The Value of Intrinsic Motivation in ECE and Beyond

The Value of Intrinsic Motivation in ECE and Beyond

  1. belonging naturally; essential.
    “access to the arts is intrinsic to a high quality of life”
    synonyms: inherent, innate, inborn, congenital, connate, natural; deep-rooted, deep-seated, indelible, ineradicable, ingrained; basic, fundamental, essential; built-in

Way back during my undergraduate studies in psychology, I learned the difference between “intrinsic motivation” and “extrinsic motivation”. Intrinsic motivation involves engaging in behavior because it is personally rewarding, we simply just want to do it; while extrinsic motivation occurs when the individual is motivated to engage in an activity to earn an award or avoid punishment.

Think about all of the activities we, as adults, do that are extrinsically motivated. We work hard at our jobs to earn money or a promotion (reward) and to avoid getting fired (punishment). We pay our bills on time to avoid debt-collectors (punishment). We apply for a scholarship (reward). The list is endless. Now, what feelings or emotions come to mind while reflecting on your list of extrinsic activities…perhaps you feel guilt, shame, anger, fear, exhaustion, boredom, or annoyance.

Now, think about the activities as adults that we do that are purely intrinsically motivated; we do them because we honestly want to, no reward or threat of punishment necessary. We take a yoga class. We volunteer at a homeless shelter. We foster parent. We plant a flower garden. We do the Sunday crossword puzzle. We read a new novel. What feelings or emotions come to mind while reflecting on those intrinsic activities…happiness, relaxation, helpfulness, meditation, empathy, calm, serenity.

How about a child in an early childhood classroom? Would the child not feel the same emotions that we as adults feel for each type of motivation?

Child 1:

Child 1 attends a program where the teacher chooses a theme and the entire class completes activities around that theme. At the end of the unit, the class is awarded with a party to celebrate their success. If the child does not complete the required worksheets and craft projects they can not attend the party. Child 1’s teacher chose the theme “On The Farm” for the current unit of study. Child 1 dislikes farms; he feels they are dirty and smelly and he is afraid of animals. However, Child 1 knows that in order to attend the party, he must complete the activities that his teacher requires. He rushes through the activities in order to earn the party.

How would you feel as Child 1?

Child 2:

Child 2 attends a program that is child-led. Child 2 loves to create structures. She is fascinated by buildings. In her classroom, she has the freedom to mold clay into buildings, build block structures, and make castles in the sandbox. She even draws pictures of buildings. Her teacher wants to expand on this intrinsic motivation of creation and sets up the block area with a bunch of photographs of famous buildings. The child loves the pictures of the buildings and attempts to remake them using the materials she has at hand in the classroom. Each attempt is documented by the teacher and the student. The teacher helps the student journal about what worked and didn’t work about the structures that were created. 

How would you feel as Child 2?

Which child is learning more? The child going through the motions to earn a party or the child spending hours on her chosen activity?

Which child is happier and more content? The child going through the motions to earn a party or the child spending hours on her chosen activity?

For our young children, having an intrinsic motivation supported and expanded can help open doors to learning and understanding that parents and educators wouldn’t even dream of. Wouldn’t you love to go to school every day and work on topics that interest you? We as adults get to choose our professions, why can’t children?

Some may argue that children need to sit down and learn to write the alphabet at their desk and use teddy bear counters to learn 1-to-1 correspondence because that’s what’s expected in a public Kindergarten.

I ask you why?

It’s always been done that way.

So what?

Why can’t that same child who loves to build structures form her letters from blocks on the floor or write them with a stick in the sandbox? Why can’t she count out the number of blocks that she needs to make two walls of her building an equal height?

The value of intrinsic motivation in early childhood education can not be overlooked. In an age when many parents are expecting Kindergarten readiness at an earlier and earlier age, early childhood education is becoming more rigid and more academically focused with flashcards and worksheets and drills. Children don’t need all of those things. They need someone to spend the time getting to know them and what motivates them. Be the child’s guide and co-learner and the learning will follow naturally.

Do you incorporate child-led learning in your classroom or at home? What topics or activities is your child intrinsically motivated about? Share your comments below.


If you would like help incorporating a child-led curriculum into your programming or expanding a child’s current interests please contact Jillian at for ways that we can best assist you.


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