Young Children's Thinking


Marion Dowling

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    About the Author

    Marion Dowling has spent all of her wonderfully varied career working in Early Years.

    She was involved in the early development of the playgroup movement, worked as head teacher of a state nursery school and as an adviser in two large shire authorities. As a member of Her Majesty's Inspectorate Marion gained a national perspective on provision for young children. Since 1995 she has worked independently as a consultant and trainer on local, national and international initiatives. All of her work is based on regular and frequent visits to early childhood settings.

    Marion has published extensively in early years journals and is the author of several books. Her particular interests are linked to young children's personal, social and emotional development and children thinking. Marion has served on various advisory groups to the government. She was President and is now a Vice President of Early Education and has directed two Early Education Projects on Exploring Young Children's Thinking.


    Once again the early years and primary phases of education are under scrutiny and new frameworks are being prepared to revise curriculum content. This book is more concerned, however, not with what young children learn, but rather with how they learn. It is heartening to see that the Tickell Review shares this concern and highlights young children ‘creating and thinking critically’ as one of three enduring characteristics of effective learning (1). This characteristic has been adopted in the new Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage (2).

    The term Supporting Sustained Shared Thinking is now commonly used in educational documents and in training; the term is derived from research findings which show that babies and young children gain in learning when their thinking is supported (3, 4). Many practitioners recognise this and have developed their practice accordingly. Case studies in the book affirm some of the sensitive and imaginative work that is taking place. These should be helpful to those who are less experienced in this aspect of pedagogy.

    The book is intended for those studying for Early Years Practitioner Status, Early Childhood and Foundation degrees. It is also relevant to early years practitioners, teachers and teaching assistants. The current Independent Review of Early Education and Childcare Qualifications is considering how best to strengthen training, qualifications and career pathways for all those involved in the early years sector (5). Whatever the outcome, this book will be a useful resource for a range of practitioners involved in different aspects of continuing professional development where there is a focus on young children thinking.

    I have (as always) aimed to link theory to practice. Chapter 1 sets out the territory around children's thinking and touches on many issues which are taken up in later chapters. Chapters 2, 4 and 6 outline some of the main aspects of children's thinking at different stages of their lives. Chapters 3, 5 and 7 pick up on these aspects and signpost readers to ways in which they can support children and their parents.

    Most parents want the very best for their children but they are not always aware of how their child's behaviour reflects their developing thoughts and ideas. I have included some practical suggestions for work with parents; however, the most important factor is to gain parents’ interest and enthusiasm, respecting and helping them to recognise their powerful role in their child's development. Some parents appreciate this already, others need time and encouragement before they come on board. The distinction between different age groups is intended as a helpful guide. However, the chapters are not designed to be strictly age-specific; hence the deliberate overlaps between some age groups. Three year olds are referred to in both Chapters 2 and 4 and similarly 5 year olds are included in Chapters 4 and 6. I hope that this emphasises that children in one year group can be very different and reflect a range of development.

    The remit of this book is ambitious – it covers a huge area and dips into some very complex issues. I have thoroughly enjoyed writing a book which covers such wide territory but inevitably I have fallen short. The overview of children's development as thinkers cannot be comprehensively covered here and the chapters on practice can often suggest only headlines for practical action. Despite this, I hope that readers are offered some insights into the wonders of how young minds develop and how close adults can support this process.

    Access a selection of specially chosen SAGE journal articles here:

    Tickell, C. (2011) The Early Years: Foundations for Life, Health and Learning. Independent Report to HM Government on the Early Years Foundation Stage. London: Department of Education, p. 88.
    Department for Education (DfE) (2012) Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage. para 1.10, Cheshire: DfE (downloaded from the DfE website).
    Sylva, K., Melhuish, E.C., Sammons, P., Siraj-Blatchford, I. and Taggart, B. (2004) The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) Project: Technical Paper 12 – The Final Report: Effective Pre-School Education. London: Department for Education and Skills/Institute of Education, University of London.
    Siraj-Blatchford, I., Sylva, K., Muttchock, S., Giden, R. and Bell, D. (2002) Researching Effective Pedagogy in the Early Years (REPEY). DfES Research Report. London: Department for Education and Skills, p. 356.
    Nutbrown, C. (2012) The Independent Review on Qualifications in Early Education and Childcare. London: Department for Education.


    So many people have been involved in the production of this book and thanks are due particularly to Marianne Lagrange and Kathryn Bromwich at Sage. Several colleagues have been extremely generous in their preparedness to read and comment on drafts, among them Sharon Hogan, Maureen Lee and Kathy Brodie.

    Thank you to Wingate Community Nursery School and Trimdon Grange Nursery and Infant School for providing wonderful examples of practice and also the families who have allowed me to share examples of their young children's thinking. Thanks also to Peter Dixon who shared the sparkly idea of introducing children to ‘dragons’ claws’.

    Most of the case studies arise from my observations of young children over a number of years and some of these children have now moved away and are young adults. In all cases, their names have been changed apart from where they asked to keep their own name. Every effort has been made to obtain necessary permissions in regard to copyright material and I apologise if, inadvertently, any sources are unacknowledged.

    Finally, thank you to my lovely grandchildren, who have provided some of the source material, and above all to my husband, Barry Allsop, who has given me constructive criticism, time and constant encouragement to write.

    Glossary of Terms

    Definitions refer to meanings of these terms as they are used in the context of this book.

    • Attachment: the need for babies and young children to seek intimate relationships with their parents and other close adults who live and work with them.
    • Attunement: being on the same wavelength as the young child.
    • Companionship: an equal and familiar relationship between individuals which involves affection, shared interest and support.
    • Discrete methods: specific programmes and materials are used to teach specific thinking skills.
    • Early Years: the period of time from birth to the end of the academic year in which a child reaches five years of age.
    • Infused methods; everyday situations and scenarios are used to support children's thinking.
    • Key person(s); the named practitioner(s) with whom the child and close family members have the most contact. The key person approach involves a reciprocal trusting relationship between a member of staff and a family. The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) requires that every child must have a key person (likely to be the child's special person).
    • Key Stage 1: covers Years 1 and 2 in primary school in England, when children are between five and seven years old.
    • Metacognition: thinking about thinking and consciously using different thinking strategies to solve problems.
    • Parents: mothers, fathers, other relatives who care for children and the primary carers of looked-after children.
    • Practitioner: any adult who works in an Early Years setting directly providing education and care for children.
    • Regulation: being controlled by another.
    • Re-presentation: replay, describe and make sense of experiences through different means (represent through moving, talking, making and marking).
    • Schema: repeated patterns of behaviour which children use in their play to explore and express their developing thoughts and ideas.
    • Self-regulation: being in charge of oneself; involves the ability to manage one's emotions, socialise with others and become an autonomous learner (thinker).
    • Special person/close person: one of a small number of adults in the home, setting or school who has developed a close relationship with a child.
    • Super-hero: a fictional character having extraordinary or superhuman strengths and powers.
    • Sustained, shared thinking: when two individuals work together on a shared enterprise which contributes to, develops and extends thinking.
    • Teacher: any trained adult (including teaching assistants) who works in a school to provide education and care for children from five to seven years.
    • Very young children: refers to babies and children up to three years.
    • Young children: refers to children from three to five years.

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