Learning & Development: Thinking - Part 4: Big ideas

Marion Dowling
Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Early years settings need to offer provision that will help sustain young children's thinking by using their own initiative, says Marion Dowling.

As early years practitioners, we need to reflect on how what we provide on a daily basis and the surroundings we offer can support and strengthen young children's thinking.

We are on the right lines if we trust children, encouraging them to work together and giving them time and space, real problems to solve and a rich range of stuff to work with, while providing an environment that makes thinking prominent.


We know that young children are more likely to invest their energies, ideas and initiative when they are trusted to take responsibility and are making their own decisions and choices, rather than simply responding to adult requirements. This implies that a programme should include plenty of scope for child-initiated activity on a daily basis.

The possibilities for exploring the treasures of young children's minds are at their greatest if we note them when absorbed in their own ventures.

The National Assessment Agency makes clear that if we limit gathering evidence of learning to planned adult-led activity, we will only see children's predictable and limited responses. However, this does not mean that the role of the adult is reduced. Good provision for children's self-chosen activities entails careful thought and planning and observation of what takes place. The adult may also be a co-player, taking a genuine interest in children's ideas, encouraging and occasionally making suggestions.


We all think better when we are relaxed and have time to mull things over. We may come up with a bright idea, but on reflection we can often develop it further. Young children, like adults, need plenty of time to play around with ideas, discard some, improve others and allow them to take root. By doing this they start to make connections and so make genuine intellectual progress.


The way in which space is used will influence children's mental activity, so we must have clear intentions for organisation. Franz Jaffke, a Steiner educator, suggests that the aim is to 'carefully select the impressions which confront and surround children'. This is evident in a simple and homely Steiner setting. An open space, equipped with screens, a table, wooden blocks and planks and lengths of material invites children to make and transform their world rather than leaving adults to determine it.


In addition to giving children time to develop their own initiatives, practitioners must make sure they have materials to work with. A rich range of provision, available on a daily basis, will help to ensure that children can elaborate their thoughts and select, combine and mix resources. This involves much more than just making available the tried and trusted resources of sand, water, dough and paint.


Look at your provision from the child's perspective:

- Does the child know exactly where everything is located? This requires an induction when resources are introduced. From time to time children need to be reminded of what is available in an area that may have slipped their mind.

- Can resources be retrieved and returned easily? If a lid on a container is difficult to unscrew, a child may give up trying to access the resource and the potential for its use is lost.

- Are resources located to help children to make connections in their thinking?

- Does provision include a good range of natural and open-ended resources that invite children to use their initiative and create for their own purposes?

CASE STUDY: Encouraging children to represent their thinking

Following a visit to an art gallery (see 'Broaden the mind', Nursery World, 17 April 2008), the children at Bushbury Nursery School in Wolverhampton were encouraged to reflect on the experience and suggest ways in which they might like to follow it up.

They expressed their ideas in conversations and through drawings and paintings, working in large and smaller groups.

Children were invited to work in pairs to create a small painting. Trish and Debbi, the practitioners, noted how the children's ideas were exchanged and negotiated. Not all the pairs worked well together. Some children were more dominant than others, while others readily shared their ideas:

'I've done mine,' said Maisie.

'We are finding all the colours. I think it is going to be hard work ... we are doing it t together,' said Megan.

Trish and Debbi also recognised their mistake of being too actively involved with the children, which meant that they had too little time to collect the dialogue from children.

On reviewing the paintings, there appeared to be a common thread of interest in layering colours and lines over the top of one another. When discussing other ways of creating this effect with the children, Debbi mentioned the possibility of using sheep fleeces (felting) to make another type of picture.

Confronted by a problem

This suggestion posed the problem of where to get the fleece from. Aimee thought they could get 'wool' from the shop and knit with it, but Sam suggested that it came from the sheep at the farm.

Andrew elaborated on this by saying, 'The farmer has a machine to get the wool off the sheep' (drawing 1).

Children were interested in this notion and responded to Trish's suggestion to draw their ideas of what a sheep machine looked like and how it might work.

Aimee's machine is 'automatic'. She says, 'The sheep goes inside the machine and whoosh - the wool comes off' (drawing 2).

Maisie's sheep also goes inside the machine and whooshes through it. (The lines represent the direction the sheep takes as it whooshes through.) She describes the wool as flying and floating out of the machine at the other end (drawing 3).

Megan's machine involved the woolly sheep entering the machine. The wool comes out of the machine in two places. The sheep goes in happy but comes out sad. The farmer is happy, though, because he has the sheep's wool.

Andrew considered the role of the farmer who is waiting for the machine to take the wool off the sheep. While waiting, the farmer gets to play football.


These initial drawings were used the following week to encourage the children to recall their original ideas and possibly elaborate them and so deepen their initial ideas.

Megan clarified her ideas of the process of the machine. She was concerned about what happens to the sheep (their safety) and how the wool is packaged when processed (drawings 5, 6).

Andrew continued to explore the role of the farmer when the machine was in action. The spirally, whirling lines represent the movement of the machine (drawing 4).

The children developed and deepened their ideas still further as a result of Trish and Debbi acting as co-partners. Both adults felt that they had learned a great deal by working together, including:

- recognising the need to consider the appropriateness of their questions and challenges

- gaining further insights about the different ways that children expressed their thoughts and ideas through mark-making

- understanding the need for children to have time to repeat, sustain and re-visit experiences in order to consolidate their ideas and also change them.


- EE 3.1 Observation, Assessment and Planning

- L&D 4.2 Active Learning

- L&D 4.3 Creativity and Critical Thinking

- L&D 4.4 Areas of Learning and Development: Creative Development

- L&D 4.4 Areas of Learning and Development: Communication, Language and Literacy


- The case study is printed with kind permission from Bushbury Nursery School, Wolverhampton.

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