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Bright ideas to support child-initiated learning

Using reclaimed and natural materials to encourage child-initiated learning opens up an extraordinary range of possibilities, as Linda Thornton and Pat Brunton describe.

Author details

Linda has over 40 years' experience in education as a teacher, headteacher, adviser and lead officer for early years for a local authority. She is passionate about developing children’s thinking and learning, valuing creative learning...

Pat’s background as a research scientist has led to her interest in the idea of babies and young children as researchers, and to recognising the value of involving families in their children’s learning. She has extensive experience of the early...

Outstanding practice in the Early Years Foundation Stage includes a balance between adult-led and child-initiated activities. In the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP) guidance, attention is drawn to the importance of child-initiated activity in making meaningful assessments of young children’s learning.

The EYFSP guidance says that the key aspects of effective learning characteristics include children

  • being willing to have a go
  • being involved and concentrating
  • having their own ideas
  • choosing ways to do things
  • finding new ways
  • enjoying achieving what they set out to do.

It points out that accurate assessment of these characteristics depends on observing learning initiated by children rather than only focusing on what they do when prompted. For children to develop learning characteristics to be assessed by the EYFS Profile, and to support lifelong learning, they require rich opportunities to initiate ideas and activities.

Using open-ended materials

Reclaimed and natural materials, with their rich variety of textures, colours, shapes, sizes and origins, are fascinating to children. They invite close observation, stimulate imagination and encourage sensory exploration. These materials provide opportunities for children to manipulate objects, seek patterns, make connections and recognise relationships. They inspire representation and creative expression, extending vocabulary and communication skills.

Reclaimed and natural materials, with their rich variety of textures, colours, shapes, sizes and origins, are fascinating to children

Reclaimed and natural materials have no predetermined use and they can be used to express and develop ideas, thoughts and feelings. When carefully arranged and easily accessible, reclaimed and natural materials that are tactile and beautiful to look at and handle will add to provision for all areas of leaning.

Small world play

Small world play will be enhanced by making open-ended materials available for children to use. Provide:

  • mirrors or mirror tiles to create a different viewpoint, give the impression of large spaces and create reflective surfaces of ponds, streams or rivers
  • old style ‘dolly’ pegs to add new characters to small world play – make lace, ribbons and fabrics available for the children to dress the ‘dollies’
  • strips of cardboard, paper and fabric to create roads, rivers and railways
  • plastic shapes, cones, netting and small offcuts of wood to make houses, shops, towers and bridges
  • lightweight fabric, fancy paper, cellophane, ribbons, small boxes and a range of natural materials to make creative environments for dinosaurs, spacemen or families.


Using reclaimed and natural open-ended materials alongside traditional construction materials and sets will give children the opportunity to develop their creativity. These could include:

  • flexible and rigid pipes and tubing
  • bricks and large stones
  • logs and planks of wood of different lengths and thicknesses
  • netting
  • cardboard boxes of different shapes and sizes
  • cones used for wool and threads.

Exploring light

Reclaimed and natural materials set out in divided trays or attractive boxes and placed next to an overhead projector or light box will invite exploration and investigation. By their very nature, the materials that are used to explore light will promote aesthetic awareness and an appreciation of beauty.

Light boxes add interest to any setting, creating a place for careful observation or for exploring pattern, shape, form, colour, opacity and colour mixing. The calming influence of a light box engages children’s attention for sustained periods of time.

The sorts of resources you could provide alongside a light box or overhead projector include

  • translucent materials such as plastic shapes and sheets, buttons, cocktail stirrers, Christmas decorations, small plastic and glass containers and bottles
  • opaque materials including plastic and metal washers, discs, nuts and bolts, lolly sticks, paper clips and coins
  • items with holes in them such as tea strainers, mesh lids, small strainers
  • natural materials that can be brought into sharp focus on a light box – use cones, leaves and skeleton leaves, twigs, pods, shells and pebbles
  • fabrics, scarves, ribbons and lace, which will have different effects when used with an overhead projector, providing exciting opportunities for discussion and language development.

Investigating mirrors

Light boxes add interest to any setting, creating a place for careful observation or for exploring pattern, shape, form, colour, opacity and colour mixing

Mirrors placed at an angle to each other, such as in a mirror cube, mirror exploratory or a kaleidoscope mirror, produce interesting multiple reflections. Fantasy worlds can be created using mirrors and small world play resources.

Multiple mirrors provide opportunities to develop thinking and problem-solving skills through working out which way to move things to create the desired effect. Moving objects around in front of a mirror helps children to develop their spatial awareness and their early understanding of position.

Resources that can be used safely with acrylic mirrors by different age groups of children include:

  • paper, card and children’s drawings
  • fabrics and soft plastics such as bubble wrap
  • cardboard tubing, string and wool
  • soft foam building blocks and 3D shapes
  • wooden vehicles with rubber tyres
  • plastic animals, sea creatures and dinosaurs
  • flowers, leaves and skeleton leaves
  • cones and seed pods.

Finding the extraordinary in the ordinary

All of these ideas will provide opportunities to demonstrate the exciting opportunities that arise when practitioners observe closely children’s self-initiated play and look for the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Last Updated: 
13 May 2013