Recent changes to the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) framework have made it clear that all Early Years practitioners need to focus on the quality of the learning experiences they offer to all children under their care. Apart from making sure that effective learning experiences are linked with the 17 Early Learning Goals, it is now equally important to demonstrate that all children are motivated and are enjoying the experiences offered.

For learning to be effective, it is not what children learn that matters, but rather how they learn, and this how is what practitioners need to consider when planning learning environments and experiences for their children. Naturally, the how will be linked to such aspects as children’s observation and assessment, Responsible Pedagogy, and Enabling Environments, so understanding these well is necessary to offer a fully child-friendly environment in which effective learning can and will take place.

The Characteristics of Effective Learning

The Characteristics of Effective Learning are divided into three groups: Playing and Exploring, Active Learning, and Creating and Thinking Critically.

Playing and Exploring

Children naturally play and explore to satisfy their innate curiosity. They manipulate the environment, test it, and draw their own conclusions without any hidden agenda. They respond with the attitude of open-mindedness to whatever happens as a result of their experiments.

The nature of their learning is always hands-on, with the children being the authors who shape the experience. They use their existing knowledge and understanding of the world and bring it into their exploration. By using their imagination and creativity, they refine their understanding and explore their interests. When children play and explore when they feel motivated to do so, they are also naturally more willing to take risks and try new experiences. While offering children experiences, it is necessary to plan the environments in a way that it encourages children to naturally explore them the way they prefer while keeping the potential risks manageable to them. 

Active Learning

Learning is effective when it is self-motivated. Then the attention and concentration on the experience and activity is at its peak level. When children are excited about what they are doing, they become completely absorbed in the activity and focused on its details. They will also be more likely to stay motivated enough to try again if they fail, to overcome difficulties, and to perfect their performance. They will do this to achieve their own personal goals — rather than just those of others — which is essential for supporting their long-term success.

Creating and Thinking Critically

Children make sense of the world when they can explore it freely, and this is when they use their existing knowledge and understanding to experiment creatively with the environment, solve problems and improve their experiences. They test their own hypotheses, come up with their own ideas for how to take their experiences further. By using what they already know, children link different interdisciplinary concepts, and this helps them predict, find meaning, arrange events and objects in sequences, or develop the understanding of cause and effect. By organising their experiences their way, children learn how to approach tasks, plan what to do, modify their plans, and change strategies.

How to Support Effective Learning

All practitioners are expected to support Effective Learning, and the best way to do this is to offer your children enabling environments. This can be done in a variety of ways, but it is vital to include in your everyday practice as many of them as possible. The most important ones have been outlined for you below:

Ongoing Observation

You need to observe all children under your care constantly to get a more detailed picture of their individual preferences, needs, and interests. As effective learning evolves around the things that your children are motivated by and fascinated with, you need to be well aware of them all. When you offer your children certain experiences, always leave enough space for them to take the experience where they intend to take it and not necessarily where you have planned it to be taken. Doing so will allow you to identify the areas, topics or activities they feel particularly drawn to. Only then will you be able to include observation into your planning.

It is important that your observations are ongoing so that you are able to collect enough evidence to support your conclusions. Snapshot observations are great to capture specific moments when a child demonstrates some aspects of learning, skills or preferences, but alone they cannot represent a pattern a given child has developed or may be developing. A sequence of snapshot observations, however, may be used to draw reliable conclusions about your children’s learning and development.

Responsible Pedagogy

The way you work with your children needs to allow them to demonstrate their learning naturally and to show the full spectrum of their skills and understanding. Responsible Pedagogy aims at building children’s self esteem and confidence in pursuing their skills and talents. It supports them to take reasonable risks, stretch their skills, and also understand and manage their emotions. In practice, it means role-modelling positive behaviour, attitudes, and language, but also providing children with opportunities to grow by offering them relevant experiences based on the practitioner’s observation and own reflection on the observation.

Child-Initiated Learning

Effective learning is essentially driven by children’s intrinsic motivation, which can happen with or without adults’ prompts or introduction. Child-Initiated Learning is an activity started by a child and as such will most likely be the activity the child wishes to engage in the most.

Adults can support child-initiated learning by offering extra resources, ideas, or prompts that the child will need to complete their project or to realise their ideas. Ongoing observation helps practitioners effectively support child-initiated learning and plan the learning environment in a way that allows children to experiment and interact with it the way they prefer. This kind of learning is spontaneous, so it is important to allow children to explore their ideas and urges when they want to do so while making sure it is completely safe at all times.

Supporting effective learning is relatively easy, provided that practitioners are engaged in ongoing observation of all children under their care. Only then will they be able to offer enabling environments such as meaningful activities, resources, prompts, experiences, and responsible pedagogy to allow children to engage in creative play and safe, unrestricted exploration.


Vito Matt is a Curriculum Developer and Instructional Designer for e-learning courses, interactive workshops and conferences, and educational mobile app games.