I was first introduced to the theoretical work of Reuven Feuerstein by my friend and mentor the late Professor Bob Burden when I trained as an educational psychologist at the University of Exeter. At the time, I thought Feuerstein’s ideas were wonderful and they changed the way I came to think about children’s development, especially how they learn. In the following article, which explores Feuerstein’s emphasis on developing children’s potential, I would like to acknowledge the help of Martine Burke, Lead Practitioner of an outstanding nursery in Bristol. I invited Martine to offer an example of an aspect of the nursery’s work with children that could illustrate how a creative use of the children’s environment could be used to develop their potential, which is a central idea, at the heart of Feuerstein’s theory. Martine came up with a wonderful example where the children at her nursery were engaging in activities out of doors (see example below).

Who is Reuven Feuerstein?

Reuven Feuerstein was born in Botosani, Romania in 1921 and following the end of World War II, he worked with children who had survived the Holocaust. This experience was to shape his own thinking about how children think and learn. Feuerstein observed how these children, when initially assessed using standardised intelligence (IQ) did not perform well but when he worked with them on an individual basis, they performed far better than their test scores had suggested; more importantly, he found that their intellectualperformance greatly improved. This led Reuven to look more closely at how these children learned and to question if, in fact, their intellectual abilities were fixed from birth. He then began to explore how children’s thinking skills could be developed and improved so that they could be helped to reach their potential.

Feuerstein’s ideas

Feuerstein suggested that practitioners should believe that a child’s potential for learning ought to have almost no limits. He also suggested that artificial barriers prevent change in how children learn and realise their potential. Reuven also proposed that all children, no matter what their degree of difficulty can, with the appropriate level of support, become effective learners. By adopting such a belief system, practitioners, he argued, can then be freed from the type of restricted thinking that might limit their vision of what could be possible for them to achieve with every child.

Reuven argued that a central feature in children’s intellectual learning is, learning how to learn and he called this process the ‘Mediated Learning Experience’ where adults working with children ensure that the children understand what is being asked of them when they engage in a new activity. Practitioners, therefore, should take great care when explaining to children why they are being asked to engage in a particular activity and that they understand that the activity has real value as opposed to being something that will occupy them for a time. A particular strength of Feuerstein’s theory is that it places children’s potential for learning at the very heart of their activities with adults. By emphasising the distinction between ‘ability’ and ‘potential’, Feuerstein recognised the importance of adults creating learning environments where children can realise their potential. The following example shows how practitioners at an outstanding early years setting have been using the outdoors environment to support children in realising their potential:

When thinking about the outdoor environment at our setting we value the importance of creating opportunities for the children to explore using a wide range of resources; the children like to use their imagination with chosen resources. We are very fortunate to have access to a small courtyard garden area which the youngest of children can freely access and which I feel is very important as they then have opportunities to make choices themselves safely, and to venture off and explore under supervision. Practitioners set up activities that include mark-making, sand and water, and construction, as well as allowing the children to transport resources of choice from their room to the outside to extend and support their play further. We also have a bigger garden area which has plenty of spaces for riding bikes and scooters, climbing trees, and playing hide and seek games, as well as having a range of natural resources with which to explore. The children respond very well to this type of environment and like to use their imagination and importantly, their thinking skills, as well as physical skills, all of which works to develop their individual potential. Recently, I observed one group of children for a short time when they were using tyres to roll, push and move around the garden. The children were working well together, showing good levels of involvement as well as problem-solving skills. Practitioners were carefully supporting their play by providing more resources and allowing the children to take a lead with their play. As a setting, we have reflected upon our resources and I have discussed with my team the importance of ensuring that the small garden area has more problem-solving opportunities even for the youngest of the children. We have decided to make regular visits to the local ‘Scrapstore’ and create a space where loose parts can be kept outside for the children to have access to.

This example illustrates the importance of those ideas that underpin Feuerstein’s theory, which emphasises the importance of adults creating meaningful environments for young children that give them opportunities, under supervision, to develop their individual potential.

About the author

Professor Sean MacBlain PhD, C. Psychol., C. Sci., FRSM, FHEA, AMBDA is a distinguished author whose most recent publication is: MacBlain (Sage, 2018) Learning Theories for Early Years Practice. Other publications include: MacBlain (Sage, 2014) How Children Learn; Gray and MacBlain (Sage, 2015) Learning Theories in Childhood, now going into its 3rd edition; MacBlain, Long and Dunn, (Sage, 2015) Dyslexia, Literacy and Inclusion: Child-centred Perspectives; MacBlain, Dunn and Luke (Sage, 2017) Contemporary Childhood; Sean’s publications are used by students, academics and practitioners worldwide. He is currently a senior academic at Plymouth Marjon University where he teaches on a range of undergraduate programmes and supervises students at masters and doctoral level. Sean worked previously as a Senior Lecturer in Education and Developmental Psychology at Stranmillis University College, Queens University Belfast and for over twenty years as an educational psychologist in private practice. Sean lives with his wife Angela in Somerset, England.  

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