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Characteristics of Effective Learning: play and exploration in action



Characteristics of Effective Learning (CoEL) are a revived element in the current Early Years Foundation Stage Curriculum (EYFS). CoEL advocate that in planning and guiding children’s activities, practitioners must reflect on the different ways that children learn, and then reflect these in their practice. A child’s individual learning characteristic will determine the way they respond to both the teaching and learning taking place in the environment.  Three characteristics of effective teaching and learning identified by the EYFS are:

  • playing and exploring - children investigate and experience things, and ‘have a go’;
  • active learning - children concentrate and keep on trying if they encounter difficulties, and enjoy achievements; and
  • creating and thinking critically - children have and develop their own ideas, make links between ideas, and develop strategies for doing things.

The focus of the CoEL is on how children learn rather than what they learn i.e. process over outcome. Underpinning the CoEL is the understanding that during their earliest years, children form attitudes about learning that will last a lifetime. Children who receive the right sort of support and encouragement during these years will be creative, and adventurous learners throughout their lives. Children who do not receive this sort of support and interaction are likely to have a much different attitude about learning later on in life. Hence, why the supportive practitioner, and the environment they provide, need to nurture these CoELs to occur, but without forgetting that children are individuals who bring their own needs, talents and histories to the learning environment.

Playing and Exploring

In a busy foundation stage setting, 3 year old Lara is at the mark making area where the activity is to trace your names. Lara sits on her chair shifting back and forth, you can see the concentration on her face as her frown forms and the tip of her tongue is out as she traces her name. She then looks around at her friends on the carpet area who are engrossed in a book and giggling. Lara turns back to her name tracing, she then looks back at them again. A practitioner deployed at the area is encouraging her to write and notices her distraction. She says to Lara “when you finish what you are doing then you can go and play”. Lara continues being distracted by the group and the completion of her task. The practitioner then intervenes and says “Lara what do you want to do? You either finish this or go and play”. Naturally Lara opts for the play and runs off to the group on the carpet. After a few minutes, Lara returns to the mark making table and sits back to trace her name. The practitioner turns to her and says “I thought you went to play?” Lara’s response “But I am playing!”

This observation of practice taken from my visit records is a vital start to this article when discussing one of the three characteristics of effective learning – playing and exploring. Lara’s response “But I am playing!” is evidence that playing and exploring is a child’s work; it’s what they do, and they do not separate it from what is happening around them in their learning environment. It is therefore a vital characteristic of their effective learning. A characteristic is a trait or quality of something, and therefore playing and exploring is regarded as a key characteristic because it is about engaging the child through a trait that comes naturally to them – “But I am playing!” An engaging and stimulating play environment provides opportunities for this CoEL to be experienced and crafted (Haughton and Ellis, 2013, p.82).

Play and exploration in early years settings means children are able to choose activities (or create experiences) where they can engage with other children or adults or sometimes play alone, and during these activities and experiences they learn by firsthand experience – by actively ‘doing’ (DCSF, 2007). In order for this characteristic to come alive in the environment children need sufficient space, time and choice with a range of activities and experiences, some of which have been planned and prepared by the practitioners on the basis of their observations of individual children’s current interests, talents, learning styles and stages of development. Therefore the playing and exploring element of the CoEL is all about the engagement of children with their learning environment.

Taking the criteria from page 6 of the Development Matters Framework, I have provided some observation records where clearly the CoEL of playing and exploring can be observed in action. Can you identify the stated bullet points below from the Development Matters document within the observations that follow?

Finding out and exploring

This is when children use open-ended, hands on experiences which arise from curiosity. These provide the basis on which the child builds concepts, tests ideas and finds out how things work:

• Showing curiosity about objects, events and people

• Using senses to explore the world around them

• Engaging in open-ended activity

• Showing particular interests

9 month Jerry crawled along the floor near to a mirror which was the length of the wall. He sat and looked at himself and then raised his hands to touch the mirror, he giggled. Jerry then noticed another child through the mirror and squealed. He babbled something and raised both hands as to grab the other child through the mirror. At that moment a practitioner came along and hung some aprons on a hook over one part of the mirror. As she did this, Jerry could not see himself in the mirror nor the other child. Instead the aprons were in his sight. He looked at them for a while and then turned around, he could now see the other child again. He looks back to the mirror and sees the apron. Jerry does this three times. He then decides to bend right down under the aprons and can see the mirror again and smiles through it as he sees the other child. He looks around at him, he then bends down again and sees him and giggles. Jerry then sits up in front of the aprons and this time tilts to the side where he sees the child through the mirror again.

This observation record makes evident that children learn from everything that they do. During play children will begin by exploring and experimenting with what interests them by looking about, listening to and taking in the goings on of their environment by observing, clearly demonstrated by Jerry. Jerry touched the mirror and moved around the space as if seeking answers to the question ‘how does this work?’ Jerry, through his play and exploration, investigated that when he turned he saw the child, but when back to the mirror it was blocked by the aprons. He then worked through his curiosity and exploration to find out how he needed to move in order to see the other child through the mirror again.

Playing with what they know

This refers to how a child uses imaginative play to understand, explore and embed ideas. Children use imaginative play to re-create experiences:

• Pretending objects are things from their experience

• Representing their experiences in play

• Taking on a role in their play

• Acting out experiences with other people

2 and half year old Shola is in the home corner and role playing a doctor. Using a funnel from the sand and water area, Shola places it on a teddy bears chest and puts her ear to the funnel. Another child comes in and Shola tells her that she is “listening to teddy, he is sick”. She then asks teddy to open his eyes wide and show her his tongue. She praises the teddy and rewards him with a sticker. Later that day, a practitioner shared this observation with Shola’s father. He told the practitioner that Shola had visited the GP the evening before for a routine check up.

Shola’s father’s input has placed into context the imaginative play being experienced by her. She used the teddy and funnel as objects from her experience and represented her own experience of visiting a doctor through the teddy. However, this time she decided to take on the role of the doctor rather than the patient. Play and learning takes place in contexts that are familiar to Shola. She shared her experience and understanding with the other child who joined in the play and exploration. This emphasises what Vygotsky (1978) states as learning being a social activity. Shola’s play is shaped by the interactions she has with people in her life, and she was able to co-construct her understanding of the world and how she lives in it. Understanding and making sense of the world is very much rooted in what Shola knows and the everyday events in her life by re-creating new (the doctor) and familiar roles (her as the teddy), by playing with what she knows.

Being willing to have a go

This is when children use their particular interests to initiate activity ideas, look for challenges and opportunities within new experiences and to take risks. Children demonstrate a ‘have a go’ attitude and use new opportunities to learn:

• Initiating activities

• Seeking challenge

• Showing a ‘can do’ attitude

• Taking a risk, engaging in new experiences, and learning by trial and error

3 ½ year old Gassy was in the outdoor area and as she knelt down near the soil on the grass she found something poking out at her. She plucked it out with her fingers and looked at it. It was a toy car full of dirt. She brought it over to the practitioner and explained how she found it. Gassy then said “what else could be buried there?” the practitioner said “I wonder too, are you going to find out?”. Gassy jumped and said yes, so the practitioner asked her how she intended to do so. Gassy responded by saying she didn’t know but will see. She then went over to the sand tray and took a small plastic spade and went back to the area where she found the car. Here she dug at the soil which was quite hard, after a few tries, she could not do it so paused and looked around her. She went over to the shed area and found a bigger garden spade and took it back to the soil. She then dug slightly, she tried again but this time using her foot to push in the spade. As a hole appeared, Gassy then used her hands to dig up more dirt. Another child approached and they squealed with laughter and continued digging up the dirt until Gassy found a large stone. She went over and found a container and brought it back and placed the toy car and stone in it. “This is our treasure” she says. The children continue to dig.

The observation record clearly makes evident how play and exploration is a characteristic that is continually present and in action through the interaction the child has with their environment. The finding of the toy car prompted Gassy to initiate and explore the digging to find what else may be hidden. The adult challenged her further in encouraging her and making her think about how she was going to do so. She used trial and error with the different digging tools, in the end her hands being the best! What is also clear is the vital role of the practitioner who challenged the child to take her ideas forward and try them out. This clearly embedding a love to always try and have a go!

How effective is your environment in engaging children through play and exploration?

Use the following questions as prompts to further explore your provision for play and exploration.

  • Is there sufficient space both indoors and out for children to play and explore?
  • Do children have uninterrupted time to play and explore?
  • Does the learning environment allow the engagement of all the senses?
  • Is the learning environment challenging and full of creative and innovative opportunities?
  • How are resources or equipment actually used by children? And how can these be built on?
  • Are resources open-ended so that they can be used, moved and combined in a variety of ways?
  • Do resources reflect children’s interests?
  • Can children make choices and decisions?
  • Are children’s ideas and imagination developed?
  • Are children given opportunities to test their ideas, themselves, their relationships and materials?
  • Are children’s concepts, skills, attitudes and achievements extended through play and exploration?
  • Can children follow an interest or line of enquiry? (As in Gassy’s observation)

How can you observe the CoEL – playing and exploring in action

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

Finding out and exploring

What areas/activities is the child drawn to?


Do they prefer to work in a group/alone?


Do they initiate activities/experiences themselves or join in existing ones?


Do they think aloud describing what they do?


How do they use resources?

Using what they know in their play

In play do they draw on experiences from home/outside the setting


Do they act out situations in the role play/home area?


Are they confident in finding tools, materials and resources they need for their ideas?

Being willing to have a go

Levels of persistence – do they give up at first hurdle or keep trying?


Are they eager to try new ideas or do they stay with what they are familiar with?


Are they able to talk about/review what they have done? Even if it has not worked?


Do they work best with continual support or prefer to get on with activities themselves?

(adapted from TES website)


Department for Children, School and Families (DCSF) (2007) The Early Years Foundation Stage: Effective Practice: Play and Exploration. 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

Haughton, C and Ellis, C. (2013) Play in the early years in Palaiologou, I. (2013) (2ed) The Early Years Foundation Stage: Theory and Practice. Sage: London

Vygotsky, L. (1978) Mind in Society: the development of higher psychological processes. Harvard University Press: London.

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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