Learning & Development: Early Learning - Think again

David Hargreaves, Sue Robson, Sue Greenfield and Hiroko Fumoto
Monday, June 30, 2014

From 2002-15, the Froebel Research Fellowship project focused on children's creative thinking and learning. David Hargreaves, Sue Robson, Sue Greenfield and Hiroko Fumoto share their findings.

Do Friedrich Froebel's ideas, which he set out about 150 years ago, have any relevance for early years education today? This is the key question that we at the Froebel Research Fellowship (FRF) project have been trying to answer.

Froebel stressed the growth of knowledge from inside rather than from outside the child, emphasising the understanding of principles rather than learning rules by heart, saying, 'What the pupils know is not a shapeless mass, but has form and life.'

Froebel, therefore, opposed education that tries to impose knowledge from the outside: 'We possess a great load of extraneous knowledge, which has been imposed on us and which we foolishly strive daily to increase...we have very little knowledge of our own that has originated in our own mind and grown with it'.

Froebel also held that it was children themselves who provide the driving force for this learning: 'Self-activity of the mind is the first law of instruction... from the simple to the complex, from the concrete to the abstract, so well adapted to the child and his needs, he learns eagerly as he plays'. This view led us to focus on both children's autonomy and their creative thinking.


FRF project has been funded by the Froebel Trust (previously the Incorporated Froebel Educational Institute) since 2002. We have now completed five phases of the project, and a sixth is under way.

In Phases 1-3 (2002-5), we looked at practitioners' attitudes to the development of children's personal, social and cognitive skills in the EYFS. In Phase 4 (2005-8), we homed in on children's creative thinking and on how their social relationships affect it. Phase 5 (2009-11) dealt primarily with the differences between play and learning at home and at school. Now, in Phase 6 (2012-15), we are focusing on children's well-being, since we suspect this may underlie success in learning and building social relationships.


Our book, Young Children's Creative Thinking (YCCT: Sage, 2012), discusses the project in much more detail, and shows its Froebelian origins. Here, we pick out some key practical issues for practitioners.

How is children's creative thinking best supported by adults?

In Phases 4 and 5 of the project, we studied young children's creative thinking by observing their behaviour - devising a systematic coding scheme, The Analysing Children's Creative Thinking Framework.

It has three main sections:

  • Exploration: exploring, engaging in new activity, and knowing what you want to do
  • Involvement and Enjoyment: trying out ideas, analysing ideas, speculating, and involving others
  • Persistence: persisting, risk taking, and completing challenges.

Camcorders were used to record children as they engaged in activities, providing rich evidence of creative thinking. We also used video extracts as starting points for discussions between children and their key person, in which we emphasised the children's thoughts about what they had been doing. This not only demonstrated the children's capacity for reflection but revealed things practitioners might otherwise have missed.

What are the key messages about supporting children's creative thinking?

We found that:

  • children were more likely to engage in a new activity or to show that they 'knew what they wanted to do' when adults were present, particularly in non-directive roles;
  • children were more receptive to new ideas when they came from adults;
  • adults were skilful at helping children make use of prior knowledge;
  • adults who helped children to acquire new knowledge were skilful at asking open questions, speculating, and modelling 'not knowing'.

Opportunities for children to engage in self-initiated activity were particularly valuable. Children displayed more flexibility, originality, imagination and hypothesising when they initiated activities themselves, which supports the Froebelian idea of self-activity: they developed and extended their ideas together, particularly when in co-operative groups.

More than three quarters of group play episodes showed higher levels of involvement and enjoyment, and this fell to about half when children were playing alone. Children playing in pairs, particularly friends, supported and extended their creative thinking almost as successfully as group play.

What types of activity are most valuable in promoting creative thinking?

Areas seen traditionally as 'creative', such as music and mark-making, were no better in promoting creative thinking than other activities such as block play or gardening. However, two activities stood out: pretend play and outdoor activity.

In shared pretend play, children displayed more creative thinking than in any other type of activity, and outdoor play of any kind seemed particularly valuable, whether solitary or in groups and whether adults were involved or not.

How do practitioners feel about supporting children's creative thinking?

We interviewed and observed many practitioners to answer this question, and found that most of them prioritise the promotion of children's creative thinking in their daily practice.

Many also expressed the importance of spending quality time with children, and regretted that this time could often be taken over by other administrative duties that may arise.

How did they deal with this in practice?

We drew attention not just to the hours that were available, but to the practitioners' psychological time and space to engage with children and parents/carers. That is, 'psychological space to listen sensitively to children's ideas and feelings, and to share the joys of discovering the world with them. Such moments may be essential in creating an environment that can promote children's creative thinking' (YCCT, p133).

How do practitioners feel about their relationships with children and staff?

We asked practitioners to complete Pianta's (2001) Student-Teacher Relationship Scale and other questionnaires that gave us insights into their relationships with children, as well as into their thoughts about promoting children's creativity.

Many emphasised that positive relationships with children helped them develop children's thinking; they also talked about the importance of teamwork in making time to engage with children and parents. A sense of humour was seen as important.

Practitioners mentioned the importance of professional autonomy. In many settings, this can be seen as their 'ability to take control of various challenges to achieve a desired goal, such as successful promotion of children's creative thinking' (YCCT, p126).

What do parents think about children's creative thinking?

We asked parents to view video clips of their children in their settings and talked to them about the children's creative thinking at home and in the setting. Parents' views about their involvement and their relationships with teachers sometimes differed from the teachers' views.

We knew that home visits by practitioners can provide an opportunity to begin relationships with parents, even though some parents find the visits intrusive. In Phase 5 of the project we followed up the findings from the previous phase by visiting parents at home with DVDs containing clips of their children taking part in activities at nursery, and used these to initiate discussions with parents about their children's creative thinking at home.

We found that all the parents recognised some creative thinking activities at home. However, they rarely linked these activities to what they saw on the video clips; many were surprised by what they saw, making comments such as, 'At home, he'll try something once and if it goes wrong he won't go back and do it again - he just walks away. Here, he's completely different.'

What do parents think about nursery?

All the parents we visited were pleased that they had sent their children to nursery, but many felt they did not know enough about what happened there. They were enthusiastic about the video clips. To summarise, we found that:

  • it is not always easy for practitioners to relate to parents, or vice versa
  • misunderstandings can arise, often because there is not enough time to talk
  • although home visits are successful in some settings, many do not begin a positive relationship between parents and practitioners
  • video seems to provide a way of beginning a discussion that promotes shared understandings.

Does children's well-being underlie their thinking and social relationships?

If children have low levels of well-being, which may arise from their social relationships, then they are unlikely to be able to show creative thinking, and this idea finds support in some of Froebel's writings. But what is 'well-being' exactly?

The latest phase of the project explores what parents, practitioners and children mean by the term and how these might relate to areas like thinking and social relationships.

Our findings should throw light on ideas such as the one that 'toxic childhood' may be an unfortunate feature of contemporary life, caused by conflicting pressures such as doing well at school, taking part in out-of-school activities, and conforming to media stereotypes. Although Froebel was writing 150 years ago, the issues he raised are just as important today.

David Hargreaves is professor of education and Froebel research fellow; Hiroko Fumoto is an honorary research fellow; Sue Greenfield is a senior lecturer in early childhood studies; and Sue Robson is principal lecturer in education and subject leader for early childhood studies at the University of Roehampton, London


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