Learning & Development: Young Children's Thinking: Part 3 - Full of ideas

Practitioners and teachers play a key role in supporting five- to seven-year-olds to build on the bedrock of thinking skills acquired in the early years.

Ideally, during their first five years, children will have had close adults both in settings and at home acting as their thinking companions, a rich range of experiences to feed and provoke their thinking, and opportunities to develop deep interests which motivate them. These circumstances provide the bedrock for children to develop additional skills and aptitudes to think, and the support must be continued during the early school years.


To develop the thinking skills and aptitudes of young, school-age children, practitioners and teachers need to act as thinking companions. This role may offer the following kinds of support - all of equal importance.


Professional check

Companionable attention: Have close regard to what children are trying to convey to each other. Often quiet children who do not contribute much are deeply engaged and their occasional contributions can be thoughtful and incisive. Attention can simply mean unobtrusive listening on the sideline but, importantly, children know that their special person is interested and this helps to validate what they are saying.

Companionable conversations: Although talk in school is increasingly planned and managed as a valuable tool to promote thinking, time still needs to be set aside for friendly, reciprocal and informal exchanges with individuals and groups. Such conversations cement relationships with children and may give clues about what really matters to them.

Companionable play: Children at six and seven years old are becoming experienced players and enjoy opportunities to plan and carry out play projects with their friends. At this stage, the practitioner's role changes as children now rely more on other children. Rather than taking the initiative, the adult needs to wait to be invited into a play episode and become involved on the child's terms.

This different emphasis requires: close observation of children in order to gauge how self-sufficient they are in play; a watchful eye for any signal that the adult is welcome to join the group (a direct request to take a role, respond to a question, provide an extra resource); and sensitivity in not over-staying their welcome.

Companionable apprenticeship: Children now begin to recognise what they can gain from more experienced others. For example, they may learn:

  • cause and effect from a more informed child. This might be demonstrated very simply through direct instruction. 'Look, listen, Ibu,' said Ben. 'If you turn this knob on the overhead projector you can make that toy look smaller or bigger.'
  • to expand their vocabulary of 'thinking words'. These may be modelled by an adult consistently using words such as 'know', 'guess', 'remember', 'understand', 'repeat'.


Young school-age children still need access to plenty of real things and events. The opportunity to have, repeat and discuss these direct experiences provides the means for them to replay them in their head - helping them move into abstract thought.

The transition into Key Stage 1 is the boundary between first-hand and symbolic thinking. By around seven years of age, children become more able to imagine and think about a problem without trying it out.

Piaget considered that at this age children are becoming able to:

  • hold in mind several things at once
  • deepen the ways in which they use symbols as they draw, write, read and use mathematical graphics/numbers
  • conserve ideas about shape, number, quantities and volume (understand the need to see beyond how things look)
  • understand the rules of games.1

This greater freedom of abstract thought allows children to transfer what they have learned from one context to another. A child who has learned to sequence their thoughts (first, second, next) when telling a story is able to apply this sequencing skill when mixing paints and in mathematical pattern making.

Children need to start to think in abstract ways in order to use formal symbol systems. They also need to be aware that there are different ways of thinking; they practise them until each type of thinking becomes internalised and is easily applied in problem solving.

This awareness is often a long process but teachers can help children by showing them how:

  • to recognise and focus on 'the big picture' (the whole) and identify the key features (the parts that make up the whole). Children need to start to ask themselves, 'So, what is the main problem?' and 'What is involved in the problem?' (analyse)
  • to connect and use what they know already to help them unravel a new problem (reason)
  • to find out where they could gain new information (inquire)
  • to produce new ideas (imagine)
  • to start to consider the information they have and the arguments presented and to understand the differences between belief, opinion and facts (evaluate).

Case study

The teacher asked her mixed class of Years 1 and 2 to suggest something that they wanted to do in the school to make a difference. The children said they wanted to know how to develop their school garden (the big picture). To achieve their aim, they:

  • contributed all that they knew about gardens and considered how this might help them (reasoning)
  • brainstormed what they needed to find out in order to tackle this problem - size of plot, type of soil, sun/shade, type of plants and paths (analysing)
  • discussed how they would find this information - the questions they would ask, information books and websites they would access (inquiring)
  • discussed ideas about what they wanted the garden to look like (imagining)
  • worked in small groups to share their ideas and agree the best ones, weighing up what was possible and what could be achieved within the budget that was available (evaluating)
  • drew up a critical path of action to help them realise their aim (planning).


The teacher introduced each stage of the inquiry. She encouraged the children to suggest the type of thinking they would need for each stage and where they were unsure, and she rehearsed with them each of the thinking processes. She ensured that the children remained focused but otherwise maintained a low profile.


Children also enrich their thinking both informally and in lessons through relationships and conversations with friends. Robin Alexander makes the important point that, 'Talk in learning is not a one-way linear communication but a reciprocal process in which ideas are bounced back and forth and on that basis take children's thinking forward.'2

Dialogue does not happen spontaneously. Children need to understand how to contribute their ideas and learn from the ideas of others. The ground will have been laid if children are used to discussing with friends and they have been encouraged from an early age to share their ideas.

They now need to learn how to talk and think effectively in groups. Initially, children may not recognise that one of the best uses of speaking and listening is as a tool for exploring one another's ideas, or to reason together. In the early years of school, they can start to develop this awareness and practise it in group dialogue, by being encouraged to ask questions.

Children are usually enthusiastic about group work. A group of children in the Reggio schools were clear about the benefits, which they suggested should include: the fun of doing things together; enabling your brain to work better; and sharing ideas to make a big one.3


Teachers can support dialogic talk by:

  • initially structuring small groups to include some confident children who may model talk and thinking to others. As they become more experienced, children can choose who they work with
  • establishing rules for talking and thinking together in groups. These should be negotiated with children until they agree a list.


A Year 2 teacher devised an initial list and asked for additional suggestions from the group.

Teacher's list:

  • make your thoughts clear to one another
  • be prepared to be questioned or asked to explain what you mean
  • listen carefully to a different view
  • try to come to some agreement.

Children's list:

  • only one person speaks at a time
  • if you don't agree with something you must give a reason.

The joint list was agreed, displayed in class and referred to at the beginning of all joint sessions.

Case study

Sean, Ed and Den (aged seven years) had listened carefully to the topic in assembly which was about children less fortunate than themselves and who were hungry, poorly clothed and without proper accommodation. Back in class, their teacher invited them to think in small groups about the messages they had just heard.

Den What I want to know is why are some people hungry in the world?

Sean Well, see they haven't got money, and well it's because they won't work. If you don't work you can't have money to buy food.

Ed No, that's not right.

Teacher Well, what do you think is the reason, Ed?

Ed I dunno, perhaps, perhaps their dads haven't got work.

Sean Well, my dad and my mum work - that's why I'm not hungry ...

Den Well, I know that, but my dad, says there's not enough jobs to go round. (Pauses)

Ed Right, my dad and my sister, they ain't got jobs, they can't find a job.

Den Listen Sean, if your dad only had half a job he could give the other half to someone else - that's fair.

Sean I don't know - if my dad had only got half a job what else would he do? He don't like lying in bed.

Den I know, perhaps he could help other people to only do half a job - that would mean that more people get another half. That would be ace.

Sean Yeh, but you can't (do that). You need a law to do that.


The boys were reflective and deeply engaged in a sustained conversation. They were able to tackle challenging subjects of money and employment as these were issues that concerned two of the boys' families. Some contributions are hesitant as they search for words to describe their thoughts. They listened to each other and Den and Ed challenged Sean's suggestion. There was some tension between their shared thoughts which led to the emergence of a new idea. This exchange fulfils most of the agreed criteria for talking and thinking together. Throughout the discussion the teacher showed companionable attention but deliberately made only one contribution to the conversation.


Research findings suggest that before the age of 11 years, children don't recognise a difference between effort and ability. If a six-year-old sees a friend producing a complex drawing or an imaginative story, he is not aware that this might have been the result of sustained commitment or simply because the child found it easy.4

These findings imply that young school-age children don't see the benefits of persevering and determination; they will only use these traits if they are inclined to do so. Ken Robinson - acclaimed for his work on creativity and innovation - suggests that children (and adults) find this energy and passion when they are in their 'element'. Robinson says that when people are in their 'element' they are doing what they love and this gives them a sense of well-being.5

In helping children to find this state, teachers and parents will:

  • pick up on individual interests and talents
  • work with a child as a co-player and thinker and allow time for them to become deeply involved
  • encourage optimistic and positive attitudes
  • open a child's eyes to the possibilities of gaining different interest and having new ideas.

Case study

Mikey (six years) was in an infant school which allotted generous time for children to select their own experiences and activities. On these occasions Mikey returned again and again, always alone, to the mark-making table where he drew very detailed diagrams of bikes and motorbikes. Sometimes he labelled parts of the bike and at other times he was keen to describe how the machine worked.

Jen, his teacher, observed three or four children in turn over a week to find out how they spent their self-chosen time. She quickly noted Mikey's interest and aptitude. In conversation with him, she found out that he liked drawing at home and that drawing machines was his very favourite thing in school.

From then on Jen and her assistant followed Mikey's work and encouraged him, particularly when he became frustrated (he stormed around when he could not translate his mental image of a particular machine on to paper).

The following week, Jen brought her own mountain bike into the classroom. She talked to the children about her interest in mountain biking and explained how the various mechanisms worked on the bike. Jen invited them to explore the bike and to represent it in drawings, writing, model-making and through photography. Until then Mikey's work had been derived from his imagination and he relished a new challenge, sharing his thoughts and ideas about machines with other interested children.


Jen had made good provision for Mikey to find his element. She resourced a rich environment inside and out and allotted two hours daily for children to select experiences that interested them. She also acted as a thinking companion by:

  • giving time to observe and talk to children, finding out about and showing interest in Mikey's passion and talent (through attention and conversations)
  • working with him, encouraging him to persevere and maintain a positive attitude during periods of frustration (through companionable play)
  • providing for further challenges by sharing her own interest and offering Mikey new opportunities to draw from observation, offer support to other children and learn from them (through companionable apprenticeship).

Professional check: links with parents

  • How much do you as a teacher find out about children's particular interests at home?
  • How much do parents know about their child's interests and talents in school?
  • How do you weave children's interests into the school programme?


1. Child Care and Early Education, T Bruce, C Meggitt, and J Grenier, (2010). London: Hodder and Stoughton, p 101

2. Towards Dialogic Thinking: Rethinking classroom talk, R Alexander (2004). Cambridge: Dialogus UK, p48

3. Making Learning Visible: Children as individuals and group Learners, C Giudici, C Rinaldi and M Krechevstky (2001) Reggio Emilia: Reggio Children

4.H Heckhausen, (1982) quoted in How Children Think and Learn, D Wood (1998) Oxford: Blackwell, p286

5.The Element: How finding your passion changes everything, K Robinson, (2009) London: Penguin


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