“Research in children’s education makes it clear that learning that is satisfying, rewarding and effective occurs when the child is deeply engaged and involved – and that this happens when the learner is strongly motivated by the experience, because it is relevant and matters to them at that moment.
Children’s enormous curiosity and drive to explore, discover and come to know their world is innate and natural – it has been coded into us biologically through evolution so that we can survive and thrive in a continually changing world. This means that children are driven intuitively to do what is needed to develop well, and to interact and experiment with the things, stuff and people that are in their world.
Children therefore have a strong need to interact with and come to make sense of what is in the world, how the world works and how they fit into it, and are especially hard-wired to be interested in natural processes and how nature works. By trusting each child’s own agenda – what they want to do, feel or be in this particular moment – we support them to find out about what they are naturally drawn to, investigate what they are really interested in, and follow this line of enquiry to their satisfaction.
Evolution has also crafted children to learn through playing with their world. In playful interactions with no set outcome, things, people and forces can be messed about with, moved, modified, recombined and fully explored. The questioning, creativity, critical thinking and problem solving that this child-driven approach to finding out develops so well, have been identified as vital dispositions and skill sets for the economy and employment in the 21st century.
Trusting child-driven, play-filled activity enables every child to be the highly-motivated self-directed learner that they are designed to be.
Planning for possibilities and the place of 'activities'
Enabling child-initiated and child-led play requires a rich and open environment, filled with possibilities that are appropriate to the children’s level of development and range of likely interests, and this comes from both knowing about children in general and knowing each individual child well.
Within such an environment, adult-initiated activities are likely to be of interest when they match what a child is currently interested in and driven to learn more about. Successful introduction of activities therefore needs alert adults who are attuned to this child and tuned into what is currently motivating them, so that a relevant activity can be offered.
In this context, specific activities can be used in two effective ways: firstly to respond to and provide further opportunity for the child to investigate and play with their demonstrated interest(s); and secondly to ‘seed’ new ideas – to offer provocations that give the child wider experiences, spark new thoughts and present additional ways to follow their interest. Children are usually drawn by what others show energy for, and such interest can be contagious, so that one child’s involvement draws and inspires others.
Activities that are flexible and open to being used in several ways are more playful and interesting, and therefore have much more value for children’s learning. A combination of simplicity with versatility (which nature is so good at) allows the child to take the activity in multiple directions, playing with it beyond the obvious or expected. However, flexibility in the supporting adult is also required – enjoying surprise and finding pleasure in what children do with the ideas we offer!
Plenty of non-directed time is also critical to success. Time-limited activities can suffer from a focus on product over process – the glue may well be far more interesting than the item being made! So, factor in lots of uninterrupted time, be prepared for a child to take the activity in entirely new directions, and leave the possibility for children to return to it at a later time to carry on investigating and experimenting. If the opportunity fits with their interests, they will probably come back to it when the time is right for them.”
White, J. (2014), Playing and Learning Outdoors: making provision for high quality experiences in the outdoor environment with children 3-7 (Routledge)
Woods, A. (Ed.) (2013), Child Initiated Play and Learning: planning for possibilities in the early years (David Fulton)
About Jan White
Working across the UK and internationally, Jan is a leading thinker and writer on outdoor play, advocate for high quality outdoor provision for services for children from birth to seven and founder/strategic director of Early Childhood Outdoors, the National Centre for Play, Learning and Wellbeing Outdoors.
With over thirty years’ experience in education, including working with Learning Through Landscapes and Early Excellence to develop national support for early years’ outdoor provision, and as an Associate Lecturer at Sheffield Hallam and Birmingham City Universities (CREC), she has developed a deep commitment to the consistently powerful effect of the outdoors on young children. She is currently an Associate with Early Education, convenor of the Landscapes for Early Childhood national network, and provides training courses, conference keynotes and consultancy for a wide range of early years settings.
With a childhood love of rocks and soil, leading to a degree in Soil Science, a masters in Ecology and post-graduate teaching certificate in Science and Outdoor Education, she realises that she has always been, at heart, a committed mudologist!
Jan is award-winning author of Playing and Learning Outdoors: making provision for high quality experiences in the outdoor environment with children 3-7 (Routledge 2014), Making a Mud Kitchen (Muddy Faces 2012) and Every Child a Mover (Early Education 2016), editor of Outdoor Provision in the Early Years (Sage 2011), and collaborated with Siren Films to make the award-winning training DVDs Babies Outdoors, Toddlers Outdoors and Two Year-olds Outdoors (Siren Films 2011).