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Learner-centred learning in the early  years

Learner-Centred Learning in the Early Years

As a parent and as an educator, I have always been fascinated by child-initiated learning.

I have observed that it encourages children to develop thinking skills as well as to become aware of the ideas of others. It is a wonderful experience to watch children, as part of child-initiated learning, plan what to do and then review what they have done. Basically child-initiated learning refers to all activities that a child might do, that are not explicitly guided by a teacher. What we do through Child initiated learning is give children the opportunity to plan and develop both their play and interests. This is very different from the traditional, teacher-directed approach. Here, children can develop critical skills, concentration, and perseverance that they otherwise wouldn't. Child-initiated play is a style of play where children choose how, where, and what they wish to play with.

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.’

Child-initiated play has an important role in children's learning and development. Children explore and learn from their own thoughts and ideas. It gives children the space to be creative with what they do and drive their own exploration. As Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) settings are never empty rooms, all activities will have been set up by an adult - the difference comes in the directions given to the child. For example: Adult-led learning: a member of staff tells a child to get out art supplies and draw their favourite animal. Child-led learning: the child is given free access to different resources - the child then chooses to get out art supplies and draw whatever they want.

Make sure you set aside long chunks of time for child-initiated learning, rather than short bursts of activity. Try and plan the time so there’ll be minimal disruption, so children have time to engage on a deep level. Provide children with resources that will allow them to challenge themselves. This means giving children freedom to use your provision in their own way - for example, it can be enough to give your children access to LEGO bricks without telling them that they need to build a house from them.

There are loads of benefits of child-led learning with open-ended, real and inspirational resources. Open-ended - resources can be used in a variety of ways, limited only by the child’s imagination (e.g. recyclable materials, wooden blocks) Real - add things like real spades to the digging area, or real kettles and oven gloves to your role play kitchen (while considering health and safety)

Inspirational - resources that can enhance a particular area of provision (e.g. laminated road signs put with the toy cars). These aren’t open-ended, but can still be used imaginatively in a range of ways.

The child should be doing more work than the adult, even if the adult is involved in the activity. For example, if a child wants to make a collage, the adult shouldn’t give them step-by-step instructions. Instead, they should prompt the child where necessary by asking questions such as: What are you trying to do? What do you think you’ll need to do that? How are you going to make that?

Children are more likely to learn from experiences where they have to be independent and do things for themselves. For example, rather than putting out PlayDoh, give children the opportunity to make their own. This provides a deeper experience, as the child is playing with something they’ve made themselves.

It is very important to strike a balance between teacher led learning and child-initiated learning. There’s no magic formula to decide how much time your setting should spend doing adult-led vs child-led learning. Through trial and error you'll discover what works best for your setting. Focus on quality and decrease structure slowly. Don’t focus on the percentage of time children spend engaged in adult- or child-initiated learning. Focus on the quality of the learning - no matter who’s leading it. You want to have a blend of learning, giving children access to high quality adult-led learning, as well as rich opportunities for child-initiated learning.

If your child-initiated learning time feels unstructured or chaotic, try adding some adult-led structure to get children thinking about how they can use the resources available. For example, get staff to explain different areas of provision to children and give them some examples of how they can use the resources. As children become more familiar with what they can do during child-led times, decrease the structure so more time is spent on ‘pure’ child-led learning. How much time you spend doing adult-led vs child-led learning will differ depending on the age of your children.

Continuous provision is the core provision, indoors and outdoors, that’s available to children all day, every day. This provision doesn’t really change, so children always know what’s there and what they can help themselves to during child-led learning. Enhanced provision is the addition to your continuous provision that you add in over time, as and when you feel children are ready for the level of challenge the new provision provides. Once you’re confident about your continuous provision, look for ways to create enhanced provision that will offer challenge to your children.

Many falsely think that Child-initiated learning means the adult doesn’t get involved. Children who are highly engaged in their work are going to get the most benefit from having a teacher join them briefly and suggest next steps. The important thing is that you don’t tell the child what to do or force them to move on - this is when it becomes adult-led. But asking the child to talk about what they’re doing and providing opportunities and ideas to develop that skill is still part of child-led learning. If you’re worried, you’re leading children too much, think about how you’re presenting opportunities.

If children are forced to pick a certain activity, or they’re given granular instructions on how to carry out tasks, then this is adult-led. But if you’ve got a wide range of resources that children are free to choose for themselves - and use how they want - that’s child-initiated learning. Introducing things like strict instructions or a planned structure to activities is more likely to decrease the level of learning, as children are not being given any opportunity to make their own choices and learn for themselves.