By CELA on 25 Sep, 2023

Intrinsic motivation is the drive to engage in an activity because it matters to us, says psychologist Sarah-Jayne Duryea. In early childhood, intrinsic motivation fosters the enjoyment of something without the external reward. It helps children understand what is important to them and can help to develop long-term positive behaviours.

Through relatedness (having a sense of caring relationships), autonomy (an ability to make one’s own decisions), and mastery (capability in a specific activity), children build confidence in their abilities and develop them in their own time. Intrinsic motivation is referred to in the EYLF V2.0 as an important factor in fostering children’s involvement and success in learning through interactions and the exchange of ideas, questions and feelings.

Extrinsic motivation is behaviour driven by rewards or incentives such as stickers, badges, trophies and praise.

Research1 has shown that a focus on external rewards or consequences can undermine existing internal motivation and that the continued use of an external reward can lead to its value decreasing, along with motivation. That’s not to say that there is never a place for external rewards —when done well and balanced with opportunities for intrinsic motivation, it can have a place in a child’s overall development and learning.

How can we tap into a child's intrinsic motivation? 

A child’s intrinsic motivation system can be fostered right from the beginning, or as Sarah-Jayne tells us, as early as the embryonic stage. This is due to the influence of a child’s caregiving relationships on the development of motivation systems.

The EYLF V2.0 tells us that “Starting from birth, children communicate with others using eye contact, whole body movements, gestures, sounds, language, digital and assisted communication. They are social beings who are intrinsically motivated to interact, exchange ideas, thoughts, questions and feelings.”

(AGDE, 2022)

Sarah-Jayne suggests that in order to foster intrinsic motivation, we can role model desired behaviours, offer two choices to provide an element of control, pitch at the right level for the child’s ability, encourage curiosity, and promote autonomy and mastery for the inherent joy it brings.

It can also be helpful to break tasks down to smaller, more achievable goals, be open to mistakes occurring, and provide the child with a chance to give things another try. Providing attuned reflections and descriptive praise can also help promote a growth mindset.

The importance of observation and attuned listening

Some argue that intrinsic motivation can’t be utilised if a child has no interest in a topic or activity, while others suggest you just need to know how to go about it.

“Children are confident and involved learners but if they’re not interested then they are going to display behaviour that reflects that,” says Lena Hammond, Head Trainer at Little Scientists Australia. “Every child is interested in something—it’s just figuring out what that something is and being able to use that interest to support children’s natural and innate motivation to learn,” she says.

Lena suggests observing and using attuned listening and considering the following types of questions: 

  • What topics are they interested in?
  • How do they engage in dramatic play?
  • What are they imagining in the construction corner?

She suggests asking questions to see what they already know about a topic and that this may spark ideas to explore further or even more questions. 

Intrinsic motivation is a powerful force in learning and development and when harnessed appropriately has the ability to lead to both deep-level learning and a lifelong love of learning. It's an important consideration in current practices in early childhood settings to support children to reach their potential in both learning and behavioural outcomes at their own pace.


1. without-rewards

About CELA

Community Early Learning Australia is a not for profit organisation with a focus on amplifying the value of early learning for every child across Australia - representing our members and uniting our sector as a force for quality education and care.

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