By Raising Children Network
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Toddler boy learning how to play with a spinning top

Learning happens everywhere and all the time for your baby, toddler and preschooler. These early experiences lay the foundation for your child’s learning in later years.

When children learn

Learning starts long before school. It starts at birth and keeps happening every day.

In fact, your child will learn more in his first 12 months than at any other time of his life. Not because of flashcards or any formal learning, but simply by growing, developing and watching other people and the world around him. These early childhood years lay the foundations for what your child learns once he starts school.

You have a vital role to play in helping your child learn through these early years. You might think you don’t know much about learning and teaching, and you might have had bad experiences at school yourself. But you are your child’s first teacher, and your child will keep learning from you as she gets older.

How your child learns

What your child needs to learn
Above all, your child needs a safe environment to learn in, where he’s free to play, learn and explore, knowing that he has the support of a parent or carer.

Your child needs a reason to learn – something to get her interested and motivated. It might be as simple as wanting to see what happens when she puts that last block on top of the tower.

He also needs to be involved in learning. This could be as basic as pointing to pictures in books. And he needs you to show him what to do when he’s learning – how to measure out the flour for muffins, for example. But you don’t need to jump in and give him all the answers. Letting your child make mistakes and find out for himself how the world works is a big part of learning.

Your child needs plenty of different activities to do, to give her a variety of ways to learn, and chances to practise what she’s learning. Praise and encouragement when she tries hard will keep her interested and help her feel good.

Who helps your child learn
Almost everyone can be a teacher for your child. You’re most important early on, but your child also learns from carers, siblings and other family members. As your child gets a little older, early childhood educators – playgroup coordinators, child care staff, preschool teachers and assistants – have a role to play too. Your child will also learn a lot from first friends, peers and other children (younger and older).

What your child needs to do
Your child learns by:

  • observing things, watching faces and responding to voices
  • listening, making sounds and singing songs
  • playing – with you, on his own or with other children
  • exploring – putting things in his mouth, shaking things, turning things around
  • asking questions – for example, ‘But why?’
  • experimenting through play with water, sand or dirt
  • socialising and finding his own place in friendship groups
  • stimulating all of his senses – touch, taste, smell, vision and hearing.
No two children learn the same way or at the same pace.Some children learn better in one environment than another. If you’re worried about the development of your child’s learning, you can check that things are on track by talking to a health professional.

Your role

In the baby and preschool years, the everyday ways you communicate and connect with your child help her learn. Play is particularly important in helping your child learn about the way her world works, and how she fits into it.

Self and relationships
From you and your family, your child learns that he’s loved and important. He learns trust – ‘I know you’ll be there if I fall over’. He starts learning to understand his own needs, thoughts, feelings, likes and dislikes. Eventually, family relationships teach him about getting on with other children and grown-ups.

Language and communication
When you talk and listen with your child, and read and sing together, you’re helping her learn about verbal and nonverbal language, written and spoken communication, and the art of conversation (taking turns and listening). When your child listens to you speak and read aloud, she’s learning new words. But she’ll need to hear new words many times before she can use them herself.

Space, place and environment
At home with you, your child learns about his own size and shape – ‘I’m bigger than our stool but not as big as our table’. He also learns about his place in his community and his impact on the world around him. For example, ‘My home is in this street, the park is down the road, and my friend lives in a different street’, or ‘The plants grew because I helped to water them’.

Health and physical fitness
You send your child important messages about healthy eating and physical activity, just from what you eat and do in your own family. If you choose to have an apple rather than a snack bar for morning tea, your child’s more likely to do the same. If you go for a walk rather than watching the TV, your child learns that exercise is a good, fun way to spend time together.

Other areas of learning
You can lay the foundations for numeracy with everyday counting and logic games – ‘How many bears are on the bed?’ or ‘Can you put all the red pegs into this basket?’

You can lay the foundations for literacy with regular reading and storytelling, with sound and letter games (for example, listening for words that begin with the same sound), and by encouraging your child to ‘read’ picture stories (for example, a toy catalogue or a picture book).

Putting on CDs for your child to dance to, giving her musical instruments to play (homemade is just fine), and finding her dress-up clothes are all great ways to get her started on learning about music, drama and dance.

You might like to read more about why play is important. You can also find more information in our nutshell articles on baby play and learning, toddler play and learning and preschooler play and learning. We’ve also got information on toys, games and books and choosing the right toys for your child.

Helping your child learn

You can help your child by:

  • responding to his efforts and invitations as he plays and learns 
  • encouraging him to try new things, to make mistakes and to learn more about who he is through new experiences
  • taking turns in games and activities
  • showing him how to deal with losing by playing games together and ‘modelling’ how to be a good loser
  • playing rhyming games, and shape and number games together
  • using simple language and ‘playing’ with words and sounds (for example, animal noises)
  • including the language of ‘time’ – ‘first’, ‘then’, ‘before’, ‘after’, ‘until’ – in your daily activities. For example, ‘First change your shoes, then play outside’
  • encouraging your child to listen to longer instructions. For example, ask him to bring two things from his room, then three things, then four things
  • limiting distractions – for example, turning off the TV while he plays on the floor
  • not overloading him with information – that is, give the simple explanation rather than the longwinded one
  • helping him discover what he’s good at by trying lots of different activities
  • showing an interest in his activities – for example, if he enjoys painting, ask him about his pictures and put them up around the house.
  • Last updated or reviewed 12-08-2011
  • Acknowledgements

    Compiled by Mrs Fiona Brookes and Dr Tsharni Zazryn, Royal Children’s Hospital Education Institute, Melbourne