Exploring the Characteristics of Effective Learning

characteristics of effective learning

This article has been written by early years consultant, Anne Rodgers, from ATR Consultancy. Anne has 36 years’ experience of working in the childcare and education sector. This includes training practitioners, managing numerous settings over the years and writing articles for Early Years Educator and the CACHE Alumni website.

There are 3 characteristics of effective learning according to the EYFS 2017:

  1. Playing and exploring – engagement
  • Finding out and exploring
  • Playing with what they know
  • Being willing to have a go

2. Active learning – motivation

  • Being involved and concentrating
  • Keeping trying
  • Enjoying achieving what they set out to do

3. Creating and thinking critically – thinking

  • Having their own ideas
  • Making links
  • Choosing to do things

Playing and exploring – engagement

Finding out and exploring

Sensory play is an important part of learning for young children. Through their senses they make sense of the world around them and begin to explore naturally. A stimulating environment is vital to ensure that this area of learning is maximised to its full potential. Sensory play includes activities that stimulate children’s senses such as sight, sound, smell, taste or touch. Offering sensory play activities will support children’s understanding of the world around them in a natural way, through their senses.

Playing with what they know

Children need time to repeat actions to practice skills learnt and be allowed to play with things they enjoy. They will enjoy playing with toys that are familiar to them and those they see others using, and engaging them in imaginative play. Dressing up and role play and small world areas can be beneficial for this.

Being willing to have a go

Activities should be age and stage appropriate to the child’s development, yet challenging. Therefore building up their confidence to try new things. Children are naturally curious but may be quite shy to try new things. Offer support, encouragement and model how to do things as they may not know what to do. Once children practice new skills they will become better at mastering them once they try things over and over again. Children will vary in their level of involvement in some activities and may prefer some types of play over others. This is down to personal choice, if a child does not want to do something they shouldn’t be forced to.

Active learning – motivation

Being involved and concentrating

Children sometimes need help to remain focused on activity. There should be a balance of child initiated and adult led activity. With careful planning these can be incorporated within the daily routines. Young children do not have a great concentration span and may get easily distracted. Always make sure that activities are age appropriate so that children are not being set up to fail at something. It is far better to give them an easily accomplished task that gets progressively harder so that they can gain any new skills required slowly.

Keeping on trying

Adults need to support children to complete tasks that are age and stage appropriate. Some children they may find activities hard to master so perseverance is key. When we observe young children we can understand what they like and if they are enjoying themselves. As a result we can plan for their interests and make learning more tailored to the child’s needs. Learning new skills can be frustrating, so helping children to stick with it will be beneficial to them.

Enjoying achieving what they set out to do

Firstly, praise and encouragement should be given to each child even in the smallest of tasks to help build self-esteem.

Again, by observing the children in the setting you will find out what it is that they like and what they need to help them to progress towards their next steps. Providing fun activities and experiences will make this happen more easily as they child will be enjoying the experience.

Creating and thinking critically – thinking

Having their own ideas

Children should be given a variety of resources so that they may self-select and use their imaginations. For example, open-ended craft activities are an excellent way to help children to express themselves and use their imagination. For children, creativity is about the process and not always the end product that counts. Often when we plan for play activities we have a set goal in mind for children. However, children will often elevate the activity by adding their own imaginative processes in ways we had not intended. This shows that they are becoming independent and imaginative and should be encouraged where possible.

Making links

Themes can be followed through within all areas of the curriculum to embed the learning objectives. For example, if you are having a ‘Growing’ theme then why not make a “garden centre” in the home corner. As a result, children can re-enact experiences they may have had outside of the setting. For example, if they have been to a garden centre they can pretend to play at selling plants.

Choosing ways to do things

Firstly, children need to be given choices and opportunities and encouragement to try new things. Typically in a setting there are places and zones for certain activities. This is comforting as children know where to go if they want to play with something. However, it is also a good thing to try spontaneous activity and large group work or circle time. Some activities are better done outdoors and some indoors. Let the children decide as it can make for a new dimension on what it is that they do in the space.


As we observe children playing we need to incorporate the Characteristics of Effective Learning, but what are we actually looking for? For example if a child is being observed playing with something they are mastering for the first time we can tick that we have seen ‘Active Learning’ within their observation. Similarly if we are observing them whilst engaging in sensory play we can tick ‘Playing and Exploring’ on their observation sheets. When problem solving, we may be able to tick off ‘Creating and thinking critically’. The result is that all observations are cross referenced within their learning journal and that the Characteristics of Effective Learning are being noted.

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