In this series:
A model for living: Introduction
A model for living, part 1: Eat
A model for living, part 2: Sleep
A model for living, part 3: Play
A model for living, part 4: Learn
In this final article of our Model for living series we focus on learning,
a much debated aspect of life in the early years. What are we doing to give
children access to quality learning experiences, ensuring that they make
stage-appropriate steps while allowing them freedom to inquire, explore,
experiment and feel the true exhilaration of learning? The constraints
imposed on early years practice and the race to reach certain targets lead
us to plan for children to “discover the world already there” (Malaguzzi).
This is necessary, yet the most important aspect of learning is to discover
a world that might be there. The answer to this quandary lies in
the determination of schools and settings to secure the understanding of
how small children develop, how each unique child learns best, and how to
create ideal conditions for learning.
“I think it’s an exaggeration, but there’s a lot of truth in saying that
when you go to school, the trauma is that you must stop learning and you
must now accept being taught.” – Seymour Papert
From the moment of birth children reflect, interact, and learn from
experience, as the rapid fire of synaptic action creates connections in
their brains and they respond, making meaning from each new encounter.
Multi-dimensional in nature, children’s learning continues as a result of
their innate desire to inquire, sometimes despite the imposition of adult
direction on their voraciously creative and independent ideas. As
educators, we are charged with the perennial challenge that designing and
supporting creativity in learning “represents a miraculous coming together
of the uninhibited energy of the child with its apparent opposite and
enemy, the sense of order imposed on the disciplined adult intelligence.”
The years from birth to five(+) are when children’s capacity for learning
is greatest and they are able to transfer what they know into new contexts.
This is how we humans discover truths and further our understanding of the
world. A child’s innocent question may provoke an adult to think beyond
what has “always” been known! As teachers and parents we have the privilege
of watching children at play – when learning is most profound, when inquiry
is driven by their intrinsic desire to pursue an idea and add to their
personal “theory of everything”, and when genuine child-initiated learning
can best be observed.
The battle cry “Me do it!” echoes from nursery to nursery across the globe,
yet despite what neuroscience and perhaps even our own memories of joyful
exploration tell us about learning through inquiry-based play (see Part 3 of this series), quality learning is still perceived to be that which is
delivered to children, framed by Ministries of Education and informed, for
some of us, by our own childhood experiences of a more formal approach to
A concerning fact is the increased focus on “what must be taught” to
children (who, incidentally, will become adults living in a world that we
cannot yet imagine), which is beginning to squeeze the life out of the two
most precious attributes of childhood: an insatiable curiosity and an
endless capacity to learn. Such a natural desire to explore, experiment and
investigate is the same driving force that led the wayward Elephant’s Child
in Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories to almost lose his trunk to a
crocodile, so determined was he to find out what the crocodile ate for
dinner. As a result (so Kipling would have us believe), the hapless animal
gained the extended proboscis that graces the features of all pachyderms
today! Innocent, yet seriously scientific research such as that is evident
in the practical application of inquiry that is fundamental to early
The recent global focus on STEAM based learning (science, technology,
engineering, arts and maths), endorses the most effective early years
practice – with children’s natural drive for inquiry and practical
exploration of the world at its core. Where inquiry-based learning is
authentically child led, with the adult as a skilled facilitator, the
learning is extended and fascination for learning sustained.
Responding to the following questions often engenders vigorous debate
amongst practitioners as the various images of the child as held within
your school or setting emerge. If these questions are given quality
discussion time, the outcomes will support the design and development of
the offered learning, the architecture of the learning space both as a
physical entity and from a socio-emotional perspective, and will begin to
determine the varying roles of adults necessary in supporting and
partnering children in their learning:
What is childhood?
- What is the image of the child held in your varying cultural contexts?
(host country, teachers, parents, school, the community)
- How does a child learn?
How do children learn in our school or setting?
- How do adults interact, engage and capture learning?
- How do adults honour children’s ideas and their diﬀerent ways of being
and of expressing themselves?
- In what ways are the children involved in making decisions that aﬀect
- What are the constraints, perceived or real, that we place on children’s
- What authentic choices do the children have in their learning?
- What can your children do? What are their strengths? What makes learning
irresistible for them?
- How can our image of the child as a learner be made visible?
- How does the learning environment support, celebrate and challenge
The final answer lies within a very simple concept. It is that as skilled
and sensitive adults, we must meet our children at the very edge of their
learning – noticing, listening, and responding joyfully to each new
discovery and development. Being present in the moment is crucial, as it is
at this time in a child’s life when the foundations of life-long learning
are created; when, as Graeme Greene notes, “the door opens and lets the
future in”. There are still those who believe that the real and most
important learning does not begin until children make the transition out of
the early years. Sadly, this is often the point at which a more formal
approach to learning and teaching replaces the inquiry based,
child-initiated approach that engendered the earliest passion for learning.
Mitch Resnik, writing in Lifelong Kindergarten, speaks for most of
us early childhood educators when he says: “I believe the rest of school
(indeed, the rest of life) should become more like kindergarten.”
It is by following what we instinctively know is right for young children
that we define and promote the essential parameters of early learning. By
doing so, we may be able to capture that almost invisible moment of
potential as the child responds to both the offered and their own imagined
learning, supporting and extending their learning appropriately from where
they are at. There really is no other place to start.
Gopnik, A., Meltzoff, A.N., Kuhl, P.K. (2001).
The Scientist in the Crib: what early learning tells us about the mind
. New York: Harper Perennial
Malaguzzi, L. (1920 -1994) The 100 Languages of Children (poem)
Resnik, M. (2017)
Lifelong kindergarten: cultivating creativity through projects,
passion, peers, and play
. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
Robinson, K. (2011) Out of our minds: learning to be creative.
Sue Egersdorff and Pam Mundy are co-directors of International Early Years (IEY), a social enterprise organisation providing support and challenge for early childhood care and education leaders and organisations in the UK and internationally. As authors, speakers and consultants, Sue and Pam bring a wealth of high level strategic and operational experience from their previous and present roles to inform current practice and future development of “everything Early Years”.