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Planning for possibilities - playful learning in the early years

This blog is from one of COBIS' Supporting Associates

Written by Matthew Silvester, International Curriculum Manager for the International Early Years Curriculum (IEYC), Fieldwork Education

All humans are born unfinished; with babies and young children continuing to grow and transform, learn and develop. By actively interacting with the world around them, and the people within it, children’s experiences strengthen and develop their brain architecture as their neurons connect, communicate and collaborate. Children shape their experiences, and their experiences shape them. Within the early years, this innate motivation to explore, understand and master the world around them is a key driver of children’s holistic development.

Children, within the earliest years of life, are powerful and proficient learners with “a maximum predisposition for learning” (Tickell, 2011: 92). When given time, space and an enabling environment, children initiate their own pathways of learning that combine and contribute to their ongoing learning journey. These pathways of learning provide the cumulative and concrete experiences that promote child agency, enabling children to consolidate and extend their learning and development within appropriate, rigorous and meaningful contexts. Most of this learning is playful in nature, driven by a child’s independent interactions with the environment around them.

Playful learning experiences accommodate the non-linear nature of early learning, promoting a process-focused approach that invites involvement and persistence. Within busy early years environments, these individual pathways of learning mean different children extend the same experiences in different ways; this introduces uncertainty into the classroom and has implications for planning and preparation. Teachers and their environments need to be ready to respond appropriately and meaningfully to scaffold children’s independent activity.

Children are more capable than we know; a key role of educators is to scaffold children as they show us the depth and breadth of their capabilities.

As young children interact with the world around them within an enabling environment, the fascinations and divergent thinking that are associated with early childhood become evident. Early learning environments are continually in a developmental state, maturing as children’s pathways of learning unfold. Teachers should strive to nurture and respond to children’s pathways of learning through the multiple learning environments they provide. This approach to ongoing provision understands that children’s learning and development benefits from high levels of involvement and aims to stimulate interest and provide opportunities for the child to extend their experiences in ways that are meaningful to them.

This responsive approach embeds the child as a partner, introducing further complexity and uncertainty to the teaching and learning process. When learning spaces and the resources within them are planned and provided in playful ways, they can provoke children into interaction and experiences. Understanding how a child is learning is essential in providing them with the objects, activities and people that will help them make connections between their different learning experiences. In many instances, this will be more effective than understanding what a child is learning as it supports teachers to consider the actions they can take that will help children to remember, apply and transfer their learning within and across learning spaces. 

To improve learning, teachers must become players within the learning environments they provide. Mardell, et al. (2021) assert that teachers and their environments should, to improve learning, have ‘a playful mindset…to improve their teaching, individually and collectively, by trying, learning from mistakes, and refining their practice,’ (p. 4). This playful mindset should enable both teachers and the environment to scaffold children’s learning as a process that happens within and across their varied learning experiences.

Nurturing environments accept that children will demonstrate different levels of confidence in different social contexts and understand the benefit from a range of these shared experiences. Shared experiences allow children to connect and combine with others, developing shared and extended pathways of learning. Teachers are a key partner for the child, through their planned and spontaneous interactions and actions within and across their learning experiences.

The importance of shared learning moments in supporting children to develop as a thinker and learner cannot be understated. Shared experiences provide the context for teachers to reframe children’s thinking and ideas, promoting sustained shared thinking (Siraj et al., 2002). Adults provide the most responsive and effective feedback for children’s curiosity, agency and enquiry as they explore their pathways of learning.

Sustained shared thinking enables teachers to connect, communicate and collaborate effectively and meaningfully with children. Most of these shared experiences will be child-initiated, with teachers becoming involved along the pathway of learning. This approach enables teachers to “mesh with children’s decision chains…(it) expects children to be the initiators of their own learning, but with more expert guidance provided by educators along the chain…to help them become longer and more complex.” (Meade, 2000: 35) These are rich habitats within which teachers can scaffold children’s activity, ideas, interests and thinking, supporting them to learn, develop and make progress.



Goswami, U. (2015) Children’s Cognitive Development and Learning. York: Cambridge Primary Review Trust.

Mardell, B., Ertel, K., Solis, L., LeVangia, S., Fan, S., Maurer, G. & Scarpate, M. (2021) More than one way: An approach to teaching that supports playful learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Meade, A. (2000) ‘If You Say It Three Times, Is It True? Critical use of research in early childhood education.’ International Journal of Early Years Education, 8:1, 15-26, DOI: 10.1080/096697600111716

Siraj, I., Sylva, K., Muttock, S., Gilden, R. & Bell, D. (2002) Researching Effective Pedagogy in the Early Years. UK: DfES

Tickell C. (2011) The Early Years: Foundations for Life, Health and Learning. An Independent Report on the Early Years Foundation Stage to Her Majesty’s Government. London: DfE.

Writer’s Bio

Matthew is leading the review and update of the International Early Years Curriculum, a global curriculum used over 600 schools in 65 countries. The IEYC recently released its revised Core Documentation (Curriculum Guide and Implementation Guide). These updated documents outline the IEYC’s commitment to child-led learning, the importance of the environment, the Learning-Link partnership between school and home, reflective thinking, and playful learning experiences. Matthew is currently overseeing the revision and development of supporting curriculum materials and 24 units of learning that provide the starting point for IEYC thematic learning.