05 Sep 2016

How do children learn and develop?

How do children learn and develop?

Imagine a small girl at home cleaning the kitchen with her mother. The little girl enthusiastically pulls everything from the cupboard and sets to work balancing and building, using the different plastic containers. Repeatedly, she attempts to make a tower but struggles to get the balance right. Then she spots her water bottle and uses it to pour water into her containers. Quickly, the space around her becomes an area of spilt water and toppled plastic-ware. After a while, she appears to lose interest. Her mom gives her a tea-towel to dry the containers and sits with the little girl to help her figure out the best way to pack away the containers.

This simple game (and the interaction with her mother) is packed with a huge amount of learning and development for this child. 

The act of learning is often viewed as something we need to grow into - we equate ‘school-readiness’ with being ‘learning- ready’. In reality, children are learning from the moment they are born. The way children learn is more fluid than we may think. And, fortunately, it occurs far more spontaneously than we might imagine.

This scenario described above illustrates many of the requirements for learning in young children. The first is the need children have for active involvement. Passive observation or listening are not effective in engaging a child or allowing them to internalise learning.

Choice and autonomy are further requirements for learning. Just as the mother in the scenario allowed her daughter to get on with the game, children need to be allowed to figure things out for themselves and choose their own way of completing activities. This is critical to the development of initiative and the exploration of their own interests.

Children require the opportunity to immerse themselves deeply in an activity and they need to be able to make mistakes in order to learn lessons. This is what the mother in the kitchen scenario did by allowing her daughter to spill as she tried to get the pouring technique right.

There is also a crucial social dimension to the development of children. They need to be able to learn with, and from, other children and adults. The mom in the story modelled this when she sat down with her daughter and they tried to figure out the best way to pack the cupboard.

Finally, what the scenario illustrates is the continuous, contextual nature of the learning of children. Learning happens all the time. Every interaction a child engages in is a learning opportunity. The broader the variety, the more these experiences are repeated, and the more they happen in a context the child can relate to; the more the child will be able to embed the knowledge.

Creating engaging, autonomous experiences for children to explore the world around them is not difficult to do, but as adults we need to consciously shine a light on these opportunities so that they will be positive learning experiences in the child’s life. These experiences are the foundation for rich early learning.

Read more about this here in our literature review, conducted in 2014.

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