02/08/2013 10:49 BST | Updated 22/05/2015 10:12 BST

Starting School: What Children Learn And How They'll Learn

When I first caught sight of my son's reception classroom a year ago, I was struck by how much it looked like nursery not school, as well as by the freedom pupils had to choose what they wanted to do and the amount of playing they did.

Frankly at times it all looked a bit chaotic.

Indeed reception classrooms nowadays bear little resemblance to those most of us experienced as children in infant school.

Gone are rows of desks and chairs, carpet time is key and mysterious sounding jargon such as 'free flow' and 'child-initiated learning' abounds.

So what's going on with modern reception teaching? And if all work and no play leaves Jack a dull boy, does all play and no work (or seemingly little) leave him an ill-educated one?

A bit of background info

Since September 2008, all reception classes in England have had to follow the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS). This covers birth to age five in childcare settings such as nurseries and childminders too, so you might already be familiar with it. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have similar approaches – Scotland's is the early level of the Curriculum for Excellence, Wales and Northern Ireland have 'Foundation Phase' curriculums.

The main impact of all this is that your child's learning should be play-based and in England at least, that their progress will be tracked using the EYFS 'profile'.

How they'll learn

Your four-year-old won't be sat doing formal reading or writing all day or be at a desk facing a blackboard. Instead there will be opportunities to discover things through experimentation and activities such as sharing stories at carpet time, or through plain old-fashioned playing.

A good chunk of the day will be 'child-led' - they can choose to do what they're interested in, but some activities will be 'teacher-led' - sitting together as a class learning letter sounds or in small groups making something.

So it's all just like nursery then?

Well the style of learning shouldn't be dissimilar to nursery – this means reception is less of a shock to such young children and much research suggests active play-based learning is more effective for this age group. There might be a bit more group time on the carpet and small group 'work' than in nursery and the subject matter covered will differ.

What they'll learn

The learning through play lark doesn't however mean that your child won't be beginning to read and write, rather that it's all done in a relatively fun and relaxed way and children who aren't ready to get stuck in with the 3Rs aren't forced to do so.

Out goes the formal learning methods and in are songs about letter sounds, counting games and the like.

The EYFS curriculum has quite a broad focus and its areas of learning very much encompasses non-academic characteristics such as social and emotional development, as well as writing, reading and numeracy.

In practice, most teachers place quite a lot of emphasis on the building blocks for reading, with 'phonics' playing a key part in this. This all starts with basic letter sounds and blending them together so a child can begin to read simple words and sentences. Basic numeracy is covered too – for example, counting up to 10 or 20 items and one more or less than - as is writing.

If your child can already read or count into the hundreds or thousands before they even start, bear in mind that the reception day is quite varied and reading and counting will form a relatively small part of this. Reception children have lots of fun with interest-grabbing projects, nature walks, painting and drawing – the list is endless and the scope for boredom should be tiny even for very bright children.

How will I know how they're doing?

Reception children are observed against 17 different learning areas. They certainly shouldn't be aware this is happening and there is no question of them being 'tested'.

For each of the 17 areas, at the end of reception, their report will say whether they have met or exceeded the goals or are still working towards them (called 'emerging'). The idea is that teachers and parents get a tangible way of seeing how a child has progressed and the details are passed to your child's year 1 teacher too after reception.

But surely all this play doesn't prepare them for moving into year 1?

It's a fair question to wonder whether this informal, child-led approach leaves kids able to cope with the later years at school. Will they suddenly be expected to sit down and get on with it in year 1 and will it all be a terrible shock?
Schools are largely very aware of this issue and most have a transition period where play-based learning continues for at least part of year 1 and the Welsh curriculum uses this approach up to the age of seven.

If you're feeling cynical, remember that in most other European countries, a similar approach has been going on for years for four and five year-olds and indeed slightly older kids too with excellent results.

At the end of my son's reception year, a lot of my misgivings had been overcome. Yes, such play-based learning seemed a little intangible at times; if I asked my son "what did you do at school today" he quite often answered "I just played". But his first year was a fun-packed, lovely introduction to school life. And he learned more than I could ever have imagined, without a worksheet or spelling test in sight.

Liat Hughes Joshi is author of Raising Children: The Primary Years, published by Prentice Hall Life.

How was your child's experience of reception and the Early Years Foundation Stage?
Are you pleased with his or her progress or would you prefer a more 'old-fashioned' teaching method?

More in our Starting School series:
The teacher's home visit
Get the kit
How to prepare your child for the first day of school