The Importance of Fostering an Intrinsic Motivation for Learning in the Early Years

A child’s educational journey is a marathon, not a sprint. In fact, it isn’t even confined to the window between when they learn their ABC’s to the day they throw a mortarboard in the air. Learning is a lifelong journey.

However, in modern society and educational systems, learning has become synonymous with education alone. Forcing learning in to the confines of an educational system means that it’s fairly easy to learn purely because of an extrinsic motivator: assessments and exams.

Whilst this is often seen as important for academic and career success, it poses some difficulties. With learning being a marathon, not a sprint, maintaining motivation for learning due to extrinsic factors only is immensely hard in the long run. It also removes much of the pleasure and fulfilment to be gained from intrinsically driven learning.

In short, doing well (or learning) simply with the goal of reaching the next level isn’t inspiring, or motivating in the long run.

What’s particularly key is that becoming an intrinsically motivated learner from the very beginning, in the Early Years, has the ability to set the tone for the rest of an individual’s life. The most adept, fulfilled and successful learners are those who are intrinsically motivated from the very beginning.

Intrinsic versus Extrinsic Motivation

Psychologists are clear on defining intrinsic and extrinsic motivators.

Intrinsic motivation for learning is learning driven by the anticipation of internal rewards. This arises naturally, and becomes what we think of as a ‘love of learning’. Learning is satisfying for and of itself, rather than purely to meet the next target or level.

Extrinsic motivation for learning on the other hand, is a drive to learn fuelled by the next test, the next target, or because education is simply what you do. It may also be fuelled by the fear of punishment if a learner doesn’t achieve the level which those external to them say that they should.

The Power of Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation when it comes to very young children and their learning is empowering in the long term. By nurturing a child in their learning environment we can enable them to truly develop a love of learning based on fun, enjoyment and exploration. The result is a sense of satisfaction but also a quest to learn more which is powerfully driven from within the child.

This intrinsic motivation fuels learning stamina for the long-run, not confined by the short-term goals of extrinsic motivators.

So how do we foster intrinsic motivation in our youngest learners in the early years?

Intrinsic Motivation to Learn

Our very youngest learners, during the Early Years of 3 to 7 years old, are very much blank canvasses. They aren’t yet confined within an educational system rife with extrinsic motivators. If we can catch them at this point and nurture their intrinsic motivation to learn we can nurture a love of learning for the future.

These are the children who don’t find learning boring further down the line, simply because they are doing it for themselves and their own internal rewards. In order to foster intrinsic motivation we need to introduce some concepts to a young child’s learning environment:

  • Problem-Solving and Challenge: When there is a goal to solve an achievable conundrum we boost a child’s self-esteem which enables them to have confidence in their learning.
  • Interest and Curiosity: Young children are naturally curious, but if we can nurture this through piquing their curiosity further by using learning tools which they can easily relate to, and through play, then we really motivate them.
  • Self-determination: Young children are often at the mercy of others, but giving them scope to control, lead and determine some of their own learning gives them intrinsic drive.
  • Recognition: Recognising and praising success in young children is powerful for giving them the internal desire to go on.

Fostering Intrinsic Motivation in the Early Years

At its core, by fostering intrinsic motivation for learning in children as young as 3 to 7 years old, we ensure we engage them in their learning which fuels their ability to learn in the future. These are then the children who go on to achieve well, not based on extrinsic motivators such as exam grades alone, but simply because they are skilled at and motivated by learning itself.

Avery Hill Education Language Programme for Early Years and Primary uses stories with relatable characters to nurture a child’s intrinsic motivation to learn. Children engaging with the stories are able to bring self-determination to their own learning along with other intrinsic motivators such as problem-solving, creativity and curiosity. You can find out more about our programme here.

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