Creativity and critical thinking are central to an effective early years curriculum and pedagogy





CREC Directors and founders of BECERA, Professor Chris Pascal & Professor Tony Bertram, argue that creativity and critical thinking are central to an effective early years curriculum and pedagogy.


The current EYFS supports a play-based pedagogic approach and advocates the centrality of the Characteristics of Effective Learning (CoEL) which are fundamental to the development of every child as a lifelong learner. It acknowledges that it is an early years practitioners’ responsibility to support the development of these skills during the crucial formative years from birth to five. Research has shown that it is these skills that make a difference to children’s long term outcomes and to their ability to become happy, resourceful and resilient adults. The Characteristics of Effective Learning and the Prime and Specific Areas of Learning and Development are all interconnected. The Characteristics focus on how children learn rather than what they learn. This distinction is important as it highlights the process of learning for young children. Added to these aspects of development we would add Emotional Wellbeing, as providing a bedrock for a child’s healthy progress. The CoEL include:


  • Playing and Exploring (engagement) 
  • Active Learning (motivation) 
  • Creativity and Critical Thinking (thinking) 

However, increasingly as children move towards Year 1, other more formal and outcome based pedagogic approaches are becoming evident, as pressures mount to ensure children are school ready and to secure more congruence between Year 1 and Reception year practice. This shift in practice away from that recommended in the EYFS can include the introduction of a systematic programme for phonics teaching and the delivery of the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies in the Reception year. However, recent evidence on the value of play based, more relational approaches for children from 3-6 years in securing long term outcomes in all areas of learning may be challenging this current direction of travel. Emerging developmental evidence reveals that an ‘earlier is better’, more formal, didactic approach may be misguided and will not make a difference in the long term. In contrast to the focus on early, didactic instruction, current research into early emotional and cognitive development suggests that long-term well‐being and success at school may be more dependent on children developing executive functioning and self‐regulation abilities, and exercising autonomy in their learning. The evidence sharply indicates that play and participatory approaches should be seen as key vehicles for learning throughout the early years.


We wish to particularly draw attention to a key element of the CoEL: Creativity and Critical Thinking; and highlight its centrality in the debate about what constitutes an effective curriculum and pedagogy for children throughout the Foundation Stage. Key concepts in this debate are 1. Creativity and 2. Deep Level Learning.


1. Creativity

There is often confusion about what creativity is and in pedagogic terms we believe this concept should be seen not just through an arts or cultural focus but to be viewed as a much wider learning disposition. We are promoting a more democratic, inclusive definition of creativity which focuses on,


‘imaginative activity fashioned so as to produce something (process or outcome) which is both original and of value’ (Pascal and Bertram, 2017).


We feel that this definition could be applied to the whole range of learning areas and affordances for learning and also embraces a wide range of cognitive, emotional and social/relational processes.


2. Deep Level Learning

The EYFS aims to support and extend the learning capacity of young children in a holistic way and so that the children would be transformed as learners. This requires an understanding of learning as a process which is deep, long-term and multi-faceted rather than superficial, fast and short-term. We take as a starting point the work of Csikszentmihayli who stated that,


‘….to have a good life, it is not enough to remove what is wrong from it. We also need a positive goal, otherwise why keep going? Creativity is one answer to that question: It provides one of the most exciting models for living…if the next generation is to face the future with zest and self-confidence, we must educate them to be original as well as competent.’ (Csikszentmihayli, 1997:11).


We see this creativity as linked to the ‘state of flow’ (Csikszentmihayli, 1997) or Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) (Vygotsky, 1978). These ideas help practitioners to identify when the child’s mind is at the optimal state for development and learning. This approach sees creativity as vital for deep level learning and securing high levels of involvement in learning experiences (Laevers, 2007).


The focus on creativity and critical thinking as central elements in early years learning leads us towards certain pedagogic approaches that foreground these, including:


  • Play-based Pedagogies
  • Child Initiated Pedagogies
  • Relational Pedagogies
  • Participatory Pedagogies


The increasing debate about the importance of skills such as motivation, perseverance, and self-control in long term attainment have led to growing attention from policymakers on how such skills can be developed in children and young people. Furthermore, the evidence is suggesting that investing in the development of these outcomes would yield high returns in future educational and employment outcomes, and help close the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged young people. As Heckman (2011) emphasises, any early education programme seeking to reduce social inequalities between children must focus on the crucial role of skill formation, but that this requires more than basic intellectual skills. He states that just as important are ‘life skills’ such as conscientiousness, perseverance, motivation, sociability, attention, self-regulation, self-esteem, and the ability to think critically. He also notes that the critical period for such skills formation is in the preschool years.


The evidence makes a strong case for advocating play-based, relational and participatory pedagogic approaches in the Foundation years which are not only highly effective for fostering creativity and critical thinking, but are increasingly acknowledged as being the most effective approaches for securing long term attainment and life success for children.



Csikszentmihayli, M. (1979) The concept of flow. In: B. Sutton-Smith, Play and learning (pp. 257-273). New York, Gardner.

Heckman, J. (2011) The Economics of Inequality: The Value of Early Childhood Education, American Educator, 31.

Laevers, F. (2005) The Curriculum as Means to raise the Quality of ECE. Implications for Policy. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 13 (1), 17-30.

Pascal C. and Bertram T. (2017) How to Catch a Moonbeam and Pin it Down: Creativity and the Arts in Early Years, Birmingham: Amber Publications and Training.

Vygotsky L. (1978) Interaction Between. Learning and Development. In Gauvain & Cole (Eds) Readings on the Development of Children. New York: Scientific.



This article was first published in Nursery World magazine.


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