Parent: The ‘how’ of learning


Most parents have heard of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) but it is also important to be familiar with the Characteristics of Effective Learning (CoEL) which are integral to it. Annette Rawstrone provides the first of a four part guide.


In the early years, the CoEL are the ‘soft skills’ that help children to become life-long learners. The EYFS is currently being revised and early years professionals have welcomed the news that the CoEL will not only be retained but also given greater emphasis in the new guidance.

What are the CoEL?

The CoEL focus practitioners on how your child learns, rather than just what they are learning. It encourages them to look at the ways in which your child is engaging with other people and their environment. The three CoEL are:

  • Playing and exploring
  • Finding out and exploring
  • Playing with what they know
  • Being willing to ‘have a go’
  • Active learning
  • Being involved and concentrating
  • Continuing to try if they encounter difficulties
  • Enjoying their achievements
  • Creating and thinking critically
  • Having and developing their own ideas
  • Make links between ideas
  • Developing strategies for doing things.

Why is it so important?

The motivation to learn is even more important than being intelligent – being bright will not get a child far if they don't know how to apply themselves, or have the inclination to do so. Motivation is the key to success and the CoEL seek to instil this in children from an early age.

It is also recognised that each child is unique and all children learn in different ways. A child's individual learning characteristic will determine the way that they respond to the teaching and learning that happens in the nursery environment.

Children who receive the right sort of support and encouragement during their early years are likely to be creative and adventurous learners and continue to be motivated to learn throughout their lives. Contrary to this, young children who do not receive this individual interaction and support may not be as tuned-in and enthusiastic towards lifelong learning.

What should my nursery be providing?

For the CoEL to be integrated into your child's nursery setting, the practitioners need to ensure that they are providing an environment where different types of learning can occur in order to support children's varied learning styles.

It takes a knowledgeable practitioner to be able to effectively observe a child and identify what characteristics they are displaying. Your child needs to be recognised for bringing their own needs, background, interests and talents to the nursery environment.

It is important that your child's carers get to know them personally and see what they become engrossed in. Your child's key person will be happy to hear about what your child is enjoying doing at home and any particular interests they are displaying, such as a fascination with wheels, or an interest in Paw Patrol.

You should expect your child's key person to give you regular verbal and written feedback – some settings use online learning journals such as Tapestry or EEXAT.


The nursery environment is sometimes referred to as the ‘third teacher’ because with the right environment children's natural curiosity can be sparked and they can learn independently. Your child's nursery environment should engage them and entice them to play and explore, for example:

  • Having plenty of uninterrupted time, alongside formal activities such as ‘circle time’
  • Space both indoors and outside to investigate
  • Providing open-ended resources that can be moved and combined in a variety of ways, such as wooden construction blocks, planks and crates outside and ‘loose parts’ such pine cones, buttons and wooden pegs inside
  • Practitioners who ask open-ended questions and challenge them
  • Enabling children to return to investigations and activities the following day
  • Allowing children to make their own choices and decisions including thinking of ideas for play themselves
  • Supporting children to negotiate hazards themselves and assess possible risk.

How can I learn more?

You could ask your early years provider to:

  • Run a parent workshop on CoEL
  • Share observations of your child so that you can see how they focus on the ‘how’ your child is learning rather than just the ‘what’
  • Next month this guide looks at Playing and exploring

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