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Integrating the local context into the curriculum to support students with the transition from ‘Understanding the World’ in the EYFS to history in Key Stage 1

Written by: Verity Downing and Stuart Boydell
8 min read
Verity Downing, Early Years Practitioner and Doctoral Researcher, UK
Stuart Boydell, Key Stage 1 Teacher, Chartered History Teacher and Historical Association Primary Committee member, UK

The 2021 academic year saw the new ‘Development matters’ (DfE, 2021) come into force. In light of this, teachers were encouraged to consider how they create a bespoke Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) curriculum that emphasises the role of communities as ‘living practices that bring meaning and value’ (Early Education, 2021, p. 37), within which ‘place, space and histories are important’(Early Education, 2021, p. 37). Developing a curriculum and continuous provision that is rooted in the setting’s local community is central to the teaching of Understanding the World.

These policy changes create a continuum within the primary sector by drawing together a common emphasis on topic and skills-based learning. Now Early Years and Key Stage 1 teachers alike can introduce historical-based skills within the context of their students’ unique personal history. The invaluable foundations laid within the EYFS in this area pave the way for Key Stage 1 teachers to successfully introduce the National Curriculum local history requirements and prepare their students for Key Stage 2. Based on our years of combined classroom practice, we will offer suggestions on how to do this.

What is ‘Understanding the World’?

‘Understanding the World’ is a specific area of the EYFS curriculum that is divided into three sections: people and communities, the world and technology (Early Education, 2021). It is intended to support ‘children to make sense of their expanding world and their place within it’ (Early Education, 2021, p. 44). By the end of their time in the EYFS, it is expected that students will, among other aspects, have developed an awareness of and respect for the lives of others in relation to their own; be beginning to comprehend comparisons of life today and life in the past; and be responsive to their local surroundings. Such understandings contribute to a student’s sense of identity, belonging and social responsibility.

Understanding the World and the curriculum

By design, the nature of the EYFS lends itself to the seamless integration of Understanding the World learning opportunities within continuous provision. Teachers can familiarise students with concepts of past and present and respecting others as a basic principle of their provision through considering the phrase ‘funds of knowledge’ (Moll et al., 1992, p. 132). This refers to using a student’s existing knowledge and interests as a framework through which to present new information, with the intention of transferring their already established skills to the new area through the attraction of self-interest, comfort and relatability, factors craved by young children.

Teachers who curate carefully considered provision that is rooted in an understanding of their students’ backgrounds, interests and experiences are providing their students with exceptionally effective, immersive learning opportunities. In previous years, freedom to curate a curriculum to achieve this may have seemed an elusive luxury for Early Years teachers. Excitingly, however, in light of the update to ‘Development matters’ (DfE, 2021), Early Years teachers are now in a considerably more autonomous position, in which they are encouraged to develop a curriculum that is relatable for their students (DfE, 2021; Early Education, 2021; Grenier, 2020). Teachers can capitalise on this welcome recognition of professional competency to develop their provision and teaching in a way more tailored than ever before. This will result in history and culture, in their naturally abstract forms, becoming concrete, tangible and accessible.

Understanding the World in the wider context and classroom

In the wider context, teachers and management teams may find it beneficial to increase the presence that their EYFS setting has within the local community. This integration will surely raise students’ awareness of their place within the local context and consequently increase interest and engagement. Schools may consider:

  • allocating a section of their site to be repurposed as a community allotment or book-swap hub
  • taking students to visit care homes where they sing, talk or read to residents
  • organising for students to make decorations for a local landmark – perhaps a history centre.

In addition to this, and when considering daily Understanding the World learning opportunities that centre on ‘people and communities’ (Early Education, 2021, p. 42), teachers might consider:

  • using music, art, dance and cooking as mediums through which to discuss countries and cultures with young children – the integration of as many senses as possible creates a truly immersive learning experience
  • arranging trips to local community cornerstones or hosting visitors from these places – here, real-life experiences can be had and the notion of serving and maintaining the local area can be explored.

To assist with Understanding the World learning opportunities that centre specifically on history, teachers may:

  • ask a grandparent from the school to visit and talk to children about their past, especially their own childhood, to open the discussion of past and present
  • consider the theme of the role-play area – for example, if the school is based in a Victorian building, the role-play area could become a Victorian school, with resources and pictures from the time.

The transition into Key Stage 1

In the EYFS, it is crucial that students are presented with opportunities to explore history and culturally based concepts that have an immediate connection to their understanding of their environment and life experiences. This will support them to become accustomed to regularly interacting with these concepts when they move into Key Stage 1, and beyond into Key Stage 2, as here, students will begin to interact with local history in more standalone and distinguished lessons.

Developing a link between students in Reception and Year 1 could be beneficial in creating a smooth and successful key stage transition. In light of the new EYFS guidance encouraging the integration of the local context into the curriculum in a way more traditionally recognisable to Key Stage 1 teachers, the opportunity for the sharing of resources and topics has become newly available and undoubtedly appealing. Teachers from both key stages should make a concerted effort to collaborate their attention and time to foster this. Where the timetable and project timescales allow, it could be arranged, as an example, for Key Stage 1 students to spend time in Reception classrooms talking with the younger students about their history topic. Such an approach benefits both key stages, as Reception students often respond well to peer-to-peer learning, while Key Stage 1 students will have the opportunity to consolidate their understanding.

Local history in Key Stage 1

The geographical remit of local history has been a topic of debate since the 1940s (Marshall, 1997; Hoskins, 1984), with many differing opinions being offered, yet, thankfully, the National Curriculum does not impose any specific geographical boundaries on the definition of local. Dixon and Hale (2015) suggest that local history can represent the history of a single building, street, district, town or region, which consequently affords teachers the scope to select which aspects of ‘local’ that they integrate into the curriculum. Despite an uncertain context, primary teachers can be reassured in the knowledge that, regardless of which elements they choose, no locally based history teaching is without benefit, due to it being widely recognised that a grasp of local history is the springboard from which an understanding of national and international history can developed (DfE, 2013).

In Key Stage 1, the National Curriculum stipulates that students learn about key significant local people, events and places in the past (DfE, 2013). Ideally, local history projects should shape the majority of Key Stage 1 history schemes of work, with the specific focus of communities in the past acting as a guide for historical-based investigations. History schemes of work at this stage can be used by teachers to build upon the foundations of critical historical and geographical skills that will have been introduced in the EYFS. This will provide students with opportunities to expand on their existing knowledge of local history and progress to forming links to regional, national and even international history.

What does local history look like in a Key Stage 1 classroom?

How local history is interpreted within a classroom depends on the individual context of the school. It would be logical for students attending schools in South West England to be taught about Isambard Kingdom Brunel in their history and geography lessons; however, this topic would have little resonance for a school in the north-east of the country. Local history affords primary teachers the freedom to be creative and proactive in developing a bespoke skills-based history curriculum that establishes the vital link between the students, their education and their locality.

While it is encouraged that teachers tailor their provision, this must not be interpreted as an additional insurmountable task to consider. Rather, teachers will likely discover that this manner of curriculum curation will abate their workload, principally due to the accessibility of enrichment activities. Local experts (such as librarians, museum employees and members of historical societies), venues for potential trips and access to artefacts and evidence are seldom far away. Teachers should also note that there are principles of teaching local history that are common to most schemes of work, and which can be easily applied to various local contexts and historical periods. For example, skills of text and pictorial interpretation, observation and comparison are widely applicable.

Practical applications

  • Establish in advance the period of history/event/significant local person that will be the most appropriate for specific year groups and the school’s geographical context.
  • Determine a principal enquiry question and outline which key historical skills the students will be expected to develop. From this, the scheme of work will evolve. These points will also lend themselves to developing a programme of activities and sub-enquiry questions to guide the progression of the project.
  • Gather information from the locality. This can be actioned by establishing links with local experts, trip venues and features of the local community. In the interest of developing a continuum of best practice, discuss this with the school’s EYFS teachers and build upon the links that they have already forged within the community.
  • Apply this sentiment to local resources; the more real-life artefacts and evidence that students can interact with in a multimedia fashion, the more valuable the learning experience will be. Teachers may consider borrowing objects from local places to present in class, such as a map from the local library.
  • Recognise the importance of being reactive and flexible in the classroom. Students will often bring an object into school that is loosely relevant but results in the local history topic taking off in an unexpected direction. Local history is an open-ended discipline that is subject to interpretation and, as previously stated, no learning opportunity within this context is futile.

Concluding thoughts

The recent changes to EYFS guidance have greatly increased the chances of meaningful collaboration with Key Stage 1. Teachers will likely find taking a common approach to delivering the themes and skills that now link Understanding the World and Key Stage 1 history notably beneficial. Students will become accustomed to interacting with concepts of people and place within the security of the familiar cross-curricular and thematic approach of the Foundation Stage., This can establish a coherent whole-school programme of study, which will aid with the tracking and monitoring of student progression within the humanities subjects across the complete primary age range, from the EYFS, through Key Stage 1 and into Key Stage 2.

An increased presence within the locality for students in both key stages will encourage reciprocal relations and community links. As it is widely accepted that ‘building awareness through first-hand experiences has lasting impact’ (Early Education, 2021, p. 27), the importance of integrating students with their surroundings, both geographical and cultural, cannot be underestimated. Teachers have the privileged position of being able to actively foster respect, empathy, identity and belonging among their students by celebrating the unique diversity of each school, its past and present context, and the people who make it.

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