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Characteristics of Effective Learning: creating and thinking critically

The EYFS describes creating and thinking critically as when ‘children have and develop their own ideas, make links between ideas, and develop strategies for doing things’ (DfE, 2012, p.7). The third CoEL is all about thinking, and is associated with the need for children to make sense of experiences and develop thought over time. The interactions that children have with others, their environment, and the experiences they are involved in, allow children to actively think about the meaning of what they are doing. This is through perceiving patterns, inventing ideas, making connections, and developing concepts, which in turn allows children to develop knowledge about when and how to use particular strategies for learning or problem solving.  Becoming more aware of one's own thinking in this way is known as metacognition; Whitebread and Pasternak (2010) advocate that awareness of oneself as a thinker and learner is a key aspect of success in learning. Creating and thinking critically can therefore be summed up as being about ideas, connections, choices and strategies.

Having their own ideas (Ideas):

• Thinking of ideas

• Finding ways to solve problems

• Finding new ways to do things

This is when children use their imagination and creativity to take on challenges and explore how problems could be solved and how their ideas can be implemented. Being creative is more than arts and design and is a core aspect of the thinking process. It is about children generating their own ideas creatively by the use of their imagination. The Tickell Review supports this by stating that ‘being inventive allows children to find new problems as they seek challenge and to explore ways of solving these’ (Tickell, 2011. P.90) – ideas. What needs to be understood is that creativity is very much a process and often there is no clear identifiable outcome or product (DCSF, 2007, p.1); it is an idea initiated by the child that can take shape and form with the assistance of the supportive practitioner.

Using what they already know to learn new things (Connections):

• Making links and noticing patterns in their experiences

• Making predictions

• Testing their ideas

• Developing ideas of grouping, sequences, cause and effect

When children have opportunities to play with ideas in different situations and with a variety of resources, they discover connections and come to a new and better understandings and ways of doing things (EYFS card, 4.3, 2008). Children link and develop concepts to different activities – making connections. It is also how children develop an understanding of sequences, cause and effect and how they build on these thoughts through description and scientific thoughts. Here thinking becomes more conscious as concepts are developed and connected together. However, Hutchin (2013, p.17) states that communication is an important aspect of this part of the CoEL. Communication is an important aspect of the thinking process, and the more open ended discussions practitioners have with children, the more they can help them talk about the connections  they are making, and as a result children understand their own thinking better.

Choosing ways to do things and finding new ways (Choices and Strategies):

• Planning, making decisions about how to approach a task, solve a problem and reach a goal

• Checking how well their activities are going

• Changing strategy as needed

• Reviewing how well the approach worked

This is when children make choices and decisions in an organised way when undertaking new goal-directed activities or tasks. It involves children working out what to do, and how to change what they do, to achieve – developing strategies. Siegler and Alibali (2005) describe this way of involvement as toddlers and young children learning in ‘overlapping waves’ as they choose from older or newer strategies to suit the demands of the task they are involved in.


The bullet points in each of the above sections is from page 7 of the Development Matters Framework. I have provided a narrative observation below adapted from Cathy Nutbrown’s well renowned book ‘Threads of Thinking’. The CoEL of creating and thinking critically can be observed in action in this observation. Can you identify the stated bullet points from the Development Matters document within the observation?

  1. Where are children’s own ideas apparent within this observation?
  2. Where have children used connections from previous experiences or knowledge?
  3. How are they using what they already know?
  4. What choices and strategies have children used to take their play forward?
  5. How has this play and thinking been supported by practitioners? How further can it be supported?


Date: 6th October 2011      Name of Observer: Ruksana       Number of Adults Present: 1

Name of child/Children:

Amanda 4:8 years (F)                                                 

Adam 4:7 years (M)

Carlos 4:11 years (M)

Zeenat 4:8 years (F)                                                                                  

Start Time: 10.15am      Finish time: 10.40am                                                                                                         

Context of observation: child initiated play in the sand area with small animals.

Description of the activity observed: (adapted from Nutbrown, C. (2011) Threads of Thinking)

The group of children were playing with a tray of sand and some small animals. Zeenat started by saying that “all the animals are dead”, she paused and then said “they need to be buried”. All the children arranged the tigers, monkeys, giraffes, elephants, whales, seals and penguins into a heap for them to be buried. Next, the children dug up holes in the sand and buried the animals in a row next to each other and then covered them up. Carlos said “let’s dig em up and start again”. The children then dug the animals out of the sand.

Adam bought over some water in a jug from the water area and added it in small amounts to the sand. Amanda assisted in mixing it. All the children then patted the damp sand down with their hands to make it flat, Zeenat and Amanda arranged some twigs in a circle, “this is a forest” said Amanda pointing to the inside of the circle of twigs. “So what’s on the outside then” Adam asked. “This is the edge of the forest, you see (Amanda made gestures with her hand in a circular motion) all that is inside is a forest, the forest ends on the edges of the circle” explained Zeenat. “yeah but what’s there when it ends” Adam asks again. Carlos arranged some shells on the edge of the forest, “this is the sea” said Carlos “because when the forest finishes there is always sea”. Amanda dusted the sand off the animals and the children started to arrange the animals around the habitant they just created. The group had a discussion on where the different animals lived and in the end they agreed that some animals lived ‘inside the forest’ whilst the others lived ‘under the sea’. The children placed the animals into their chosen areas.

Amanda started sprinkling sand over the twigs and said “it’s snowing, the forest is all covered in snow because it hasn’t got a roof on it. The animals are covered in snow. They’ll die if they freeze to death” she said. So some of the animals died, “the small ones are dead” said Adam. “Why the small ones”’ Zeenat asked, “Because they are too small to survive the winter” Adam replied. “Yeah that’s true” Zeenat responded.

The children then dug holes at the edge of the forest and buried the ‘small’ animals. Carlos asked the group to be silent for a bit. Adam said “we need to know who is buried where” Zeenat bought over small labels and the children drew on them before sticking them onto the graves of the animals.


How effective is your environment in allowing children to create and think critically?

Use the following questions as prompts to further explore your provision.

  • How do you and your environment support children to follow their own ideas?
  • Is observation used effectively to carefully see which things, places or experiences particularly fascinate each child?  
  • Is planning flexible enough to give children the time they need to explore their own ideas?
  • How are children’s ideas valued by adults?
  • How can you extend your range of resources to stimulate children’s creative thinking and expression?
  • What changes can be made to the learning environment (both indoor and out) to stimulate curiosity and creativity?
  • Do you look hard enough for opportunities to support creative thinking across all EYFS areas?
  • Are children’s own choices and strategies to problem solve valued? Or are you always looking for the ‘right answer’?
  • Are you doing enough to encourage children to move things around, try things out, and be creative in their play?
  • Is formative assessment being used to record the process of children’s learning rather than outcome? i.e. the Reggio Emilia approach in using sequences of photographs to document what the children are doing.
  • Are children given ample opportunities to talk about what they have been doing to help them organise their thoughts and ideas?
  • How often are children given opportunities to re-visit previous experiences, reflecting on what they have done and what they might do differently?

How can you observe the CoEL – creating and thinking critically in action?

Use the following questions to identify this CoEL within your observations, but also to learn from them to further enhance your provision.

Having their own ideas

Does the child think of ideas? Any examples?


How has the child developed an idea?


How does the child test out their ideas?


Does the child try something different rather than follow what someone else has done?


Do they address a problem with a strategy?


Do they retain independence by not asking for support even if it takes longer to achieve the outcome?

Using what they already know to learn new things

Does the child make connections and notice patterns int heir experiences? How?


Do children talk about/explain how what they are doing links to previous learning?


Do they draw upon knowledge or experiences not immediately related to their activity?


Does the child make predictions? Examples?


Does the child develop ideas of grouping, sequencing, cause and effect?

Choosing ways to do things and finding new ways

Does the child plan, make decisions about how to do something, solve a problem to reach a goal?


Are they confident in using a ‘trial and error’ approach and talking about why some things do or do not work?


Do children choose different ways of approaching activities / experiences and adapting them if it does not work?


How has any discussion or open-ended questioning influenced their approach?


Does the child reflect on how well their approach worked? With support or on their own?




Department for Children, School and Families (DCSF) (2007) The Early Years Foundation Stage: Effective Practice: Creativity and Critical Thinking. DCSF publications.

Department for Children, School and Families (DCSF) (2008) The Early Years Foundation Stage: Effective Practice Cards: Creativity and Critical Thinking. DCSF publications.

Department for Education (DfE) (2012) Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS). Available at: https://www.education.gov.uk/publications/standard/AllPublications/Page1/DFE-00023-2012

Early Education (2012) Development Matters in the Early Years Foundation Stage. Early Education: London

Hutchin, V. (2013) Effective Provision in the Early Years Foundation Stage: An Essential Guide. Open University Press: Berkshire

Nutbrown, C. (2011) Threads of Thinking. 4th ed. Paul Chapman: London.

Siegler, R.S and Alibali, MW. (2005) Children’s Thinking. Pearsons: New Jersey.Whitebread, D. and Pasternak, D. (2010) Metacognition, Self Regulation and Meta Knowing. In K. Littleton, C. Wood, J. and Kleine Staarman (eds) International Handbook of Psychology in Education. Bingley, UK: Emerald

Ruksana Mohammed
Ruksana has developed and leads the current Early Years ITT provision at the University of East London. Prior to this, Ruksana led on the Early Years Professional Status (EYPS) and lectured on the BA Hons and Masters in Early Childhood studies. Ruksana is an experienced early years practitioner and manager, and has over 15 years of experience and expertise of working in the field of early years, including the setting up of early years environments and developing practitioners. Her experience and work include developing management and staff practice in working with children, creation and delivery of early years curriculum for children, staff management, building links with parents and working closely with external agencies such as OfSTED, Sure Start, local authorities, schools and FE colleges.

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