The foundation stage, unifying the curriculum for three to five-year-olds, including those in reception classes, took effect in September 2000.
The curriculum guidance emphasises that young children learn through play and sets out learning goals reflecting progressive stages of development in six "areas of experience": personal, social and emotional development; communication, language and literacy; mathematical development; knowledge and understanding of the world; physical development; and creative development.
The guidance is used by all providers, from childminders to state schools.
Its principles state that parents and practitioners should work together, that an early years curriculum should be carefully structured, including purposeful and well-planned activities indoors and outdoors; and that it should acknowledge children's different starting points. Practitioners need to understand that children develop rapidly, and they should build on what children already know and can do.
Literacy goals, for example, build from enjoying rhythm and distinguishing one sound from another to writing simple words and naming letters. Literacy development focuses heavily on speaking and listening, with children encouraged to learn rhymes, use their imagination and play word games.