How Children Learn

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  • Children learn best when their physical needs are met and they feel psychologically safe and secure.
  • Children construct knowledge through repeated experiences with people and materials.
  • Children learn through social interaction with adults and other children.
  • Children's learning reflects a recurring cycle that begins in awareness and moves to exploration, to analysis and comparison and finally to utilization.
  • Children learn through play.
  • Children's interests and "need to know" motivate learning.
  • Human development and learning are characterized by individual variation.

For more information talk to an Infant-Toddler Services provider or read: Bredekamp, S., & Rosegrant, T. (Eds.). (1992). Reaching potentials: Appropriate curriculum and assessment for young children (Vol. 1). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Interest Based Learning

Research supports using interest-based learning to promote children's growth and development. When children are involved in activities they have chosen and in which they are interested, they are more likely to stay engaged with those activities for a longer period of time and thus increase their opportunities for learning.

Meals Times are Learning Times

Connect: Studies show that meals are one of the most important times to be together as a family. Catherine Snow and her colleagues at Harvard University conducted research on literacy development by taping what happens at family meals. They found that the families who interacted with each other at meal times were more likely to have children with better literacy skills in the school-age years. Family mealtime interaction took place when caregivers extended children's interests, which helped children use language to analyze, sequence, and predict while helping children appreciate the joy of language.

Watch and listen: Do your children listen to what you and others say? Do they have opportunities to talk, listen and take turns? Do they look forward to telling you about their day? What sounds and words do they try to say? What are they trying to communicate?

Extend: With your baby: Give your baby ordinary kitchen objects, such as plastic cups or wooden spoons, to play with while you are fixing a meal. Name the foods you are eating and talk about foods your baby loves to eat.

With your toddler: Let your young child help make the meal – let him or her tear the lettuce for a salad, stir the spaghetti sauce or put napkins on the table. Ask your toddler to name the foods you are preparing or to fix a pretend meal for their toy animal or doll while you fix dinner for your family.

For your preschooler: Ask your child to tell you a story about their day or tell them a story about yours during mealtime. Create family traditions at meal times, such as a song that you always sing or a game like "I Spy" that you always play.

These tips were developed for Born Learning by Mind in the Making, a project of the Families and Work Institute and New Screen Concepts.

Types of Play Your Child Needs

There are many different types of play--and a "balanced diet" of play that includes each type will help ensure your child's well-rounded physical, cognitive, and social/emotional development. Try to fit all these kinds of play in your child's routine.

Moving around: gross motor play
Indoors or outdoors, children of all ages need active play to build strong muscles and develop coordination. Find safe places for them to roll, crawl, walk run, climb, jump, throw things, and more! Make up fun games like searching for treasure that will get you child moving around. Try to fit in regular visits to a playground.

Figuring things out: play that helps cognitive development
Play helps children learn concepts that adults may take for granted. We may understand cause and effect, or how to organize objects, or that an object under a blanket is still there even though we can't see it. For young children, these ideas and others are new. Play is nature's way of helping kids experiment with how the world works, how to think, and how to solve problems.

Getting messy: playing with fine motor skills
If you have a child in your life, chances are there is a budding artist, sculptor or musician in that child for you to enjoy--or a future engineer, poet, scientist, author, or business person who loves to use his hands to create artistic or musical masterpieces. Children thrive on play with paper, crayons, paint, clay, musical instruments (pots and a wooden spoon will work!) throughout their childhood. If you can, set aside a space at home where messy or loud creativity is okay. Add safe arts and craft materials when your child is ready for them. This kind of play will help children learn how to use their hands, stimulate their senses, experiment with arithmetic concepts, and learn how to express themselves. For more information go to Playing for Keeps