How Children Learn
How do children learn? How does your child learn? Like circles in a Venn diagram the answers to these questions overlap, but not entirely.
Every child is unique and though what you'll read below applies in general, it's vital that you take the time to observe your child's play and see what works for them. You'll be surprised what you learn.
NOTE: This is a new guide and a work in progress. I'd love to know what you think and what else you'd like to see included. Please leave a comment below with your thoughts.
Table of contents:
- Children learn through play
- Theories of development
- Stages of play
- The Zone of Proximal Development
- Spaced repetition: revisit ideas to make sure they stick
- Help your child develop a growth mindset
- Ask good questions
- The importance of observing your child’s play
- The teachable moment
- Where are you trying to get to?
- Set a good example
- Fewer toys = more focus
- We learn when we do new things
Children learn through play
Children learn through doing. They learn through experimentation and discovery. For babies, simply exploring their environment and interacting with others provides plenty of stimulation. And they don't need any toys. A simple treasure basket is more than enough.
Of course, we don't learn everything through play. You don't have to climb into the lions' enclosure at the zoo to find out that it's dangerous. We learn some things
Theories of developement
How do children learn? We start with a very brief overview of some of the most well-known theories.
The Blank Slate
Some early thinkers believed that children's minds were empty vessels to be filled up by the parent or teacher. This view is of the adult as the instructor. The child simply absorbs the information.
Learning takes place when behaviour is reinforced by reward or punishment. A squirrel releases a nut by pressing a lever. Each time he succeeds, the behaviour is reinforced. He is more likely to do it next time. He has learnt.
Teachers used to punish bad behaviour to discourage it. Today's educators prefer to encourage good behaviour instead by rewarding it. Welcome to the land of the sticker chart.
Constructivists believe that we learn when our experiences don't match our expectations. A baby dropping food from a high chair expects it to stay on the floor. But what if she drops a bouncy ball? Or an egg? An unexpected result! This is new information that has to be added to the mental model of 'what happens when I drop things'.
If you're a constructivist, you don't teach. You offer novel experiences that will challenge your child's assumptions. Let them make discoveries and test them out.
This is the idea that children construct their knowledge in collaboration with others. The adult asks probing questions. The child is challenged to test their assumptions against the new information.
Which approach makes the most sense to you? Do you use all of them with your child or is there one in particular which resonates more?
As a teacher, parents often ask me about their child's development: How are they doing? What is normal? What comes next? What can I do to help?
The problem, of course, is that children develop at different rates and excel in different ways. It's perfectly normal for a four-year-old to make recognisable marks on a page, but you'll also find plenty of two-year-olds who can do it too.
Unless you've been a teacher or had several children, it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that a child is behind. You meet a much younger child and they are already ahead of your own.
If you understand a little theory, it protects you from these worries and gives you the confidence you need to offer the right experiences to extend your child's learning.
Stages of play
Does your child like to play alone? Or do they enjoy engaging with others?
The answer has as much to do with age as with personality type.
One influential idea is that as children mature they progress through stages of play. The theory was originally proposed by Mildred Parten, an American researcher.
Unoccupied play – This first stage is not really play at all. The child simply stands, observing.
Solitary play – Common in toddlers. You'll often see them playing alone, uninterested in what others are doing.
Onlooker play - Your child watches others play, without joining in. They may discuss the play but they don't take part.
Parallel play - This is play alongside others, enjoying the same activity, but without interacting. Think of two children both building with blocks but not communicating.
Associative play – Children start to talk to each other about their play. They share their excitement, but there is no formal structure.
Cooperative play – At this, the highest stage, children organise their play. Games have rules and each child has a role.
It's clear that there's a progression from the first stage to the last, but the theory has its critics. Children don't seem to progress through the stages in a linear way. They can be onlookers one day and participants the next. Much of this has to do with the familiarity of their playmates.
Can you see how the theory of constructivism fits well with the earlier stages? Children play alone and make their own discoveries. And the higher levels are socio-constructivist. Children learn by playing together and from each other.
What kinds of play does your child usually engage in? Do they play at a higher stage when in familiar company? You can't force your child to play at a 'higher' level than they are ready for, but by sitting alongside them, you can give them the confidence to try something new.
The Zone of Proximal Development
How involved do you get in your child's play?
Do you leave them to it? Do you jump in and show them how it's done so they can 'do it right'? Perhaps you start them off with a provocation (see our blog for more on this) and retreat to a safe distance?
Imagine you are watching your child build a tower. They choose the simplest way - stacking one block on top of another. They then decide to make it wider. A second, parallel tower goes up, abutting the first. Five or six stories up these two constructions start to diverge, teeter and topple. As adults, we know that a cross-piece was needed, something to span the two towers and hold them together.
It would be easy to intervene and supply the missing piece. But how much would your child learn? Or, like the constructivists we learnt about on Day 1, you could leave your child to figure it out for herself.
There is, as you may have guessed, a third way. The difference between what your child can do independently and what they can accomplish with support is known as the Zone of Proximal Development.
How much you help is a matter of judgement. As little as possible, ideally. You can't learn for a child; they have to do it themselves. But you can certainly give them a nudge. It is often enough simply to ask a question or to draw their attention to the crucial feature of a problem.
Observe your child at play. At times when she seems to get stuck, try to think of ways to help without giving the answer. What's the smallest intervention you can make that will still get the result? It takes practice to get this right, but it's worth the trouble. You can really accelerate your child's learning - and you'll both have fun doing it.
N.B. This is not a strategy to use all the time. Children need time to themselves.
Did you cram for your exams? Did you stay up late the night before trying to learn it all in one heroic push? How much of that subject-matter do you remember now?
That's because laying down memories doesn't work that way.
Our brains remember best through repeated exposure. It's called spaced repetition, and the idea is that you revisit a topic several times over a period of months.
Preschoolers thankfully don't have to sit exams, but there's still plenty for them to learn. Letters, numbers and colours, for example. However, I'm not advocating flashcards or rote memorisation. At this age, it's all done through play. The trick is to offer regular opportunities to practice.
For example, if I wanted to help my daughter recognise the first letter in her name, we could try the following:
- Roll out long strips of play-dough and curl it into the shape of a 'C'
- Potato print 'C'
- Set up a pretend doctor's surgery and call out patient names from the appointment list (guessing from the initial letter)
- Label objects in the house that begin with 'c'
- Fish for the letter 'C' using a magnetic fishing rod and magnetic letters
- Eat alphabet spaghetti
Not all these are play-focused, perhaps, but I hope you can see that repeated exposure doesn't have to mean repetitive. Just make sure you revisit the topic regularly.
Keep it fun and the learning will be effortless.
Help your child develop a growth mindset
One of the greatest gifts you can give your child is the belief that they are a good learner and that, with hard work, it is possible to become smarter.
If you think that intelligence is fixed, self-improvement is futile. This leads to feelings of helplessness. Worse still, if you have been told you are clever, you become less likely to take risks and try new things. You are afraid to fail as you will lose your cherished status.
However, if you have what is called a growth mindset, you see intelligence as malleable. You love learning for its own sake and are less attached to outcomes. You do your best. You don't believe that failure highlights some fundamental flaw in your character. You'll try again next time. You'll get better.
Do you have a growth mindset? Or is yours more fixed? Do you pass on these beliefs to your child by the way you speak to them? What could you do to make sure that your child goes to school ready to learn, willing to try and happy to fail?
Ask good questions
How do you learn best? When you get a new gadget, do you read the instruction manual or ask a friend? Or do you just fiddle about with it until you figure out how it works?
Children are the same. They like to experiment, to explore and to destruction test. They learn by doing. It's why I chose The 100 Toys Guide to Independent Play to be our first book. Having the confidence to work things out for yourself is vital.
You have to learn to see. What is this new situation? Based on what I already know, what's the most likely answer? What's the quickest, most efficient way to find out?
Being good at this comes down to asking yourself the right questions. As adults, we have learnt to do this, but children need a little help. Your role is simple. Ask good questions. Why do you think your tower toppled over? What could you do to make it stronger next time? Are some blocks better than others for building sturdy towers? Why is that? If you could make your own blocks, how would you make them better?
This kind of questioning encourages critical thinking, the undisputed superpower for children and adults alike.
The importance of observing your child’s play
Of all the topics we cover in this post, the ability to observe your child is the most impactful.
Pay attention to what they are doing. Really look. Sit in silence for a few minutes and just watch them play.
A two-year-old might repeat the same action over and over again. A train going through a tunnel, a doll wrapped in a blanket. Even if you aren't interested in the theory behind their actions, in this case schema play, you'll learn a lot simply by watching and assessing. What can my child do? What other experiences could I offer that present the same challenges? Can I extend the learning by offering new materials or a different context?
Through your observations, you are looking for ways to help your child make new connections.
A five-year-old who loves snakes and ladders and using a 100 square might enjoy playing battleships. The grid is still 10 x 10 but the focus is on co-ordinates. This might then lead to crosswords, draughts and programmable robots. From there it's only a small leap to simple coding with software like Scratch.
But if you weren't looking, if you didn't notice that your child was interested in grids, none of this can happen.
Take five minutes now and watch your child play. What will you observe? Where might it lead?
The teachable moment
There are times when we are more open to learning than others.
There are times when we are going through the motions, getting the job done, but there are others when we are full of curiosity, eager to see what happens next.
And then something happens. Our current understanding is not enough to solve the problem. We get stuck. But we really want to overcome this hurdle. It's something we care about.
We have arrived at the teachable moment.
You might be struggling to help your child understand the concept of 'counting on'. Nothing you've tried works. But now you're playing a board game and it's fun! Your son is in the lead and he wants to move the pieces himself. He's ready to learn. In this magical moment he's receptive to ideas he wouldn't previously engage with. And so you step in and something clicks in his mind. He has made a connection and the lesson is complete.
Where are you trying to get to?
We enjoy visiting Kew Gardens, a beautiful botanical garden here in London. There’s a log trail at the far end that the children love but it’s half-an-hour’s walk.
We try to take the straightest route to the logs because the children get very tired by the end. It’s not much fun carrying two exhausted children for over a mile back to the car, with two more in the buggy complaining that they’d rather be held.
On this occasion, as often happens, we are waylaid by Interesting Things.
It takes twenty minutes just to get inside. The children decide that the base of the tree next to our parked car makes a wonderful bath for snails, so they spend ages digging around in the mud with sticks. They could stay there all day.
No sooner are we inside than we discover badgers’ setts, trees to climb and sticks to collect. We’ve been there an hour and we are less than fifty yards from the entrance.
What to do? The logs are on the far side of the gardens. Do we remind the children that they'd like to get to the trail, cajole them to keep walking and insist that they avoid distractions along the way? For what? So that they can do exactly the same thing when they reach the log trail (i.e. have fun and do something interesting)?
What do we gain by uprooting them from their play and insisting we get going?
And what do we lose?
Set a good example
‘Try your best.'
'Have a go. Don't give up.'
'Don't just sit around watching television, go out and find something fun to do.'
'See if you can work it out for yourself.'
We've all said these things to our children. But do we truly embody these values ourselves? What do our children see us do all day? This sets the pattern for their attitude to learning as much as any well-considered activity.
My children rarely see me write. I work from a laptop. I tell the five-year-old to sit down and practise his handwriting, but if he thinks that writing is no use to a grown-up, what incentive does he have to do it?
By far the best way to get your child to do something is for them to see you doing it.
Set a good example. Have an enquiring mind. Try to find things out, or even better, work them out for yourself. Model good behaviour and make it explicit. Make sure your child understands that you're doing it.
You'll be laying down good habits for life.
Fewer toys = more focus
I bet you've heard us say this one before: children have too many toys.
Too many toys means too much choice. Too many toys means too much mess. Children can't focus on on the task at hand. They flit from one activity to another, never sticking with anything long enough to deepen their understanding.
Offer more opportunities for exploration. Cut down distractions. Present one interesting activity at a time. Better still, let your child create their own fun. They know where all the interesting bits are at home. The drawer full of string and ribbons, the cupboard where they can find an old shoe box.
Don't give in at the first signs of rebellion. Tough it out. In the long run, you're making life easier for yourself. You are bringing up a confident, creative self-starter. Someone who will thrive in the 21st Century, where there are no jobs for life, where reinvention has become the norm.
Do you ever ask your child what they plan to do today? What they will play with? Which materials they will use? What they hope to achieve?
Simply by asking these questions, you help imbue your child's play with a sense of purpose. They become more focused and stay on-task for longer.
That's not to say that they have to stick with their chosen activity for the whole session, only that they have to start it.
Asking children how they plan to spend their day is a feature of the High/Scope approach, a preschool programme developed in the States. It's well worth looking up if you get the chance.
The counterpart to planning is the review.
How did the play go? Did you make the thing you planned to? Was it a success? What would you do differently next time?
Can you see how drawing your child's attention to their play helps them to be more intentional about their choices and can dramatically increase the amount they learn?
Give it a try today. Keep it light-hearted. There's no need for a 20-minute mission debrief. Just a couple of questions are all you need to get started.
We learn when we do new things
I bet you remember with crystal clarity - and more than a touch of revulsion - what a copper coin tastes like on your tongue. But you probably haven't tried it since you were two or three years old.
The early years of childhood are a time for experimentation and fun, of deep learning and engagement. But when school starts, we can fall into the trap of focusing on traditional subjects. There is less time to explore and pursue new interests. Life is less fun.
As adults, there can be whole years of our lives when not much happens. It's only when we try something new that we feel alive.
The key to learning is to keep it interesting. If it's interesting you pay more attention. If you pay more attention, you're more likely to remember it.
Seeing dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum for the first time is memorable. But, in its own way, inviting your child to help chop the vegetables for the first time is equally so.
What could you do to keep that sense of wonder alive for your child?
What new experience could you offer today?
I hope you've seen that under fives can pick up all the skills they'll need for school and for life without any formal instruction. They learn through play. A good school is brilliant fun, but it's a different adventure; early childhood is the time for open-ended exploration and discovery. Children will never have those long, uninterrupted stretches of time ever again.
If you take one thing from this article it's this: make time for play. Let it stretch out. Give it room. And don't be afraid of boredom. It's creativity's best friend.
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