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How Young Children Learn

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Play is perhaps the most important activity of young children. It's their "work," their principal occupation, and how they learn! Even when this process may not be obvious, learning occurs all the time for young children. They learn by exploring the world around them, interacting with people they meet, and experimenting with things they come across.

Children Learn From Playmates

Children Learn by Doing

Children Learn From the Adults in Their Lives

Children Learn From Playmates

When children play with siblings and friends, they learn from each other. As questions, challenges, and conflicts arise, they figure out how to solve problems. For example, 3-year-old Sarah is playing with blocks, trying to balance a structure and put a roof on her "house." Four-year-old Lakisha has some experience with this task and suggests, "Let's try the longer block——it looks like it might fit better." In the end, Sarah learns a new strategy and Lakisha succeeds in solving a problem and further developing her social skills.

When your child plays in a group made up of different ages, he has the opportunity to learn in two different ways: first by modeling the behavior of the older children, and second by "teaching" the younger or less advanced children.

Children Learn by Doing

Learning is an active process. The more hands-on experiences your child has, the more curious and capable he'll become. Children are fascinated by the work grown-ups do—cooking, household chores, and fixing things. What's more, these real-life tasks have tremendous learning value for children. So give your child his own small bowl of pancake batter to mix and buy a child-sized broom so he can help sweep the floor! Outdoor play——running and climbing—is essential for healthy physical development, and it's a chance for him to investigate nature.

You can further expand your child's learning opportunities by keeping open-ended materials around the house. Open-ended means they allow him to express his ideas. This is more active and promotes his learning. These materials don't limit your child's play to one or two activities the way many toys do. Some good open-ended materials to offer your child include:

Paper, pencils, crayons, scissors, glue, and tape for drawing, writing, and constructing

Cardboard boxes and other commonly found objects

Easel paints and watercolors

Water, sand, playdough, and clay for sensory experiences

Building blocks and Legos

Dress-up clothes, hats, and props

Dolls and doll clothes

Simple musical instruments and opportunities to listen to music

Children Learn From the Adults in Their Lives

"She's so wonderful!" you exclaim as your baby is born. This begins a lifelong offering of unconditional love and support that is essential for your baby to thrive and develop. This relationship provides the sense of security and positive self-esteem your child needs in order to achieve and to learn. With emotional support in place, you can help your child get the most out of play (and therefore learning) by following these suggestions:

Be specific and supportive. Telling your child, "You must share," isn't very helpful. At best, she'll cooperate while you're looking on. But if you guide her through the turn-taking process, she'll understand more about how to share next time. For example, if 2-year-old Maggie wants a turn pulling a wagon full of leaves, tell everyone, "Maggie wants a turn when Jason is finished. Let's see what Maggie can do until the wagon is ready. How about getting the next pile of leaves ready?" This gives Maggie a way to enter the play, rather than just waiting. Using emotionally supportive language like this encourages children to view adults as their advocates and helps them solve problems rather than turning the situation into a struggle.

Help your child be a good observer. Children learn from actively studying the world around them. When you take a walk with your 3-year-old and come upon a construction site, your child will likely be curious about the activity. Share her interest by stopping to watch and exclaiming, "Wow! Look how big the wheels on that dump truck are." Helping your child become a good observer provides her with a skill she'll find useful throughout her life.

Ask open-ended questions. Encourage your child to think and reflect by asking open-ended questions: "What made the shovel move like that? What do you think the driver is going to do now?" Give your child time to come up with her own answers, even if they are misconceptions, before you provide more information.

Help your child build on what she knows. When your child shows an interest in something, capitalize on it. Look in books for more information about construction vehicles. Provide props, such as shovels and trucks, so she can pretend to do the powerful work of the dump truck driver; replaying her experiences and acting out what she's observed helps your child understand. Visit the construction site again so your child can see the progress, gain more information, and clarify misconceptions.

Model positive behaviors. One of the most powerful ways your child learns is by following your example. This process happens naturally and almost unconsciously. For example, when your child sees you reading regularly, she will want to read and be read to. And reading is one of the most important things you can do with your child! (Be aware, however, that she will also model any negative behavior she sees! So it's important for us to display respectful rather than disrespectful behavior ourselves.)

Use positive language. Everyone responds better to positive words than to negative ones. So instead of issuing a command or a prohibition ("Don't throw the ball over there!") offer a suggestion of what your child can do ("That's a good place to throw the ball").

Play is the work of childhood. It's how your child learns about the world and how to get along in it. When you support your child in this challenging job, then your child's work really will be child's play.


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