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Guest blog: How can our interactions with the children help or hinder their creativity and critical thinking? by Bernadette Duffy

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Wednesday, 13 May, 2020

I was recently contacted by an early years practitioner working from home, as many are at the moment, who has been using the time away from the children to think about how they can enhance their practice when they return, they had become particularly interested in how best to support children be creative and critical thinkers.

This prompted me to think about what are the essentials that make the most difference in promoting children’s creative thinking and for me the crucial issue is how our interactions with the children either help or hinder them. Our ability to tune in to the children and extend learning in the moment is much more important than the plans we have made in advance or the resources we have provided.

There has been  much progress over the many years I have been looking at this area and very few people would question the importance of promoting creativity in the early years, but the recently published Durham Report on Creativity and Education [Durham 2019] still found barriers - curriculum expectations, practitioner knowledge and a focus on answering questions over deep understanding of concepts and processes  among them.

During my time at the Thomas Coram Centre in Camden I worked with a committed team of practitioners who spent a great deal of time thinking about their interactions with the children we cared for. We were fortunate to work with researchers and colleagues on two research projects which had a significant impact on our practice:

  • The Possibility Thinking Project lead by Professor Anna Craft, Exeter University and Open University (Craft et al, 2007)
  • Camden Early Years Learning Cluster with Jean Lang, Camden School Improvement and Professor Sue Rogers, University College London (Camden Learning, 2015)

Below I have summarised the key learning for us. Much was not new but we realised how easily things can get lost in a busy setting and the need to regularly revisit and refocus ourselves. Perhaps this enforced break is an opportunity for us all to do this. 

Key Learning

Reflecting and planning

  • Work at being a reflective practitioner and really knowing your children.
  • Draw on evidence from research and experience -ones own and that of other.
  • Prioritise time for professional dialogue, use supportive colleagues to deconstruction your practice and share perspectives on what has been observed.
  • Stimulating and engaging experiences start with analytical observation of the children and reflection, children often understand and are able to do much more than practitioners think.
  • Make time to reflect deeply on children’s actual learning [rather than how the activity went] and use this in to plan next steps
  • Build on children’s current interest and draw on your observations and reflections to introduce them to new things that will interest them and offer opportunities for new learning.
  • Embrace new approaches and strategies, move outside your comfort zone, but recognise this this can be daunting and identify support for yourself and colleagues. 
  • Children and adults need to feel secure in order to take risks and try new things, a warm and encouraging ethos is vital for all of us.
  • Excessive adult direction restricts children’s ability to develop their own ideas, but total freedom stops children reaching beyond themselves as far as they might.
  • Focus on planning opportunities for learning rather than managing task/s.
  • Don’t over plan, leave space for new possibilities to occur during the session, too much focus on narrow outcomes leads to missed opportunities for learning.
  • Think about the groups children experience, what opportunities do different numbers and combinations of children and adults offer? Creativity is a communal as well as an individual experience.

Interacting with children

  • Attunement with the children as individuals is at the heart of an engaging and inspiring curriculum.
  • Pause and observe before interreacting, consider what the children are telling you through how they are using the space you have prepared and how they engage with the children around them.
  • Be empathetic see through the eyes of the child, in your interactions focus on the childs agenda rather than yours.
  • Be flexible and embrace unpredictability- it is the learning, the children’s and ours, that is important not any abstract plan we have made in advance.
  • Welcome mistakes, the unexpected and surprises - they tell something we didn’t know.
  • Encourage childrens autonomy and freedom in decision-making and have the confidence to let the children take the lead.
  • Adopt a problem-solving approach with children identifying a problem they want to solve and solutions they want to try, this leads to high levels of engagement.
  • Make plenty of time for exploration, children can achieve far more through exploring resources independently before being expected to create.
  • While young children need the support and guidance of adults make sure that this is offered in a way that encourages freedom to investigate and experiment.
  • Encourage "What if?" or "Possibility Thinking" (Craft, 2007).
  • Practitioners often talk and intervene too much, leave space for children to think, comment, respond and initiate.
  • Be aware of how all the children in a group are engaging, are they asking questions and making comments rather than responding your questions?
  • Know when to be silent and listen, pause before speaking, make sure your response is in tune with the child’s thinking.
  • Remember that children pose questions aloud but also through their actions.
  • Children respond more when practitioners echo their comments and actions back to them.
  • Invite the children to expand their thinking ‘tell me more ….’ and make pondering comments ‘ I wonder why that happened ….’, rather than asking direct questions.
  • Offer options rather than solutions when children ask for help "perhaps this might… or would this work better….", encourage the children to identify their own next steps.
  • The watchful child is learning.
  • Let the children see you solving problems, articulate your problem solving process "I am trying to…..I wonder if this would work?" and ask the children for help.
  • If interested young children will concentrate for extended periods, if they are not engaging it might be about you rather than the children

I hope you have found this interesting, if you would like to explore further I have included some easily accessible resources below.

Thank you to Billy from Bristol for asking the questions that inspired this piece.

Bernadette Duffy OBE is a  Vice President of Early Education and author of Duffy, B. (2006). Supporting Creativity and Imagination in the Early Years. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Further reading and resources

Camden Learning [2015] Effective learning and teaching in the Early Years

Camden Learning [2015]  Planning for Dinosaurs – how we put pedagogy into practice

Craft, A.; Cremin, T.; Burnard, P. and Chappell, K. [2007]. Developing creative learning through possibility thinking with children aged 3-7. In: Craft, A.; Cremin, T. and Burnard, P. eds. Creative Learning 3-11 and How We Document It. London, UK: Trentham.

Durham Commission [2019] Durham Commission on Creativity and Education  London Arts Council 

Evangelou,M; Sylva, K ; Kyriacou, M ; Wild, M; and Glenny,M [2009] Early Years Learning and Development Literature Review Univeristy of Oxford

Lang J.[2015 ] Early Years Lesson Study Handbook