In the revised EYFS, early years practitioners should consider “the individual needs, interests and development of each child in their care and use this information to plan a challenging and enjoyable experience for each child in all areas of learning and development.”

One key word here is “interests”, which means things that the child is interested in and motivated by, be that a model car, a bird in the tree or the glinting reflection of light on a carpet. These are important because they motivate children to explore, ask questions, and stimulates them in a natural way. But the things that children are interested in can sometimes be overlooked in favour of national curriculums, parental preferences, cultural bias and goals and expectations dictated by other people.

Child-led or child-initiated learning can redress this balance and put the child’s interests back at the heart of their world.

What is child-led learning?

Child-led learning happens when a child chooses an activity to do at a particular time rather than have an adult choose for them. It assumes that each person is a unique expression of themselves and has individual and valid approaches to learning that are right for them, leading to a meaningful learning experience. An example could be when a child picks up a pen and begins exploring what marks they can make, or when a child’s imagination is captured playing with some cardboard boxes, or when a child chooses to explore an outdoor environment, looking under rocks to see what is there. The potential for the child to learn is almost endless since they are free to move from one learning experience to another. The opposite of child-led learning would be a controlled classroom where there are set learning goals that need to be covered and the children are only allowed to do the tasks assigned them by the teacher.

Tips to encourage child-led learning in your setting:

Be prepared – ensure your environment is inviting

The key to being spontaneous with children is sometimes to be well prepared. If all your toys, pens and paper are neatly stored away until the practitioner decides that she wants to use them, then the opportunities for children to explore using these resources will be limited. Your resources therefore need to be organised but easily accessible for the children. Don’t worry too much either if resources get moved from one area to another, such as a child taking some blocks into the outdoor area. You want to be teaching them adaptability and creative thinking rather than limiting their choices or ideas.

Train practitioners to observe and interact

Child-led learning is not the same as a ‘hands-off’ approach to teaching. It does not mean practitioners have time off to catch up on paperwork whilst the children play on their own. Child-led learning at its best has a high degree of practitioner involvement but this involvement needs to be measured and follow the child’s lead. It is important not to try to manipulate the child into following the adult’s agenda.

Practitioners need to be able to first observe the children at play and identify the moments where they can extend or augment the child’s learning through joining in with the activity, taking the lead from the child, or by posing high-quality questions which lead the child to develop their higher-order thinking.

Learning to identify higher-order thinking questions is a skill that you can train your practitioners to do. Bloom’s taxonomy was one of the original frameworks to identify educational goals, but can be applied in the early years too since it encourages students not to just remember and regurgitate information, but to solve problems, adapt the situation and create something completely new.

Make time but don’t worry about time

A child-led learning moment could last a few seconds or a whole day. The length of time does not matter but the quality of the time and the quality of the interactions between practitioners and children do. You may already have free play or child-led learning time scheduled into your day but think about doing this if not. Remember too that you can follow a child’s lead at anytime if it is appropriate and safe to do so.

Reflect and improve

Take a moment to reflect after a child-led learning experience and think about whether you could extend their learning through a different activity later in the day or in the week. For example, if the child was building a boat in the sandpit, is there a way you could introduce this topic later in the day at storytime or when mark-making for example. Practitioners should take the time to introduce new vocabulary and to encourage speaking and conversations to help children make links to other areas of the curriculum, as is encouraging physicality, movement and social interactions with others.

A word about SEND

When working with children with SEND, it is important to really understand the needs of these pupils and to accommodate them during child-led learning time. Some children with SEND are less able to cope with unstructured time than other children and can become anxious or fretful if they are not sure what to do or what is happening. These children may require a greater degree of support and guidance, or some help in starting out. Some children, such as those with autism, may become completely engrossed in an activity that they are interested in, to the exclusion of everything else, so it is vital that you understand the different needs and make plans for SEND children too.

The great thing about child-led learning is that it plays into a holistic programme of education which will allow the child to develop across all the areas of learning in the EYFS and more.

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