Jenni Clarke offers some practical suggestions on how to encourage young children to think

‘When children have opportunities to play with ideas in different situations and with a variety of resources, they discover connections and come to new and better understandings and ways of doing things. Adult support in this process enhances their ability to think critically and ask questions.’
(‘Creativity and Critical Thinking’, EYFS 2007)

Adults play a crucial role in providing opportunities and experiences that enable children to develop their thinking skills. Practitioners working with babies and young children need to teach, explain, demonstrate, model, scaffold and support. More importantly, they need to give children the time and space to experiment with the knowledge and skills they have experienced, to discover for themselves. Children need to feel secure enough to make mistakes in a culture where mistakes are seen as a means of discovery, not failure.

Qualities an adult needs

Pascal and Bertram (1997) identified key features of adult behaviour that promote good-quality thinking, learning and development in young children:

  • Sensitivity: The adult’s ability to be aware of the children’s feelings and emotional wellbeing, to empathise 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. It is also the ability to offer extra information or join in with play in a way in which extends children’s thinking or communication.
  • Autonomy: The adult’s ability to give the children the freedom to experiment, supporting children with their decisions and judgements, encouraging expression of ideas and involving children in rule making for everyone’s safety and well being.

Use of language

‘A classroom where questions are celebrated and modelled will create an ethos of creative and critical thinking.’
(Macro & McFall, 2004)

Language and thinking are intricately linked, so adults need to model appropriate language and encourage the development of thinking vocabulary. Think about:

  • making time to listen carefully to children’s ideas, and to show that their ideas are valued.
  • the type and frequency of your questions. Open questions offer children the opportunity to explore and experiment with words, ideas and concepts that they are forming in their thinking. They allow adults to gain a deeper understanding of the child’s understanding and thinking skills.
  • giving praise – constructive feedback encourages thinking, and praise needs to be specific. Children will then learn what they did well and what they can think about for the next time.
  • modelling the use of new vocabulary – one way
  • to do this is by thinking aloud.
  • displaying new words to encourage their use.
  • telling stories as well as reading from a book.
  • using puppets to ask questions and suggest solutions to problems, using appropriate language.

Create a rich environment

‘Children have a right to a rich, complex environment – one that provides a wealth of sensory experiences’
(Thornton & Brunton, 2005)

Think about the messages your learning environment gives to the children. Does it really promote thinking? Does it really cater for communication, social and emotional development? Does it invite children to discuss, ask questions, find their own learning journey, share their discoveries in different ways to different audiences; does it give learning a purpose?

Areas in the setting or room
Each area should have a purpose, so that children know where to go when they want to plan, discover, answer questions or gather information. These areas may be play-based – eg role play, small world, creative workshop, investigate, malleable play. Alternatively, they may be curriculum-based – for example, writing, science, maths, book corner, art and craft.

A third alternative, based on the Reggio Emilia preschools, is to create different areas where children can express themselves, explore and investigate, think and reflect, be involved with others on a project, communicate, find out about themselves, and find privacy (see Thornton & Brunton, 2005).

Whichever format is chosen, all the areas must be given the same value by the adults and children, and everyone should reinforce the areas’ purpose by being seen to use each in the right way. It is also important to have relevant resources and activities to make links between each area and the outdoor environment.

Outside space
The outdoors should be seen as an extension of the room rather than a separate place to use at set times. Some children really need to be outside in order to think creatively. Consider developing an outdoor environment that reflects the indoor one, arranged into areas that encourage different types of thinking and learning right across the curriculum. There should be space to run, spaces to be still and quiet and secret spaces for reflection and talk. The outdoors is also a good place to make an area for experimenting with sounds; and if an outside area is large enough, children can have the space to think and work together on large-scale projects or problems.

Take time to reflect on what you use displays for. They can support thinking in a variety of ways, namely:

  • stimulating memory and discussion, eg a photo diary of one child’s learning journey through a task.
  • problem-solving, eg involving the children in making their own displays.
  • discussion and questions. This could be a ‘work
  • in progress’ display, a starting point for a project
  • or questions that the children want to answer.
  • being created outside as well as inside – such as laminated resources to use in teaching, or children’s work you get laminated.
  • being interactive – involving hands-on sensory experience, with speech bubbles in which children’s comments can be written.
  • being changeable – for example, with an overhead projector and a variety of objects and materials.
  • conveying messages – a space for anyone who enters to write daily information, such as, ‘I am 4 today’ or ‘ Julie went to the dentist yesterday’, with opportunities to have a go at writing.

Provide stimulating resources
If resources are of good quality, attractively presented and interesting, children will use them with care and respect. As you walk around your setting, look at the resources on offer. They should be:

  • the best quality you can afford. It is better to have a few resources of high quality than vast quantities of cheap resources that wear out or break easily.
  • made up of a variety of manufactured, recycled and natural materials – this will encourage children to think, create, make decisions and problem-solve.
  • attractively presented. Display collections of similar objects together in a beautiful basket, treasure casket or in a material-covered box.
  • easily accessible. Containers need to be of a size, shape and weight that are easily carried by children. It is important that children know they can move resources around, as long as they return them later.
  • labelled. It is important that young children know where to find a resource, without an adult’s help. Clear labels with words and pictures on containers and shelves reduce frustration and tidying-up time.
  • regularly checked and assessed. Adults should check the quality and cleanness of resources, ensure broken objects are removed and regularly monitor the quantity of consumable resources. They need to observe where the resources are being used and discuss with the children if a resource needs to be moved to a more appropriate place.

Give children time to think

‘Engaging children in planning and reflection makes them more than good actors following prescribed roles. It turns them into artists and scientists who make things happen and create meaning for themselves and others.’
(Epstein, 2003)

Thinking takes time, concentration and perseverance; therefore children need to be motivated, which is more likely in a play situation, where they feel they have choice and control. Child-initiated learning creates the right motivation and opportunity for developing thinking skills as it incorporates the key elements of time, choice, value, opportunities to think about ‘what, how, when, why and next time’, along with quality adult input and support. For the adults this is an ideal time to find out what the children know, how they use their knowledge and what might be needed to encourage more thinking.

Adults’ role in supporting children’s learning is to:

  • organise the environment and resources.
  • support children to make choices
  • observe and listen
  • play in a role
  • play alongside
  • model/demonstrate language and thinking
  • ask open questions to stimulate further thinking
  • provide support and guidance through a problem
  • help children to cope with conflicts
  • be flexible with time.

Ensure that reflection time occurs – babies and very young children need to hear adults’ comments about what they have been doing. Older children can talk with a partner, share a problem with a small group, discuss what has happened in a large group or make a display or presentation.

Adult-initiated challenges
These can be useful as starting points for some children. However, it is important not to use these as a formal programme with expected outcomes, but rather as an extension to something the children have been investigating. If children are doing their own thinking, setting their own challenges and problems, then these are not needed. But if you do initiate any projects, make them as open-ended as possible and encourage thinking and decision-making.

Children should be able to take on a challenge at their own level and pace. Younger children will probably achieve more alone, older children can be encouraged to work with another or in a small group. Challenges can be very simple – for instance, adding a variety of different spoons to the sand can spark new thinking. Challenges need to arise from the children’s interest and play but, above all, they need to be fun, manageable and meaningful.

Challenges and investigations for babies and toddlers

‘It’s me’

A variety of mirrors: large, small, handheld, convex, concave, bendable.A variety of fabrics: different sizes, colours, patterns, transparencies and textures.

To sustain the children’s thinking:

  • Set out mirrors in a space (indoors or outdoors). Cover some of them completely and some partially with the different fabrics.
  • Encourage the children to explore.
  • Explore with them.
  • Follow the child’s lead in exploring and playing and then extend this.
  • Hide yourself in the material and peek at the mirrors, then exclaim excitedly when you ‘find’ yourself in a mirror, or see a child in a mirror.
  • Talk about what you are discovering, posing open-ended questions.
  • As the children to describe their explorations, allow enough time for shy or slower-thinking children to contribute their thoughts too.
  • Use and model appropriate vocabulary.

Hidden, gone, find, seek, see, look, peek, who, where, when, small,
big, same, different.


Resources: Large cardboard boxesA variety of items that make a noise: bells, crinkly paper, shakers, rattles, squeakers, music buttons, instruments, keys,

beads, buttons.

To sustain the children’s thinking:

  • Use the boxes to make a ‘tunnel’ large enough for the children – and you – to crawl through easily.
  • Fix the sound-makers along the tunnel – floor, sides and ceiling.
  • Encourage the children to explore; comment on their discoveries.
  • Model and use appropriate vocabulary.
  • Give them time to explore and discover all the sounds.
  • Go in with them and comment on the sounds.
  • Allow them to re-explore. Observe carefully and stop when they’ve had enough.

Some children may wish to look in and reach in rather than crawl inside. If they are very interested but too scared, make up a curtain of sounds somewhere else, perhaps outside.

Loud, quiet, ring, buzz, rattle, squeak, beep, crackle, tinkle, shake.

Challenges and investigations for older children

‘Whisk up bubbles’

A range of transparent containers: jars, food storage boxes, bowls, jugs. Bubble mixture: different colours, smells (buy allergy-free versions). A variety of whisking implements: metal and plastic whisks, metal and plastic forks of different sizes, chopsticks.

To sustain the children’s thinking:
Put out all the resources for the children to experiment with. Encourage them to use different combinations of containers, quantities of water, types of bubble mixture, types of whisk and whisking methods.

Investigation questions:
How can you use the whisks? Are they all the same? Which container is best for which whisk? What makes the best bubbles? Largest bubbles? Most bubbles? Can you make a bubble glove? How can you make bubbles move? What’s inside a bubble? Why do bubbles pop?

‘Make a spiral from construction materials’

Before the challenge The children will need to understand the concept of a spiral. They will need to have seen, felt and walked along spiral patterns. They may have made spirals out of malleable materials, paint, crayons or mud.

During the challenge Discuss the problems and encourage the children to record what is happening to some of the spirals. Is it a spiral if it has corners?

After the challenge Discuss what they found out – they may have taken photos, used a tape recorder, drawn or written what happened. Discuss which construction material is the easiest to use for this challenge and which is the hardest, and discuss why.

Extend the challenge The children may wish to see how small or large a spiral they can make. Can they make one that stands up?

Thinking skills involved:

  • Enquiry: asking themselves and others how they can complete the challenge, they may also pose new challenges as the task progresses.
  • Information processing: what they already know that can help them.
  • Reasoning: justifying the use of certain equipment, listening to others’ ideas, making decisions based on knowledge.
  • Evaluation: evaluating what they are doing, how it is working  as they play and when they have completed the challenge.
  • Problem-solving: most construction materials are straight-edged, spirals are curved. What can we use? How do you draw and cut a spiral?
  • Creative: The need to use construction equipment in a new way.


  • Epstein, Ann S  (2003) ‘How Planning and Reflection Develop Young Children’s Thinking Skills’, Beyond the Journal. Young Children on the Web. September 2003
  • The Early Years Foundation Stage (2007) DfES Publications
  • Macro, C & Mc Fall, D (2004) ‘Questions and Questioning: Working with Young Children’, Primary Science Review 83, May/June 2004
  • Pascal, C & Bertram, A (1997) Effective Early Learning: Case Studies for Improvement. Hodder & Stoughton
  • Thornton, L & Brunton, P (2005) Understanding the Reggio Approach. David Fulton Publishers