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Developing Sustained Shared Thinking to enhance the areas of Learning and development – Prime areas


The research in the Effective Provision for Pre-school Education (EPPE) by Sylva et al. (2004) demonstrated that sustained shared thinking benefited all children in all types of settings. Sustained shared thinking was one of the indicators of a ‘good quality’ setting and it is still considered to be highly desirable, as evidenced by its inclusion in the Early Years Teacher Status Standards (NCTL, 2013:2).

In the guidance for the EYFS, sustained shared thinking appears in the Characteristics of Effective Learning (CofEL). These underpin all the other areas of learning and development (Early Education, 2012) in the EYFS, which means that they are methods by which children learn. Put another way, the Characteristics of Effective Learning are the ‘how’ of children’s learning, to the ‘what’ in the areas of learning and development.

The Characteristics are divided into three areas:

  1. Playing and Exploring
  2. Active Learning
  3. Creating and thinking critically

Sustained shared thinking appears in the third area, creating and thinking critically, which focuses on thinking skills, making links between ideas and using strategies to solve problems. This is an indication of the way that children may approach the Prime and Specific areas of learning. It suggests that children will be doing more than playing; exploring and concentrating, but they will be taking their play onto the next level. Children will be more inquisitive and probing in their play.

In this article I will be focusing on how sustained shared thinking can support each of the Prime areas of learning and development, as defined by the EYFS – Communication and Language; Physical Development and Personal, Social and Emotional Development.

Communication and Language

Sustained shared thinking relies, in part, on effective communication. This could be a shared communication between children and adults, or children and children. It is not restricted to older children who can talk. You can have a shared understanding with babies, for example, when you are playing peek-a-boo and they start to anticipate your face appearing. Very young children will have a sustained shared game of dropping toys from the highchair, watching for your reaction and anticipating you returning the toys.

Your role as a practitioner is to give plenty of visual and verbal feedback for children. This may be a look of surprise as the toy goes over the edge (again!) or a smile as you return it. For this to be true sustained shared thinking, the children will return to the activity later on, with anticipation from their prior games. For example, getting excited and gurgling when you get out the peek-a-boo blanket or your baby holding a toy over the edge, waiting for you to look before dropping it.

For older children, who are getting ready to talk, you can support sustained shared thinking by modelling good language and encouraging children to extend their thinking. For example, asking open-ended questions (how, what, where, when, why and who) during play, to encourage thoughtfulness. Children should not be bombarded with questions, but be gently encouraged to think beyond the obvious.

For shyer or less confident children, you can encourage sustained shared thinking by providing a running commentary of your own thoughts and actions. For example, “I’m going to pour some water into the sand. I wonder what it will feel like now? It seems to have changed colour. It feels different now. Oh look, it won’t run through the funnel as it was before”. It may feel a bit strange at first, but it gives children a language model and structure that they can then copy.

If children need their imaginations stimulated before they will engage in sustained shared thinking, then an item of provocation is good for starting those conversations. This can be anything that you think will start children talking, for example a peacock feather or a giant snail shell. You can either hide the object, to be found by the children, or you can present it and let the children ask questions or put forward suggestions for why it may be in your setting. You can encourage the most conversation and questions by making the object as open-ended as possible to spark imagination and creativity.

Physical development

Sometimes we assume that physical development will ‘just happen’ and to some extent that is true. However, children can be encouraged to think about their own physical development and how this can be enhanced. For example, talking about how exercise and food can keep you healthy with older children to aid their understanding.

Physical development is an ideal opportunity to explore and examine the problem solving aspect of sustained shared thinking. Young children explore the world experientially, so they need to be able to physically ‘try’ a problem before they can solve it. There is no point asking them to draw a picture of the angles and intersects in order to build a fort; they need to have blocks to move and build with. The experience is where the learning takes place. Most children are very good at this, trying different ways to get blocks to balance, interlock and support each other.

These types of physical activities can be further improved by having sustained, shared conversations about the possibilities and problems. For example, how do builders get tiles onto the roof? How could the obstacle course be made more challenging? What would you need to do to help you balance on the wobble board? Sometimes it is even better if you don’t know the ‘right’ answer, because you have to explore the different possibilities together.

An excellent opportunity for sustained shared thinking is when you are discussing risks and hazards in the setting with children. Rather than simply banning children from activities, such as climbing on the bookshelf, you can discuss with them what the consequences may be or how this could be done elsewhere more safely.

Personal, social and emotional development

Sustained shared thinking can be very powerful in the support of self-esteem and self-confidence, by listening to children and valuing their thoughts. You can support social interactions between children by role modelling this first. This is at the heart of sustained shared thinking, where respectful and thoughtful conversations take place between two people. Don’t forget that sometimes children need some silence during a conversation, so they can formulate their own ideas and thoughts before speaking.

Emotional development is supported through using the language of emotions during sustained conversations - words such as embarrassed, shy, scared and excited. Exploring these concepts and words with children in depth will give them the tools to support their emotions when needed. An effective way of doing this is to use Empathy Dolls, which are soft, weighted dolls that actually feel like you are holding a young child. They are used as a starting point for sustained shared thinking about the emotions that the doll may be feeling and progress onto how children themselves may be feeling, in a supportive and safe environment. It is important that these discussions are sustained and returned to, rather than just used as a single, one off activity, as children will develop according to their experiences over time.


Sustained shared thinking is the bedrock for the development of communication and language. The nature of the discussions with older children, exploring ideas together and provoking new ways of thinking about their world, supports both communicating ideas and use of new language. Sustained shared thinking is a two way process, so practitioners learn from the children as well as children learning from the adults. You can encourage the use of language, as well as understanding, using sustained shared thinking.

Physical development and sustained shared thinking are not usually thought of as being compatible. However, discussing, talking through and demonstrating problem solving is a large part of physical development. This could be gross motor skill, such as how to set up the obstacle course, or it could be fine motor skills, such as how the Lego pieces can be used. The conversations help children to think through the problems, embedding their learning.

The personal, social and emotional development of children is complex. Using sustained shared thinking can enhance the co-construction of emotional language and social interactions. The in-depth nature of conversations and the exchange of information, where the children and the practitioners learn, help both parties to understand the other’s worldviews. Practitioners can begin to see how children are developing and children can learn about emotions, resilience and self-regulation.

Sustained shared thinking can support and inspire children in some of the most important aspects of their development.


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

National College for Teaching and Leadership (2013) Teacher’s Standards (Early Years)  Available from: www.gov.uk/government/publications

Sylva, K., Melhuish, E., Sammons, P., Siraj-Blatchford, I. and Taggart, B. (2004) The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education [EPPE] Project Effective Pre-School Education: A Longitudinal Study funded by the DfES 1997 - 2004 London: DfES 


Kathy Brodie’s book: Sustained Shared Thinking: Linking theory to practice published by David Fulton is available from Amazon and good book stores.

Kathy Brodie
Kathy Brodie is an Early Years Professional and trainer based in East Cheshire, specialising in the Early Years Foundation Stage and Special Educational Needs. She has designed and delivered many courses within the early years and has a particular interest in training practitioners working with the under 2s. Kathy also mentors EYTS candidates and tutors students undertaking the Foundation Degree. She was awarded a Masters in Early Childhood Education from the University of Sheffield in 2011.<br />Kathy's book, 'Observation, Assessment and Planning in the Early Years' was published in 2013 by Open University Press.

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