Teaching and learning

Engage your early learners using provocations

Everything you need to know about learning provocations and early development.
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July 20, 2023
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In a rush? Here's the quick run-down.

  • What are learning provocations? This article talks about everything you should know about early learning provocations and how the little ones can learn through provocations.
  • How does boosting children’s curiosity - through learning provocations - strengthen their development and learning?
  • You’ll learn ways to incorporate learning provocations in your classroom and center
  • Finally, how to creating safe spaces for independent learning and exploration through provocations

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.

What are learning provocations?

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:

The big ideas

  • Maps
  • Magnets
  • Painting and sculptures
  • Fossils and rocks
  • Tinker trays with natural treasures
  • An old suitcase with artefacts
  • A selection of photos
  • Transient art
  • Scented items
  • An arrangement of flowers with a selection of paints
  • A Pretty Tea Set

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!

What's the difference between invitations and provocations?

‍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.

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How can we use learning provocations?

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.

Unleash your creativity with learning provocations

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.

Bring the creativity outdoors! 

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.

Independent learning with learning provocations

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:

  • Stand back and observe the play. Consider what has worked well in terms of children’s engagement – what particularly sparked interest? This is a great way to make plans for future provocations and extend their learning.
  • Observe and tune into the children’s experiences. This lets you deeply understand children’s play skills and how each individual child learns. You know that each child is different, and therefore their interaction with provocation spaces will also be different.
  • Use these observations to hone your skills. Understanding how each unique child uses provocation spaces also benefits your holistic understanding of how children learn in all aspects of the Early Years Foundation Stage. Observing is a great way to develop your skills and see where you could improve.
  • If children decide to draw you into their play, this is completely okay. This is the perfect time to engage in sustained shared thinking – wondering and learning together as you both navigate the provocation and question it. Learning provocations and sustained shared thinking go hand in hand as they both promote a child’s innate drive to be curious. Provocations can inspire us to wonder how, why and when which enable us, as adults, to model thinking skills. A learning experience for all.

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.

Are your learning provocation spaces safe?

Before setting up your learning provocation for little ones to use, you’ll need to ensure it has been risk assessed for safety:

  • Check for sharp edges or broken parts which could cause an injury to little fingers.
  • You will need an adult to supervise if you’re using small parts, particularly if you’re using loose parts such as glass nuggets, beads and coins – these could all be choking hazards.
  • Take the age and stages of development of children using your learning provocation into account, and check whether the objects you’re using are appropriate.
  • Check for allergies. This is particularly important if you’re using natural items or objects, as the child could have a reaction.
  • Use delicate objects as a learning tool for the children. Playing with a china tea set or maps that need to be unfolded will require a gentle touch, but use this experience to teach children to adapt their behaviour and treat these objects with care.

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!

Emma’s top resources
  • Your local charity shop is the best place to go. Make friends with the owners! I often give mine a list of things I’m looking for and they’ll give me a call when they’re donated.
  • A deep tough tray. With higher sides than a usual tuff spot, it’s fantastic for learning provocations which can get a bit messy!
  • This book on provocations was great for extending my own thinking about learning provocations.
  • Picture frames are fantastic for displaying provocations and encouraging children to make patterns and arrangements. They can be picked up for a reasonable price from Ebay or Ikea.
  • Try scouring Ebay for vintage suitcases, maps, ‘treasure’ related items and fabrics – you never know what you’ll find!

The most important advice is to have fun and enjoy facilitating wonderful learning experiences for the children which impact on all areas of development.

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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.

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