Intrinsic Motivation - Rich rewards

Activating the intrinsic motivation of children, rather than using artificial means of persuasion such as stickers, will make them keen learners, says Professor Tina Bruce

Children gain a sense of agency when there is no external control (photos courtesy of Froebel Trust)
Children gain a sense of agency when there is no external control (photos courtesy of Froebel Trust)

A good start in pondering how you think children are motivated to understand themselves, other people and want to make a better world is to remember what mattered to you as a child.

When I was seven years old, I was in top infants with the Froebel-trained Miss Joyce Greaves. I paid tribute to her in a chapter I was invited to write for a millennium book edited by Lesley Abbott and Helen Moylett in 2000 (republished in Bruce 2020).

This is an extract from my tribute to her: ‘The appreciation young children feel for the rest of their lives towards those adults who have contributed in a major way to how they feel about themselves as learners is rarely spoken. It is an abstract, intuitive thing which they take with them through their lives. And yet, it anchors them forever, and it is sometimes called having a sense of well-being… Good teachers help you to learn the things you find hardest in ways which are right for you.’

Miss Greaves really understood what it is like to be a child. I recalled: ‘She never shouted at us and there was no bullying in that class. We really were a caring, learning community. Some children, I now realise, had special educational needs, but we were all expected to, and did, value, respect and celebrate each child’s achievement, and not just in the three Rs. The expressive arts and experiments in science with ice and plants were much in evidence…

‘She visited each child at home. She made us feel we could try new, difficult things, because we knew that she would see us through and help us to find the courage to have a go. I have always liked fractions because of the care she took to make them manageable for me.’


When I was 18 years old, I began my teacher training at what was then the Froebel Educational Institute. My tutor was Chris Athey. Our education group of 15 students visited a school with her every morning for four weeks when we were on our first teaching practice.

We were placed five to a classroom and given one child each by the class teacher for our child study. The idea was that until you can teach one child, you will not be very good at working with a group or class of children. You need to learn how to make informed observations, to tune into the child’s ideas, feelings, relationships, thoughts and physical development.

We spent the afternoons in discussion with Chris and in planning what to do with our child the next day. From these practical experiences, supported with discussion, reading, writing our files and planning, some important ways of encouraging intrinsic motivation in young children emerged.


Never begin to work with children with a focus on what they struggle to do or have missed out on.

Begin where the learner isand not where they ought to be or you want them to be.

Begin with what children can do, or you will be espousing a deficit model.

The children (and/or their families) are not deficient. However, the way you work with them might be. Observe the child. What are they doing?


Exploring glue

Monty (four years) is making a collage. He snatches up the pot of glue and tips it on his paper. He walks round the table and snatches up the other pot of glue and pours it on top of the glue he has already tipped out.

The other children complain, and the practitioner explains to him that he has to share. She scoops glue from his paper back into the pot. But he just repeats what he has done before. He is sent to sit on the ‘thinking chair’.

Practitioner response

Some kinds of glue are expensive, so the practitioner may have wanted to avoid waste. But her response results in a missed opportunity for Monty to learn about the properties of matter.

He could have tipped, mixed and explored pots of sand, earth, mud, clay, chalk and slate, ground seashells and all sorts. He could have learnt a huge amount of science: what changes from solid to sludge or whether water goes through clay in the same ways as it does sand.

The science is endless, and an adult could have had a very positive experience with Monty exploring this, providing books, helping with experiments both indoors and out. It would almost certainly have fascinated other children too, and fit well with the EYFS requirements.

Froebel’s teaching

Friedrich Froebel cautions against jumping to conclusions about a child’s behaviour and intentions. He writes, ‘Under each fault lies a good tendency which has been crushed, misunderstood or misled. Hence the infallible remedy for all wickedness is first to bring to light this original good tendency and then to nourish, foster and train it.’ (Froebel, 1896).


If you motivate children through external rewards and punishments, they will be guided by what others do and say, especially those in authority. But what happens when the authority figure is not there?

If you promise a child a stamp, sticker or certificate or a silver cup, they will do things for a reward, to please others, for personal fame and status, possibly requiring incentives for the rest of their lives.

By contrast, if you help children to experience the joy of, for example, a story, they will appreciate literature and reading for the rest of their lives. The reward will lie in being able to transform a story into a play scenario, or to create a small-world version, or to read it for themselves. What other reward would you want?

There is a huge difference between becoming a lifelong bookworm and reading out of duty to fulfil someone else’s requirement.


Awarding stickers

At the end of the session, one practitioner calls the children together for a group storytime and singing, while the other practitioners clear up. There is the promise of a sticker for children who come quickly.

Some, such as Ivy (three years), are slow to arrive, and the increasingly restless or passive group (there is a mixture of responses among the children) wait for ten minutes before the story can begin. The latecomers fidget and distract others, and so the story stops and starts. However, everyone enjoys singing together and participating in the action songs. The enjoyable atmosphere is then undermined when some children are selected to receive stickers. Ivy is heard to grumble, ‘I never get a sticker.’

In contrast

In another setting, three practitioners stand in the middle of the room and sing the action song ‘I went to school one morning and I hopped like this, hopped like this, hopped like this…’ Children, with their key persons, join in.

After singing a few action songs, a lead practitioner asks the children to sit and get comfortable so that they will be able to concentrate. This is said in an authentic voice, with no mention of the ‘listening ears’ that haunt nurseries and sound so false. The practitioner then tells the children a story, which is followed by a short discussion and a final song.

In practice

In the first setting, the approach frustrates storytime and dampens the atmosphere after singing together. It can also be discouraging for children who have failed to make the connection between arriving early and receiving a sticker. Ivy had clearly not got the message!

In the second nursery, children can see that stories are interesting to sit and listen to if you are ready to be contemplative, having first had a good bouncy sing-song. This intrinsic motivation (rather than external control with rewards and punishments) will bring a sense of agency, well-being and fulfilment.

‘So gradually,’ writes Froebel, ‘each person would become able to act and respond to the unexpected or testing situation, in a way he would not afterwards regret because he had acted in accord with what he truly thought.’ (Froebel in Lilley 1967).

I think Ivy would flourish in the second setting. I think Monty would too!

Tina Bruce CBE is an honorary visiting professor in early childhood at the University of Roehampton



Educating Young Children: A Lifetime Journey into a Froebelian Approach: The Selected Works of Tina Bruce (2020). Routledge

Lilley I (1967) Friedrich Froebel: A Selection from his Writings. Cambridge University Press


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