3 Principles of Early Learning

The principles below draw on contemporary theories and research evidence that support early childhood education practices that are focused on children’s optimal development, and encourage joyful and engaging approaches to learning in the context of Nova Scotia’s Learning Goals for children from birth to eight years old.

These principles reflect what we know about how young children learn and develop. They are relevant to children of all abilities and cultural backgrounds, and may be applied to all types of educator programs and settings. Nova Scotia’s principles of early learning include:

  • Play-based Learning
  • Relationships
  • Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity
  • Learning Environments
  • Reflective Practice

Play-based learning

Research on the brain demonstrates that play is a scaffold for development, a vehicle for increasing neural structures, and a means by which all children practice skills they will need in later life.[1]

In July 2012, the Council of Ministers of Education Canada unanimously endorsed the importance of play-based learning for children. Citing evidence on the importance of play, the Ministers agreed that:

When children are manipulating objects, acting out roles, or experimenting with different materials, they are engaged in learning through play. Play allows them to actively construct, challenge, and expand their own understandings through making connections to prior experiences, thereby opening the door to new learning. Intentional play-based learning enables children to investigate, ask questions, solve problems, and engage in critical thinking. Play is responsive to each child’s unique learning style and capitalizes on his or her innate curiosity and creativity. Play-based learning supports growth in the language and culture of children and their families. [2]

Play provides opportunities for children to learn as they discover, create, improvise, and imagine. When children play together, they create social groups, test out ideas, challenge each other’s thinking, and build new understandings. In play, children also experiment with the world, discover how things work, and learn to interact with others. Play provides a context for learning that is freely chosen by the child, and allows for the expression of personality and individuality. Educators understand that when they observe and document children’s play, they discover children’s interests and abilities, and assess their development and learning.

Play promotes positive dispositions toward learning, by providing supportive environments where children:

  • build competencies in all areas of development
  • ask questions
  • solve problems
  • expand their reasoning skills and engage in critical thinking
  • build language and communication
  • negotiate with others
  • resolve conflicts
  • enhance their desire to know and to learn

Educators take on many roles when playing with children and use a range of strategies to support learning. They engage in sustained shared conversations with children to extend their thinking. Educators provide a balance between child-led and child-initiated, and educatorled and educator-supported learning. They create learning environments that encourage children to explore, solve problems, create, and construct. Consistent routines and carefully planned play experiences allow educators to interact with infants and children, demonstrate commitment to them, and create attachment bonds. Educators also recognize spontaneous moments as they occur, and use them to build on children’s learning. Educators work with children to promote and model positive ways to relate to others, and actively support the inclusion of all children in play, help children recognize when play is unfair, and offer constructive ways to build caring, fair, and inclusive learning communities.

Educators know that play:

  • encourages curiosity and creativity
  • helps children connect prior experiences and new learning
  • engages children in the development of many types of skills
  • allows children to develop genuine relationships and friendships
  • promotes the development of language, reasoning, and different styles of communication
  • stimulates a sense of well-being

Play also enhances the development of self-regulation by encouraging children to consider the perspectives of others, take on different roles, and learn to negotiate during times of disagreement.

Children’s play develops and increases in complexity as children grow and mature. Infants play when they engage in back and forth interactions with other children and adults. As children develop, their increased motor control and eye-hand coordination allows them to touch, listen to, and taste objects. Learning to eat is a sensory experience, as babies play with their food to learn how it tastes, feels on their skin, and spreads or rolls.

Children move through different types of play in how they interact with others, from solitary, to parallel, to cooperative play. Literature on the concept of children’s play identifies many different types of play, such as:

  • socio-dramatic play
  • active play
  • pretend or fantasy play
  • rough and tumble play

By their early school years, children are better able to control their own behaviour and emotions, and play may become complex and sophisticated. At this age, play often involves games with rules.

Children’s play is rich in its complexity. When children are engaged in play, and especially in socio-dramatic pretend play, they are creating their own meaningful fantasy worlds. During this type of play, children are able to re-construct and test out theories or concepts in a secure, safe manner where the child is in control of the situation. By assuming various roles and responsibilities in the play activity, the child is able to integrate the learning that comes from reviewing and re-thinking the experience.

Complex socio-dramatic play gives children opportunities for language development, conflict resolution, negotiation skills, social skills, problem solving, inquiry based learning, logic and reason, and opportunities to explore emotional responses to experiences. The ability to converse, explain, and think in stories helps children to develop the foundation for reading comprehension and indirectly prepares children for social studies, history, and an appreciation for literature.[3]

Based on their observations about how children choose and construct their own play activities, it is the responsibility of the educator to construct and adapt indoor and outdoor environments with the intention of preparing them for children’s joyful learning. The educator’s role is to scaffold children’s learning—to expand on children’s curiosity and questions, deepen their understanding, encourage their explorations, and challenge their skills—by introducing new elements to the play-based learning environments.

You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than you can in a year of conversation.



Educators who are responsive to children’s thoughts and feelings help children to develop a strong sense of well-being. They positively interact with young children in their learning and development. Research has shown that infants are both vulnerable and competent. Their first attachments within their families and other trusting relationships form the foundation for emotional development, and provide them with a secure base for exploration and learning.[4]

Peers play important roles in children’s lives at much earlier points in development than we might have thought. Experiences in the first two or three years of life have implications for children’s acceptance by their classmates in nursery school and the later school years. Children who are competent with peers at an early age, and those who show prosocial behaviour, are particularly likely to be accepted by their peers. (Hay 2005, 3)

Widening networks of secure relationships helps children develop confidence and feel respected and valued. They become increasingly able to recognize and respect the feelings of others and to interact positively with them. By their early school years, children are better able to manage their behaviours and emotions, and engage in more complex play with their peers.

Educators who prioritize nurturing relationships and provide children with consistent emotional support will support children to develop the skills, understanding, and confidence they need to interact positively with others. They also help children to learn about their responsibilities to others, to appreciate their connections and interdependence as individuals, and to value collaboration and teamwork.

Children’s learning and development are enhanced when educators value families as children’s first and most influential teachers. An important part of the educator’s role is to establish respectful relationships with parents and work in partnership with families.

Educators create welcoming environments for all children and families where they are respected and actively encouraged to collaborate on curriculum decisions, ensuring that learning experiences are meaningful. In school-age child care settings, educators recognize the unique role they play in being a link between schools and families, and the importance of those partnerships.

Partnerships with families are based understanding each other’s expectations and attitudes. They build on the strength and trust of each other’s knowledge. Together, families and educators:

  • value each other’s knowledge of each child
  • value each other’s contributions to and roles in each child’s life
  • communicate freely and respectfully with each other
  • share insights and perspectives, including information about child development
  • engage in shared decision-making

The partnerships between educators in school-age programs and teachers in elementary school ensure smooth transitions from one setting to the other. These partnerships depend on respect, confidential communication, and sharing of information and insights. Partnerships also involve educators, families, and support professionals working together to explore the learning potential in everyday events, routines, and play. This approach means that children with additional needs, including those that are most vulnerable due to developmental, social, economic, cultural, or linguistic challenges, are provided with daily opportunities to actively engage in early childhood education programs.

Inclusion, diversity, and equity

Educators recognize that each child’s social, cultural, and linguistic diversity, including learning styles, abilities, disabilities, gender, family circumstances, and geographic location, are important considerations to be factored into the implementation of the framework. The intent is to ensure that all children’s experiences are recognized and valued; that all children have equitable access to resources and participation, and that all children have opportunities to demonstrate their learning and learn to value differences.

There is a consensus in the literature regarding the benefits of inclusive practice in programs for children[5]. In addition to the benefits of early intervention for children with developmental challenges who may need additional support, there is general recognition that there are similar benefits for all children who participate in the program. Whitty[6] noted that all children participating in inclusive programs have opportunities to, “…a) learn empathy and sympathy for self and others; b) develop an understanding of and respect for diversity and acquire a positive regard for each other; and c) raise questions and act to change unfair practices.”[7]

Early childhood education programs rich in cultural diversity help children develop broader language skills, increase their cultural awareness, and build respect and appreciation for differences. Culturally diverse programs celebrate similarities as well as differences, and help build a sense of connection with the child’s community. The framework is founded on a commitment to inclusive early childhood education practices, and considers inclusive practice to be a core element of high-quality early childhood education. The concepts of inclusive practice and appreciation for diversity are further embedded in the framework (e.g., learning environment).

Respect for diversity

There are many ways of living, being, and knowing. Children are born belonging to a culture, which is not only influenced by traditional practices, heritage, and ancestral knowledge, but also by experiences, values, and beliefs of individual families and communities. Respecting diversity within the framework means valuing and reflecting the practices, values, and beliefs of families.

Educators honour the histories, cultures, languages, and structures and traditions of families. They value children’s different capacities and abilities and have respect for children’s families. Educators recognize that diversity contributes to the richness of our society. When educators respect the diversity of families and communities and the aspirations they hold for children they foster children’s motivation to learn and reinforce children’s sense of themselves as competent learners. Educators design early learning environments that uphold children’s rights to have their cultures, identities, abilities, interests, and strengths acknowledged and valued. They provide opportunities for children to learn about similarities, differences and interdependence, and ways in how we can learn to live together.

Gender-based diversity

As our understanding of gender evolves, it is important that educators create early learning environments that are gender inclusive, and that they avoid making gender-based assumptions about children and how they play. Seeing a child as capable and full of potential also means trusting their choices when it comes to toys, play, self-identification, and expression. In the early years, children may be observed to begin to develop a sense of gender identity, a sense of gender that may or may not match with the child’s biological sex. As well, children in the early years may begin to express their gender identity (gender expression) through their appearance, dress, and behaviour. There are children who do not identify with their assigned sex, or with their assigned or expected gender roles. There are children who have different cultural or familial understandings of gender and how it impacts their own social contexts. All of these children need and deserve a place in the learning environment to be themselves.


Educators who are committed to equity believe in all children’s capacities to succeed, regardless of their life circumstances and abilities. Children progress well when they, their families, and their educators hold high expectations for their learning, and have appropriate and timely supports as required.

Educators recognize and strategize how to remove barriers to positive outcomes and optimal development for children. They challenge practices that contribute to inequities and make pedagogical decisions that promote inclusion and participation of all children. By developing their professional knowledge and skills, and working in partnership with children, families, communities, other services, and agencies, educators continually strive to find equitable and effective ways to ensure that all children experience learning opportunities.

Learning Environments

Learning environments are welcoming spaces when they reflect and enrich the lives and identities of children and families participating in the program and respond to their interests and needs. Environments that support learning are vibrant and flexible spaces, and are responsive to the interests and abilities of each child. Environments include the design of the physical space (indoor and outdoor), the furniture, materials available for children within those spaces, and the time (schedules and routines) allowed for children to freely explore, extend their play, and sustain their learning activities.

The early learning environment has been identified by a number of early childhood education proponents as a key feature in children’s learning, such as Loris Malaguzzi and Maria Montessori.

Loris Malaguzzi was the founder and director of the renowned municipal preschools of Reggio Emilia, Italy, and defined the environment as the third teacher. In Reggio Emilia schools, the environment is well-planned, flexible, and has the potential to, “…shape a child’s identity as a powerful player in his or her own life and the lives of others.”[8]

Maria Montessori described the importance of the “prepared environment”, where both the educators and the child influenced and were influenced by the learning environment. The role of the educator is to observe children’s interaction with the environment, and continually modify the learning environment based on those observations.

Outdoor learning spaces are an important feature of children’s learning environments. They offer a vast array of possibilities not available indoors. Play spaces in natural environments include plants, trees, edible gardens, sand, rocks, mud, water, and other elements from nature. These spaces invite open-ended interactions, spontaneity, risk-taking, exploration, discovery, and connection with nature. They foster an appreciation of the natural environment, develop environmental awareness, and provide a platform for ongoing environmental education.

Indoor and outdoor environments support all aspects of children’s learning and invite conversations between children, educators, families, and the broader community. They promote opportunities for sustained shared thinking and collaborative learning.

Learning materials enhance learning when they are easily found in nature, such as sticks, rocks, and leaves, and familiar, while at the same time introducing novelty to provoke interest and more complex and increasingly abstract thinking. For example, the use of “loose parts” (materials that can be moved, taken apart, lined up, and put back together in multiple ways) encourage creativity and open-ended learning. Environments and resources can also highlight responsibilities to create a sustainable future and promote children’s understanding about their own responsibility to care for the environment. These environments foster hope, wonder, and knowledge about the natural world.

Educators also encourage children and families to contribute their own ideas about the learning environment. They can support engagement by allowing time for meaningful interactions, providing a range of opportunities for individual and shared experiences, and finding opportunities for children to contribute to their local community.

Reflective practice

Stand aside for a while and leave room for learning, observe carefully what children do, and then, if you have understood well, perhaps teaching will be different from before. —Loris Malaguzzi

Educators continually seek ways to build their professional knowledge and share their insights with colleagues in various types of learning communities. They are co-learners with 33 children, families, communities, and other educators in early childhood education and schoolbased settings.

Reflective practice is a form of ongoing learning that involves engaging with questions of philosophy, ethics, and practice. Through their own reflective practice, educators gather information and gain insights that support, inform, and enrich decision-making about children’s learning. As professionals, they examine what happens in their programs, and reflect on what works well and on what they might change.

Reflective practice is not necessarily something that is done by educators, alone. There is some evidence that reflective practice is more likely to lead to change if it is undertaken as an exercise with others. This type of professional collaboration requires trust among educators; reflection not only enriches educators’ practices, but builds a culture of respect among all who are involved in children’s lives.

The importance of reflective practice by educators working in early learning environments has been emphasized in almost every early learning curriculum framework developed over the past 20 years, across Canada, and around the world. While many cite Donald Schön’s The Reflective Practitioner (1983) as the beginning of a renewed focus on reflective practice in education (as well as other professions), educational and developmental theorists have long promoted a reflective approach, including John Dewey and Jean Piaget. In fact, the theory of reflective practice goes back to Buddhist teachings, Plato, and Socrates.

Research tells us that educators who regularly reflect on what they do, why they do it and how this new knowledge can be used to improve their practice achieve the best outcomes for children and families. [9]

Reflective practice also contributes to professional learning for adults. Through it, educators are able to identify topics for further exploration in ongoing professional lines of inquiry. These topics may be pursued through individual study, professional development for staff at individual early childhood education programs, or may be brought forward to professional organizations for inclusion in regional or provincial strategies for ongoing education for the early childhood education sector.

Reflective practice underpins intentional teaching. Schön identified three types of reflective practice: reflection-in-action, reflection-on-action, and reflection-for-action.

Reflection-in-action occurs naturally and continually during the day with children. When an educator spots a three-year-old climbing to the top of the slide, reflection-in-action considers whether the child has ever done this before, or whether the educator should move closer to the slide.

Reflection-on-action occurs after the fact, when educators reflect on the activities and interactions of the day, and question whether a situation may have been handled differently, or what new insights were gained as a result of children’s interactions with each other or with adults. Such reflection can be done alone, or in conversation with other educators. Educators working in school-age programs may engage in this type of reflection with other school personnel.

Reflection-for-action describes critical reflection, which involves closely examining all aspects of events and experiences from different perspectives. Educators often frame their reflective practice within a set of overarching questions, developing more specific questions for specific areas of inquiry. Critical reflection considers the educator’s Image of the Child and the values they hold, which are framed against the present set of experiences and circumstances, with an eye toward future changes or actions.

A lively culture of professional inquiry is established when educators and those with whom they work—including those in the school system—are involved in an ongoing cycle of review, examining current practices, reviewing outcomes, and generating new ideas. In this climate, broad issues relating to curriculum, quality, equity, and children’s well-being can be raised, explored, and debated.

Overarching questions that can be used to guide critical reflection may include:

  • What personal and professional values influence my Image of the Child?
  • What is my understanding of each child?
  • What theories, philosophies and understandings shape and assist my work?
  • Who is advantaged when I work in this way? Who is disadvantaged?
  • What questions do I have about my work? What am I challenged by? How can I meet those challenges?
  • What am I curious about? What am I confronted by?
  • What can I do as an educator to expand this child’s experience and development?
  • Are there other theories or knowledge that could help me to understand better what I have observed or experienced? What are they? How might those theories and that knowledge affect my practice? Who else do I need to talk to?


Content copied from pages 25-34 in Capable, Confident, and Curious: Nova Scotia’s Early Learning Curriculum Framework

Province of Nova Scotia Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. (2018). Capable, Confident, and Curious: Nova Scotia’s Early Learning Curriculum Framework. https://www.ednet.ns.ca/docs/nselcurriculumframework.pdf

  1. Association for Childhood Education International. Play: Essential for All Children—A Position Paper of the Association for Childhood Education International. Olney, Maryland: Association for Childhood Education International
  2. Council of Ministers of Education Canada. (2012). Early Learning and Development Framework. Toronto, ON: CMEC Early Learning Working Group
  3. Flanagan, K. (2012). PEI Early Learning Framework—Relationships, Environments, Experiences (p.17). Charlottetown: PEI: Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. www.princeedwardisland.ca/sites/default/files/publications/eecd_eyfrwrk_full.pdf
  4. Community Child Care Victoria. (2011). Responding to the Needs of Babies and Toddlers. Australia: Community Child Care. www.gowrievictoria.org.au .
  5. Lero, D. (2010). Assessing Inclusion Quality in Early Learning and Child Care in Canada with the SpeciaLink Child Care Inclusion Practices Profile and Principles Scale: A Report Prepared for the Canadian Council on Learning. Sydney, NS: SpeciaLink—The National Centre for Child Care Inclusion. www.specialinkcanada.org/about/pdf/SpeciaLink%20Research%20Report%20
  6. Whitty, P. (2008). Culture and Diversity in Early Learning and Care. Early Learning and Child Care Foundational Papers. Fredericton, NB: University of New Brunswick
  7. Ibid.
  8. Biermeier, M. (2015, November). Inspired by Reggio Emilia: Emergent Curriculum in Relationship-Driven Learning Environments. Young Children. Washington DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children
  9. MacNaughton 2005; Sylva et al. 2004; Siraj-Blatchford et al. 2008; Raban et al. 2007, as quoted in Marbina, L., Church, A., and C. Tayler. (2010). Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework: Evidence Paper. Practice Principle 8: Reflective Practice. Melbourne, Australia: University of Melbourne Graduate School of Education.


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