Does Constructivism have limits?


Children as Intuitive, Self-Guided Learners

Emily Spalding

Children come with a near innate ability for learning. Intrinsic curiosities and naturally-occurring cognitive processes equip children to indicate learning needs and seek out learning opportunities. There is evidence to support that even very young children show self-driven desires for learning. When exposed to a rich and stimulating environment, provided the appropriate amount of social support, and given freedom to explore their worlds, children really are intuitive, self-guided learners.

Children possess natural curiosities about their worlds. These curiosities drive children to engage in processes of exploration, learning, and discovery (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 76, 200, 220). Across cultures, most children show an innate interest in things like the biological and physical world (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 220). Many school-age children possess an interest in things like animals, plants, building, or music. This intrigue with the biological and physical world can be seen in younger children, as well. Young infants, for example, are able to distinguish between agents and non-agents, indicating an early understanding of the biological world (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 220). Children also become able to understand and interact with the physical world at a young age. For example, as children learn the physical properties of objects, they become able to manipulate and strategically use them for things like building or making noise (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 226). Early on, there is evidence of intrinsically-motivated exploration. As a result, there is evidence of continued and progressive self-discovery, resulting in new skills and increased knowledge, throughout childhood.

One developmental theory, known as “Theory-Theory”, describes children as “scientists”. According to this theory, children have intuitive ideas about themselves, others, and the world and they use the process of scientific discovery to test those ideas (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 200-201). When children gather new data (or experiences) that cannot be explained by their current understanding of the world, they change their theory. Through the process of testing, modifying, and revising theories throughout childhood, children are eventually able to develop fairly reliable assessments (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 200-201). Children are able to use those assessments to make predictions, interpretations, and explanations about the world. One psychologist, Alison Gopnik, has done research in the area of causal learning in children. Her research lends itself to the idea of “children as scientists”. Through experimentation, Gopnik found that when children observed patterns of causality and manipulation, they were able to effectively use that information to make predictions, test predictions, and adjust predictions to get desired results (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 187-188). Because children are born with inquisitiveness about the world, and the ability to engage in scientific inquiry, even at a young age, there is support for the notion that children have the capacity to drive their own learning process.

In addition to natural curiosity driving learning, there is supporting evidence to suggest that naturally-occurring cognitive processes may also contribute to the learning process. Multiple developmental theorists have proposed that learning emerges as a result of conflict or discomfort. Jean Piaget asserted that one of the four major contributors to development is equilibration (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 157). Equilibration describes a process of balancing new and existing information. When children receive or experience information that does not match their current schemes, they experience a level of incongruity that is inherently uncomfortable (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 157). In order to restore congruity, children seek out new information, integrate new information with existing information, and alter their schemes. Lev Vygotsky also proposed a model of learning that suggests change happens as the result of discomfort (Kleinknecht, 2020a). When children are faced with a challenge, they experience tension. In response, they act and interact with their environments in order to overcome the challenge and, therefore, resolve the discomfort (Kleinknecht, 2020a). Both of these models are examples of cognitive processes that contribute to self-propelled learning. As children grow, their environments will present challenges and conflicts. Because of their natures, children will respond by seeking answers and solutions, a process that will foster learning and discovery.

Children also intuitively guide their learning through the experiences of play and social interaction. Piaget described play as the “work” of children (Kleinknecht, 2020c). Play is a critical aspect of healthy cognitive growth, as children actively learn through their play experiences (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 85). Symbolic play, or pretending, for example, allows children to learn about people, objects, and actions (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 85). Children will also often use make-believe play to “work out” their actual life experiences (Kleinknecht, 2020c). Those who engage in advanced symbolic play, as well as cooperative social play, tend to have increased cognitive skills (e.g. writing abilities) and more advanced theory of mind (e.g. understanding of others’ feelings) (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 85). In this way, children not only naturally learn, because they naturally play, but also experience tangible cognitive benefits from engaging in play. Children are able to, and do, engage in play on their own. However, children are more likely to increase learning faster through play with a more advanced partner (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 85).

Like play, children also tend to be naturally drawn to peer interaction, which is another means of intuitive learning. Through social interactions, children are able to internalize others’ language and behavior, leading to improved cognition and discovery. For example, biliteracy is strengthened through social contexts (Durán, 2018). Many bilingual children develop biliteracy without formal instruction. Those abilities are self-acquired and fostered through peer interactions (Durán, 2018).

Like their innate curiosities and cognitive processes, children’s natural modes of interacting prepare them for self-led learning. Social learning occurs when children acquire information from other people (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 401). There are many forms of social learning, some of which first develop in newborns. Mutual imitation is one of the first forms of social learning that develops. Mutual imitation is when a baby initiates a behavior, which is mimicked by the adult, which prompts the baby to continue the behavior (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 408). Later forms of social learning include emulation, which involves engaging in a behavior similar to the model with the intention of achieving the same goal (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 404). These types of learning process are innate within a child and often have an evolutionary function. Because of that, children are intrinsically motivated (by biology and reinforcements from the environment) to learn from those around them.

While it is true that children are set up for intuitive, self-guided learning, the environment is still an important factor for fostering that learning. Vygotsky proposed that infants are born with a basic starter set of mental functions, including memory, attention, perception, and sensation (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 70; Kleinknecht, 2020a). These skills are transformed into higher mental functions through experience, or socio-cultural exchanges (Kleinknecht, 2020a). This would suggest that a child’s environment would need to support their innate desire for and inclination towards learning for it to fully occur. One means of growth promotion is through more mature members of society supporting or enculturating less mature members (Kleinknecht, 2020a). Most often, this is educators or parents supporting the learning of children. When being provided with support, children learn most optimally in the “zone of proximal development”. The zone of proximal development is the difference between a child’s independent problem-solving abilities or skill level and their potential ability or skill level with the help of an adult (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 78). When attuned to the child’s ability level, adults can respond in a way that is appropriate for the child’s zone of proximal development. Scaffolding, or mediation, is one way of doing this. Scaffolding is a process of guided teaching, with progressively less support, that leads to gradual increases in learning (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 78; Kleinknecht, 2020b).

Studies have shown that being read to by a parent predicts a child’s later reading ability (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 82). When parents use scaffolding techniques around reading with their children, the children show increases in vocabulary, listening comprehension, and language skills (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 85). There is also evidence to support that children have the capacity to use and learn print language (beyond encoding and decoding) before receiving formal instruction on the topic (Durán, 2018). These ideas would suggest that while children possess intrinsic desires and capabilities to learn and will do so on their own, the processes of learning and overall learning outcomes can be supported by parents, educators, or an enriching environment.

When considering the process of development, it is important to remember that guided and self-driven learning both play a role. “Scientific learning” is encouraged learning that is shaped through systematic teaching, like a school curriculum (Durán, 2018; Kleinknecht, 2020d). “Spontaneous learning” is the learning children will do on their own through engagement with their broader environments, through observations or participation in daily activities (Durán, 2018; Kleinknecht, 2020d). While these may seem like contradictory processes, spontaneous and scientific learning are actually more complimentary than opposing. For example, independent, self-driven learning provides context and meaning to more formal instruction (Durán, 2018). Reversely, scientific learning creates awareness for spontaneous learning to take place (Durán, 2018).

Children will instinctively and continually put themselves in positions to learn from their environment. With that in mind, parents and educators have the ability to create environments designed for learning. “Tools of the Mind” is a specific preschool curriculum that is based on Vygotskian principles. This program utilizes socio-dramatic play, gradual shifts in understanding (scaffolding), and shared reading and listening (development through social collaboration) Kleinknecht, 2020b). In comparison to academically-driven preschool programs, which increase anxiety and reduced motivation, the “Tools of the Mind” program has been linked with increases in executive function and increases in motivation (Kleinknecht, 2020b). While the brain comes with a certain degree of numeracy, executive function, and memory skills, the way that one’s environment teaches them, shapes how they develop (Kleinknecht, 2020b). Because of this, it is important to consider how parents and educators approach learning.

One key to promoting learning is to find the balance between too much guidance and not enough support. Parents and educators are able to do this by being sensitive to the abilities and needs of the child and using tools like scaffolding to teach within the child’s zone of proximal development. This involves continual adjustment of the amount of support offered and the difficulty of the challenge provided. Similarly, it is crucial to follow the lead of the child. Because children are so attuned to their own needs, it is important to listen for and observe their requests for independence or assistance. It is also necessary to create ample opportunities for learning. These can be structured, “scientific” opportunities, or unstructured, “spontaneous” opportunities. A basic way to promote self-guided learning is to frequently offer choices and autonomy over daily tasks, such as deciding what to wear or making one’s own breakfast. One can also create learning opportunities by providing tangible materials that create an enriching and stimulating environment, such as crayons, building blocks, playdough, or musical instruments. Offering a child enough time for free play is also important. Unstructured time helps children build creativity, discover talents, experiment with imaginative play, and try out new areas of interest (Preschoolers need structure . . . or don’t they?, 2000). Perhaps the most essential way to support a child in their learning is to have patience. Children will experience a repeated pattern of attempt, fail, re-attempt, as they develop, discover, and learn. Being able to encourage a child throughout each step of that process is essential for promoting continued self-driven learning.

Guided by an internal drive to answer questions, resolve cognitive discomfort, and engage in meaning play, it is evident that children are capable of directing and driving their learning. The more that parents and educators are able to lean into the idea that children have the capacity to initiate and guide their learning, the better they will be able to support children in that process.


Bjorklund, D., & Causey, K. (2018). Children’s thinking (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Durán, L. (2018). Understanding young children’s everyday biliteracy: “Spontaneous” and “scientific” influences on learning. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 18(1), 71–96.

Kleinknecht, E. (2020a) Lecture on an introduction to Vygotsky, PSY 353, on 03-09-20

(2020b) Lecture on Vygotskian concepts, PSY 353, on 03-11-20

(2020c) Lecture on Piagetian concepts, PSY 353, on 04-03-20

(2020d) Lecture on folk knowledge, PSY 353, on 04-17-20

Preschoolers need structure . . . or don’t they? (2000). Retrieved April 17, 2020, from IXL Learning website: