Reflection & Reflective Practice in Young Children

It has been thought for a long time that young children are not capable of self reflection yet how many times do we see parents or educators saying “You think about what you have done.” Are young children even capable of reflecting on situations and circumstances and are they cognitively able to incite change through those self reflections?

Reflection is a vital part of learning. Think about your journey when learning a new skill or concept. It takes observation, practice and reflection to move from a point of no skill to skill. We know children can observe and they use that in learning all the time. They imitate adults and their peers and then manipulate those things they have learned through play, in order to learn more.

For example, when learning to speak, a child observes and copies what they see and hear. They practice the words and sounds over and over until they have mastered them. At first it is just straight mimicking, but as they grow slightly older (around 3 years), they start to play with those words, forming nonsense words, rhyming words and playing with the language in all sorts of ways which teaches new skills. But do they reflect on what they are learning? Is reflection part of their learning process?

Historically, it has always been believed that young children (under 11 years) do not have the capacity for self-reflection (Flavell, 1977). Later research, as late as 2016 backed up this same view (Robson, 2016). Although Robson agrees that observation and reflection go hand in hand, the thought was still that children under the age of 11 years did not have the capacity for self reflection.

“Movement allows children to connect concepts to action and to learn through trial and error. Young children explore their world through movement, using all the senses so it is only logical to use what they already know to promote further skills such as reflective practice” DIANA F CAMERON

The research of Mario Biggeri (2007) showed that “Children from the age of 11 have been shown to have conceptualising abilities that enable them to reflect on their experiences”. But it wasn’t until research in 2010 when the concept that children’s opinions and perspectives were important and they were able to reflect on experience and have a subtle understanding of them that more research opened the possibility that self-reflection was possible in younger children (Buhler-Neiderberger, 2010).

Robson agreed that children who are given the opportunity to self reflect become better at it over time. There is also something else that is developed simultaneously when having the opportunity for self-reflection and that is the ability to develop symbolic thought and to be able to represent ideas.

First Things First

In order for a child to be able to reflect on an event, they must first be self-aware. There are many ways to help a child with self awareness, and although they are still learning, we know that young children (younger than 11 years) are self aware. So doesn’t it stand to reason that we could use the ability of self awareness to engage and develop reflection abilities?

So What is Reflection?

First, we need to qualify what we mean by reflection. Similar to critical thinking, it can’t be learned or practiced in isolation but needs to be in taught in context. It needs to be conscious and it needs to happen in relation to an experience.

By reflecting on experiences, children are able to implement change by looking at things differently and then changing how they react to a similar experience. Developmental research suggests that “there are age related increases in the highest degree of self-reflection” (Zelazo, 2004). There are factors, however that directly influence a child’s ability for self-reflection and those are their developmental age, and their language ability (Zelazo, 2004).

Why is Self-Reflection Important?

When play is accompaniment by self reflection, it leads to deeper learning and understanding. Improving a child’s ability to self-reflect directly impacts on:

  • Self regulation – The ability to respond to circumstances and demands with a range of emotions that are in keeping with appropriate social expectations and flexible enough to allow spontaneous reactions as needed. In other words, knowing cognitively which coping strategy to implement so their reaction is in keeping with the circumstance.
  • Mindfulness – being present in activities and aware of themselves at every moment.
  • Metacognition – thinking about thinking
  • Learning – the ability to reflect and instigate change is an essential part of learning

How Do We Assist Self-Reflection in Young Children?

As mentioned before, for young children to be able to self-reflect, they first need to be self-aware. Movement is one of the best ways I know of implementing this with young children. As a Kindermusik educator, I know the importance of movement and musical experiences for young children and the many benefits of moving. We do exercises with children where they learn to isolate individual body parts and coordinate others, building on self-awareness with every move.

We are running the risk with our increasingly passive learning environments in preschools, of inhibiting the opportunities for children to learn self-awareness and reflection. It is important for them to be allowed to move freely, choosing their own activities and participating in self-directed learning. This is how we lead children through self-awareness to the skill of reflection.

Movement allows children to connect concepts to action and to learn through trial and error. Young children explore their world through movement, using all the senses so it is only logical to use what they already know to promote further skills such as reflective practice.

Memory and movement are linked. Memory is also a part of the reflective process; without memory of the situation, a child can’t reflect on it. Children need opportunities to move, even school aged children. Their body is a tool for learning and must be utilized as much as possible. The more senses that are engaged, the deeper the learning.

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What Types of Movement Should I Be Using?

Different types of movement are a great way to increase self-awareness and can lead to opportunities to teach self-reflection. You could try the following:

  • Free movement to music
  • Movement isolating 1 body part at a time. “Jazz hands” or moving just a shoulder, or do the hokey pokey
  • Movement using a variety of props – balls, scarves, streamers, stuffed animals or keeping a balloon in the air
  • Mirror Dancing. Dance like I am dancing, now I will dance like you are dancing
  • Cross Lateral Movements – where the opposite arm and leg are moving at the same time or anything where the arms cross the body
  • Use extremes of movement – very high, to very low. All the way from one side to the other side etc
  • Move while balancing on one leg
  • Only use 1 side of your body at the one time when you move
  • Stop and go movement – for children 3+ years, when you stop get them to make a shape with their bodies (like a statue) which adds another layer of complexity to the activity
  • Different types of moving – upside down, crawling, hopping, dancing, jumping – using the body in various ways
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So What is the Research Telling Us?

Putting it all together, it is possible for young children to reflect and in fact, it is important to teach them those skills by allowing them the opportunity to practice. This is what we can learn from the latest research about young children:

  • Self awareness is best practiced through movement.
  • Children must first be self aware before they can develop self reflection.
  • Self awareness leads to better self regulation.
  • Self regulation happens in the body through movement. Intentional movement, such as yoga or moving to music has profound effects on a child’s ability to focus and calm themselves.
  • Reflection is a vital part of learning.
  • Memory and movement are linked. Memory is needed to develop reflective practices.
  • Young children are capable of self reflection and instigating change but it is directly dependent on their developmental age and their language abilities.
  • Self reflection develops symbolic thought and the ability to represent ideas through symbols.

Diana Cameron

Diana has over 32 years in the early childhood industry and has been a guest lecturer and workshop facilitator both nationally and internationally for the past 20 years. She has a passion for inspiring educators to use creativity and imagination in their teaching.

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