What to expect in the Early Years (Ages 3–4)
If your child is aged 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 children aged three to five years old. 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
One of the main aspects of your child’s time at nursery will be a focus on 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. There will be opportunities to build confidence and self-awareness, and also to manage their feelings and behaviour.
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.
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:
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 begin to learn about 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 to develop control and hand-eye co-ordination. They may begin to learn to copy the letters in their name.
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.
Finally, imagination and creativity are explored and developed in the area of expressive arts. Your child will explore different media and materials and be encouraged to 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 there’s no need for concern! They may well be covering all kinds of important learning: 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?
Talking and listening
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.
Why not try baking together? This is a fun way to learn to follow instructions and to chat together about what you are doing.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Top free resources for 3–4-year-olds on the Oxford Owl website
- Try out one of the recipes on our cooking page.
- Choose one of our free eBooks to share together. Choose a wordless book, like Fetch , and ask your child to tell you the story!
- Storyteller videos are another fun way to share a story together.
- There are lots of free maths and literacy activities on our Progress with Oxford
- You could also take a look at some of our maths games.
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 in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, but do refer to the following curriculum links for more detail:
- Early Years Foundation Stage Statutory Framework in England
- Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland: Experiences and Outcomes
- Curriculum for Wales: Foundation Phase Framework
- Curricular Guidance for Pre-School Education in Northern Ireland
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