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Children are little curiosity boxes – they want to see, touch and explore everything around them. From throwing food on the floor to see if it sticks, to picking up their fortieth leaf on your morning walk, they’re fascinated by the big, brand-new world they’ve just come into.
Giving them new experiences is a fantastic way to encourage their questions and help them learn, but is there a way that you, educators can boost this curiosity in your classroom or center? This is exactly where learning provocations shine.
Learning provocations are activities or experiences to boost children’s engagement – put simply, they’re spaces where children can pick up, touch and explore different objects. Think of them as an open-ended invitation to explore, wonder and be creative.
If that didn’t convince you, provocations spark interest, stimulate thoughts and ideas, and encourage questioning – all of which help children understand, learn and develop. Oh, and you can create them from objects you probably already own. What’s not to love?
There’s no right or wrong way; they’re completely open-ended. There’s also no prescribed objective or outcome – it’s simply an invitation to explore. The more you experiment, the more inspired you’ll become. You’ll get ideas based on children’s interests and their engagement, and you can gauge if they’re learning as much as they can as you go along.
Below are a couple of examples to give you an idea of what these spaces can look like. The aim is to spark interest, and encourage children to explore and share their thoughts while they play:
Provocations are extremely flexible – you can base them on children’s current interests, the weather, the context of the provocation and age of the children. The possibilities are endless!
One of my favourite provocations is to freeze objects in ice and display them in a tough spot for the children to explore. It’s fascinating to hear the discussions this promotes, as children wonder how the lego people became stuck in the ice or why the coins are now frozen. We then think about how we can melt the ice, what would work best and how long it might take – absolutely perfect for sustained shared thinking!
You may have heard the term "provocation," and not know exactly what it meant for early childhood education. You also may have heard the term "invitation" commonly use with provocation and learning provocations.
An invitation is something that encourages students to explore a concept. A provocation is something that provokes action and stimulates thinking. In short, a provocation expands on an invitation.
For example, you can arrange a space with flowers, twigs, branches, leaves, stems and dirt. These loose materials will encourage the children to explore as there is no clear direction as to how to interact with these items. In this same space, a learning provocation would be a bit more guidance within their exploration, such as "what is your favorite part of nature?" or "what is your favorite outdoor space?" These questions foster curiosity and encourage the children to continue to explore and go more in depth.
The aim of a learning provocation is to inspire a child to wonder and think. With that, children are encouraged to talk, to share their ideas and thoughts through hands-on, practical experiences. This has some fantastic benefits.
For example, I hear wonderful descriptive language as children chat together. They use words to talk about sizes, shapes, textures as well as words related to thinking such as why, how and where. Their creativity and curiosity are sparked in a way that encourages them to continually ask questions.
But it’s not just curiosity and a thirst to learn that makes these spaces incredible learning opportunities – they encourage creativity itself. Because there is no outcome, and the fact that the activities are open-ended, children can freely engage with them. They’re free to test out ideas and explore concepts as they see fit. A win-win!
As an added bonus, these learning experiences also help develop focus and concentration. Uninterrupted play allows children to learn and think independently as they navigate the activity in front of them, and how to focus on one thing at a time.
How long you leave a provocation out for is dependent on how it’s being used. If children are really involved and enjoying a provocation, think about keeping it out for longer so the play can evolve. You never know where it might lead, and they need some extra time to fully explore and question the objects in front of them.
One of the most amazing aspects of these spaces is how free you can be with them. No need to break the bank or be very extravagant – the point is to inspire and extend thought. Sometimes the simplest of set ups promote the most engagement!
Spaces can be set up anywhere you like – you might want a dedicated corner, or you might prefer to mix things up by moving them around the room week by week. There’s no right or wrong answer, just do what works best for you.
Think about how you can use the weather, and the changing of the seasons. Use leaves to spark a conversation about autumn and why trees shed, or use plants to inspire questions about smells and colours. These won’t last long, but use that to your advantage. Show why watering and taking care of plants matters, and that they wither if they’re neglected or handled roughly.
Are these spaces always adult-led? Definitely not! As adults, we facilitate the experience or activity, but our role is then to step back and leave the children time and space to independently explore.
With limited intervention from adults, children can fully immerse themselves and further their own learning. They might choose to play independently or investigate as a small group – let them explore and decide for themselves.
Some things to think about when making space for independent learning:
It’s important to note that you shouldn’t be put off if your space just looks like a pile of scattered objects. This represents something to a child as they independently explore the objects and use their imagination as they play. Just let them use the resources as they choose to.
Before setting up your learning provocation for little ones to use, you’ll need to ensure it has been risk assessed for safety:
Navigating careful play is tricky, as too much input from you takes the activity away from the children and stops them discovering the objects themselves. It’s a learning curve and you might not get it on the first try. Just remember to be patient and take it slowly!
The most important advice is to have fun and enjoy facilitating wonderful learning experiences for the children which impact on all areas of development.
Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.