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What to expect in the Early Years (age 3–4)

If your child is age 3–4, the chances are that they are in some form of Early Years setting, whether that is a nursery, preschool, playgroup, or with a childminder. This is a hugely important stage for your child’s learning, and it’s a really fun one too!

We have used the term ‘nursery’ below to refer to any of these Early Years settings.

What will my child do in the Early Years?

At this stage of their learning, your child will be mainly learning through play-based activities. They will also be learning about routine and developing early literacy and maths skills, learning about the world around them and learning social skills.

The importance of play

This year your child will begin to learn by doing things for themselves, by exploring and investigating, watching and listening, talking and discussing, creating, and communicating – in other words, playing.

Play is children’s work and playing hard is very tiring! Play can also be very messy as your child will be learning both inside with sand, water and paint, and also in the outdoors with mud, leaves and so on, so you can expect some mucky clothes at the end of the day.

The Early Years Foundation Stage

The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) is a curriculum for 3–5-year-old children. This is broken down into three prime aspects and four specific areas of learning. The three prime aspects of learning are:

Personal, social and emotional development

An important aspect of your child’s time at nursery will be their personal, social, and emotional development.

They will be encouraged to develop positive relationships, to play with a variety of friends and to understand the feelings of others. They will have lots of chances to build confidence and self-awareness, and also to manage their feelings and behaviour.

Communication

Communication is a key area of your child’s learning in nursery. They will spend lots of time sharing rhymes, songs, stories, and playing games to develop their speaking and listening skills.

They will be encouraged to learn to listen carefully, to develop concentration, to respond to questions and instructions, to share ideas and experiences, and to take part in conversations.

Physical development

Your child will be given lots of opportunities to move in different ways, for example, running, jumping, balancing and playing with balls. Another important aspect of physical development at this stage is learning to hold and use tools, such as scissors, and also to use pencils and pens to draw lines and shapes.

Your child will also begin to understand how to look after themselves and be healthy.

In addition to these three prime aspects of learning, there are four specific areas:

Literacy

The ‘Communication’ section above outlines some activities to develop speaking and listening skills. In addition to sharing lots of stories, your child will probably be encouraged to handle and look at books independently and to start learning how stories are structured.

There will be opportunities for your child to recognise their own name. Your child will be encouraged to draw, paint, and make things, so that they develop control and hand-eye co-ordination. They may begin to learn to copy the letters in their name.

Mathematics

At nursery, your child will be given many opportunities to explore numbers and shapes in their play. For example, they may be encouraged to count objects they are playing with and to compare two groups of objects. They will probably begin to represent numbers using their fingers, marks on paper, or pictures.

Understanding the world

Your child will learn about the world around them and they will be encouraged to use simple technology and equipment.

Expressive arts

Imagination and creativity are explored and developed in the area of expressive arts. Your child will explore different media and materials and will use their imagination in a range of different experiences.

Most of the time, your child will be learning all seven areas of learning together, in a fairly jumbled way. So if they spends lots of time in the sand area, for example, there’s no need for concern! They may well be covering all kinds of important learning, such as:

  • working with different materials
  • finding out about shape, quantity and volume
  • creating imaginative worlds
  • feeling different textures
  • and even developing motor skills and strength for writing!

How can I help my child?

1. Talk (and listen)

It seems very obvious, but at this stage one of the best things you can do for your child’s learning is to spend time talking together. They are constantly learning new words and will be exploring ways to build sentences and put words together through trial and error.

Encourage eye contact and back-and-forth conversation. Get them talking about the toys they are playing with. Ask them for their opinion about things – what is their favourite piece of equipment to play on in the park and why? Chat together about what you need to buy from the shop and encourage them to help you find items.

If you’re looking for an easy way to encourage conversation, why not try baking together? This is a fun way to learn to follow instructions and to chat together about what you are doing.

2. Read, read, read

Time spent reading together brings so many benefits to your child – and you! Through reading, your child will hear lots of words that they might not be as likely to come across in everyday conversation. They will also develop their listening skills and develop their understanding of how stories work.

Rhythm and rhyme are so important for early language development and, luckily, there are masses of wonderful books available. Encourage your child to talk about the pictures, or to make predictions about what will happen next. For more advice and ideas, take a look at our blog on using storytelling to develop reading and writing skills.

There’s no reason reading should be limited to stories, either – why not encourage your child to recognise and read print when you are out shopping, on the bus or at the park? Read our tips to help your child get ready to read.

3. Sing songs and rhymes

Have lots of fun singing songs and nursery rhymes together. Don’t worry about how good your singing voice is! Singing songs and saying rhymes can help your child to develop early language skills.

Have fun with numbers by singing counting songs, such as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5… Once I caught a fish alive. Other songs such as Ten Green Bottles or Three Little Frogs [PDF] progress in reverse order, which can be especially helpful when young children start thinking about adding and taking away.

Activity: Three Little Frogs rhyme

Sing this fun action rhyme with your child.

4. Point out numbers on the go

Point out the numbers you see when you are out and about and encourage your child to do the same. Look for bus numbers, prices and house numbers. When shopping, ask your child to select the number of apples or bananas you need – they’re helping you out, and learning at the same time.

5. Dress up

Dressing up and role play are great opportunities for talking and listening and for imaginative play. On a practical level, a fun dressing up session can help your child to practise getting themselves dressed. You can fit in a sneaky bit of training with those tricky zips, armholes and buttons.

How can I find free Early Years education for my child?

All children in the UK aged 3–4 are entitled to free part-time education:

  • Parents in England can find out more about Early Years settings here.
  • Parents in Scotland can find out about funded early learning and childcare here.
  • Parents in Wales can find more about free early education and childcare here.
  • Parents in Northern Ireland can find out more about free childcare here.

Early Years Curricula for England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland

The information on this page is based on the Early Years Foundation Stage in England. Much of this information is also relevant for children across the UK, but do refer to the following curriculum links for more detail:

Top free resources for 3–4-year-olds on Oxford Owl

For more ideas to help your 3–4-year-old thrive in the Early Years, take a look at our fun learning ideas for toddlers >

Video: How to help your child to count

Paul Repper discusses how to help your child learn to count using counting songs, counting games and other counting activities.

Copyright Oxford University Press 2020