Expressive arts and design in EYFS

by Debi Keyte-Hartland

Art in the early years

To express, simply means to communicate.  The expressive arts, therefore, are languages of communication, able to express and communicate ideas, feelings, working theories children have about how the world works around them.  It is interesting to think about how children communicate in musical ways, or how they communicate something in a drawing.

For me, art has always been a visual language that goes alongside my words either written down or spoken and that can also stand in for them too.  Sometimes, things can be too difficult or painful to say in words, and many will use the arts instead to communicate how they feel about something.  Children also communicate with their bodies through dance and movement, through gesture and drama, and through stories they make up and tell.   Children also communicate through and with materials and media too, such as clay, paint, light or wooden blocks.  The arts and materials and media are communicative languages which require the adult to be able to recognise and ‘hear’ children’s communications through them too as well as being methods for making meaning and learning about the world. 

Media and materials in the EYFS

It sometimes seems as if children are asking of materials in their first encounters with them what is this, what does it do… and then through working with them begin to ask what if or how can I use this?  This fits with how Anna Craft (2002) described ‘Possibility Thinking’ as a shift between a realm of finding out what a material is and can do, to then using it to represent or communicate a specific thought or idea.

Sylvia Kind (2010) challenges this however, saying that: “It is not necessarily a linear progression from experimentation to communication”.  Instead, Kind invites us to think about children’s artistic languages as “explorations in interrogating spaces and investigating relationships, and as a social process of making meaning and as generative acts”.  Therefore, with this viewpoint, children can and do make meaning in complex ways during and simultaneously whilst exploring the properties and affordances (the skills) of using any such media.

Certainly, what I observe is children interrogating materials to find out what they are and can do, but I also see how they use those materials to make meaning and to explore relationships between their ideas, their thinking and knowledge, and working theories.  They use the arts, and materials to make connections between their experiences and as a way of making sense of things they encounter and discover and they then use the same materials to communicate their discoveries, knowledge and understanding.  Children reveal to us how complex and fluid their thinking is through sustained engagement with the expressive arts and materials and media in the EYFS.

It means as educators we need to:

Be open – to the complex and fluid thinking and action of children as they use materials and media

Hold an awareness – of how children use materials as a way of thinking with and through, and how they are used to communicate ideas, thoughts, experiences, and knowledge

To recognise – that their meaning making is neither fixed or static and can transform and change in time and across contexts

To act in researchful ways – to listen and observe, and to reflect on these observations to make visible the strategies and meanings of children’s communications using the arts and materials

To adjust our pedagogy – to see the expressive arts as a way of making thinking visible as an encounter or event with many possible directions that it could go in, and not as a simple linear journey from skill development and an understanding of affordances to expression and communication of thought

To appreciate – young children’s creative thinking as a process (not product) through which their developing knowledge, intuition and skills are applied to think about, imagine, explore, interrogate, express, and communicate something new, novel, and original to them (The Durham Commission on Creativity in Education, 2019).  It is a quality of thinking that goes across areas of development and learning in the early years and can be underpinned by critical thinking, collaboration, investigation, and perseverance.  Our goal as educators is thus to teach for creativity, and to generate learning contexts in which creativity, expression and communication can become amplified

To learn more about this topic or others, explore our range of early years CPD training webinars and events.




Craft, A. (2002). Creativity and Early Years Education. London: Routledge.

Durham Commission (2017) The Durham Commission on Creativity and Education

Kind, S. (2010) Art Encounters: Movements in the Visual Arts and Early Childhood Education in Flow, Rhythms, & Intensities of Early Childhood Education Curriculum.  Ed. Pacini-Ketchabaw, V.  New York: Peter Lang.


Debi Keyte-Hartland is an international early childhood consultant, trainer, writer and speaker.  She works with CREC (Centre for Research for Early Childhood) on their Birmingham City University accredited MA in Education (Early Years) on the arts and creativity pathway. She regularly delivers early years CPD training workshops on behalf of Early Education. 


expressive arts & design in eyfs

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