Learning & Development: How Children Learn: Part 3 - Think twice

Thinking is at the root of young children's creative efforts as they use the information and experience they already have to come up with their own ideas and work towards expression, says Jan Dubiel, national development manager at Early Excellence.

To be successful learners, children need to acquire an appropriate set of skills and be conversant with a meaningful body of knowledge. Learners need to know how to use these skills, understand how the body of knowledge acquired is significant to them and be confident in exploring and internalising what it means to them.

Practitioners are not just responsible for ensuring that children acquire skills and knowledge, but that they are skilled and knowledgeable, and that they are also 'thinkers'. This means that children are able to confidently take what they know and apply it in all kinds of situations to achieve what they have set out to do, and to address challenges, solve problems, express and communicate ideas, thoughts and feelings.

However, the reason for acquiring this learning, and developing the understanding, is to be able to apply and use it, to shape its purpose, to draw on it when engaged in following a goal and to create new ideas, perspectives, approaches, interpretations and expressions.

After all, this is how the future is formed; this is where the 'imagineers' begin their work. Artists, inventors, architects, entrepreneurs, scientists, novelists and musicians all begin their originality and innovation as young learners finding possibilities, seeing the invisible and creating something new from what they know and understand.

The final strand in the 'Characteristics of Effective Teaching and Learning' outlined in the Tickell Review of the EYFS focuses on creativity and critical thinking (see box). It is very important to recognise that this is not the same as the early learning goals and curriculum content in 'Expressive Arts and Design'. Writing about the Robinson report (1), Caroline Sharp notes its assertion that: 'While there are strong links between the expressive arts and creativity, viewing creativity as solely or mainly the province of the arts is unhelpful because it can lead to a denial of the role of creativity in other areas, such as science and mathematics.' (2)

Therefore, this final strand of the characteristics deals with the creativity of thinking in all areas of the curriculum and the wider aspects of learning. It also addresses how to support 'meta-cognition' - 'thinking about thinking' and 'thinking about how to think'. It explores an important focus on children developing their own ideas and finding an appropriate, meaningful and fulfilling means of expression.

Caroline Sharp notes, 'When considering young children, it is appropriate to adopt a broad, democratic definition of creativity. In this way, every child can be considered to have creative potential and to be capable of creative expression.' (3)

This notion of a 'democratic' definition is vital, as this will include all aspects of thinking, creativity and expression. It ensures that the technical skills and abilities in the expressive arts do not preclude other forms of thinking. All children have the potential and ability to be creative and to be creators. It is the means and platform on which this is expressed that becomes the focus.

From the starting point of a broad definition of creativity and critical thinking, it is then possible to identify the significant aspects that constitute it.


We know from neuroscience that learning is physically manifested by neurological connections made in the brain, and this process starts very early in an infant's life. Through experiences and exploration, understanding is formed and then extended by relating this to other experiences or knowledge. This ability to 'draw in' other information and relate it to an existing idea is a critical part of the creative process.

Children need to be confident in 'summoning' information from everything they know and not be restricted by a false compartmentalisation of different knowledges. Creative thinkers trawl their minds and their memories for appropriate experiences and ideas. They know that this will help them reach a solution or form as expression, and are able to reinterpret and reshape how the information can be used.


Caroline Sharp emphasises: 'It is important to consider what might constitute "originality" in the work of a young child ... Each child's creative abilities can be related to his/her personal stage of development. For example, a young child's work may be adaptive and original for that particular child and/or in relation to children in their class or age group.' (4)

Children's strong imaginations take in the world around them, their experiences and their knowledge. This takes them to places that may be familiar to experienced adults, but not the children themselves. It is important to recognise and acknowledge that ideas can be original, with the excitement of something new, even if it has been seen or done before.


The EPPSE longitudinal study identifies Sustained Shared Thinking as a key strategy in supporting and extending children's learning and thinking. It is defined as 'an episode in which two or more individuals "work together" in an intellectual way to solve a problem, clarify a concept, evaluate activities, extend a narrative, etc. Both parties must contribute to the thinking and it must develop and extend.' (5)

These types of sustained and meaningful dialogue are ones in which participants genuinely, honestly and respectfully discuss ideas, possibilities and solutions. It is a partnership of learning that co-constructs situations and outcomes, in the broadest sense. This enables creative thinking because it challenges that prevalent enemy of creativity: 'right answer fixation'. Creativity has no externally delivered template to follow. By its nature it will be idiosyncratic, unpredictable and individual. Far from seeking someone else's idea of a 'right answer', creative thinkers take ideas and see where they can end up.


All creativity has an outcome, even if this is not a tangible product. A thought or an idea, a way of doing something or approaching a problem, is as creative as painting a picture or constructing a model.

However, the sense of having a 'goal' or purpose is an intrinsic part of the process. Thinkers have a place they want to get to, something they want to see or be able to do, and this is what drives all the other aspects of their activity. Although this is often merely the 'context' for meta-cognition, it is important to acknowledge that it serves a vital purpose in shaping the possibility of what could be achieved.


Nancy Stewart describes language as 'The prime tool for thinking' (6). The ability to articulate thoughts, to explain - even if this is to yourself - what is happening, why and reflecting on it, is vital to the creative process. This enables learners, thinkers and creators to communicate their ideas and put cognitive 'flesh' on the bones of ideas.

In later stages of development, this becomes internalised, but for young children the need to 'think out loud' and be able to narrate their story of development consolidates the thinking that takes place.

Research carried out by NAA (7) found a strong link between the ability to use talk to 'organise, sequence and clarify thinking, ideas, feelings and events' (8) and positive outcomes in writing at the end of Key Stage 1. The reason for this seemed to be that children had established the link between thought and word and were able to articulate their thinking. For the children, making the link from words to writing appeared to be less of a cognitive jump.



There can sometimes be a tendency to believe that as children are naturally creative, this will all 'just happen' and that the adult role is minimal. Such a laissez-faire approach simply teaches the skills and then withdraws. However, Caroline Sharp notes: 'Most writers on creativity agree that it is possible to encourage or indeed inhibit the development of creativity in young children.' (9) As with all the other characteristics, the role of the adult and the considerations that adults must make have a crucial bearing on encouraging or inhibiting the development of the process.

Creativity is both highly individual and invariably unpredictable. This is precisely what makes it what it is. Professional judgement, confidence and real understanding of the children have a crucial role to play in supporting this characteristic.

The slightly overbearing support of an adult, or the reluctance to intervene, can both be equally destructive to a child's potentially creative moment. Approaching a situation with a carefully considered question or the gentle suggestion of an idea can either open new possibilities or close down the activity completely. There are no 'rules' for this, other than intuitive knowledge of what might develop, and being acutely aware of and sensitive to the individuality of the learner.



Environments need to promote thinking and incorporate a celebration of creativity pro-actively. In your setting:

  • Are resources open-ended, neutral and flexible? Do they lend themselves to be used in a variety of ways that will be supported by the practitioners? If a child uses a play banana as a telephone, is this encouraged or discouraged?
  • Are spaces flexible so that ideas can be explored fully? If a large construction project needs to spill over into a different area of provision to solve a problem, will children follow this willingly, or be wary of the consequences?
  • Do displays reflect a celebration of difference and innovation? Do they provide opportunities for documenting ideas with no tangible product, as well as the results of artistic and literary endeavours?


Pascal and Bertram (1997) identified key features of adult behaviour that promote good-quality thinking, learning and development in young children:

  • Sensitivity: The adult's ability to be aware of the children's feelings and emotional wellbeing, to empathise and to acknowledge children's feelings of insecurity and to offer support and encouragement
  • Stimulation: The adult's ability to offer or introduce an activity or resource in a positive, exciting and stimulating way. It is also the ability to offer extra information or join in with play in a way in which extends children's thinking or communication
  • Autonomy: The adult's ability to give the children the freedom to experiment, supporting children with their decisions and judgements, encouraging expression of ideas and involving children in rule making for everyone's safety and well being. (10)

Supporting Sustained Shared Thinking

Iram Siraj-Blatchford identifies the following range of strategies to support Sustained Shared Thinking (11):

  • Tuning in: listening carefully to what is being said, observing body language and what the child is doing
  • Showing interest: giving their whole attention to the child, maintaining eye contact, smiling, nodding
  • Respecting children's own decisions and choices by inviting children to elaborate: saying things like 'I really want to know more about this' and listening and engaging in the response
  • Re-capping: 'So you think that ...'
  • Offering the adult's own experience: 'I like to listen to music when I cook supper at home'
  • Clarifying ideas: 'Right, Darren, so you think that this stone will melt if I boil it in water?'
  • Suggesting: 'You might like to try doing it this way'
  • Reminding: 'Don't forget that you said this stone will melt if I boil it'
  • Using encouragement to further thinking: 'You have really thought hard about where to put this door in the palace - where will you put the windows?'
  • Offering an alternative viewpoint: 'Maybe Goldilocks wasn't naughty when she ate the porridge?'
  • Speculating: 'Do you think the three bears would have liked Goldilocks to come to live with them as their friend?'
  • Reciprocating: 'Thank goodness you were wearing wellie boots when you jumped in those puddles. Look at my feet, they're soaking wet!'
  • Asking open questions: 'How did you ...?' 'Why does this ...?' 'What happens next?' 'What do you think?' 'I wonder what would happen if ...?'
  • Modelling thinking: 'I have to think hard about what I do this evening. I need to take my dog to the vet because he has a sore foot, take my library books back to the library and buy some food for dinner tonight. But I just won't have time to do all of these things.'

Using positive questioning

  • 'I don't know, what do you think?'
  • That's an interesting idea.'
  • 'I like what you have done there.'
  • 'Have you seen what X has done - why?'
  • 'I wondered why you had ...?'
  • 'I've never thought about that before.'
  •  'You've really made me think.'
  • 'What would happen if we did ...?'

Making-sense words

  • I think
  • I agree
  • I imagine
  • I disagree
  • I like
  • I don't like
  • I wonder.

While not a formula or list to be followed, these provide starting points and possibilities that can shape the direction of Sustained Shared Thinking between adults and children.


Assessing children's creativity and critical thinking requires a careful consideration of the strategies learners use and the behaviours they display. It is more about the processes they involve themselves in than what is produced at the end; the depth and quality of their thinking, rather than an easily measurable or describable outcome.

For the characteristic 'Creativity and Critical Thinking' practitioners must consider examples of children demonstrating how they learn:

Having their own ideas

  • Trying different things, rather than following what someone else has done
  • Addressing a problem or an obstacle with a set of strategies to find a solution
  • Retaining their independence but not asking for support, even if it takes longer to achieve something.

Making links

  • Drawing on knowledge or experiences not immediately related to their activity
  • Articulating a process and explaining how it links to a previous experience
  • Understanding patterns and predictability of events
  • Considering different ways of approaching activities and being able to evaluate and adapt this
  • Being confident in using a 'trial and error' approach and talking about why some things might work more than others.


Annex 8 of The Early Years: Foundations for Life, Health and Learning, by Dame Clare Tickell, defines 'creating and thinking critically' and its various strands (DfE 2011, page 90):

'Babies and children are thinkers who make sense of their experiences through perceiving patterns and developing concepts. As they engage in activities they actively think about the meaning of what they encounter, and over time begin to develop more awareness of their own thinking (meta-cognition). Awareness of oneself as a thinker and learner is a key aspect of success in learning (Whitebread and Pasternak, 2010).

  • Having their own ideas covers the critical area of creativity - of generating new ideas and approaches in all areas of endeavour. Being inventive allows children to find new problems as they seek challenge, and to explore ways of solving these.
  • Using what they already know to learn new things begins in infancy as babies organise their sensory information to assess patterns and make predictions, with brains generating rules based on small datasets (Evangelou, 2009, p5). Thinking becomes more conscious as concepts are developed and linked together, finding meaning in sequence, in cause and effect, and in intentions of others through both narrative and scientific modes of thought.
  • Choosing ways to do things and finding new ways involves approaching goal-directed activity in organised ways, making choices and decisions about how to approach tasks, planning and monitoring what to do, and being able to change strategies. Siegler and colleagues (2005) describe toddlers and young children learning in 'overlapping waves' as they choose from older or newer strategies to suit the demands of the task. Recent research identifies that children giving explanations about how they solve a problem learn more than when simply given positive feedback, and explaining errors leads to greater learning than explaining why something is correct - suggesting that understanding the processes of how problems are solved is more important than the right answer (Evangelou, 2009, pp51, 79).'


Ali goes to the feely box that has been set up in the setting. Every day, the practitioner puts a new object or material inside. The children speculate on what it is, providing reasons for their suggestions. At the end of the morning session the contents are revealed and the children discuss their ideas. Today's object is a flat-backed clothes brush.

Ali carefully feels the object and describes it. 'It's a bit prickly on one side, it's hard and flat on the other side, there is a bit sticking out.' Ali's eyes are closed as the object is reconsidered and various ideas are discounted. 'It can't be a chopping board because it's got spikes on it, can't be a doormat because it's too small and the spikes are too long ...' Ali's eyes remain closed as its features are repeated and then says: 'I know what it is; it's a dead hedgehog. Its spikes are still there but it is hard because it is dead and flat because it has been run over; I have seen ones like this on the road.'

In this activity Ali demonstrates the ability to:

  • make connections with own experiences and knowledge
  • 'think out loud' and describe the thinking processes involved
  • try out different ideas and think through them, dismissing them if necessary and then using them as a platform for new ideas
  • explain a conclusion or idea.


  • Carolyn Edwards et al (1998) The Hundred Languages of Children: the Reggio Emilia Approach - Advanced Reflections, Albex Publishing Corporation
  •  Liz Marsden and Jenny Woodbridge (2005) 'Looking Closely at Learning and Teaching - A journey of development', Early Excellence
  • Susi Bancroft et al (2008) Researching Children Researching the World - 5x5x5=creativity, Trentam Books
  • Robin Duckett & Mary Jane Drummond (2009) 'Adventuring in Early Childhood Education', Sightlines Initiative


(1) Robinson Report. Department for Education and Employment, Department for Culture, Media and Sport. National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education (1999). All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education. London: DfEE

(2) Caroline Sharp, 'Developing Children's Creativity: What can we learn from research?' NfER autumn 2004/issue 32

(3) Caroline Sharp op cit

(4) Caroline Sharp op cit

(5) Siraj-Blatchford et al (2002), Researching Effective Pedagogy in the Early Years (REPEY), DfES

(6) Nancy Stewart (2011) How Children Learn: The characteristics of effective early learning (Early Education)

(7) Analysis conducted by the NAA, of the progress between the Foundation Stage Profile and Key Stage 1 outcomes, using the first reported data from 2005 linked to 2007 Key Stage 1 results; available as FOI request 1165

(8) NAA (2008), EYFS Profile Handbook, Language for Communication and Thinking; Scale Point 7

(9) Caroline Sharp op cit

(10) Pascal, C & Bertram, A (1997) Effective Early Learning: Case Studies for Improvement. Hodder & Stoughton

(11) Iram Siraj-Blatchford (2005) Presentation delivered to the TACTYC Annual Conference 'Birth to Eight Matters! Seeking Seamlessness - Continuity? Integration? Creativity?' Quality Interactions in the Early Years. 5 November, Cardiff 2005.

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