Early years home ed: simple essentials

I’ve always felt that home education is more a mindset, a whole family approach, a philosophy of family life, rather than something you suddenly decide to do to your kids when they turn a certain age. It starts as soon as your baby begins to grow in utero as they are exposed to the sensory stimulus your body and experiences provide, which influences foetal development. And then it continues from birth, when you, as a parent or carer, are intimately involved in your child’s development, watching and guiding as they learn to laugh, love, interact, sit, crawl, cruise, walk, run, talk – etc etc – the list goes on and on. Sadly in our society we seem to be encouraged to ‘give up’ this essential element of parenting as many children enter pre-school and the development of early literacy, numeracy, cognitive and social skills is handed over to the so-called “professionals” in “specialised” early years learning environments. The fact of the matter is for centuries our little ones have been learning and developing alongside us without the need for specialised people, approaches or equipment which can so often be invasive and dictatorial in some attempt to force kids along a pre-defined trajectory of development.

These early years are such an exciting time as you watch your precious child first master basic physical and communication skills and then they suddenly become fascinated by sounds, letters, numbers, their imagination suddenly blossoms, they start to experiment with and explore the world around them, becoming increasingly adept at expressing themselves (hmmmmm…this bit can be fun! 😉 ) and you witness the little person you brought into the world bloom.

In recent years “early years” has become a bit of a buzz word and there’s an awful lot out there written about this period – you only need to glance at the EYFS for a minute and, in my opinion, fairly unnecessary, utilitarian break down of just some aspects of the learning that goes on at this critical time. Broadly speaking between the ages of 0-5 we, as parents/carers play a part in facilitating the development of imagination, creativity, proto -literacy and -numeracy skills, gross and fine motor skills, social skills, language and communication, and making sense of the world – and really all this happens quite naturally through play and exploration, as long as it’s fostered within an environment of love, respect, joy and acceptance.

We can help all this happen with surprisingly little.

Over the years, having worked in and observed various “early years settings” and having had my own three beautiful girls, I’ve found that there are a few very simple essentials which we return to again and again. None of these cost very much, many of them are things you may very well already have lying about or can make yourself. But, simple as they are (and the simpler the better!), they help to build that creative world in which a young child can flourish, and provide wonderful ‘props’ for their learning journey:

A large supply of paper, crayons, pencils and paint, and a pot of chalks for outdoor mark-making. At this age art really is for art’s sake. It’s all about the process rather than the end result and children need to be able to splodge and squidge and squodge without the need to produce an end-product that will satisfy an adult’s need for something to put on display. It’s about exploring colour and texture and what happens if you mix everything together and make a massive hole in the paper, and it’s about practising those fine motor skills. It doesn’t need to depict anything at all – “tell me about it?” is a far more inviting question than “what is it?” when posed to the child who has been caught up in the moment without a thought of producing anything “recognisable”. And it’s messy – and that’s ok 😉


Small world play. Young children instinctively engage in small world play, often taking whatever they can find lying about and turning them into characters in their imaginary world – as you can see in the photo below where Bod3 is sitting in the dog’s bed playing with pegs! Like role play, small world play enables the child to do so many things – to develop language skills, imagination, problem-solving skills, cause and effect, and independent play skills. But with small world play the child has a greater level of control and can be all the characters at once – allowing for fully immersive imaginative play. You need very little for this – pegs, sticks or stones will do, or toy cars, or animals – we like these nins which allow for wonderfully open-ended, creative play.

Manipulatives. These can be useful for introducing, playing with and exploring early literacy and numeracy concepts. We have a set of stones that we collected at the beach with consonants and vowels marked on which are so useful for learning sounds and building words. It cost nothing to create this set and yet they are much loved. We also have a set of Cuisenaire rods which are great for introducing mathematical concepts in a very hands-on way – at this age they’re also good for constructing, learning colours, and creating patterns. To be honest, you could probably make a set yourself from sticks or dowling rods if you’re handy with a penknife and a paintbrush.

Books. I’ve written a bit about books and reading in this post – but I’ll say it again, surround your child with books and read to them everyday. You’ll watch them develop early reading skills as they discover early on that the words are distinct from the pictures and carry information, that different letter shapes and combinations correspond to different sounds, that images convey meaning, and before long they’ll be having a go at reading books to themselves – either through memorisation, reading the pictures or making up their own fantastical stories. The next step – learning to read – starts here and is made so much easier if reading together is a joyful and organic process. Our favourite picture books?? – well perhaps that’s another post…

Sand, water and mud -and maybe some pots and spoons or sticks for mixing and pouring. Many kids have an affinity with mud and sand and water. They simply love mixing and pouring and creating often foul-smelling, gloopy concoctions which they bring, with great delight, to you to sample (my advice is to master the art of pretending to sip 😉 ). It’s great for imaginary play, learning about our world, sensory development, and dirt is good for the immune system right?

Wellies. Ok, I’m obsessed with wellies – and I’ve written about them here. Children are so happy out of doors and wellies allow them to get out in all weathers and explore all terrains. Once again – they learn so much about the world when they’re outdoors. All those gross motor skills come together outside and it’s a sensory heaven. If you’re interested have a look at Last Child in the Woods  or Vitamin N, both books by Richard Louv,  in which he explores why being out in nature is so important for our children and how to combat “nature-deficit disorder”.

Home corner play. This does not need to be elaborate, perhaps just a few items collected in a basket – but a place where children can play out the real world that they see around them, for that is how they make sense of it. Children love playing “mummies and daddies” and other real life or imaginary scenarios, copying word for word our conversations and mimicking our actions, or simply giving their own imagination free rein to roam. It allows them to engage in dramatic role play where they can pretend to be something different, and explore the boundaries of reality. Over the years I’ve collected bits and pieces at boot fairs and for birthdays – realistic looking play items such as tiny metal pots and pans, a wooden broom and dustpan and brush, a china tea service – children are drawn to real looking items, and these support them in their play as they seek to make sense of the real world around them.

Dressing up. A few simple scarves or cloaks are all you need to allow your child to become a character from a story, or something from their own imagination. Scarves, unlike pre-fabricated character costumes, are open-ended and can be used in multiple ways, allowing the imagination to expand and flow. And they can always be used to create tents and houses when they’re no longer employed as cloaks or garments. One of the most loved items we have is an old fleece scarf of my Grandma’s which I cut up, sewed a button on one corner, cut a hole on the other side, sewed a makeshift tail on the bottom and sewed two triangles onto a hairband for ears. The girls have, over the years, loved dressing up as, and being, cats and/or dogs in this cloak and many a happy hour has been had from this cast-off.


It goes without saying that, if possible, free access to all these things is key. It’s important that children can reach what they need at the moment they need it to allow their play and learning to be spontaneous and free flowing.

Just a few simple things to gather about you…

And when the sun is shining (um, or not! – when, oh when, will summer come?!) and the great wide world awaits, pop ’em in a sling and take ’em along with you wherever you go – a sense of joy and adventure is the best gift of all 🙂


Cathy xxxxx




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