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We know that you probably have a pretty good understanding of continuous provision already. But it's important to explain some important principles that we’re going to be focusing on to make sure we’re all on the same page.
Continuous provision is the resources and areas that you have laid out for your children to explore freely. They should be safe to explore, as well as being challenging and engaging. They should leave some ambiguity so that children can be creative with the way they approach it, but they also need to follow the interests of your group as well as their next steps.
A properly set out continuous provision should give children the freedom to be independent choice-makers. It's perfect for encouraging your children to be active learners, and to take control of their own learning.
Most of all, it should be carefully thought out and planned with every single little one in mind.
Planning continuous provision is something a lot of people struggle with. We’re not going to have all the answers in this one article, but what we will say is that your observations are absolutely crucial.
See, continuous provision should be constantly evolving with your children’s interests and next steps in mind and you can only do this if you’re observing the children and their interests. You need to watch out for the areas that are being used and even more importantly the ones that are not.
You should look at assessing and overhauling your provision completely at least 3 times a year, but really it depends on the setting. Making changes to your provision should be informed by your observations and group interests and if something isn’t working you shouldn’t wait until the next assessment cycle to change it.
That’s where making small assessments and changes throughout the year can help to ensure you’ve got a continuous provision that works for your children.
So now that we know what we mean by continuous provision, let’s take a look at some steps you can take to improve your provision today. And what better place to start than with you…
Continuous provision is certainly not a case of just sitting back and letting the kids explore.
Instead of being teachers here, adults are facilitators. They should go into the children’s space and understand their interests, rather than pulling them out of what they’re engaged with.
There will be hundreds of little opportunities to scaffold or support each child’s learning while they are engaged in activities that fascinate them. This can happen during your planning but it can also happen in the way you engage with the children during their play.
It might be using open-ended questions or helping to support their language development by giving them the vocabulary they need to explain what they’re doing. It’s also a crucial moment in which practitioners can learn more about their key children and help to provide a more enabling environment for them at your nursery.
No nursery or pre-school ‘needs’ to have a certain area. No matter what a website tells you or what the setting down the road has, your areas should be about the children in your setting and what they want.
That means you shouldn’t hold onto an area just because you think it’s best practice. If the children aren’t engaged in it, then it’s not working. Full stop. This could be the way that the area is set up, the type of resources in it, or even the concept altogether.
This is where your assessment and observation is most important. You can tweak areas and see if engagement improves – but you shouldn’t be pushing children towards areas that they are not interested in. If they don’t want to go there, the problem is with the area, not with the child because every single part of the provision should be engaging and valuable.
Not sure where your current provision stands on this? Try out the ‘Why?’ test. Simply go around the provision and ask why every single part of it is there. It could be because it’s fulfilling a child’s interest or it could be a developmental need. Anything can be the answer to your why question, but if you can’t find an answer at all then the chances are that it needs to go.
In this great article from Alistair Bryce-Clegg, he explains that one of the biggest challenges in continuous provision is that children tend to engage only with what’s familiar to them.
Now that’s not a problem in and of itself. It’s good that they’re engaged and happy learners tend to be successful learners. But challenging every child is important too, and if your children are always going to the same familiar resource and engaging in low-level behaviour, then they’re unlikely to be progressing.
The answer to this is in understanding common play behaviours for every area of your continuous provision. To do this, you need to take each area and list all the activities that children might engage in there. Once you’re done, you split that list into emerging, mid-level and high-level activities.
Then, you make sure that you provide the resources for children to engage with the area at every level. That might mean providing tools that require finer motor control, or larger collections of certain things to improve their number recognition.
Whatever it is, it’s not about telling the children what level of resource they need to engage with. You just need to provide them with the options to progress to higher level activity. As a practitioner, you can see that the separation is there, but each child is simply seeing a range of interesting things to play with.
Continuous provision is really about allowing the children to go on a learning journey on their own terms. They should be able to visit old explorations of course, but also to follow their interests into new ones.
They are more than just filler time in between your adult-led activities, and the children need enough time to fully explore their ideas when they’re playing.
In order to give the children this time, you need to make sure that the structure of your day is not stopping them from getting the time they need to fully explore each new concept.
How? Think about every time that you interrupt the children in order to pull everyone together. Is every circle time necessary? Does lunch needs to be at 12 on the dot? One great idea is to swap a fixed group snack time out in favour of offering children self-service snacks. This means children can eat when they’re ready to rather than being pulled out of something they’re completely engaged in for the sake of a carrot stick or two.
It might seem like continuous provision should come without boundaries. After all, it’s about children exploring the resources you lay out and getting an opportunity to lead their own learning.
However you do need to understand where the boundaries of the provision lay. For starters, you obviously need to risk assess and ensure you’re in line with correct safeguarding practice.
However, the boundaries are also about appropriate behaviour too. When you introduce a new area, you need to consider the different ways children might choose to engage with it. Many of these will be completely acceptable, and in fact, often the children can surprise you with incredibly creative ways to explore your provision.
But you also need to be aware of what is not acceptable behaviour. Setting these boundaries with your staff is incredibly important to make sure that they can properly monitor everything that’s going on and step in where necessary.
Making this clear ensures that free play doesn’t turn into inappropriate behaviour, but more importantly that your staff don’t step in to quash a child’s creativity just because the boundaries were unclear.
“A member of staff was doing an activity with playdough when a child wanted to come in and put water in the playdough and she stopped him. That is not outstanding practice.
But within 30 seconds she realised she’d made a mistake and so in front of the inspector she went to her line manager and said “I’ve made a mistake and I need to change it”.
Together they brought the child back in, brought the water with them and they developed the activity into something completely different.
In her report, the inspector noted specifically that this was outstanding practice. She said it doesn’t matter that she made a mistake, she acknowledged it, she did something about it, and she engaged the child with the child initiated choice. That was the outstanding practice.”
- Becky Pike, Partner, Hollies Day Nurseries
Ensuring that children are challenged and progressing can be a little more difficult with continuous provision than it is with adult-led activities.
This is where a lot of what we’ve already discussed links together. Being a facilitator is where you get opportunities to stretch children’s learning, by asking open-ended questions and pointing them towards more high-level resources.
Making sure that these high level resources are already there in the first place is also essential. That’s where it’s important that you understand the common play behaviours and make sure there’s opportunities across the spectrum.
And how to make sure that the resources are providing value? That’s where your assessment and observations come in handy, and where it’s important to listen to your children, rather than what might be considered best practice by someone else.
By following some of these ideas, you’re more likely to have a continuous provision that provides an effective environment for the children in your setting. Not only will it engage them, but it should successfully challenge them and help them to progress with their learning.
Here’s a few of the pieces we used to research this article that we wanted to recommend in case you wanted to learn more:
Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.