By CELA on 10 Sep, 2021

Children should be able to do their own experimenting and their own research. Teachers, of course, can guide them by providing appropriate materials, but the essential thing is that in order for a child to understand something, he must construct it himself, he must re-invent it. Every time we teach a child something, we keep him from inventing it himself. On the other hand that which we allow him to discover by himself will remain with him visibly for the rest of his life. Jean Piaget from Play and Developent: A Symposium 

Outcome 4 of the EYLF focuses on children being confident, involved learners, including an ability to develop dispositions for learning such as curiosity, cooperation, confidence, creativity, commitment, enthusiasm, persistence, imagination and reflexivity. Facilitating these aha moments is a great way to help children develop these dispositions. 

That spark of excitement or satisfaction we feel when we achieve something never goes away. It fans the flames of meaningful learning and creative thinking throughout our lives. It makes us realise that we are capable people and gives us the confidence to push ourselves and try for more. 

Aha moments happen spontaneously throughout the day and don’t necessarily need adult ‘help’, however it’s our job as educators to provide opportunities for these moments to take place. 

Ways to facilitate aha moments

There are many methods we can employ to facilitate aha moments for children including: 

Inquiry based learning

Using inquiry based learning, educators see themselves as co-learners, working with children as they learn together. When using this model, educators can feel less focused on transmitting knowledge and will be more likely to support and extend children’s own attempts at understanding. The co-construction of knowledge with children allows children to think about what to do if things get tough along the way and can facilitate inspired accomplishment. 

Scaffolding play

We can scaffold play by setting the scene for children but not controlling it. By setting up spaces, provocations and social situations we can create opportunities for children to use their negotiation, critical thinking and analytical skills.

Asking open ended questions

Challenging children to think by asking thought provoking, open-ended questions can expand and enrich a child’s cognitive, creative and language development. Open ended questions that challenge thinking include:

  • Making Predictions – What do you think will happen...
  • Extend on Thinking – What would happen if there were...
  • Consider Consequences – What would happen if you jumped and I wasn’t there to catch you?
  • Assess feelings – How would you feel if that happened to you? How do you think ... feels?
  • Similarities and Differences – How are these the same? What makes these go together? What make these different?
  • Solving problems – What could you do to...
  • Evaluate – What made you decide…

(source: Aussie Childcare Network)

Providing open ended, multipurpose experiences and materials

Open-ended experiences have no set outcomes. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to engage with them and they allow children to follow their imagination and go in any direction their creativity takes them. 

Open-ended materials, including loose parts, are materials that can be used in a variety of ways based on what the children decide, rather than on a set purpose. They can include all types of objects large and small such as buttons, beads, tyres, pipes, cardboard boxes and rocks. 

Allowing children to problem solve 

Letting children problem solve and explore different outcomes, especially those that are unintended, helps build resilience and can foster important social and emotional skills. It can also allow for children to learn through the process of exploration, rather than putting all the value on the outcome of an activity. 

Some ideas to get you started

Insight can be acquired as a result of extensive or concentrated understandings, and through study and learning. However, insight often materializes abruptly or spontaneously, as when an unanticipated idea suddenly takes root, like a seedling that gets planted and then sprouts’.
Joanne Foster, EdD

Activities and experiences will look different, one influence may be the age or the developmental level of the children, however past experiences will also impact the way children interpret and use materials. Consider a mix of one-on-one and small group activities, similar and mixed-age experiences. Good programming will incorporate situations that include individual children’s interests, skills and abilities. 

Investigating using ‘grown up’ materials

Loris Malaguzzi said, "We want to be sure that the desires, interests, intelligences and the capacity for enjoying and seeking - which are a child's inborn resources - do not remain buried and unused."

Give children a magnifying glass, buckets, a measuring tape, sand, clay, water and measuring cups for their investigations. Replicating environments where children can be like adults in their discoveries and question answering is an ideal space for aha moments to occur. Loose parts are wonderful here as well.

Combining younger and older children and watching the magic happen

Enabling younger and older children to play together can be great for role modelling, peer interactions, and social and emotional connections that push boundaries. Why not choose a favourite book and facilitate play acting of a particular scene? ‘Going on a bear hunt’ with different ages of children playing the different family members (and the bears) could be a great way to begin. 

Allowing for challenging social situations

Creating situations where children will need to use their ‘thinking hats’ are great for learning and growing. Consider putting out three bikes to four children, paint pots without brushes - then observing what they will do, how they will do it? Asking them open-ended questions along the way, acknowledging feelings, suggesting ideas on how they can work through the situation. 

Letting children be bored

Do we always need stimulation? Do we always need to provide materials and activities? Can imagination work here? Some philosophies of early learning promote minimalism, and can allow for magic moments to occur, particularly when children work together to find new ways to play.

Things to consider as you navigate this area: 

  • These moments are built on trust of children, observation of children, environments and activities and providing provocations.
  • Be open to letting go, being vulnerable, not always having the answers, and coming from a place of wanting to learn as well.
  • It’s vital to have an understanding of each individual child in our care, allowing for these situations and moments can help us to build that understanding. 
  • Building your self awareness can help you to grow - understand your own biases, background and values that may influence your thinking in certain situations.
  • Be aware that routines, adult behaviour and language can undermine or strengthen children’s ability to demonstrate their competence.​

Should we step in if children are getting frustrated?

Seeing a child struggling or becoming upset, it can be tempting to step in and help them bridge the gap in knowledge or competence. There are ways to do this that still allow children to experience their aha moment. 

Consider the example of Robbie. He’s three years old and has been trying to build a robot using blocks for quite some time now. He’s building the robot on a lumpy piece of carpet, so it keeps falling over. You can see that he’s getting frustrated — he’s started to throw the blocks angrily as his vision is not materialising and you know that it’s down to the lumpy carpet underneath. 

Younger children may need to be shown how they can work through challenges by role modelling or through open ended questions. 

  • Using role modelling an educator could start to make their own robot, saying ‘I’ll make my own robot over here on the floor’ and then letting the child imitate. 
  • Using an open-ended question, an educator could ask “I wonder what happens if I try to build my robot on the floor. Will it stay upright on the floor or will it fall?”

For older children, it’s about taking the time to slowly work through situations together. 

What about dangerous situations? 

Risky play helps to build a child’s confidence, resilience and executive functioning abilities (executive function is a set of mental skills that include working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control1).

“It is our duty as early years providers to ensure that the risks we expose children to, are as safe as they possibly can be so children can take calculated risks,” says Sue Robb, Goodstart Early Learning’s General Manager Pedagogy and Practice via First Five Years.

If we think a situation may be too dangerous, there are a few ways we can approach it while still allowing for aha moments. 

We can ask children what they already know about a situation that we perceive as dangerous or what they want to know so that we can work out a level of understanding, working together as learners by using discovery and research. 

We can set up scenarios and use intentional teaching to showcase examples. 

Example: Robbie wants to ride the preschool bike over a ledge and into the sandpit where children are playing below. 

By modelling, practice, and a gradual release of responsibility, many perceived ‘dangerous’ situations and risky scenarios can be worked through with children, enabling a sense of self achievement and satisfaction. 

In this situation, perhaps an alternative ‘ledge’ or ramp could be set up to allow Robbie to have the satisfaction of riding over something. As co-learners, educators could learn with Robbie which items or areas around the service would be appropriate for this through trial and error or investigation. A meeting could be called to ask all children what they think of the idea, whether there are any potential dangers for Robbie or other children playing in the sandpit, and how the activity could be tackled safely. We can explore the skills needed to build up the competence and ability to manage the bigger risk in a safer way.

Enabling aha moments can put a sparkle in everyone’s eyes

Seeing these aha moments will also allow for more meaningful engagement with children, more in-depth observations of children and greater understanding of the needs, interests, skills and abilities of each child.These situations can put a focus on being present and thankful for the little moments we get to spend with children, seeing and discovering life with them through their eyes. 



Further reading:

Marc Armitage - Loose parts and open endedness

CELA - Car park transformed into Anji-Play inspired space

Teacher Tom - Wasting time

Nature Play QLD - The Hill

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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