Cheng Xueqin in Zhejiang Province, China. Here they honour the child’s right to play and to direct their learning while taking risks. After signing on to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, China released the “Standards for Kindergarten Education”, these standards view play as a foundational activity that must be included in every educational activity. 

“True engagement arises from the process of a child’s passionate exploration and discovery of the physical and social worlds. Anji Play confers the greatest degree of freedom to the child, allowing the child opportunities to move within an open-ended space, to fully explore and experience the surrounding environment, and therefore fully engage body and mind.” (Cheng Xueqin)

New Zealand was one of the first countries to recognise that early childhood was a separate and distinct stage of education, and in doing so, they introduced Te Whariki – Early Childhood Curriculum. Here principles, standards, goals and learning outcomes are weaved together with an intentional focus on community.

Te Whariki was adopted by the government, giving it equal placement alongside the primary (elementary) and high school curriculums. 

“Te Whāriki holds the promise that all children will be empowered to learn with and alongside others by engaging in experiences that have meaning for them. This requires kaiako (teachers) to actively respond to the strengths, interests, abilities and needs of each child and, at times, provide them with additional support in relation to learning, behaviour, development or communication.”(Te Whāriki – 1996)

Many countries around the world have also adopted early childhood curriculums as they have come to recognise the importance of this age group and its unique needs and challenges. All have given teachers a starting point in which to begin to articulate children’s play and share that learning with families and the community. In turn, giving others a chance to understand it’s not ‘just’ play, children are learning and learning in a way that is age-appropriate and authentic to them. 

These philosophies and curriculums also rely on quality documentation, and in the case of Reggio Emilia and Te Whariki, this is in the form of learning stories. It is the documentation that links the play with the framework, giving teachers, parents and the community a common understanding of the learning that is happening. Documentation also enables teachers, parents and children to revisit and reflect on the learning journeys, thus strengthening children’s understanding of the world around them.

The IB PYP already encourages and supports these; however, for young children, it’s vital that they are engaged, and their learning has a real-world context. All children throughout their school career need to be engaged; however, for young children they don’t yet understand the role education plays in their lives; to them, the whole world and everyone in it is a classroom. They are very busy figuring it all out, and by asking children to stop their learning to join me in something I have planned to meet a predetermined central idea or line of inquiry feels counterproductive. My planning should revolve around children’s inquiries, and I should have a programme that underpins that. 

An EY programme would give all early years teachers working within the IB a sense of value and place within that framework. Just as each of the other programmes is separate and an essential stage of education, so should early childhood be.


As part of the IB, we already have what we need to create a successful early years programme; however, to ensure that it is authentic and age-appropriate, we need to remove some aspects. I believe that, like the PYP, an EY programme should be conceptual, with the learner profile and approaches to learning, creating a solid framework that values and acknowledges children’s right to play. It is vital to build on the work that has already been done in early years in the PYP. These documents should continue to play a critical role in articulating the new EY programme. 

Concepts, the learner profile and AtLs weave themselves within each child’s play, supporting their interests, passions and inquiries. Each is supporting the other, enabling children to grow their understanding throughout their time in the early years. None is explicitly taught, instead, modelled with provocations that spark curiosity to develop multiple aspects of the framework. 

Teachers do not have to wait for a unit to come along; rather, each child’s path is acknowledged, extended and documented as it arises. Their learning is relevant and authentic to them; they are the leaders of their learning. Their choice and voice in their agency is loud and clear.


Under the PYP, an early years class has four units of inquiry; these give teachers and elementary schools as a whole, a template from which to work and assess. Those coming into the school can see what skills, concepts etc. children will learn. 

However, my vision for an EY programme would be a little different, and documentation is the key to this. Teachers record children’s play, their ideas and projects either via digital platforms like Storypark, Seesaw or in paper format. These observations are then used to assess the learning, track children’s journeys, share with parents and plan next steps for teachers.

I currently document using a style similar to learning stories; these are recorded using Storypark where I add tags that reflect the concepts, learner profile and AtLs and currently, the transdisciplinary theme. These tags enable me to track each child, my class or the whole early years. As a team, we can assess which areas have not been explored and brainstorm ideas for next steps. The entire process enables teachers to use assessment of, for and as learning. 

It is in the very nature of recording children’s thinking, inquires and play processes that we gain an understanding of where we are as teachers and where to move to next. Documentation gives us the ability to articulate the learning that has taken place, affording a greater understanding of play for parents and the community. Each time a teacher documents a child’s play, they are themselves learning, gaining a clearer picture of that child and his/her understanding of the world.

Documentation in early childhood creates the data, which allows teachers focus and accountability in the same way a unit planner does for PYP. It would also allow for those who have not previously worked in early childhood to strengthen their understanding of how children learn through play. 

All this, in turn, strengthens relationships between children, families and teachers. It is these relationships which support all that we do.  


Like many EY educators, I believe that without an EY programme, there will continue to be a disconnect between EY teachers and those who support or interact with them and this can be disheartening and tiring. With an EY programme, teachers and their students would feel a greater sense of value, place and power knowing that play is at the forefront of the programme they are delivering.

I believe it is time for change, it’s time to give early childhood its place in the IB as a valued and separate stage of education. 

All children are born with immense potential, and quality early learning helps our children begin to realise that potential and build a strong foundation for later learning and for life’. (Te Whāriki – 1996)


As early childhood teachers, we must start this change by asking ourselves the following questions: how can I initiate conversations with colleagues to promote the power of play? And, how do I share the importance of play and early childhood education, so that others’ eyes are opened to this significant and separate stage of development?

Photo by Caroline van der Merwe

We must be advocates and champions of change, this can only happen if we open ourselves to probing conversations with those outside of an EY classroom. Questions like:

  • Why must we be the same as a Grade 1 classroom? 
  • Does all the educational research include children younger than 5? 
  • What can elementary teachers learn from EY? 

These questions and more can help others unpack why, as EY teachers, we are asking for a programme that is separate from the PYP. 

However, conversations must come with action. It is always easier for those on the outside to begin to understand how an EY programme might look if we demonstrate it ourselves. Along with deep conversations about play, learning and an EY programme with my colleagues, PYP coordinator and Principal, I will be putting my idea into action. I will be documenting my journey, sharing what I am learning along the way, adapting and modifying as I go. Always my driving focus will remain, What is best practice in early childhood? 

All of this changes the role of the teacher, a role that becomes much more difficult and complex. It also makes the world of the teacher more beautiful, something to become involved in.(Reggio Emilia)


  1. Helen, you wrote: “I believe it is time for change, it’s time to give early childhood its place in the IB as a valued and separate stage of education.” Like you, I have long believed this should happen and I also thought it would happen under the auspices of the IBPYP Early Years documentation. I hope the changes that need to be made, are the radar of the change-makers at the IB.

    I appreciate that you not only walk the walk every day at school, but that you talk the talk. That this post was so long in the pipeline to testament to that. I am thrilled to be to continue to support you as you stride out and bring about sustainable and knowledgeable change in our little corner of the world, which will impact preschools (I hope) for many years to come.

    Thank you for documenting and sharing our journey. It is a pleasure to learn and teach alongside you, and to see on Twitter that there is so much support for this stance.


    1. Thanks, Paula, I could not have become the teacher that I am without your guidance and support. You have pushed me to challenge myself and become stronger and better.
      I am grateful that we have been able to work together!


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