Flexible Thinking in the Early Years

Flexible Thinking

Our Boogie Mites Tutor, Liv McLennan recently attended neuroscience lectures hosted by Nursery World. In this article, Liv summarises “Flexible Thinking” that was delivered by Dr. Sara Baker, and discusses the links to Boogie Mites’ practice.

Learn how to apply the neuroscience in your setting with our Practitioner Guide To Active Music Making:

Request Practitioner Guide


Dr Sara Baker from the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge gave the second talk of the masterclass. Her talk complemented Paul Howard-Jones (read about his lecture on the Brain, Learning and the Early Years in an earlier blog post) and really delved into the concept of flexible thinking in the early years.

She made the case that flexible thinking is an incredibly important skill to possess in the 21st century. Jobs are changing rapidly, and it is tricky to predict what specific skills will be needed in 20 years. Therefore, it is better to teach for ‘flexible thinking’ – and what better place to start than the early years?! Essentially, it isn’t what children learn that’s most important, but how they learn, and this is influenced by executive functioning.

Executive functions include our working memory, inhibition, switching (e.g. multitasking) and planning and goal-setting, and the part of the brain most involved in all of these skills is the pre-frontal cortex. The development of these skills is closely related to the physical and developmental aspects of the child and the environment they find themselves in, and research has found that the role of the teacher is incredibly important in supporting this. Interaction between teacher and child was cited as the most important aspect, with guided play being a particularly successful method of teaching for ‘flexible thinking.’ Essentially, guided play is something that lies between adult-led teaching and complete free play. According to Weisberg, Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff (2013), it presents a learning goal or objective, scaffolds the environment whilst also enabling children to maintain a large degree of control over their learning. It challenges children’s thinking and encourages them to think more creatively round a problem that is presented.


So how could we do this when we make music with young children? Actually, active music-making and movement is perfect for some guided, child-led play! Lots of Boogie Mites songs combine opportunities for playing instruments in different ways, moving our bodies in different ways and some have stories to act out. These are the perfect scenarios in which to either challenge children’s thinking around working musically (such as deciding how to play a drum to get the best ‘elephant stomp’!), or using the songs as starting points for other playful opportunities (for example, building and creating a jungle environment and developing stories together based on that theme).

As Dr Baker said, it’s not what the children learn, so much as how they learn it. Children need choice and challenge to develop their flexible thinking skills, and music can provide those opportunities.


You can find out more about the science that proves that music boosts early years development in our Practitioner’s Guide to Active Music Making:

Request Practitioner Guide

You can also read more in the Neuroscience section of our About Us page.