Monday, October 15, 2012

How Children Learn. Part 1

An Introduction

The 2012 Statutory Framework for the EYFS (Early Years Foundation Stage) states “In planning and guiding children’s activities, practitioners must reflect on the different ways children learn and reflect these in their practice” (1).  Hence practitioners now need to respond to HOW children learn not just WHAT children learn.

Dame Tickell in her 2011 Review of the EYFS cited Evangelou 2009 “Children’s learning arises from the interplay between the unique child with their surrounding relationships and experiences” (2).

Moylett and Stewart (3) reflect on the recent research in brain development and psychology which provides evidence that babies are born with amazing learning abilities. From a very young age babies have inner drive to make sense of their experiences (explanatory drive) and a desire to ‘make things happen and be competent’ (sense of agency). Hence a young baby will:

  • Show curiosity
  • Make choices
  • Show perseverance
Quickly the infant will develop strategies for learning and will continue to use these throughout their lives i.e.
  • Finding patterns in their experience so they can make predictions
  • Learning by imitating others
Strikingly, research is now showing that these characteristics and strategies can be strengthened or hampered by the experiences children meet. Moylett and Stewart state “When children are encouraged and supported to follow their curiosity, to feel the satisfaction of reaching their own challenges, to think for themselves and to plan and monitor how they will go about their activities, they become self-regulated learners who later out strip children who may have developed more early subject based knowledge but have been more passive in their learning.”

So which approaches work to foster this learning process? I will discuss these in more detail in later blogs but essentially the EYFS 2012 identifies three strands or characteristics of effective learning:

  1. Playing and Exploring – whereby children investigate and experience things, and ‘have a go’
  2. Active Learning – children concentrate and keep on trying if they encounter difficulties, and enjoy achievements; and
  3. Creating and Thinking Critically – children have and develop their own ideas, make links between ideas and develop strategies for doing things (Statutory Framework for the EYFS 2012)
Current research demonstrates, and the 2012 EYYS Framework now states, that each area of learning and development are best supported and encouraged through planned purposeful play and through a combination of adult lead and child-initiated activity.

Reflecting on my transition from a physiotherapist working with adults to a paediatric physiotherapist, 14 years ago, I realise I learnt the therapeutic interventions, the activities, but had little training on how to encourage the children in the learning of these activities. My instinct told me to make it fun, let the children have the ideas and disguise the activities in play.

Being involved with the development of the Tatty Bumpkin programme, working with nursery and children centres groups, has brought the importance of wrapping activities into a fun, purposeful playful activity which has the flexibility to use a combination of child led and adult led activities.

As an example; about 8 years ago, as part of a NHS paediatric team working with children with Developmental Co-ordination Disorder (Dyspraxia can be placed under this umbrella term), I was involved in developing a 6 week programme for children and their parents. The programme consisted of a series of 5 home exercises which the children completed on a daily basis. One of these activities was doing a number of press ups in the crawl position. The exercise was aimed at increasing strength and activity in the shoulder girdle, which hopefully helped the child improve their posture and specifically their fine motor skills such as writing. The children duly did their ‘press ups’ and we had some marked success with the programme as a whole.

However, looking back, I think what a missed opportunity in some ways! How the rather ‘dry’ press up activity could have been made so much more engaging, less daunting, more motivating, more meaningful and altogether more FUN for the children! With imagination, an adventure story, ideas from the children themselves, a few well-chosen props, and a ‘stretchy cat’ song - the humble press up suddenly becomes a cat lapping the milk before going on an adventure! Offering the children with different strategies for being a cat means they can all feel the joy of achievement.

The Importance of Learning How to Learn

Nancy Stewart’s book on ‘How Children Learn’ (4) provides an excellent insite into our understanding of the human learning process. This learning process is surely one of the most fundamental processes we can strengthen in young children. A child who is not afraid to learn; who approaches new things with a zeal and joy, who has the resilience to keep on trying, the confidence to realise they might be wrong and hence will start again on a new approach and ultimately who enjoys their achievements is surely a child equipped for life in our constantly changing world. A world where they are going to have to adapt quickly and with enthusiasm to truly feel they can make a difference.

The learning process could be regarded as the ‘roots’ to our tree of knowledge – once again I am drawn to the research which indicates that children who have opportunity to learn how to learn will later outstrip those children who have only had the opportunity for more subject or skill based learning. I will be looking at this in later blogs.

Nancy Stewart highlights “..that it is not enough for a child to have a particular skill or know some facts. These are of little value in the end without the desire, confidence, motivation and control to use them, and the mental abilities to look at something in a new way, link ideas together and plan and manage the way forward” (4).

In this series of blogs, I am going to investigate:

  • Why we want to learn – to understand how we learn we firstly have to have an awareness of what drives us to learn
  • The three characteristics of the learning process –  I will discuss Playing and Exploring, Active  Learning and Creating and Thinking Critically in more detail.
  • Purposeful play to support the learning process and the evidence behind this
  • Tatty Bumpkin programme supporting the learning process though provision of a playful activity
by Sue Heron, Training Co-ordinator Tatty Bumpkin, MCSP


  1. Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage. Dept for Education 2012.
  2. Tickell, C (2011). The Early Years Foundations for life, health and learning: An Independent Report on the Early Years Foundation Stage for Her Majesty’s Government, Dept. of Education
  3. Moylett, H. Stewart, N (2012). Understanding the Revised Early Years Foundation Stage. The British Association of Early Childhood Education.
  4. Stewart, N (2011). How Children Learn. The British Association of Early Childhood Education.