For children, this happens in play that evolves from the child’s natural curiosity – active play that allows children to explore with their bodies, minds, and senses, stimulating them to ask questions, test theories, solve problems, engage in creative thinking, and make meaning of the world around them. These investigations through play fuse intellect and feeling to help children make connections and develop the capacity for higher-order thinking.
Research into learning and development – from the early theories of Dewey, Piaget, and Vygotsky to the latest findings of neuroscience – makes it clear that children learn best when they are fully engaged in active exploration, play, and inquiry (Gopnik, 2009). When children initiate experiences, generate ideas, plan, problem-solve, make meaningful choices, and act spontaneously through play, they are more likely to be happy and get along well with others, to have lower levels of stress, and to be attentive and motivated to learn.64 When children are fully engaged, they develop dispositions and skills for lifelong learning that are important for success in school and beyond.
Ways in which children might demonstrate engagement
Goal for children: Every child is an active and engaged learner who explores the world with body, mind, and senses. Children are engaged learners when they:
• express joy and wonder in their encounters with the environment, the natural world, and other people;
• focus attention, manipulate, investigate, observe, question, test theories, solve problems, create, and represent ideas and their understanding of the world around them through play in divergent and increasingly complex ways;
• engage with others to negotiate, collaborate, create, and communicate feelings, ideas, experiences, and knowledge;
• through their play, explore materials that support an increasing awareness and understanding of concepts associated with literacy and numeracy;
• participate to the best of their abilities in an inclusive learning environment.
Ways in which programs can foster engagement
Program expectation: Early childhood programs provide environments and experiences to engage children in active, creative, and meaningful exploration, play, and inquiry.
Educators can create contexts that engage children by:
• designing indoor and outdoor environments and experiences that spark curiosity, invite investigation, and provide challenges that are responsive to individual capabilities to help children extend the boundaries of their learning;
• connecting with families and communities and inviting their participation to ensure that environments and experiences reflect and are relevant to children’s everyday lives;
• providing a wide variety of interesting objects and open-ended materials for children to explore with their senses, manipulate, and investigate;
• planning daily routines (the flow of the day) with limited interruptions and transitions to maintain a sense of calm and simplicity for infants and toddlers, and providing ample opportunities through large blocks of time for older children to engage in sustained, complex play and inquiry; participating with children as a coinvestigator, co-learner, and co-planner rather than as director or “keeper of knowledge” and “keeper of the plans” in a way that is separate and apart from the children;
• continuously questioning and testing their own theories and strategies and seeking new ideas to facilitate children’s exploration and understanding of the world around them in meaningful ways;
• working with families and community partners to ensure that environments and experiences provide equal learning experiences for all children by making
flexible program adaptations and providing special equipment and/or adaptive devices (as recommended by a regulated health professional);
• ensuring that the spaces and experiences provided promote play and inquiry that will help children discover and develop an increasing awareness and understanding of key concepts, including those associated with literacy and numeracy development;
• documenting and making children’s thinking, learning, and competence visible to children, families, and others.
Additional considerations for educators
Assess the type of toys and materials available in your program and consider replacing those that limit exploration (e.g., single-purpose toys) with “open-ended” materials that can be used in many ways (e.g., for infants: objects
that encourage exploration of questions such as, “How does this feel, sound, taste, move?”; for toddlers: materials to help them explore questions such as, “What parts does this have? What can I make it do?”; for preschoolers: materials that encourage construction and exploratory questions such as, “How does this go together?” “What can I make?”; for older children: opportunities to
encourage representation of their thinking and ideas through various mediums).
Create environments and experiences that support active engagement and meaningful exploration by focusing on the questions and theories children investigate through their play. This may involve moving away from traditional, adult-chosen themes towards what children are engaged and interested in as a starting point for planning. Educators also need to make decisions about the types of interests that have potential for rich and complex play. This could mean focusing less on the objects that interest children and more on what children are doing with the objects: What questions are they asking through their play? What theories are they testing? What are they noticing and attending to? What problems are they solving?
For example, observing a group of children interested in cars, educators noticed that it wasn’t so much the cars children were focused on as more complex questions such as, “How can I make it move?”; “What happens on different surfaces?”; “How can I make it go faster?”; “How can I build a ramp?”; “What other things roll?”; “What might happen if I try these ideas outside?” Exploring questions and theories about “movement” through their play deepens children’s learning and engages them in thinking about physics and mathematical concepts.