How Planning and Reflection Develop Young Children's Thinking Skills

Ann S. Epstein

Young children ages three to six are capable of making thoughtful decisions about their behavior and keen observations about their environment (as the vignettes at left show). Like Tatiana and Eric, they have insight into their desires, form mental images of the past and future, and attempt to explain their behavior and that of others.

Although today’s early childhood educators often focus on enhancing reading and mathematics skills to meet ever increasing academic expectations, we must also remain committed to promoting broader thinking abilities. They are the foundation upon which children learn to make decisions, regulate their own behavior, meet complex challenges, and take responsibility for their actions.

Eager to Learn: Educating Our Preschoolers, the noted National Research Council report (2000), reminds us that “key concepts involved in each domain of preschool learning must go hand in hand with information and skill acquisition” (p. 8). It cites research showing that metacognition—higher-level thinking and problem-solving skills—develops when children are encouraged to reflect, predict, question, and hypothesize. How can adults help children exercise these capabilities?

There is empirical and practical evidence that we can promote the development of thinking and reasoning in young children in the early years by providing two curriculum components—planning and reflection. Both are thoughtful activities that encourage children to consider what they are doing and what they are learning. They also promote a broad range of other academic, social, and artistic competencies. This article summarizes the research in support of these claims and offers strategies teachers and caregivers can use to encourage planning and reflection in their programs.


Planning is more than making choices. Planning is choice with intention. That is, the chooser begins with a specific goal or purpose in mind that results in the choice.

Both the accreditation criteria of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC 1998) and the Head Start Performance Standards (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2002) indicate that young children should have opportunities to plan and make choices. However, the guidelines, and in fact most early childhood programs, do not differentiate between these two activities. Planning is more than making choices. Planning is choice with intention. That is, the chooser begins with a specific goal or purpose in mind that results in the choice.

First we must differentiate real choices in which teachers offer multiple options (“What colors do you want to use in your painting?”) from pseudochoices in which teachers direct children to a limited number of adult-selected options (“Do you want to use red or blue?”) But planning goes further than selecting from open-ended choices. When we engage children in planning, we encourage them to identify their goals and consider the options for achieving them. For example, they might consider what they will do, where they will do it, what materials they will use, who they will do it with, how long it will take, and whether they will need help. Planning thus involves deciding on actions and predicting interactions, recognizing problems and proposing solutions, and anticipating consequences and reactions.

Most early childhood practitioners also recognize the importance of developing memory skills in young children. Teachers might ask children to remember something they learned earlier in the day or to recall an event that occurred earlier in the week. Reflection, however, is more than memory or a rote recitation of completed activities. Reflection is remembering with analysis.

When we engage children in reflection, we encourage them to go beyond merely reporting what they’ve done. We also help them become aware of what they learned in the process, what was interesting, how they feel about it, and what they can do to build on or extend the experience. Reflection consolidates knowledge so it can be generalized to other situations, thereby leading to further prediction and evaluation. Thus planning and reflection, when they bracket active learning, are part of an ongoing cycle of deeper thought and thoughtful application.

Supporting Research

Evidence establishing the importance of planning and reflection comes from studies conducted by the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation and other researchers. In one large national study, trained independent observers collected data on early childhood programs serving children from a wide range of socioeconomic, ethnic, linguistic, and geographic backgrounds (Epstein 1993). (The programs used many different curriculum approaches, not just the High/ Scope plan-do-review sequence.) Across all settings, children who were given more opportunities to plan and reflect on their own activities scored higher on measures of language, literacy, social skills, and overall development. Independent investigations in the United Kingdom (Sylva 1992) and the Netherlands (Veen, Roeleveld, & Leseman 2000) confirmed that when children plan, carry out, and review their own learning activities, their behavior is more purposeful and they perform better on language and other intellectual measures.

When children plan, carry out, and review their own learning activities, their behavior is more purposeful and they perform better on language and other intellectual measures. 

Using words to plan and reflect are examples of language that is decontextualized (focused on nonimmediate events), which in turn is related to later reading success (Dickinson & Smith 1994). As they help children elaborate on their plans and think back on their activities, adults add complexity to the children’s language, providing adjectives, adverbs, and new or rare words. This richness of vocabulary is also a critical component of subsequent literacy development (Snow et al. 2001).

Further, making predictions (planning) and assessing outcomes (reflection) lie at the heart of mathematical and scientific thinking. These processes are central to meeting the early childhood standards of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (2000). Planning and reflection also play a role in social problem solving. For example, effective strategies for conflict resolution encourage children to reflect on their feelings, plan alternative solutions and predict the consequences, and assess the efficacy of their ideas (Evans 2002).

Finally, studies of discipline-based art education (which emphasizes the intellectual as well as the expressive components of the arts) demonstrate the importance of these thoughtful processes as children not only make art, but also develop an appreciation for the artwork created by others (Arts Education Partnership 1998). In all these ways, the development of higher order thinking skills in young children can prepare them to master skills across multiple content areas.

Developmental Notes

Before applying the strategies that follow, bear in mind that the ability to plan and reflect develops gradually and with practice during the early childhood years. Here are two general principles that will help you apply these strategies to children ranging in age from three to six years.

  • As they grow older, children are increasingly able to form mental images that allow them to anticipate and remember objects, people, and events that are not there. Children younger than three understand the world on a concrete, physical level. They may need to look at materials to devise a plan or reimmerse themselves in a setting to recall what happened. Older children, with greater language and cognitive abilities, begin to function at a more conceptual level. They can rely on verbal and visual representations, including abstract images and printed words, to think through, carry out, and reflect on their ideas.
  • Planning and reflection become increasingly detailed as children age. Younger children devise simple plans and focus on one or two salient objects or events as they ponder their experiences. They express intentions or reactions with gestures and limited vocabularies. Older children develop multipart sequenced plans and enrich their recollections with layered explanations and hypotheses. As they plan and reflect on a daily basis, they develop the linguistic and conceptual structures that allow them to formulate and share complex thoughts.

Effective strategies for conflict resolution encourage children to reflect on their feelings, plan alternative solutions and predict the consequences, and assess the efficacy of their ideas. 

Observe the children in your program and note where they are along these developmental continua. As you generate a collection of anecdotes, you will gain an understanding of how children’s thinking develops in these intertwined areas. By adding your own observations to the examples presented on the following pages, you will be able to support and extend children’s emergent thinking skills. For more information on developmental progressions and strategies in planning and reflection with young children, see Hohmann and Weikart (2002) and Vogel (2001).

Strategics to Promote Children's Planning

Here are some strategies teachers and caregivers can use to encourage children to think about their intentions as they indicate choices and make plans throughout the day.

Strategies to Promote Reflection

Many of the strategies that support planning also apply to promoting reflection. Remember too that planning and reflection are iterative processes. Encouraging children to think about what they did enables them to use this information as they plan what they will do next.


Engaging children in planning and reflection makes them more than mere actors following prescribed roles. It turns them into artists and scientists who make things happen and create meaning for themselves and others. As you implement the strategies suggested here, you will discover that the complexity of children’s planning and reflection parallels the development of their play.

Young children play in simple ways for short periods of time. As the school year progresses, their play becomes more elaborate in its use of materials, language accompaniment, and range of social interactions. It also lasts longer and is more likely to be resumed at a later point. Similarly, children’s plans reflect the growing depth and range of their intentions. In fact, sometimes just telling the story of what they intend to do is as satisfying as actually carrying it out.

Reflection is remembering accompanied by evaluation.

Likewise, children’s ability to remember and explain what happened during play becomes increasingly intricate. Their speculations may not even be limited to what occurred during class, but may extend to related events or people at home or in other settings. Observing and tracking these changes allow teachers a window into how children think about their surroundings, the impact of their actions, and the implications of the past and present for their subsequent behavior.

The research and examples presented here show that planning and reflection are highly effective mechanisms for developing thinking skills in young children. Planning is making a choice with the added ingredient of intentionality. It incorporates a mental process that is fundamentally different from merely indicating a preference with no thought as to how the chosen item will be put to use. Reflection is remembering accompanied by evaluation. It transforms a simple exercise of memory into a thoughtful procedure that explores means-ends connections.

Planning and reflection thus involve decision making and problem solving. They encourage children to take the initiative in pursuing their interests, engendering a sense of control over the environment and one’s ability to transform it. As children make plans and review their experiences, they enhance their predictive and analytical abilities, harness self-regulatory mechanisms, and develop a sense of responsibility for themselves and the choices they make. By encouraging these twin processes— expressing intentions and evaluating actions— we can equip young children with the thinking skills they need for later schooling and adult life.


  • Arts Education Partnership. 1998. Young children and the arts: Making creative connections —A report of the Task Force on Children’s Learning and the Arts: Birth to Age Eight. Washington, DC: Author.
  • Dickinson, D.K., & M.W. Smith. 1994. Long-term effects of preschool teachers’ book reading on low-income children’s vocabulary and story comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly 29 (2): 105–22.
  • Epstein, A.S. 1993. Training for quality: Improving early childhood programs through systematic inservice training. Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope.
  • Evans, B. 2002. You can’t come to my birthday party! Conflict resolution with young children. Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope.
  • Hohmann, M., & D.P. Weikart. 2002. Educating young children: Active learning practices for preschool and child care programs. 2d ed. Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope.
  • NAEYC. 1998. Accreditation criteria and procedures of the National Associations for the Education of Young Children,1998 ed. Washington, DC: Author.
  • National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. 2000. Principles and standards for school mathematics. Reston, VA: Author.
  • National Research Council. 2000. Eager to learn: Educating our preschoolers. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
  • Snow, C.E., L.B. Resnick, G.J. Whitehurst, & J. Daniel. 2001. Speaking and listening for preschool through third grade. Washington, DC: New Standards.
  • Sylva, K. 1992. Conversations in the nursery: How they contribute to aspirations and plans. Language and Education 6 (2): 141–48.
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Head Start Bureau. 2002. Program performance standards and other regulations. Online: programs/hsb/performance/index.htm.
  • Veen, A., J. Roeleveld, & P. Leseman. 2000, January. Evaluatie van kaleidoscoop en piramide eindrapportage. SCO Kohnstaff Instituut, Universiteit van Amsterdam.
  • Vogel, N. 2001. Making the most of plan-do-review: The teacher’s idea book #5. Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope.