Education for children’s futures requires supporting children’s ability to learn and think for themselves.
Each unique child is an active agent of their own development.
Children’s emotional wellbeing is the first necessity for effective learning.
Play and self-initiated activities are ideal opportunities to build Characteristics of Effective Learning.
Education for children’s futures requires supporting children’s ability to learn and think for themselves. Wecannot predict what challenges children will face in their unknown futures in a complex and rapidly changing world. The best preparation we can give them in their early years is to promote positive dispositions by providing living experiences of making choices, innovating, taking responsibility, facing challenge, thinking flexibly and critically, and learning how to learn so that they will be able to respond to their unfolding futures. Supporting children in the Characteristics of Effective Learning, a statutory element of the EYFS, is a central responsibility in early years provision. The three aspects are Playing and Exploring, Active Learning, and Thinking Creatively and Critically.
Each unique child is an active agent of their own development. From birth children are primed to reach out to interact with other people and the world around them, and early development and learning are rapid and powerful. The Characteristics of Effective Learning represent the active role children adopt as they follow their curiosity and push themselves to become more competent and to understand more, and are rewarded by the inner satisfaction of mastering new skills and feeling their independence grow.
While the Areas of Learning and Development outline different elements of what children may learn during their first years, the Characteristics of Effective Learning describe how children learn. These learning dispositions, behaviours and habits of mind are particularly important in the EYFS because they build the foundations needed to support children to become strong lifelong learners and independent thinkers.
Children’s emotional wellbeing is the first necessity for effective learning. Children need to feel safe within warm, loving and caring relationships. When children’s primary need for emotional safety is met, they can then relax and move into exploring, taking risks, making discoveries, and experiences of the deep involvement through which they learn. Adults can help children to feel confident and at ease by providing environments that meet children’s need for tenderness and affection, relaxation, inner peace, enjoyment, openness, safety, and belonging.
Through co-regulation, over time effective learners develop self-regulation, the ability to regulate their feelings, thoughts, and actions toward a goal. Self-regulation includes both emotional self-regulation developed through emotionally supportive relationships, and cognitive self-regulation described in the Characteristics of Effective Learning. When there is support for children’s sense of agency – knowing they have control of their own decisions, goals and actions rather than simply being passive in their experiences – children are likely to be effective in their learning. Experiences which endorse children’s agency and autonomy reinforce and develop their learning powers.
Play and self-initiated activities are ideal opportunities to build Characteristics of Effective Learning. In play, children can follow their own innate curiosity and drives to find things out, to relate to others, and to be in charge of their own actions. Adults provide an enabling environment for Playing and Exploring through experiences and interactions that respect children’s ideas, autonomy and interests. In play, children decide what they will do – often in collaboration with others — what their play is about, who they will play with and for how long. They follow their own curiosity and find their own challenges, using their senses and movement to explore the world and their imaginations to act out what they know and how they feel. They are free to take a risk with new experiences, in open-ended activity. Exploratory play, where babies and young children use movement, their bodies and their senses, is fundamental to each child’s understanding and sense of agency.
Imaginative play is powerful in helping children to make sense of their ideas and feelings, their identity, their experiences of the world, and their place in it. It is also highly supportive of children developing self-regulation and executive function. As children engage in pretend play, they regulate their own thinking and behaviour. They need to be flexible as the direction of play changes, remember what they are doing and the point of their activity, and follow the rules they set for themselves either alone (If I’m pretending to be a cat, I don’t say “Woof, woof”), or with others (You be the shopkeeper and I’ll be the customer).
In play children also have opportunities to engage in Active Learning, as they are intrinsically motivated toward their own goals. By tuning in to the children and providing time, space and resources for children to manage, adults can foster children’s growing powers to concentrate with deep involvement. Sensitive adults can support resilience by helping children to develop a view that not getting the result they (or others) wanted or were expecting is not a failure, but an opportunity to try again, learn and develop, and that they can keep on trying and persisting even in the face of challenge or difficulties.
As they play, children have rich opportunities for Thinking Creatively and Critically. Children think of their own ideas, imagine possibilities, and creatively combine ideas in spontaneous ways. They make meaning as they notice patterns and build their own working theories to make sense of their experiences, then make predictions and test them to refine their understanding. Problems are identified, possible solutions invented, and with support children become increasingly able to monitor their efforts, to alter their approach flexibly when needed, and to review how well it went and what they have learned. This critical thinking becomes more conscious and under children’s control especially through talking with others about their thoughts, sharing and developing ideas together.
Adult-planned activities can offer scope for children to reinforce and develop their self-regulation and learning powers, when they are organised to include opportunities for children to explore, follow their interests and think for themselves – building on children’s engagement, motivation, and both creative and critical thinking.