Understanding the world

Personal experiences

Learn more about personal experiences as part of the early years foundation stage (EYFS) including advice from experts and suggested activities.

Why personal experiences are important

When children begin to understand their personal experiences, through interaction with adults and other children, they begin to make sense of the world.

Babies begin to develop a sense of self from birth and this is supported by how parents and carers respond and interact. Positive experiences and emotional attachments affect the baby’s development, in particular how they perceive themselves and how they relate to others.

Once a baby becomes mobile, the world starts to look very different. They start to use facial expressions and pointing to indicate their needs in addition to sounds like crying. Responsive adults will more often than not tune into these needs.

As a baby gets older, they have more opportunities to explore. You can accompany these explorations with gentle rhymes and songs. Babies can tune into the melodic line of storytelling, so finding stories that reflect their interests will help to enrich these early experiences.

Children communicating verbally start to build their vocabulary to describe their personal experiences.

Personal experiences contribute to children’s emerging sense of place, such where they live and other familiar places, and their sense of time. They begin to understand what happens over a day. They’re aware of morning, afternoon, evening and night time.

Video

In this video, an early years expert explains the importance of personal experiences in the early years foundation stage framework. There are also some tips on how to support children in this area.

What the early years foundation stage (EYFS) framework says

The frequency and range of children’s personal experiences increases their knowledge and sense of the world around them – from visiting parks, libraries and museums to meeting important members of society such as police officers, nurses and firefighters.

Statutory framework for the early years foundation stage, page 8.

What this means in practice

Talk to the child’s parent or carers and use what you have learned to inform planning. Acknowledge significant events in the child’s life. These may include holidays, visits to grandparents, family gatherings or special occasions.

Sadly, children may also experience family break-up or a death in the family. While heart-breaking and difficult to understand, children learn and develop from these life events.

Notice how babies and children respond to activities, events and objects and use this to inform your planning. Sometimes this might mean small changes, such as putting out a few party resources in the home area on special occasions.

At other times you may want to make larger changes, for example if one of the children is celebrating their birthday. In this case you could set up a birthday party, and encourage children to consider the differences between other birthdays they have experienced, for example between a parent or carer’s birthday and their own birthday. Talk to the children about special occasions that you have attended. Shared experiences enrich children’s understanding of the world.

Going for walks helps to develop children’s sense of place and their understanding of their local area. As you walk with the children, talk about the things that they are seeing around them, such as gardens, woodland, plants, flowers, animals, vehicles and buildings. Children will gain knowledge of the natural world, which can be further enriched through learning back in the setting. This could include collections of natural materials, close observation of minibeasts such as the lifecycle of a butterfly, experimenting with ice, materials that float and sink, how wheeled toys move and how to make shadows using torches in dark spaces.

Suggested activities

Intergenerational projects

To build on young children’s personal experiences, engaging with their family is essential. There are many ways to do this, including daily informal interactions as well as planned events that occur over a calendar year, including birthday celebrations as well as family events. Many young children have more relatives that are grandparents and great grandparents (aunts and uncles too) than any previous generation. This community offers opportunities for intergenerational projects where children explore the world around them.

Research shows that communication with young children is beneficial for older people, so not only do the children benefit from these projects but they are uplifting for adults too.

Find out what skills grandparents and great grandparents have to offer the setting. These could include:

  • cookery
  • craft skills
  • computing
  • music making
  • storytelling, including storytelling in home languages
  • gardening
  • fixing cars
  • building furniture
  • decorating
  • upcycling
  • from their professional life, such as working or retired nurses, doctors, police officers or fire fighters

Plan these opportunities over the calendar year for different relatives to come into the setting and demonstrate their skills to the children. Plan for a range of exploratory experiences, including those with a scientific focus, such as where children explore changes to materials, observe the natural world or see how things work. Always accompany these activities with vocabulary to support children’s learning.

For safeguarding make sure a member of the team is always accompanying your visitor and that you follow all the procedures in your safeguarding policy.

Give time for your visitor to settle in. Choose an area that is most appropriate. For example:

  • in the story area with a selection of fiction and non-fiction books that the visitor can share with children
  • in the food preparation area
  • in the art area, provide resources that match the visitor’s skills
  • in the small world area with a focus on the appropriate small world toys
  • outdoors
  • role play area

Observe children’s interactions with the visitor and sensitively join in the dialogue as necessary. Ask ‘I wonder …’ questions.

Listen to children’s responses. Support the children by introducing new vocabulary.

Interaction between children and the adult can be quite natural and supported by the resources in the environment, for example books, small world play, outdoor provision.

For babies, hearing a grandparent gently singing has significance and impact.

Note children’s learning about the world around them. There are opportunities for the children to extend their social, cultural, scientific, ecological and technological knowledge and understanding. For example scientific learning is relevant to cooking, art, music making and gardening where children will observe change, the natural world and how things work. The ecological aspect of learning can be experienced through gardening and upcycling. Technology can be explored in computing, and everywhere there is a problem to solve and patterns to see.

Document the visit by taking photographs (with the appropriate permissions). These are a resource for recall and consolidation of children’s learning by capturing a personal experience they can come back to again and again.

Revisiting the visitors’ skills and dialogue will build up over time. These personal experiences will become embedded. The children’s understanding of the world is enriched and the vocabulary they use widened.

Following a visit from an older relative, note when children reference the visit in their play. Share this with the child’s family so that they can give feedback to their family member.

How this activity links to the other areas of learning

A visit from an older relative creates a strong bond between the setting and family and nourishes the young child’s wellbeing (personal, social and emotional development). For those children whose relatives live further away and possibly in another country, to be with older people is important to explore a sense of time. Opportunities for non-verbal and verbal communication support young children’s language development (communication and language).

I’m the baby!

You’ll need:

  • a range of dolls, try to have girl and boy baby dolls and dolls of different ethnicities
  • cots and beds
  • clothes for the dolls
  • bottles
  • baby bath
  • nappies
  • baby products such as empty baby wash bottles or - baby food jars
  • toys for babies
  • books for babies
  • scales for weighing the baby
  • a toy pushchair or pram that’s safe for children to play with
  • a bed that children can get into (optional)

Children often roleplay being a baby or being a parent. This can be prompted by the birth of a sibling, by seeing babies in your setting or because emotionally the child wishes that they were a baby again.

Have the materials for the activity available all the time so children can initiate play.

Young children may imitate how a parent holds, feeds, changes and plays with a baby.

For older children, ask the baby’s name, then ask why that name, gently supporting the child to think about answering a ‘why’ question. This can lead to a discussion about the children’s own names. What do they sound like? Are they similar, or very different? Other interactions can be about the baby’s size, height, weight, whether the baby has grown out of their clothes or how much the baby has eaten.

Children may roleplay the routine of washing, dressing, feeding, changing and going out with the baby. This helps them develop their sense of time and what happens first, next and after that.

A parent or carer may like to visit with their baby, as a special visitor. These experiences will enrich the child’s own play.

How this activity links to the other areas of learning

To have the opportunity to be a baby again nourishes a child’s personal, social and emotional development. The sense of having all your needs met by your mother can be very reassuring for young children (emotions). All roleplay is a stimulus for non-verbal and verbal communication and language. Children may notice the labels on the baby products (literacy). Interacting with children about their baby’s size, weight and height invites mathematical language to be used and developed (mathematics). Children may decide to have a ‘Naming the Baby’ party and make invitations (expressive arts and design). Dressing and undressing the baby helps children practice fine motor skills.

Other activities

Babies - learning starts from the first day from Early Education focuses on the very youngest children.

Practical ideas for how to support children in understanding their personal experiences from Early Years Educator.

What other nurseries and childminders are doing

“I wanted a way for my colleagues to engage with the children and their families that was celebratory and wouldn’t take too long to prepare. I had in mind encouraging children to talk about their personal experiences. If they are not at the stage of being able to talk, they can show that the photos are familiar through their facial expressions and enthusiastically pointing. I asked parents to email us their weekend experiences, these are printed off and laminated. The photographs are fantastic talking points for children and adults. The photographs are taken home and returned. They are wipeable, so extra safe.”

Cathey, Nursery Manager, London

Summary

  • Children are able to start to make sense of the world by understanding their own personal experiences. Sharing these experiences with you and with their families or carers helps with this understanding.
  • Personal experiences contribute to children’s emerging sense of place and time.
  • Children build their vocabulary to describe their personal experiences and the world around them.
  • Through active participation in opportunities to explore, investigate and discover, children develop their knowledge of the natural and made world.
  • Children learn more about places, what has happened over time and science by talking and sharing information with a supporting adult.

Next steps

  • Consider how the children are reflecting on their personal experiences. Can they tell you about local places they have visited? Can they recall when they visited? Can they sequence events? Are there prompts in the setting to support children’s talk when re-telling events?
  • Note when children can talk about their journey to the setting and to other places they visit often.
  • Check that children are using talk to show their knowledge of the world, including about the local area and the wider world. Listen to the vocabulary they use to describe, inform, predict and recall.
  • Help children to develop their knowledge and sense of the world by talking with them about what they have seen and what interests them, such as buildings, television programmes, vehicles or food. Also, family events and celebrations, the weather, seasons and what it means to grow up from being a baby. Provide non-fiction and story books to expand and enrich children’s understanding of the world, for example books about places to visit, professions and families.