Early years: When topic-based learning goes wrong

It’s supposed to be fun, but a half term of, say, pirate-themed learning can leave you and your students feeling adrift, argues Dulcinea Norton

eyfs play based learning

Two hours into planning time and I still couldn’t think of a pirate-based maths activity. 

When I eventually did, it turned out to be dull and most of the children were completely uninterested.

What a waste of time.


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Every activity, area and enhancement in my classroom had been linked to pirates for the past five weeks. It had been a child-led interest; all kids like pirates! Right?

Not this lot. In fact, many of them seemed to now hate pirates.

In my first two years of teaching, I wasted countless hours struggling to think of ways to keep children engaged in my half-term topic.

Weeks one to three were usually brilliant. Then came weeks four to six. Suddenly it wasn’t all fun and games anymore.

There is a limit to how long a teacher can remain enthusiastic about a topic. That time frame is much shorter for young children. 

On top of that, there will always also be the child that was never interested in the topic in the first place. They disengage in the first week and often stay that way for the full half term.

Many EYFS teachers will have had similar experiences. You see an interest, or a seasonal link, that inspires your topic for the next half term. The Gruffalo, for example.  For six weeks. Six whole weeks of The Gruffalo.

Young children have limited attention spans, which means that effective topic-based planning in the EYFS needs to be dynamic and flexible in order to succeed.

So why do we do it?

Topic-based planning has many benefits. It teaches children about subjects they may not come across otherwise or those that they see every day but need a deeper understanding of. It creates new schemas.

When carried into challenges, role play and enhanced provision, a Gingerbread Man topic, for example, can introduce a vast bank of literary language and schemas relating to baking, shops and animals. 

When topics are based around a common interest, you know that most of the children will be hooked.

When based around something new, it gives you the opportunity to totally immerse them in the topic. And when done well, it can be great.

How can you tell when it’s gone too far?

  • You’re spending hours trying to link activities to your topic because you feel you should.

  • Every single area in your classroom is linked to your topic.
  • The children have reached saturation point and don’t seem to be learning anything new.
  • Several children have lost interest or were never interested in the first place.
  • You hate the topic and never want to do it ever again. When you see something on TV related to your topic and consider throwing something heavy at the screen.

How to avoid it going too far

  • Choose your topic based on children’s interests, the season or an area of learning that the children need.

  • Treat medium-term plans as useful banks of ideas, not set-in-stone plans.
  • Limit your topic to role play and just a couple of areas or challenges per week.
  • Don’t be afraid to introduce activities or resources that aren’t unrelated to the topic.
  • Become an expert observer of your children. Loving the topic? Continue for another week. Losing interest? Maybe ditch it and move on.
  • Have a variety of other activities and resources available. Maybe they have absolutely no interest in the topic, even if it is popular with the rest of the class.

Most importantly of all, when it comes to topic-based learning, it’s crucial to have the confidence to be flexible and go off plan.

After all, the joy of early years lies in the unpredictability and imagination of the children.

Dulcinea Norton is an early years teacher from Lancashire. She blogs at magicalmess.weebly.com

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