3 little words I am longing to hear – Thrill, Will, Skill!

Alistair Bryce-CleggBoys Learning, Child Initiated Learning, Continuous Provision, Environment11 Comments

When it comes to really effective teaching and learning in Early Years, high level engagement will give you high level attainment. But what does high level engagement look like? How is it different to high level compliance?


Well, when children are working with an adult on the carpet or in play – high  level engagement is often easy to see as a good practitioner will have children enthralled. Sometimes that will manifest itself in a ‘jazz hands and sparkles’ type delivery and sometimes with a ‘whispering and wide eyes’ routine, but either way the children are definitely highly engaged and learning.

When the children then leave the adult and move off into Continuous Provision, the engagement can often disappear and rather than explore the learning opportunities that your environment has to offer – children head straight for what they know, the often low level, but familiar ‘comfortable’ play.


That is where these 3 little words ‘thrill, will, skill‘ come into their own…

‘Without thrill there is no will to take part and without the will, how will children successfully acquire the skill?’

You have got these children (most likely boys) who every time the door is opened stampede towards the outdoor area and plant themselves on a wheeled toy or pick up a stick or make a gun.

Then, the fun really begins…Crashing, banging, hurting, destroying, fighting. You know the score.


First of all you ask nicely for more appropriate behaviour. Then you tell, nay demand better outdoor etiquette. Then you threaten confiscation of the wheeled toys and construction or compulsory eviction from the outdoor area until attitudes improve. The problem is…attitudes never do, or at least not on a long term basis. The issue isn’t really about the equipment or the behaviour itself, it is more about the reason why the children behave in the way that they do.

Some of that behaviour can be attributed to how children need to make sense of the complexities of their developing world and some of that behaviour is very much about the environments that we create and the provision that we put into them.


I work with lots of settings who resort to the ‘lock away’ method. This consists of locking away any and all wheeled toys to ‘teach children a lesson’. This is not a great solution for a number of reasons, but primarily because a lot what the children are doing is perfectly natural and normal behaviour and finding an equally satisfying alternative to crashing their scooter into a stack of milk crates is beyond their immediate control.

There are very few children in early years, especially boys, who when their favourite thing in the world is confiscated and ‘locked away’ take time for a period of reflection, inwardly examine their misdemeanor and then vow to be better citizens! They just get grumpy and find mischief elsewhere.


Part of why lots of children behave inappropriately on the wheeled toys and with weapons is because they can. What they are doing is easy in terms of skill so they ramp up the risk factor which in turn increases the thrill

If you have children who are heading for the door, the simple fact is that there is nothing – I repeat NOTHING in the rest of our provision that they find as thrilling.

Every area of provision that we create should have been placed there in response to a need that we have identified through assessment and observation.  Our provision is there to support and extend children’s learning. This could be social, it could be physical, it could be academic but it is there for a reason.



If we look at a group of children whizzing around a track at 50 miles an hour taking corners at 90 degrees, they are showing a very high level of skill and dexterity on the piece of equipment that they are using. In that respect this piece of provision is not providing challenge. The children find it easy to manipulate and that is why they like it.

Most children don’t crash into each other on the bike track because they have poor coordination and direction skills. They crash into each other because it is fun, exciting and a little bit dangerous.


It is this thrill that gives them the will to want to engage. What we need to do is capitalise on this and make sure that the provision on offer also develops their skill level.

The other reason that children can behave in this way is their very natural desire for power and control. Although we may give children a range of choices within their everyday routines, we rarely allow them full control of what they want to do and how they want to do it. Rightly so, this is because children have not yet gained the knowledge or experience that will equip them to make this sort of decisions or choice.


Through this type of ‘crash and bang’ play they get the opportunity in a controlled, safe and supportive environment to explore what is impossible and dangerous and experiencing cause and effect in relation to their actions. They can take ‘safe’ risks which will ultimately help them to take more calculated risks in the real world. They can create and explore simulated realities without having to change what is happening in their own ‘real worlds’.

So, there is a large element of physical role play (this also spans superhero and weapon play) that is a perfectly normal part of children’s social and emotional development that should be expected and supported rather than locked away.


But, there is also a large part of this type of play that is done purely because of the thrill factor. The thrill and the will are high but the skill is sadly lacking. For the solutions to this issue we don’t need to look to child development but to our own provision. Why not give your setting a ‘thrill test’?

The thrill doesn’t have to come from big physical activities. It comes from any activities with high levels of engagement. Thrill can be small and quiet as well as Ta-Dah! The one essential thing that you need to be able to provide a high level of thrill within your space, is to know your children.


Undoubtedly, when you discover a dinosaur bone in your digging pit, that fairies have moved into your outdoor area or an alien space ship has crash landed outside the window, these events will promote high levels of engagement because they are ‘an event’. But, although this type of event is great fun and hugely valuable, it would be very difficult (and impracticable) to have one of these every day.


How many times have you seen this scenario?

A bank of computers 3 boys deep. You could certainly say that you were getting the ‘thrill’ and the ‘will’ but this is another one where the ‘skill’ is often lacking. If you really observe what the children are actual doing, are they developing social skills and turn taking?(Very unlikely). Are they taking their learning forward with programmes that will extend and challenge them? (Again, unlikely). Are they engaged in low level provision thinly camouflaged as learning? Yes! probably.

What I am basically saying is that if you have gang mentality on your wheeled toys and scrums around your computers and constant confrontations in your construction while your workshop area remains void of testosterone and full of sparkly pom poms then you need to have a rethink.


Take some time and do yourself a ‘thrill, will, skill’ audit. Identify your areas of ‘thrill’ (easy) they will indicate high levels of ‘will’ and then the harder bit…Take a long hard look at the level of ‘skill’ development that is taking place and then adjust accordingly.



This is not only about children (often but not always boys) on wheeled toys it is also about children (often but not always girls) who will sit in mark making or workshop areas for long periods of time and produce beautiful pieces of work that do not challenge them in the slightest.

Regardless of their gender, find out what ‘thrills’ your children and just make sure that you use that ‘thrill’ to actively support the development of ‘skill’.





11 Comments on “3 little words I am longing to hear – Thrill, Will, Skill!”

  1. This is such a fantastic pedagogical mindset–not just for early educators but for all educators. Thank you for this post.

    I just want to note that I have read much about Thrill, Will, Skill from John Hattie and Gregory Donoghue. Most recently in, “Learning strategies: a synthesis and conceptual model (John A C Hattie & Gregory M Donoghue). Science of Learning volume1, Article number: 16013 (2016).”

    Hattie and Donoghue present a model of learning that proposes that various learning strategies are powerful at certain stages in the learning cycle. The model describes three inputs and outcomes (skill, will and thrill), success criteria, three phases of learning (surface, deep and transfer) and an acquiring and consolidation phase within each of the surface and deep phases.

    I’m citing Hattie and Donoghue in a work I’m producing right now with these ideas and it drew me to your blog post.

  2. This approach to early learning will be excellent for superheroes in reception, dinosaurs seemed to thrill girls and boys they used very sophisticated vocabulary when naming and describing dinosaurs. They even came up with an imaginary dinosaur called Roary in September who they wrote notes to. they are still referring to Roary the dinosaur especially in the outdoor area this has really encourage the boys to participate in writing activities independently which we all know can be difficult to achieve with this age group,

  3. Great post – The need to reflect on practice as the everyday norm… The central place of challenge in learning… The need for us to get behind a child’s thinking to best support them to move their learning on…
    It’s what makes the difference isn’t it… Thank you

  4. Hi, this is not related to your post but….we have your teeth!!!! We need to return Granny’s Teeth to you but there was no address with the box! Have tried e-mailing you and am wondering if the a-mail is floating around in cyber-space and not actually got to you! Nic

  5. This is a well timed post! We were having a similar discussion about bikes last week and this post puts a great plan in place.

    This week we are riding in and out of cones but we need lots of ideas to help our children think of their own to try. Looking forward to sharing skills with you all!

    Please share your ideas on Twitter with #bikeskills hash tag.

  6. As ever, thought provoking in the best possible way and we just wish it possible for you to every setting – especially ours!

    One slight reservation. Thrill. Agreed that children seek this, agreed that it leads to deep engagement, but then the ‘what next’ kicks in and escalation of all that ‘thrill’ could mean but not in a positive way.

    You mention that the ‘spectacular’ cannot be maintained on a daily basis, and I wonder if what you really want is to highlight and place emphasis on promoting self challenge for children – because I feel that providing an aptitude for this is giving a child a natural ability throughout life. But this is not easy to deliver so we all delight in your fantastic ideas!

    Thank you very much for being a great inspiration.

  7. Hi Alistsair
    I have been following you for some time and have bought lots of your books to help me in my planning and inspiration. I have just read this article and everything you say about the bikes and çomputers are so true. I work incredibly hard as an early years teacher to provide engaging activities for children, particularly boys. I feel very frustrated that I spend a considerable amount of time trying to set up scenarios that will interest children and they show little interest. Try harder I hear you say!!! Social skills, levels of concentration and listening skills have declined over the years as iPads become ever more popular. Coupled with poor resources I feel I am failing these children. I make lots of resources based on literacy and maths but need help in creating an area outside where I look and see the bikes gathering cobwebs and the computers sit idle as the children are outside playing spacemen, investigators or archiologists!! I’ve buried bones in soil when we studied dinosaurs and created a dinosaur egg that appeared in the classroom. It is exhausting trying to think of and create new ideas. Time is also limiting if teaching assistants don’t start work until 8.50 and I have been running around since 7.30 trying to make the outdoor area an area of exploration and learning. I’m seriously thinking of moving sideways in teaching to a more advisory position where I could help teachers who feel like I do. Is this why you left the classroom?

    1. Hi Jackie. It sounds like you are doing LOADS. I could actually be that you are doing too much and that is part of the problem. I certainly don’t think you should ‘try harder’ as I don’t see how you could. I think my suggestion would be ‘try differently’. No one should feel as frazzled as you sound, especially if they feel that their hard work isn’t paying off. With lots of the settings that I work with who sound a bit like you, we have stripped their practice back to basics and then built it up again reducing all of the unessential elements and focussing on the bits they feel that aren’t working. Simple things like moving towards more objective led planning and teaching and less activity based learning, more child led learning and less exclusive ‘topic’ focus have made a big difference to workload and have had an impact on attainment. I am sure that you are not failing your children, but more importantly you need to make sure that you are focussing on you too!


  8. Totally agree with you! As for the basic wheeled toys, the majority already have the skills to ‘ride’ and control them. It makes more sense to engage them in creating their ‘own’ vehicles. It doesn’t matter if they physically move or if that happens through their imagination…

  9. Alistair, thank you,
    someone who speaks my language! We are constantly being told to do this or that in our provision when we haven’t even sat down as a team and looked at what the children are actually doing, especially outside! I have been trying to level my provision inside based on your ideas and have just completed my tracking and yes the dreaded DATA! I am pleased to say I can see progress from what I have first observed, levelled and then changed with an element of challenge based on skill and interests to move the children forward!
    I attended your course in London yesterday after telling my head about you with 3 other colleagues and I can honestly say it was one of the most entertaining (especially the Jazz hands. Reference to willies, the voices, the moves, need I say more!) funny and educational courses I have ever been on! Will be hounding my head to book the other London ones on Monday!

    We had a Space Science day on Wednesday based on some of your ideas and only 1 child said “can I go outside” it was exhausting and the aftermath of tidy and cleaning was frightening but I can honestly say nearly every child met the objective of questioning what was happening in their environment!

    At the same time I was being observed, the upshot now is based on what had been observed my head wants all of our FS (4 classes) to have self service cornflour/play dough! I think you should get commission for some of your ideas as I went to order the cereal containers on Amazon and they have SOLD out!

    Sorry for rambling but again a big thank you you are such an inspiration and I hope when your booking schedule allows we can get you to pay our school a visit! You might frighten some and inspire others!
    Have a great weekend x

    1. Hi Doreen. Thanks for your comment. I am really glad that you enjoyed the training and that it made some sense! The Space day sounds like great fun – if hard work! You never know when our paths may cross in the future!


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