How to Use Provocations and the Reggio Emilia approach in the Early Years

How To Use Provocations And The Reggio Emilia Approach In The Early Years

This is a blog post written by experienced EYFS leader Sophie Pickles.

The term ‘provocation’ is being increasingly used in Early Settings and with home educators across the country. At Mrs Mactivity, we are passionate about learning through play and we have been exploring what a provocation is, where the phrase first began and why you should be using them with your children…

What is a Provocation?

A provocation is simply an activity or stimulus set up to provoke thought, curiosity, exploration and conversation. Provocations come in many forms depending on the stimulus and required outcome, but they are all created with these purposes in mind. These invitations to play are usually set up to help children expand upon an expressed interest, thought or idea, although may occasionally stem from the necessity to practice skills or consolidate learning.

Reggio Emilia approach planning

The term ‘provocation’ has arisen from the Reggio-Emilia approach to learning and child-led education and is an important aspect of all Reggio-Emilia inspired settings (although you certainly don’t have to be a Reggio setting to use the idea). Reggio-Emilia educators believe in allowing children the freedom and autonomy to explore their ideas and lead the direction of their learning. Setting up provocations allows these children to think independently, problem solve and explore their interests without being guided in a specific direction by an adult.

The role of an adult in the world of provocation play is simple – recognise the children’s interests, set up an appropriate stimulus and then stand back and observe as the children explore and ask questions. Adults may decide to become involved in the play themselves, often testing theories or wondering out loud (and the children will often happily join in), but it is important that the adult does not try to lead the learning with a specific outcome in mind. Leading learning in this way, while it may feel reassuring to the adult, will undoubtedly greatly narrow the potential opportunities and outcomes. Instead, using your observations of the children, alongside your understanding of the Early Years Outcomes and Characteristics of Effective Learning will mean that development is recorded but never limited.

Setting up a Provocation

The philosophy behind provocations encourages us to set up activities that are beautiful and inviting. If it looks like something youwould want to play with, so will the children! Remember that this is simply an invitation to explore and investigate, so try to avoid setting up the activity with a pre-determined outcome in mind (instead imagine all the potential outcomes and opportunities!). The children should lead the learning, with the adults there to support and scaffold play and development opportunities.

With this in mind, try to gather beautiful and interesting containers to display resources and stimuli. Trays and bowls with various compartments are a brilliant tool to encourage natural sorting and categorisation. Providing baskets with handles will make it easier for children to gather and transport any loose parts. Empty jars or tins make the perfect storage vessels for tools like pencils, paintbrushes or magnifying glasses.

Reggio Emilia planning ideas

Try to keep your provocation simple but beautiful and avoid overcrowding the work area, especially with irrelevant or surplus resources.

Not sure where to start? That’s where we come in! As luck would have it, we have provided a series of Early Years Provocations that aim to “provoke” thought, creativity, play and more, inspired by the Reggio Emilia approach. We have also provided key questions, prompts, supplies list, set up instructions, photos, and links to Early Learning Goals and Early Years Outcomes.

Our Early Years provocations can be used with any flat surface or tuff spot tray – we have used the word “plan” to describe these resources, though of course they should be personalised around each setting and should be used very much in a child led way, with the supplies that you already have in your setting or in the natural environment nearby.

For ease, we have divided our Early Years Provocations into short, easy to read versions, and longer more detailed versions – useful for anyone new to this approach to learning.

Early Years Provocation Plan - Weighing
Early Years Provocation Plan – Weighing

Our provocation plans have been carefully designed to ensure that children get the most out of each learning opportunity, while providing adults with simple-to-follow instructions on set-up, key vocabulary and links to the Early Years Curriculum.

While each plan comes with suggested links to relevant areas of development (maths, phonics, physical development etc), all our provocations will provide the opportunity for children to explore and develop in almost every area of the curriculum at any given time.

And all of these provocations are also available as one page versions here too – for at a glance set up when you’re in a rush.

Tuff Spot Tray Transient Art Provocation - Short Plan
Tuff Spot Tray Transient Art Provocation – Short Plan

Have a go – you’ve nothing to lose, and your children will love their new tuff spot trays and learning stimuli.

Child led play planning

Explore our Early Years Tuff Spot Provocations here.


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We love how @primarypurposefulplay  has used our alphabet road tracing activity!