Throughout their early childhood, children are undergoing a dramatic period of mental growth and development. Forming more than 200 trillion brain cell connections (synapses), they have mapped out the structure and workings of their developing brain. Forming around 80 percent of their basic brain architecture, these social and emotional structures are now established for life.
These connections have been dependent on every experience and opportunity that each child has been afforded. Meaning that they are entirely unique and extremely personal, readying each individual as they prepare to embark on the next stage of their journey and the evolving experiences still to come – wherever that may take them.
It is then somewhat of a fool’s errand to expect children to react in the same way to any experience that we offer them, to need the same things from it or to progress through it at the same rate. And yet, whole class teaching can, for some young children, be a common experience of learning. As many find the pace too fast or too slow, they may become distracted, disengaging from activities that are either too easy, too hard or too repetitive. This is not an efficient way of learning and for many, is quite detrimental in the long term.
Children need experiences that they are personally interested in, with challenges that match their abilities and developmental stage. And they need to be offered the time and support required to develop their understanding before moving on. To do otherwise, risks deeply un-fulfilling learning experiences, leading to greater reluctance to engage next time. As a vicious cycle establishes, their achievements as well as their belief in themselves as a learner can be affected, as well as any motivation to apply the necessary effort going forward.
But what does it mean for a child to be motivated? Motivation is rooted in the belief that your actions are going to result in you achieving your goal. Unfortunately, once you start doubting that your actions have that kind of potential, you are unlikely to keep trying. But if we surround our children with routines, rules and expectations, with little or no power to influence events within their lives, they are unlikely to set their own goals. Or attempt to achieve them.
If this continues, they may simply become content with any situation their life puts them in. If this is a toxic relationship, they may be unable to find their way out. And is certainly no way of breaking the poverty cycle many children find themselves born into.
To be motivated enough to persevere with something also requires you to be engaged in it. One study looking into the importance of engagement observed artists at work. Noticing their complete absorption, they were seen to lose track of time and self-consciousness, becoming entirely immersed in the creative process. The study also noted that when people have something this exhilarating and profoundly satisfying in their lives, they were happier.
Engagement is more than a willingness to discover, learn and grow, it implies a deep interest and involvement in something considered to be worth the effort. When you think of the deep engagement you see in a child learning to walk or the fascination with cause and effect when they first splash in a puddle, you will remember a level of motivation when nothing could stand in their way. How amazing would it be if children retained this level of motivation and eagerness to learn?
When we encourage children’s free choice and personal ownership through a range of activities and learning opportunities, they are far more likely to lose themselves in engrossing and challenging activities. When they are provided with creative environments, where they can experience things in real terms, to practice and support the abstract concepts they are thinking about, their learning is far deeper and more satisfying. And where play is recognised as fundamentally important to a child’s processes of learning, it is accessed at a rate and in a style that is right for them – in every moment.
Instead of scheduling breaks away from the playroom to be physically active, offer children constant access to the outside if you can. Extending their range of movements and experience – a necessity for growing, developing children.
Support their intrinsic motivations with opportunities to be physical, building confidence through their attempts at a challenge. As you recognise, understand and value their efforts, you help build this sense of achievement through their efforts – a stable variable that they can control, rather than focusing on outcomes which may take a while to perfect and feel demotivating.
You might want to introduce a project-based approach to activities, where children work on a task, plan an adventure or solve a problem of their choosing. This may last a significant portion of the day or for many days. It may occupy a side table or the whole environment as many children and ideas join the excitement.
Sometimes, practitioners can worry that this less-structured approach will not fit well with parents’ expectations. They are concerned that their parents may question the value of the learning their child is receiving. Or a prospective family viewing the setting on a visit may be put off considering it for their child.
For someone who doesn’t understand early childhood development, this may appear somewhat chaotic. To see children playing and exploring, rather than “learning” may prompt some questions. Especially if this engagement is becoming excited, passionate or somewhat less ordered than it was at the start of the day.
But we need to help our families to understand the deep level learning that is occurring. And indeed, learning things that children cannot master while sitting quietly or following the moment-to-moment instructions of an adult. But to do this at a committed enough level to achieve complete buy-in is something as practitioners we can struggle to find the time for.
Next month I will begin a new series as we look at supporting our families in everything we do. If you would like to know more, visit the new Nurturing Childhoods Academy, academy.nurturingchildhoods.co.uk. Here you and your families can take courses and join community groups together as we share in the conversations, bringing children back to the centre of all we do. You can even take your professional development to a whole new level with a Nurturing Childhoods Accreditation as together we really begin developing the potential of all children throughout their early years.