Jenni Clarke, early years consultant and author, looks at the importance of practitioners’ planning to support young children’s self-initiated learning

What is child-initiated learning?

Child-initiated learning is an essential part of a range of learning activities that young children need to experience in order to understand the world around them. This range of activities and experiences includes group activities, singing, cooking, listening to stories, re-telling stories, going for walks and interacting with visitors to the setting. It also includes participating in adult-initiated activities, some of which may well have stemmed from observations of children’s ideas and interests during their play. It is important that children are able to access this whole range of learning opportunities, as they learn from watching and imitating others as well as by exploring and experimenting.

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The Early Years Foundation Stage Profile Handbook defines child-initiated learning in the following way:

‘A self initiated activity is an activity wholly decided on by the child and is the result of an intrinsic motivation to explore a project, or express an idea. In doing this the child may make use of a variety of resources and demonstrate a complex range of knowledge, skills and understanding.’ (QCA, 2008)

Child-initiated learning involves children making decisions about what they want to do, where, with whom, and what resources they will need. They then need time to play, to explore and experiment with their ideas and knowledge. During this playing time, children need support from adults in a variety of ways to scaffold, extend and model learning. During and after their play, children should be encouraged to talk about what they have done, whether they have discovered something new, improved upon a skill or just enjoyed playing with a friend. The extent to which each of these aspects can be explored will vary according to the children’s age and experience.

Many teachers and practitioners may feel they are not doing their job if they have not planned an activity or are not directing the work or play, but this is not the case with child-initiated learning. However, good quality child-initiated learning cannot take place without adult support. Child-initiated activities require the adult to:

  • carefully plan the environment
  • think about and organize the resources that will be available to the children
  • plan the session so children have sufficient time to become immersed in their play.

Why child-initiated learning is so important

For children

‘Children learn when they are given appropriate responsibility, allowed to make errors, decisions and choices, and are respected as autonomous and competent learners.’ (DfES, 2002)

We all learn best when highly motivated. Children are motivated by play, especially when they have chosen it themselves. They are more likely to persist when things get difficult and have a sense of real achievement when they succeed. This is because they are learning in a style that suits them, at their particular level of understanding, and (as we know from our own learning experiences) are more likely to remember what they have learned if they have discovered it for themselves rather than being told. Children need to learn through experience and doing; and they are very active in their play, because it is through action that new connections are made and reinforced in the brain.

For example, the thrill of discovering how to mix primary colors to make the color green helps to develop strong connections in a child’s brain, as he or she will want to communicate the discovery to others. Reliving and retelling the experience consolidates the child’s understanding and gives him or her real ‘ownership’ of the knowledge. Research has shown that the ability to retain information that we teach others is up to 90% successful, as opposed to a retention rate of 5% for a piece of information that a person has simply been told. (Meighan, 2004)

Child-initiated learning encourages children to develop thinking skills as well as to become aware of the ideas of others. As part of child-initiated learning, children plan what to do and then review what they have done. This enables children to share ideas and to discuss how to solve problems, helping them to see mistakes and difficulties as challenges not failures. We all learn through our mistakes.

‘Child-initiated learning enables the children to work with confidence, persevering for incredibly long periods of time and working at levels far higher than those sometimes identified in the planned curriculum.’ (Corfield, 2005)

For adults

Child-initiated learning is the perfect opportunity to get to know the children by:

  • observing their choices and their style of play
  • listening to their speech
  • playing alongside them.

By supporting child-initiated learning in these ways, practitioners can ensure that resources and opportunities for extending children’s learning are provided. Through observing children during their play, it is then easier to plan adult-initiated activities to extend the thinking and understanding that has been observed. Basing these activities on play that has been seen ensures that the children will be motivated to participate fully.

Observation is the key to extending learning

A baby is observed looking at a spot of light reflected onto the carpet. The practitioner gathers a few shiny reflective objects and paper and places these near the baby, talking about the light as the baby shows interest in the objects.

A young child always gets out the small cars, pushes them around for a while and then wanders off. He also likes to use the different posting toys in the setting.

The practitioner adds some cardboard tubes and boxes to the box of small cars and observes the child pushing the cars through the tubes and hiding them in the boxes. He becomes excited and looks around so the practitioner joins in and the child shows her what he has found out. The practitioner makes comments on what is happening.

A group of older children have chosen to play with the bulbs, batteries and wires all week. They have made some circuits and drawn some diagrams. The practitioner decides to extend their learning by offering them a challenge: ‘The kitchen in the doll’s house is very dark. Can you help?’

The challenge is taken up and the children fix a circuit into the kitchen, but then realise that they need a switch or their battery will run out very quickly.  They go back to the science area and play and experiment with the equipment to decide upon the best way to make a switch. By this time there are more children interested and the original group are teaching other children about circuits.

Supporting child-initiated learning

There are four important ways in which practitioners can support children’s self-initiated play and learning. These are through the way they:

  1. Organize the environment
  2. Ensure that the children have plenty of time
  3. Value the play by joining in
  4. Review the opportunities to extend learning.

1. Organize the environment

‘A rich and varied environment supports children’s learning and development.
It gives them the confidence to explore and learn in secure and safe, yet challenging, indoor and outdoor spaces.’
(PiP 3.3 EYFS, 2008)

A well-organized environment allows the adults to spend more time – and quality time – playing and working alongside the children and less time organizing resources for tasks. High-quality resources attractively presented in an interesting environment will enable child-initiated learning to occur.

‘Where possible, link the indoor and outdoor environments so that children can move freely between them’ (EYFS, 2008)

When organizing the environment of an early years setting, adults need to ensure that:

  • The space both indoors and outdoors is structured in a way that enables easy access to resources and opportunities for the children to play and work alone,
  • in small groups or in larger groups.
  • Each area has a storage space for particular resources and an area for play such as role play, small world, creative, book space, construction area. It is important that children know they can take resources from an area and return them when the play is finished.
  • Resources are clearly labelled, on boxes and shelves, for ease of return.
  • Resources are replenished or replaced when needed.
  • Outdoor areas reflect, rather than imitate, indoor areas. For example, the book area inside may consist of a rug, comfy chair, bookcase and a box of puppets; while the outdoor book area may be a tented space with cushions and a basket or box of books.
  • There is a physical sign to indicate if an area needs to have a restriction on the number of children using it, for safety reasons. This could mean limiting the number of overalls, safety hats, or badges available, or providing space for only four names at the entrance to the area.
  • Resources are displayed attractively so that the children cannot resist using them. Craft materials mixed together and crammed into drawers will not be used as much as the same resources in separate, smaller, labelled, open-topped containers on a shelf.
  • Natural resources are available. Baskets of shells, seeds, leaves and pebbles will promote discussion, scientific enquiry, mathematical language and creative art work.
  • Recycled resources are available for creative thinking and to promote an awareness of the importance of looking after the environment by reuse of resources. Calling these resources ‘recycled’ rather than ‘junk’ will promote a more positive and respectful use of them.
  • Discussions are held with the children when new resources are introduced, including where they think they should be stored. Different ideas can be voted on and tried out and children can evaluate the storage in different places and come to a majority vote on the best place for easy access.
  • The setting’s organization and routines include an enjoyable way for everyone to tidy up the resources when necessary – for example, using a piece of music,
  • a tidy-up song or rhyme.
  • They continually evaluate and observe how the spaces and resources in the room are being used and accessed, and change them accordingly.

2. Ensure that the children have plenty of time

The younger the children are, the more child-initiated learning opportunities they need in order to maximize their learning. They need time to try things out, make mistakes, try something else, repeat their play and consolidate their ideas. There needs to be specific time in the day for child-initiated learning, which should include time for planning and reflecting.


With babies and very young children, planning may simply involve the child making a gesture or moving to an area, perhaps pulling out a particular toy. As children become older they can talk about what they are going to do and, when they are older still, they can make plans on simple maps of the room. This can progress to writing sentences or drawing pictures or planning activities together with a friend.


Reflection with babies and very young children could take the form of an adult talking about what they saw the child do, sharing photos of the children playing, listening to tape recordings or telling a story of the child’s play. As children become older and more familiar with talking about what they have done, they can be encouraged to sit in small groups and think about something specific that happened, or discuss open-ended questions, such as:

‘Did anyone have a problem?’ ‘What did you do?’

‘Does anyone have a different solution?’

3. Value the play by joining in

It is vital that adults value children’s self-initiated play. Children are very aware of what the adults are doing in the setting. Adults need to be playing alongside the children in order to model and scaffold the learning.

Scaffolding their play ensures that the child receives support, guidance and encouragement while learning through play. It extends thinking and language skills as well as developing the skills that a child needs to become an independent learner. Many practitioners and parents do this without thinking about it – for example, when a child is learning to walk. The adult is flexible in his or her approach and instinctively varies the amount of support and encouragement they offer, depending on the child’s progress and interest at the time.

Appropriate intervention in children’s play

  • Observe the children’s play before joining in, unless you have been invited from the beginning.
  • Don’t be afraid to join in, but be aware of what your involvement does to the quality of play. If play stagnates and conversation stops when you enter an area or game, find a way to politely leave! Then continue to observe from a distance.
  • Listen carefully to the language the children are using and think about how to introduce new vocabulary as part of the play.
  • Model being a learner by talking out loud, asking children for help with problems and trying out their ideas and suggestions.
  • You could join in play as a character – for example, the safety inspector visiting the garage – in order to model aspects of play or to model writing for a purpose.
  • Intervention and modelling might be useful if play becomes repetitive or resources are being mishandled.
  • Play alongside the shy child, slowly including him or her in your game through conversation.

4. Review the opportunities to extend learning

  • Practitioners can support and extend young children’s learning by building on the ideas and interests displayed during self-initiated learning.
  • Observing and joining in with the children’s play means that you can constantly review the resources available to the children.
  • Ensure that children have the opportunities to repeat activities. This will entail checking that a resource is not being used by anyone, before changing it or moving it to a new place.
  • Use ideas and observations of children’s play to inform planning for adult-led and group activities.
  • Review the children’s levels of understanding and give them challenges based on their play choices. For example, with babies and very young children this may involve introducing a different resource into the water play area to extend their thinking. For older children there may be some written challenge cards for children to choose from. Be aware that challenges are adult-led ideas, so encourage older children to set challenges for each other and for the adults!

Most important of all – enjoy playing with the children.

EPPE, SPEEL and EEL research findings

The report from the Effective Provision of Preschool Education (EPPE) project found that in early years settings that were judged to be particularly effective in the outcomes they achieved for children, the balance between who initiated the activities – adult or child – was about equal. Similarly, the extent to which staff extended child-initiated interactions was important. Almost half of the child-initiated episodes that contained intellectual challenge included interventions from a member of staff to extend the child’s thinking.

The Study of Pedagogical Effectiveness in Early Learning (SPEEL), conducted by Janet Moyle’s team at Anglia Polytechnic University at the same time as the EPPE project, found that effective early years practitioners created many different opportunities for children to define their own problems, with the practitioner’s role being to clarify and model ways in which problems might be solved. By taking a supportive role, practitioners encouraged individual children to discuss the processes of problem-solving. Listening to children discussing their own understanding and hypothesizing and valuing children’s theories, gave practitioners insight into children’s thought processes. These insights are then used to inform future teaching.

The Effective Early Learning (EEL) study was carried out by Pascal and Bertram,  building on the work of Ferre Laevers of Louvain University on children’s levels of wellbeing and involvement. The study identified three key features of adult behavior that promoted children’s thinking and learning:

  • Sensitivity: the adult’s ability to be aware of the children’s feelings and emotional wellbeing; the ability to empathize 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. This includes the ability to offer extra information or join in with play in a way that extends thinking or communication.
  • Autonomy: the adult’s ability to give the children the freedom to experiment, support children with their decisions and judgements, encourage the expression of ideas, and involve children in rule-making for everyone’s safety and wellbeing.

EEL go to the Eric (Education Resources Information Center) homepage and type ‘The Effective Early Learning Project: The Quality of Adult Engagement in Early Childhood Settings in the UK’ into the search box