One of the authors of the Early Years Foundation Stage framework has said fears that it will formalise learning for pre-school children are unfounded.
Professor John Oates, senior lecturer in developmental psychology and visiting professor at University College Plymouth St Mark and St John, wrote the "development matters" sections of the guidance, which is due to become statutory for all those working with children under 5 in September.
Distinguished early years and education experts, including Penelope Leach and Tim Brighouse, signed an open letter in The TES last term saying the framework allows no space for alternative ideas on how to care for pre-school children. Their Open Eye campaign gave the example that an early head start in literacy can precipitate emotional and behavioural difficulties.
But Professor Oates said: "The framework is not about specifying formal learning for children before school entry. Instead, it's primarily about the most important informal aspects of early childhood, such as playing, being creative, experiencing warm, supportive relationships with brothers, sisters, friends and adults - indeed, having fun.
"It's about understanding the milestones that children achieve in development and how best to give them the sorts of environments and experiences in which they can thrive."
While the campaign's original letter raised concerns about literacy learning, the follow-up petition on the Downing Street website calls for the framework to be introduced as guidance, rather than law.
The Open Eye campaign does recognise that some aspects of the framework are "laudable".
"We are certainly not against government intervention in the early years sphere per se and we appreciate the resources that government has recently devoted to the field," it said.
Debbie Hepplewhite, a member of the Reading Reform Foundation which advocates synthetic phonics, was one of the signatories.
"I think 5 is a good age to teach phonics," she said. "But I think Steiner schools are entitled to a different philosophy and parents need to make their own minds up."