Characteristics of Effective Learning – The Golden Thread in the EYFS

Laura Gregory and Shamim Ashraf, Edge Hill University

The three Characteristics of Effective Learning (CoEL) are:

  • Playing and exploring – children investigate and experience things, and “have a go”
  • Active learning – children concentrate and keep on trying if they encounter difficulties and enjoy achievements
  • Creating and thinking critically – children have and develop their own ideas, make links between ideas, and develop strategies for doing things.


We know that learning through play is pivotal in early years, including in the CoEL, but the way in which children are given opportunities to play varies drastically from setting to setting.

“Play is central to learning and for most children it is natural and unthwartable.”

(Page, Clare and Nutbrown 2013:76)

Taking this into account, we must as practitioners reflect on the power that embedding the CoEL can have for all children’s learning and development and the influence that this will have for play opportunities offered to children.

In relation to the CoEL the DfE Statutory Framework (2021) states:

“In planning and guiding what children learn, practitioners must reflect on the different rates at which children are developing and adjust their practice appropriately.”

(DfE 2021:15)

Taking a more detailed approach in reference to supporting the CoEL, Birth to 5 Matters (Early Years Coalition. 2021) express that children need consistent lived experiences of autonomy alongside support for their growing awareness and control of the processes of thinking and learning.

The CoEL can allow children to engage in deep level learning through their play and exploration within an environment which allows them to explore, be curious and to follow their own lines of enquiry. One example of this is a child in a setting discovers that the toys left overnight outside are frozen in a bucket and cannot be released. The skilled practitioner supports with effective questioning and engages in sustained shared thinking to promote the child’s curiosity and problem solving. The child recalls what her dad did to defrost the car windscreen, and communicates this to the practitioner, who supports the thinking process. Through following their own lines of enquiry, the child releases the toys.

The child may go on to explore further the effects of temperatures on water, by leaving water around different parts of the environment indoors and out.

Early years practitioners in settings which thrive on developing high quality provision within a stimulating environment, make provision for the CoEL, so that when evident in practice, these can contribute to the development of  a high-quality environment with knowledgeable practitioners who are aware of how young children learn.

Let’s take a further look…

Playing and exploring/ Engagement – children investigate and experience things, and “have a go”

In early years settings where the level of engagement is high, the indoor and outdoor environment, and the adult’s role within it, is designed to allow continuous observation, reflection and adaptation of the environment to maximise the opportunities for learning, allowing children to lead their learning. For example, if a child is observed taking the playdough cake across the setting to the oven in the role play area, then the action would be to provide a second oven near the malleable area.

Consideration should also be given to children’s feelings of safety and belonging, experimentation and mistakes need to be viewed as part of the learning process. Promoting a culture where space is given to allow children to wallow in free-flow play will in turn enhance children’s feeling of wellbeing and involvement leading to deeper engagement.

Time is another vital factor when supporting this aspect. Reflecting on the recent work of Alison Clark and the Froebel Trust there is a case for allowing children to feel unhurried and to engage in slow knowledge and in turn receive a ‘timefull’ approach to their early years.

“The case is made for a ‘timefull’ approach to Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) that can offer a more sustainable and play focused approach to early childhood across generations and communities.”

(Clark 2022:123)

Active learning /Motivation – children concentrate and keep on trying if they encounter difficulties, and enjoy achievements

In addition, we should reflect here on Piaget’s views that children are ‘lone scientists’ who experiment and explore with the world.

Children’s deep level involvement can be enhanced through the provision of challenges through science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). These provide children opportunities to use their problem solving skills, using creativity and design, whilst adults support through a sustained shared thinking approach to extend this learning. One setting we spoke to told us: “One example of this type of challenge, is to provide the children with a small crate of turnips and ask them if they can make a turnip tower. The skills involved in this challenge, can demonstrate children’s creativity in problem solving in a variety of ways, demonstrating the characteristics of effective learning”.

Creating and thinking critically/thinking – children have and develop their own ideas, make links between ideas, and develop strategies for doing things.

These challenges can be provided throughout the environment.

Loose parts play can encourage children’s thinking skills and allow for deep level engagement. Allowing children to mix their own paint using powder paint, or providing primary colours only, can allow children to explore, investigate colour mixing and establish their ideas. Through deconstructed role play children can express their ideas through creativity and develop. This approach promotes inclusivity and allows all children to explore and learn at their pace and stage of development.

Drawing on approaches such as Reggio Emilia we must recognise the power of creativity and critical thinking and see these not as a stand-alone aspects of learning but integral to the learning process

“This institution, in fact, can play a very special role in cultural development and real socio-political experimentation, to the extent that this moment (designing) and this place (the school) can be experienced not as a time and space for reproducing and transmitting established knowledge but as a place of true creativity.”

(Rinaldi 2021:62)

In her earlier work when Rinaldi talks about the critical and creative thinking that is evident in children’s work in Reggio Emilia, she states that children have been paid extraordinary attention and respected deeply, and this seems to have made all the difference. A key value in these settings is that of seeing the children as “competent” learners and researchers. Creativity is not just the quality of thinking of each individual it requires a context that allows it to exist, to be expressed and to become visible.

How can we embed the CoEL in our practice?

Embedding the CoEL in your practice is about ethos and vision. Reflection on how you support this through provision, documentation, interactions and relationships is key.

We need to allow for all children to have freedom in their play with time and space to enable children to experience the awe, wonder and joy that leads to a lifelong love of learning.


Clark, A. (2022) Slow knowledge and the unhurried child: time for slow pedagogies in early childhood education. Milton: Taylor & Francis Group

Early Years Coalition (2021) Birth to 5 Matters: Non-statutory guidance for the Early Years Foundation Stage.

Department for Education (2021) Statutory framework for the early years foundation stage.

Page, J., Clare, A. and Nutbrown, C. (2013) Working with babies & children : from birth to three. Second edn. Los Angeles: SAGE.

Rinaldi, C. (2021) In dialogue with Reggio Emilia : listening, researching and learning. Second edn. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group