Ministers are proposing a new curriculum for three, four and five-year-olds, nicknamed "key stage zero".
Under plans being drawn up by curriculum advisers, pre-school children will be given a highly-structured programme, moving from play to formal learning.
It prepares them for the Government's literacy and numeracy strategies later on in primary school. But it also acknowledges the importance of informal learning, including sociability and communication.
This week, education minister Margaret Hodge told early- years campaigners that the Government was planning to implement a "distinct" phase.
She said: "You will be delighted to know we are looking at whether we should have a foundation key stage for early years."
Ms Hodge made her comments at a Westminster reception to mark 75 years of the British Association for Early Childhood Education.
As part of the overall curriculum review for 2000, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is expected to scrap the present system of "desirable learning outcomes for nursery education" - targets children are expected to have reached by the age of five. Critics say the outcomes are too prescriptive and insufficiently play-based.
Professor Kathy Slyva, of Oxford University, who is heading a five-year Government research project into early-years education, said: "It's no secret many of us want to see a curriculum for three to six-year-olds, with a beefed up social content. All the research suggests that overly-formal education in the early years does not lead to successful learning later on."
Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said: "I was absolutely thrilled when I heard the minister's comment. We have to end the farce of this early emphasis on formal learning."
There are still battles to be fought over the precise shape of the early-years curriculum, however.
Professor Slyva said: "Although most parents want their children in full-time education as soon as possible, they also want a liberalised early-years curriculum."