Engaging Young Gifted Children

By Joan Franklin Smutny, Sally Y. Walker, and Ellen Honeck, authors of Teaching Gifted Children in Today’s Preschool and Primary Classrooms

Engaging Young Gifted ChildrenCharacteristics of giftedness can be seen at an early age. Some of these characteristics include high verbal ability, long attention span, sensitivity, ability to see patterns and relationships, quickly grasping new knowledge and content, accelerated thought processes, and heightened sense of justice. Identification and recognition of these characteristics is important as children move into formal learning environments. Children learn at a young age what is and is not expected in school. Depending on the environment, children can be encouraged to be themselves, learn to mask their knowledge, or start acting out because they are uninterested. When we recognize young children’s gifted characteristics, we can better foster the love of learning within them.

Learning in and out of school should be positive, engaging, challenging, and fun! The question is how can adults do this? The first place to start is with the learning environment. The environment is critical to the engagement of learning, but it’s often overlooked. The best environment is safe, flexible, and intellectually stimulating.

A safe learning environment provides children the opportunity to take risks, share thinking, fail, and succeed. Recognition and respect for various learning abilities, different ways of thinking, and risk-taking are critical. Model these behaviors for young children. If adults expect children to respect them, they must also respect the children. The environment should foster compassion, communication, and creativity among all members. These three elements will provide an environment that is safe and engaging.

Also important is high level, interesting content. Children are naturally curious, and embedding critical and creative thinking into the content is a way to engage them naturally. Young children should not be provided “watered down” content. The use of high-level accurate vocabulary is important when talking about concepts, especially ones that will carry through their educational career. Children will learn quality and high-level vocabulary if they are exposed to it. For example, instead of teaching a unit on “Big and Small” use the words “Micro and Macro.” This is more scientifically accurate vocabulary that children will understand when provided with opportunities.

You can find many ways to create engaging content. Critical and creative thinking, flexible grouping, acceleration, the use of multiple perspectives, hands-on learning opportunities, and high-quality resources are ways to develop and extend activities that are interesting and engaging.

Adults have an important job in helping young children be engaged in learning. Understanding and recognizing characteristics of giftedness, developing safe and appealing learning environments, and providing the opportunities to explore interesting high-level content will foster the love of learning and development of lifelong learners.

Author Joan Franklin Smutny, M.A.Joan Franklin Smutny, M.A., is founder and director of the Center for Gifted and Midwest Torrance Center for Creativity. She directs programs for gifted children, teaches graduate courses, serves as editor of the Illinois Association for Gifted Children Journal, and is a regular contributor to the Gifted Education Press Quarterly. The author of many books for teachers and parents, Joan has been honored with the National Association for Gifted Children’s (NAGC) Distinguished Service Award and was the 2011 recipient of the NAGC E. Paul Torrance Award for contributions in creativity. She lives in Illinois.


Author Sally Yahnke Walker, Ph.D.Sally Yahnke Walker, Ph.D., is a consultant, an educator, an advocate for gifted children, and the executive director for the Illinois Association for Gifted Children. She has piloted programs to create a broad-based level of support for talented students in public school districts, provided in-service training for teachers, and facilitated workshops for parents of gifted children.


Author Ellen I. Honeck, Ph.D.Ellen I. Honeck, Ph.D., has been involved in gifted education as a classroom teacher, administrator, gifted specialist, curriculum developer, consultant, adjunct professor, and associate director of the Institute for the Development of Gifted Education at the University of Denver. She is the dean of the Gifted and Talented Academy at Laurel Springs School. She lives in Colorado.


Teaching Gifted Children in Today’s Preschool and Primary ClassroomsJoan, Sally, and Ellen are the authors of Teaching Gifted Children in Today’s Preschool and Primary Classrooms: Identifying, Nurturing, and Challenging Children Ages 4–9.


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