Nurturing the Caterpillar: Ten Characteristics of Young Learners

Steven LevyThe CACE Roundtable, The Teachers' Lounge3 Comments

Image of girl studying a caterpillar

A few years ago I worked with a wonderful group of educators at EL Education to craft the Characteristics of Primary Learners. These descriptors reflect the educational values and practices of EL. I believe that these characteristics are true and thus represent God’s truth, whether acknowledged or not. As Christian Deeper Learners (CDL), we have reframed them to reflect a deeper understanding of who we are–people made in the image of the Creator to worship God and minister the love of Christ to a broken world.

Characteristics of Primary Learners

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.Ephesians 2:10

Yes, we are God’s handiwork, masterpiece, poetry even. But in God’s wisdom, we do not emerge onto the world-stage ready to serve as stewards. We are born as helpless infants. In a gradual way, we learn to engage with creation, sometimes with significant leaps of understanding and depths of relationship. Our needs in the early years are fundamentally different from those of adults. The way we perceive the world, make meaning of our experience, and express our unique gifts all move gradually towards those “works which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Our lives unfold more like the metamorphosis of the butterfly than a linear progression of days.

We wouldn’t feed the caterpillar the same food as the butterfly. This document highlights the unique characteristics of young learners—their ways of thinking and engaging with the world, their remarkable curiosity for learning about God through creation, and their love through relationship. Each of these characteristics arises from being made in the image of God and is confirmed by developmental psychologists and educators (e.g. Lev Vygotsky, Maria Montessori, and Jean Piaget), peer-reviewed research, and the experience of primary educators.

Each section below names a quality of primary learners that should guide curriculum design, instructional practice, and overall culture in our primary classrooms. The end goal is to invite our young ones into God’s story, nurture them to discover who they are in it, and equip them to play their unique role.

1. Young children find security in rhythm, ritual, and repetition.

Try to explain to the four- or five-year-old a “tomorrow,” or a “yesterday,” or even to wait until “later.” For the child time is “now!”

Rod Burton

The entire universe vibrates with rhythm. The orbiting of the stars and planets, the undulations of oceanic tides, and the fundamental pulsing of our breath and hearts all bear witness to the reliable rhythms at the center of creation. Primary students experience the flow of time in the rhythms of the day, the week, and the year. They do not relate to the abstract symbol of hands on a clock to know “when” they are. Children also love the predictability of repeating stories, songs, and activities. They delight in the rhymes, meters, and alliterations of language. A feeling of order and independence is established in the patterns of their schedule. They feel a sense of security and control as they live through the recurring rhythms of the school day, anticipate the rituals of the week, and celebrate the annual traditions of the year.

2. Young children learn through play.

Play is the highest form of research.

Albert Einstein

Primary students are masters of play. They are at an age where learning capacity and brain development are at their peak, and God has given them the drive to maximize that power with the Creator’s best learning tool–play. It is no surprise that children prefer acting and interacting to listening passively. It’s how they are designed. Play is the context within which primary students can develop vital skills such as complex decision-making, leadership, and collaboration. They develop representational thinking through imagination: a rag on a stick becomes a flag, just as a set of squiggles on a page stands for a word. Play encourages children to create and narrate their own worlds, grapple with the challenges most urgent to them, and gain experience negotiating alliances, roles, and strategies with their peers. Encouraging play in the classroom and strategically harnessing its power for specific learning purposes allows for authentic engagement and deep learning opportunities for our youngest students.

3. Young children want to belong to a community that is safe, beautiful, and good.

In the early childhood class, the art of education is the art of living.

Susan Howard

God created us with a desire to belong, to feel safe and protected, to “dwell in the shelter of the Most High . . . abide in the shadow of the almighty” (Ps 91:1). More important than any curriculum or instruction is establishing a culture of love, warmth, and beauty. Children are keen observers of the environment and of adult behavior: what they see when they walk into the classroom, how they are greeted by their teacher and classmates, and how they perceive social interactions all have a profound effect on their sense of belonging (Howard, 2006). A strong relationship with an adult in the classroom is especially critical for young students to feel safe. The teacher’s love, care, and thoughtfulness are evident in the organization of the classroom, the display of meaningful student work, and the quality of the materials for expression, learning, and play. Classroom communities celebrating acts of kindness and respectfully resolving conflict reinforce a sense of justice and mercy. Singing and dancing together create a language of unity that young children understand–a sense of safety in a community that is greater than any individual member, a foretaste of membership in the body of Christ.

4. Young children explore the world with wonder.

Look among the nations! Observe! Be astonished! Wonder! Because I am doing something in your days– You would not believe if you were told.

Habakkuk 1:5 (applied out of context, but I couldn’t resist!)

Wonder lies at the heart of what it means to be human. Younger learners see the world with fresh eyes, more like Adam and Eve must have seen it than we with our jaded perspectives. Children are always asking questions, not to annoy or interrupt, but to pursue the God-given drive to learn. As they hunger to discover, to make meaning of the world around them, they develop hypotheses , test them, and use new information to modify their theories over time, building the foundations for logical reasoning. When wonder is the substance of their relentless curiosity, knowledge is transformedinto gratitude and deep meaning. Inspiring questions with wonder rather than informing with facts and formulas is one of the primary teacher’s greatest challenges.

5. Young children discover the world first through their bodies.

Much more of the brain is devoted to movement than to language. Language is only a little thing sitting on top of this huge ocean of movement.

Oliver Sacks

Children are born to move. They explore the world with their bodies, particularly their senses, before they process it with their minds. They learn best when their bodies are fully engaged. Because of busy family schedules, limited access to the outdoors, and the allure of electronic devices, children need opportunities to develop their physical senses–the five we all know, plus others such as balance and proprioception (the sense of one’s body in space). Occupational therapy researchers have documented the strong connections between sensory development and academic success (Flanagan, 2009). Cognitive skills and literacy are built on a foundation of sensory integration. Primary teachers find ways to develop the senses through playful movement, linking learning with physical activity. They invite children to explore complex concepts first through movement, then through feelings, and finally in thought.

6. Young children seek independence and mastery.

Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.

Maria Montessori

Primary learners seek to assert the power God has given to them as they gain control over their own bodies and influence the world around them. They take great pride in accomplishing independent tasks–tying their shoes, building a tower, or caring for seedlings. They long for challenging, meaningful, authentic work. When they find it, they engage with perseverance, craftsmanship, and purpose. They delight in sharing and celebrating their accomplishments with others through speaking, writing/dictation, art, music, or drama. When teachers take children’s work seriously and design environments and activities that promote autonomy and mastery, they allow their students to take ownership of their learning. Children develop a sense of their own efficacy, confidence, and usefulness—a belief that they can contribute to God’s story.

7. Young children thrive in the natural world

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.

Psalm 19:1-3

Children experience order, beauty, diversity and interdependence in God’s world. The outdoors beckons them with an endless variety of flowers, trees, and fascinating creatures. Nature offers opportunities for the pre-literacy skills of close observation and detailed questioning. Students experience risk-taking adventure, from holding an earthworm to conquering a big hillside, and evaluate risk as they grapple with success and failure. Can I climb that tree? Can I jump over that stump? Spending time in the outdoors creates a context for self-discovery. It fosters a sense of belonging to something greater than oneself and participation in the interdependent web of life. God’s creation inspires reverence and wonder, an essential foundation for learning. Through it we behold his majesty, wisdom, and power. Bringing nature indoors and children outdoors fills important developmental, human, and spiritual needs.

8. Young children use stories to construct meaning

Jesus spoke all these things to the crowds in parables. He did not tell them anything without using a parable.

Matthew 13:34

In the oral culture of young children, stories provide the cognitive structure to explore big ideas and express deep emotions. Telling their own stories helps children to organize and sequence information, and communicate their thoughts and feelings – from the simple tale of what happened on the playground to the complex explanation of why it rains. Narrative development in the primary years is a strong predictor of success in reading and writing (Snow, Burns, and Griffin, 1998). Children also develop moral imagination through the feelings generated by Biblical stories, classic fairy tales, and legends from around the world–a love for what is good and beautiful, empathy for the oppressed, loathing of the bully and the cheater. Children readily understand content when it is organized into story form. Primary students learn vocabulary and syntax through stories, and create foundational schemas of organization, sequence, and causation. Their memory is stimulated by rhythm, rhyme, and repetition. Imagination is developed as children create vivid images of story settings and characters. When Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables, he always connected the familiar (what they knew from their own experience as farmers, shepherds, carpenters, fishermen) to the divine wisdom of God. Story and metaphor clothe abstract concepts in developmentally appropriate language, enabling students to explore big ideas and make meaning from their experience.

9. Young children seek patterns in the world around them.

I [Wisdom] was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep, when he gave the sea its boundary so the waters would not overstep his command, and when he marked out the foundations of the earth.

Proverbs 8:27-29

The template of creation is mapped by Wisdom, imbued with patterns in all dimensions of life – from the smallest organism to the universal macrocosm. Patterns are apparent in the rhythms of time, the order of space, the way things are displayed. They provide a sense of predictability, belonging, security. Primary students search for patterns in everything they observe. Seeking order in their surroundings, they notice the angles in a brick walkway or the flowers that can be made from diamond-shaped play tiles. They sort and quantify and measure nearly everything around them–announcing the height of a block tower, separating the colors in a bag of M&Ms, comparing the size of their brownie to a sibling’s, or counting the number of caterpillars fallen from the playground tree. Learning to communicate mathematical ideas visually and verbally is an inherently exciting challenge. Similarly, finding order in the structure of words and language delights young learners. They discover letters of their names in street signs, notice refrains in songs, and mimic patterns of rhyme and alliteration in poetry and prose. Listening for and affirming pattern discoveries and helping students to name, create, and manipulate patterns is a key part of apprehending the God of order and surprise.

10. Young children learn by imitation.

Be imitators of me as I am of Christ.

1 Cor. 11:1

Young children learn what really matters, what is sacred, what is pleasing to God by seeing what their teachers value. You teach through who you are. They observe our behavior–what excites us, what brings us joy, what humbles us to repentance. They discern the difference between “moralizing” and speaking truth from our authentic souls. The inner life of the teacher is as important as our actions in communicating what it means to play one’s role in God’s story: For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of” (Luke 6:45). Young children intuit the heart. They look to adults to model the skills and attitudes required to find their role, imitating and practicing what they observe through pretend as well as “real” work and play. How teachers embrace the unique gifts and distinct cultural backgrounds of students creates a solid foundation for developing their identity as members of the Body of Christ. Because children develop at different rates, skilled primary teachers find ways to affirm the gifts of each of their students, to celebrate diversity, and to encourage inclusion as they model playing their own role in God’s story.


In some cases, the needs of primary students are no different from those of any age–the need to belong, to express themselves, to engage in  meaningful work, to worship God. But children, in particular, need educators who understand who they are and how they learn best. The caterpillar requires different nourishment than the butterfly. By paying attention to primary students’ distinctive developmental strengths, we are able to nurture their character, imagination, identity, and desires, equipping all students to find their unique role in God’s story.

References can be found here.


  • Steven Levy

    After 28 years teaching in classrooms K-12, Steven Levy ( is now an educational consultant, working independently and with EL Education. He guides teachers in designing service-based curriculum, engaging instructional practices, student owned assessments, and character development. He was recognized as the Massachusetts State Teacher of the Year (1993), and honored by the Disney American Teacher Awards as the national Outstanding General Elementary Teacher (1995). Mr. Levy was the recipient of the Joe Oakey Award for his national impact on project-based learning, and received the John F. Kennedy Prize for the teaching of history. Mr. Levy and his fourth grade students were designated “Conservation Heroes” by the National Park Service for their study of the effects of a local bike path on the environment and the community. Mr. Levy has written various articles for educational journals, and his book, Starting From Scratch (Heinemann, 1996), details some of the projects and students he has worked with in his elementary classrooms.

3 Comments on “Nurturing the Caterpillar: Ten Characteristics of Young Learners”

  1. Your article is so very timely for me and my students. I have requested and granted the ability to open an outdoor classroom for my Jr. Kindergarten students. It is truly a work in progress but we are finding all those mind, body and spiritual developments you spoke to are indeed found in nature. Risk is something so many students are taking and learning to cement their leadership in our outdoor classroom. You have encouraged me. Thank you

  2. Thanks, Vicki. I am glad you found the article supports what you know deeply through your own experience. I think the outdoor classroom is the perfect setting for Jr. Kindergarten students! Where are you located? I’d love to hear more about how you will organize your days.

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