Fostering Sustained Shared Thinking

by Marianne Sargent

This is an abridged version of an article published in Early Years Educator in May 2013. The full article is available online at


This article seeks to identify the importance of fostering sustained shared thinking within early years settings in terms of boosting young children’s cognitive development, encouraging autonomous thought and producing creative life-long learners.

Why are thinking skills so important?

Thinking creatively, being able to reason and question and having the ability to evaluate are all vital life skills. As early years practitioners, we have a responsibility to prepare young children for their futures as life-long learners.

Being educated is not just about developing literacy and numeracy skills or acquiring a good general knowledge. It is also about becoming a creative and critical thinker; someone who is able to apply such knowledge to a range of situations; someone who is able to process and analyse a range of information; someone who has the ability to consider a problem and look for possible solutions; someone who has the foresight to pre-empt likely obstacles and creatively plan around these.

Jenni Clarke (2007) offers a comprehensive overview of thinking skills and explains why they are so important for young children at the beginning of their journey towards becoming independent and competent thinkers:

Information-processing skills: enable children to sort, classify, sequence, compare, contrast and analyse information. As Clarke explains, these skills enable children to ‘see links between different pieces of information’, as well as helping them to decide which information is most valuable and worth retaining.

Reasoning skills: enable children to give reasons for opinions and actions, to find the language and explain what they think, to make informed judgements and decisions. Clarke highlights the importance of language development and communication skills in this respect.

Drawing on the ground

Enquiry skills: enable children to research, ask relevant questions, plan what to do, predict outcomes, test conclusions and improve ideas. As Clarke points out, young children often have difficulty formulating questions. This is something that practitioners should model often and children should have plenty of practice doing.

Creative thinking and problem solving skills: enable children to come up with ideas and suggestions and to use their imagination to think of creative solutions. Clarke draws attention to the need for children to be open to suggestion and not afraid of making mistakes. Creative thinkers have the ability to accept failure and think of an alternative plan.

Evaluation skills: enable children to evaluate information and judge the value of what they hear and see in order to formulate opinions. In addition, such skills enable children to evaluate their own and others’ work. There are strong links here with Assessment for Learning, whereby children are encouraged to self and peer-assess, as well as set personal future targets and goals.

What is Sustained Shared Thinking?

Sustained shared thinking is the means by which practitioners nurture the abovementioned thinking skills within the children in their care. It involves seeking out opportunities to build upon the children’s interests and challenging them to indulge in a deeper thought process.

It is best defined in the Effective Provision of Pre-school Education (EPPE) study into the effects of early education on young children’s development:

“‘Sustained shared thinking’ occurs when two or more individuals ‘work together’ in an intellectual way to solve a problem, clarify a concept, evaluate an activity, extend a narrative etc. Both parties must contribute to the thinking and it must develop and extend the understanding.” (Siraj-Blatchford et al., 2004).

The EPPE study and related research project, Researching Effective Pedagogy in the Early Years (REPEY), emphasise the fundamental role of social interaction in young children’s learning and development. These studies found that ‘positive cognitive outcomes are closely associated with adult-child interactions… that involve some element of sustained shared thinking’ (Siraj-Blatchford and Sylva, 2004).

In addition, the EYFS guidance highlights the need to encourage creative thought:

“Children’s creativity must be extended by the provision of support for their curiosity, exploration and play. They must be provided with opportunities to explore and share their thoughts, ideas and feelings…” (DCSF, 2008, Creative Development Card).

It pledges a commitment to foster creativity and critical thinking and outlines specific requirements in relation to creating a learning environment that fosters sustained shared thinking:

  • Practitioners support and challenge children’s thinking by getting involved in the thinking process.
  • Adults are aware of children’s interests and understandings.
  • Adults and children work together to develop ideas and skills.
  • Need responsive trusting relationships.
  • Adults shows genuine interest, offer encouragement, clarify ideas and ask open questions to support and extend children’s thinking and help make connections. (DCSF, 2008, Principles into Practice Card 4.3).

Using Puppets to Get Children Thinking

Early years consultant Ros Bayley long advocated the use of puppets and toys to encourage discussion and thought among young children. She published a wide range of resource books and delivered training for early years practitioners and teachers. This training inspired the following idea:

Case study

The beginning of a new school year in Reception is always a challenge, as children with a wide range of experiences come together and have to negotiate the use of classroom space and resources as well as compete for the attention of a smaller number of adults.

It is typical at this time to devise some kind of class code to help children work and play together as harmoniously as possible. Much of the time class codes are formulated by adults and impressed upon the children with the support of sanctions in the event that they are broken. Of course such rules usually aim to protect the children both physically and emotionally. However, although these intentions are clear to the adults who put them in place, the children may not necessarily understand.

Bayley suggests that the use of puppets and toys is a powerful means by which important messages can be conveyed to young children. Rather than simply disallowing certain activities by imposing restrictions and offering verbal explanation, puppets allow practitioners to visually demonstrate the reasoning behind certain rules. The children are presented with scenarios and asked to consider possible outcomes and consequences. They are asked to think about and discuss the implications of certain actions and behaviours. This engagement in sustained shared thinking enables the children to take ownership over the class code by asking them to assess physical risk and evaluate emotive situations.

In this particular instance it was decided that the children should be fully participative in formulating a class code. A number of photographs were taken of resident classroom puppet Indian Brave as well as Claude from the classroom next door in various situations. These were presented to the children as discussion points and a class code was devised in the form of a set of rights and responsibilities.

We have a right to be safe…

Puppet fallen over

The above picture was presented to the children and they were asked, ‘What do you think has happened here?’ After some discussion the children suggested that Indian Brave had fallen over. When asked why this might have happened they pointed out the bricks and explained that he had tripped over. Further discussion followed about how this could have happened: Was Indian Brave looking where he was going? Were the bricks on the floor in a place where people might trip easily? Was Indian Brave walking or running?

Puppet running

The next picture (above) revealed that Indian Brave had been running indoors. It was decided that the class code would begin with…

We have a right to be safe so we walk indoors

This pair of pictures could also be shown in reverse order, beginning with a picture of Indian Brave running, whilst asking the children what might happen next.

We have a right to be happy…

Puppets fighting

The above picture was shown and the children were asked what they thought might be happening. Some thought the puppets were playing together; others thought they might be arguing.

The following picture revealed that they were in fact arguing and this had resulted in Claude pushing Indian Brave over. Many issues were explored here: What might have caused this argument? How might Claude have been feeling to push Indian Brave so hard? How might Indian Brave feel now? How might the problem have been sorted out in a different way? How does it feel to be angry? How can we deal with this?

Puppets bullying

Following this discussion, another element was added to the class code…

We have a right to be happy so we are kind to each other.

Of course these pictures are open to interpretation. The children might suggest that the puppets are play fighting, for example. Again, this presents a good discussion point: How rough is too rough? Does everyone like to play like this?

We have a right to learn…

Puppets learning

The tough spot and small world building toys were extremely popular among the children in this particular class. Some children dominated the play in this area and arguments broke out frequently. This picture was produced with the intention of opening a discussion about sharing. The children pointed out that the puppets appeared to be enjoying playing with the truck and digger together.

Puppets no longer sharing

When this next picture was shown it was clear to the children that Claude had been upset in some way. The children were asked the following questions: What do you think has happened? Do you think this is fair? How do you think Indian Brave is feeling? How do you think Claude is feeling? Is there some other way that these boys can each have a turn at playing with the digger?

Most children immediately suggested that all toys should be shared. However, it was recognised that many of these children were offering this view because they believed it to be the most acceptable to adults. Therefore, the difficulties of sharing favourite toys were considered and it was suggested to the children that they might not always feel like sharing. Other possibilities were considered, like taking turns for example. The following statement was added to the class code…

We have a right to learn so we share or take turns with the toys and equipment.

Because the children identified with the puppet characters, the pictures could be used as useful point of reference when reinforcing any rules. A display was set up showing the pictures and outlining the rights and responsibilities as discussed. If a child was unkind to someone, or caught running through the classroom, they were taken to the display and asked about what had happened to Indian Brave and Claude. This proved very powerful and children were often heard referring to the pictures in conversations between themselves, demonstrating the depth of meaning this exercise had had for them.


The Foundation Stage is a crucial time when there is the potential to either unlock creativity or stifle individuality. Children who have the ability to enquire, consider, reflect, reason, predict, evaluate and suggest creative solutions will be better equipped to succeed in a world where a job is no-longer for life, but careers are constantly evolving, demanding adaptability and a flexible approach.

Thinking skills must be introduced early and sustained individual and creative thought must continue to be encouraged throughout primary and secondary education in order for children to develop as learners and thrive in the future.


Clarke, J. (2007) Sustaining Shared Thinking. Lutterworth, Featherstone Education Ltd.

DCSF (2008) The Early Years Foundation Stage. Nottingham, DCSF Publications.

Siraj-Blatchford, I. and Sylva, K. (2004) Researching pedagogy in English pre-schools. British Educational Research Journal. Vol.30, No.5, October, pp.713-730.

Siraj-Blatchford, I., Sylva, K., Melhuish, E., Sammons, P. and Taggart, B. (2004) EPPE: Final Report. London, DfES and Institute of Education, University of London

Siraj-Blatchford, I., Sylva, K., Muttock, S., Gilden, R. and Bell, D. (2002) REPEY. Institute of Education, University of London and Department of Educational Studies, University of Oxford.