How can the process of developing thinking skills be put into practice? A glimpse into the environment within a day nursery in south-east England shows how

‘Children, if left to their own impulses, fill the air with perpetual questionings, every new thing being a mystery to them. Children should not be stinted, rebuked or dispirited, but allowed to develop a continuous elastic spirit, ever enquiring and ever extending to others the fullness of their own aspirations.’* In 1816 Robert Owen presented this strong image of the thinking child. It neatly captures how adults should view young children who are learning to think and thinking to learn. Practitioners in a day nursery in south-east England have created an interesting environment for learning where children from three months to four years of age are encouraged to develop their critical thinking skills. This has been achieved by providing equipment and resources which encourage open-ended exploration and investigation building on the children’s interests, ideas and theories.

In the baby room
The baby room is equipped with mirrors and light boxes along with more conventional baby toys. During a morning session coloured acetate sheets are placed on the light box for the non-mobile babies to investigate. Over the course of 20 minutes the babies move the acetate sheets around, drop them on to the light box, overlap the different colours, look through the sheets and investigate them to see what they feel like.

The babies demonstrate their enquiry skills through the intensity of their engagement with the acetate on the light box, evidenced by their expressions, posture and length of time they concentrate. They make deliberate conscious movements, reaching out and grasping the things which interest them. Information processing is evident through the use of repeated actions to re-test their theories about why things happen and how things work. Overlapping the sheets and then looking through them shows the babies making connections in their learning and extending their reasoning skills. Practitioners are learning the value of giving children uninterrupted time to explore and investigate. By watching carefully to observe the interests and learning styles of individual children they can plan what opportunities to offer next.

Toddlers using an overhead projector

The two-year-old children have access to a studio space which is equipped with an overhead projector and a range of open-ended reclaimed and natural materials. The overhead projector is an old-style model with the light bulb securely enclosed within the base unit so it is safe for the children to use independently. The children gradually pile up a selection of transparent and translucent materials on the surface of the overhead projector, watching how the images projected onto the wall change. The children become more and more interested in the projected images and move over to the wall to interact with them. The size and shapes of the images on the wall prompt a discussion about how the images might be created. Moving backwards and forwards between the overhead projector and the wall enables the children to develop their reasoning skills and make connections in their understanding of light, shadow, mirrors and magnification. Creative thinking skills develop in a context of imaginative play, with the children seeing the connection between a solid object on the overhead projector and the image created on the wall. The practitioner takes on the role of facilitator, enabling the children to explore their ideas in a safe but challenging environment. By observing closely and asking open-ended questions, adults can extend, and deepen, children’s ideas, theories and understanding.

Animal journeys in the pre-school

The pre-school of the nursery is equipped with a range of equipment and resources to encourage investigation and close observation of the garden and its inhabitants. The children have free access to stand magnifiers, hand lenses, collecting trays and bug catchers. A group of three boys discover a family of woodlice under a stone. Once disturbed the woodlice scuttle away, prompting an interest in where they go and the journeys that they make. The boys collect five woodlice and ask the practitioner for a piece of paper big enough to draw the journeys the woodlice make. Armed with a crayon each they ask the practitioner to tip the woodlice on to the middle of the paper. As the woodlice scoot away the boys attempt to follow their tracks with their crayons. One boy, in a desperate attempt to slow the action down, uses his crayon to draw a small circle round one of the woodlice. The creature pauses momentarily at the wax boundary and then scuttles off. By talking together and sharing ideas the boys define the problem they want to investigate – tracking the journey of a woodlouse, and propose a solution – tracking the movement of the creature on a sheet of paper using a wax crayon. The speed at which the woodlice move creates a new problem which requires an instantaneous solution. By thinking creatively and putting together knowledge and experience gained in different contexts a possible solution is found – enclosing the woodlouse within a boundary. The practitioner’s role in this scenario is to provide the necessary resources, encourage the children to plan what they are going to do, facilitate the investigation, ask open-ended questions and capture the learning process through photographs and transcripts of the children’s conversations.


*Robert Owen (1816) quoted in Dudek, M (1996) Kindergarten Architecture. London: Chapman and Hall