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Starting off on the Right Foot: Play and Intrinsic Motivation in Early Childhood Education

What’s love got to do, got to do with it?! When it comes to education, a whole heck of a lot!

Here’s the thing. While children step into their formal role as learners in early childhood classrooms, they have been learning non-stop since the very day they were born by interacting with various aspects of the environment around them. Have you ever watched a baby stare intently into their mother’s eyes as they listen to her adoring coos? Or, have you witnessed a young child’s face light up in a smile as their father pops-up joyfully, shouting the well-known phrase “peekaboo!”? I often think back to my own babies as they gazed wide-eyed and stretched out their tiny fingers, reaching for colourful new toys. My youngest is past this point now, and loves to learn by following his sister’s every move as closely as her shadow. This is true learning. Learning at its finest and most sincere. True learning is not without effort, but is driven by curiosity. It is rooted in the learner’s sense of well-being, and solidifies their understanding of the world, and their place within it. It is engaging and most importantly, it is authentic.

It is our responsibility as educators to set the stage for this kind of authentic discovery to exist within our classroom settings. When we recognize what inspires children to learn independently, we acknowledge their innate right to an education that honours the way in which they learn best and most naturally. In doing so, we step back from forcing the direction of learning and step-up to the calling of equipping our children with the tools they need to understand themselves as capable learners. This my friends, is what builds confidence and creates the foundation for a lifetime spent enjoying learning.

In her study entitled, “Intrinsic motivation in the classroom,” Krystle Valerio shares the definition of motivation, which is “the process whereby goal directed activity is instigated and sustained,” (Schunk, Pintrich & Meece, 2002, as stated in Valerio, 2012). Valerio further states that motivation takes two forms: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation, “refers to engaging in an activity for its own sake, for the enjoyment, challenge, interest or natural fulfilment of curiosity” (30). Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, “comes from outside the individual, for example, the offering of incentives for successful task performance such as stickers” (30). While extrinsic motivation has a place in the classroom, it is important to note its main role as a support for the development of intrinsic motivation, such as when it is used to encourage students to engage in new learning opportunities. When educators help connect students to their understanding of intrinsic motivation, and what it feels like to be genuinely and intrinsically motivated to learn, they simultaneously help students to develop resiliency and confidence in themselves as learners. This very closely aligns with Carol Dweck’s research on growth mindset…more on that in a later blog!

If you remember only one thing from this blog, my hope would be that you remember this:

The magic of learning does not solely exist in the moment the child discovers the answer they were seeking. Rather, the magic exists in the “ah-ha” moment when the child realizes they understand how to discover the answer. The magic exists in the process, or as many early childhood educators like myself refer to it, “the exploration.”

There is a necessary understanding that teaching serves multiple purposes. Sure, teachers plan with specific curriculum objectives in mind, such as teaching children how to add with single digits to find the sum of 10, however, there are multiple layers to the work that we seek to accomplish. In fact, education as a whole is moving away from a fact/task centred model, toward a child/ student centred approach, and I for one, am ecstatic. It comes down to this: Lessons exist to serve the child. This may seem like an obvious fact, but the needs of the child often gets lost inside traditional learning activities, especially in the younger years, which are imperative for creating a solid foundation for learning. As we embrace the philosophy that the child, as a unique and whole individual, must always come first, we must therefore plan our lessons accordingly in ways that acknowledge and support healthy and age-appropriate academic, emotional and social development. One important way that early childhood educators support the needs of their students is by offering relevant and engaging inquiry-based activities, often framed by the invitation to play, as play naturally inspires intrinsic motivation. Let’s take a look at an example….

Two children, who are both confident in their ability to independently count to 10 and have been briefly introduced to the language of addition in a whole-class setting, are given two different methods of practicing addition with single digits. The first child is presented with a piece of paper that simply reads: 4+2= ?. Now, don’t get me wrong, there is a place and time for written addition sentences in the classroom, and students can be supported in many ways as they learn how to use tools such as number lines, tallies, etc. This is also not to say that the child could not figure out the answer by drawing or counting on their fingers. Yet, for this specific example, how do you suppose the child feels? Drawn in? Excited or engaged? Perhaps, although it is also probable, depending on the child, that they feel slightly anxious or confused, and as a result will feel less confident in their abilities as a learner and as an achiever. As children get older and gain experience, strategies that include writing and recording answers on paper become far less daunting and far more age-appropriate. But, what about our early learners? Let’s take a look at the second child.

Say, for this child, we move our addition question to a sensory bin that includes pretend construction machinery, such as bobcats and front-end loaders, as well as kinetic sand (or dirt!) and a pile of rocks. Will this type of hands-on activity serve to inspire curiosity in the child? You bet! The child will be drawn in by an invitation to play and this, my friends, is where the learning happens. Further, the child will remain engaged throughout the process of play, meanwhile they will actively learn as they interact with the materials and their peers. At this point, children who are ready, may be presented with a card that reads, “How can you show 4+2 with rocks?,” or a teacher may step in to ask the same guiding question verbally. The teacher might also bring in other strategies, such a ten frame template, for the student to use to help them count their rocks. In open-ended activities such as these, students can also easily demonstrate the knowledge they have already acquired, such as “look, I made a wall out of ten rocks!,” and can find unique ways to explore new concepts that speak to their personal interests and viewpoints. Evidence of learning is everywhere if one understands how to look for it! For example, the child may prefer to move piles of dirt and may count each load needing to be moved to demonstrate their understanding of addition. Or, perhaps the student may prefer to create the final number six out of rocks, or trace it in the dirt. Once done counting, the student may also ask, “what is dirt and where does it come from?” which would then propel forward a new direction of learning, similarly inspired by our student’s natural curiosities, encouraging them to advocate and assume agency in their learning.

Open-ended, hands-on, and play-centred activities such as the one outlined above not only create the opportunity for learning to occur as a result of intrinsic motivation and authentic engagement, but they serve early learning by honouring children in a number of ways.

  1. They offer age-appropriate invitations to learning, that both support little learners as they demonstrate previously acquired knowledge and build upon their understanding of lesson objectives.

  2. They allow for multiple entry points for students to access and engage with the lesson and further support the unique needs of students by offering various avenues for students to demonstrate their understanding. Hello, diversification!

  3. They engage children through the use of their five senses, which is one of the key ways that children naturally learn and understand participation. By incorporating the five senses, the lesson is also more likely to be remembered! If you make homemade playdough, try adding in a drop or two of essential oils to awaken your little’s sense of smell!

  4. Through the use of real-life materials and the teachings of real-life skills, carefully created learning activities connect children to the world around them. While playing and having fun, children also want to learn what it means to be a citizen of our world. In addition to being interesting, lessons must also be relevant and impactful. Good thing that the world offers countless ways to inspire learning! Exploring forests, learning about various plants, animals and insects, sharing family traditions and celebrations, helping in the garden, and tinkering with safe tools are just a few examples of how children connect to the world, discover their passions, and shape unique identities.

  5. They build confidence in our little learners by offering a learning scenario in which the answer is waiting to be found in the materials/ experience. Through other means of teaching and learning, unknown answers can often feel like abstract concepts that exist somewhere out of reach. In open-ended and hands-on activities such as loose parts and sensory bins, children are welcomed and set-at-ease by the invitation to play. As children explore the materials, they practice literacy, numeracy and social skills and soon come to understand that they are capable of learning simply through participation and showing up as their authentic selves.

  6. They create space for self-expression and creativity by allowing students to play and create in their own way. Some students may stack, some may build, some may create pictures, others may observe. All will learn.

  7. Similarly, they honour each students’ unique background and viewpoint by offering space for self-expression and creativity. Students can use the materials to build upon, express, or process their personal lived experiences. What a beautiful thing.

  8. They welcome error and support growth mindset by communicating that trial and error are an inevitable part of the process. Counted the wrong amount of rocks? No big deal, let’s start again.

  9. By extension, hands-on and open-ended activities invite practice and further remind students that learning is a process. Practice paves the way for solid understanding.

  10. They encourage collaboration and provide opportunities to practice and strengthen communication skills through the use of shared materials. When children are properly supported by teachers and childcare workers as they engage in learning activities with their peers, they further develop important language and social skills, and deepen their understanding of how to build and maintain healthy friendships.

Successful planning comes down to knowing how to meet your students where they are and offering them opportunities to propel forward in their growth by providing them with the proper tools to support their understanding, and experiences to ignite their natural curiosities and find joy in learning. Childhood in and of itself is exciting, informative, and fun, and early childhood education serves children best by following suit!

“All students are unique; educators, through implementing a variety of motivational techniques can have considerable influence on students’ participation and self-expression. Individual teachers have the capability of making learning empowering, thus allowing the energy of the classroom to be filled with excitement and anticipation” (Valerio, 29).

Work Cited

Valerio, Krystle. “Intrinsic motivation in the classroom.” Journal of Student Engagement: Education Matters, vol. 2, no.1, 2012, Accessed 24 May 2021.

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