Active Learning in the Early Years

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Argyll and Bute Council Community Services: Education is committed to the values, principles and purposes of Curriculum for Excellence.

We recognise that children in pre-school centres and early primary school should have “high quality learning experiences based on active learning approaches”. Building the Curriculum 2

The planning for key learning opportunities for young children should reflect the following design principles of Curriculum for Excellence.

• Enjoyment and challenge
• Personalisation and choice
• Progression
• Coherence
• Relevance
• Breadth
• Depth

Although the focus in this paper reflects current developments within early years in Argyll and Bute our intention is to extend the pedagogy and principles of active learning across all sectors from 3 to 18. (Appendix 1)

We recognise the importance of continuity of children’s learning and experiences to enable them to build “on prior learning and achievement in a manner appropriate to learning needs of the individual”. (Building the Curriculum 3)

This paper reflects the aspirations already established through the Early Level Play Pilot 2007 -08. The aim of the pilot was to ‘involve both teachers and pre-school practitioners in reviewing and trialling a range of methodologies and resources to develop high quality learning through play at the early level’. (Early Level Active Learning Case Studies)


21st Century learning requires that children and young people develop as successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors.

The main objectives of this paper are to ensure that children have the opportunities through active learning to:

• Develop creativity and the use of their imagination
• Extend problem solving and thinking skills across learning
• Build on their own interests and make choices about their learning
• Make connections across learning
• Take part in meaningful decision making
• Engage with others within an environment of self-respect and respect for others
• Communicate in a range of ways and a variety of settings
• Celebrate success

The table below should therefore be used:
• As a tool for reflection on existing practice in active learning
• To identify future action points for development
• To provide focus for progression in children’s skill development and attitudes towards learning
• As an organiser to plan for children’s experiences within and across curriculum areas

Why Active Learning?

“Active learning is learning which engages and challenges children’s thinking using real-life and imaginary situations”. (Building the Curriculum 2)

The action plan 2009- 2012 highlights the importance of active learning pedagogy as a fundamental part of child development. It embraces the holistic development of each child as an individual and fulfills their emotional, spiritual, physical and cognitive needs.
It is a natural way of engaging children in their learning, helping them to make connections within learning and fostering a natural curiosity and exploration of the world around them.

As a result of reflection on the impact of the Early Level Active Learning Pilot staff identified the value of active learning in the following ways:

• Flexible, child-orientated approach to teaching and learning
• Learning through experience, hands on approach.
• Active learning engages all children in the learning process.
• It allows children of varying abilities to ‘work’ successfully at their own pace.
• Learning is set in a context, which is often cross-curricular, making it more meaningful to the children. Learning becomes FUN!
• Children are therefore motivated to learn and take more responsibility for what and how they learn.
• There is a greater depth of understanding and learning is no longer restricted/ pre-planned, so children can take their learning as far as they want.
• Self-evaluative - children more able/willing to discuss own learning and next steps.
• Learning without age and stage barriers.
• Confident and enthusiastic children and teacher.

The following principles have been designed to support Argyll and Bute staff in developing effective active learning approaches.
They are also intended to:

• Engage staff in stimulating discussion
• Allow staff to reflect on current practice and identify existing good practice
• Provide a framework for the development of a whole school approach to active learning
• Support the continuity and progression of learning experiences across all stages
• Create a rich environment for learning

Principles of Active Learning

1. Staff have a key role to play in taking children’s learning forward through sensitive intervention and skilled questioning when appropriate.

2. Children are entitled to an environment which is conducive to a range of ways in which space is organised to accommodate active learning approaches.

3. Time should be organised with flexibility to enable children to explore and investigate in sufficient depth to embed real understanding and making sense of their learning.

4. Skilled planning is necessary to ensure that the needs of all children are met through a range of stimulating learning opportunities, which provide coherence and breadth.

5. There should be a variety of relevant contexts for learning, which engage children in their learning and build on their own interests.

6. Children are entitled to a range of challenging and enjoyable learning experiences, which may be adult led, child initiated or adult involved.

7. Children are entitled to quality feedback and dialogue about their learning in a secure environment where their conversations are valued.

8. Active learning should promote children’s positive attitudes towards learning and promote links with the home environment

9. Children should develop independence and responsibility by being encouraged to make choices about their own learning.

10. Active learning should provide children with a social environment through which to develop the four capacities.

11. Active learning should promote a positive ethos, which allows children to make mistakes, take risks and refine their skills.

12. Children should be encouraged to develop a variety of way to express and record their learning.

13. Active learning has to take account of the vital importance of planning for progression in the early stages of literacy and numeracy.

14. Active learning should take account of the importance of interdisciplinary planning to enable children to make links across learning.

15. Active learning should provide opportunities for children to be engaged in energetic play.

16. Active learning should be recognised as central to the overall health and wellbeing of the child. 

Planning and Organising for Active Learning

“Young children learn best when they have scope for active involvement in a wide range of learning experiences. The learning environment – both indoors and outdoors – needs to provide challenge and opportunity to explore exciting learning possibilities. All early years settings need to provide flexible and stimulating environments to fully engage children in their learning. At al stage this requires activities, space and resources to be well planned and organised”. (Building the Curriculum 2)

Observation is central to the effective planning and organisation of Active Learning. The range and type of questions by staff help to extend the children’s learning. Children should be encouraged to ask questions of staff and each other. A variety of evidence of children’s learning will enable staff to reflectively plan for progression and celebrate success.


Young children need space, which is conducive to active learning. The environment should be ever changing to reflect current contexts, children’s needs and interests.
Children learn best in environments where the areas are clearly defined both indoors and outdoors and there is a flow to purpose of learning.
The daily routine should allow children to be independent in their use of space as an integral part of the organisation of the classroom or early years setting.
We need to provide space for children to engage in their learning individually and in varying size of groups. As a starting point for the organisation of space staff should consider:

• The variety of areas to help children make links across learning.
• How children can use the areas to explore, consolidate and extend their learning
• If there is a necessity for every child to have a dedicated seat and the flexibility of table arrangements.
• The need for larger spaces and areas on the floor on which to work.
• A focused teaching area where children can be withdrawn for additional adult input
• Resources which are effectively organised to allow children to be independent in their use, creative in exploration and responsible in their care.


Active learning requires a more creative use of time to ensure that depth of experiences can be fulfilled. It is a creative use of the time available to adopt a more flexible approach which allows time for responsive planning and children’s interests to be followed. This may necessitate a closer look at time tabling to ensure that Active Learning approaches permeates the child’s day in addition to specific times for “planned purposeful play”.
Children need time to reflect on their learning and communicate their ideas.


The variety of ways in which time for Active learning can be managed include:
• Self registration
• Soft start to involve parents in the learning process
• Extended literacy and numeracy sessions
• Carousel
• Together times
• Activity Learning session
• Review times
• Provision for outdoor experiences

Learning Opportunities

Learning opportunities for Active Learning requires balance between the adult’s planning and the needs and interests of the child. Therefore although there maybe a current focus for learning based on the outcomes and experiences we have to take into account the investigative nature of Active Learning and be responsive to key ideas arising from the children.

Learning opportunities should provide:
• Challenge and motivation
• Skill development and progression in learning
• Relevant resources for children to explore
• Flexibility in children’s use of resources
• Staff exploring the potential of resources
• Experiences to develop imagination and creativity
• Support for children in thinking through a process
• Effective use of ICT across learning
• Opportunities for children to revisit key learning

The focus through Active Learning should be on the value of the process experienced and not simply the product of the activity.

“Active Learning is a more natural way for children to learn. It engages the children in their learning, because it allows them to learn from experience. What they are learning makes more sense. It is also easy to cater for all levels of ability. We plan to stay with it!”( Early Level Active Learning Case Studies)

active learning