About learning in the early years
Babies are born ready to learn, and their brains develop through experiences. So your child needs a stimulating environment with plenty of different ways to play and learn. Your child also needs opportunities to repeat and practise what they’re learning.
Babies and young children learn best when they have warm, engaged and responsive relationships with their main carers. So you play a vital role in helping your child learn through their early years. You are your child’s first teacher, and your child will keep learning from you as they grow older.
How babies and young children learn
Your young child learns through everyday play and exploration in a safe and stimulating environment.
Your child’s relationships with you, other family members and carers – for example, early childhood educators – are the foundation for your child’s healthy learning and development. Plenty of time spent playing and interacting with you and others helps your child learn skills they need for life – like communicating, thinking, problem-solving, and being with other people.
Your child learns best by actively engaging with their environment. This includes:
- observing things, watching faces and responding to voices
- listening to sounds, making sounds and singing
- exploring – for example, putting things in their mouth, shaking things and turning things around
- asking questions – for example, ‘But why?’
- experimenting with textures, objects and materials like water, sand or dirt
- building things from objects like cardboard boxes or toy blocks
- doing things that stimulate their senses – touch, taste, smell, vision and hearing.
Your child also learns by being involved in their learning. This could be as simple as:
- choosing books to read
- pointing to pictures in books
- choosing objects and toys to play with
- picking out vegetables for dinner
- measuring out flour for muffins.
All children benefit from trying plenty of different activities. This gives them many ways to learn and many chances to practise what they’re learning. For example, it’s important for your child to have activities that are inside and outside, physically active or quiet, free play or more structured, and so on.
Your child needs your support for learning. For example, your child might sometimes need you to show them what to do. But your child doesn’t need you to give them all the answers. Letting children make mistakes and find out for themselves how the world works is a big part of learning. Praise and encouragement when your child tries hard will keep them interested and help them feel good. It will also encourage them to try again in the future.
Children learn at different paces and in different ways. Some children learn better by seeing, and others learn better by doing. Some children learn better in one environment than another. If you’re worried about how your child is learning and developing, talk with your GP or child and family health nurse or your child’s educator.
What young children are learning
You and your family have a vital role in what your child learns in these early years.
Self and relationships
From you and your family, your child learns that they’re loved and important. They learn trust – for example, ‘I know you’ll be there if I fall over’. Your child starts learning to understand their own needs, thoughts, feelings, likes and dislikes. Eventually, family relationships teach your child about getting on with other children and grown-ups.
Language and communication
When you talk, listen, read and sing with your child, you’re helping them learn about language, written and spoken communication, and conversation skills like taking turns and listening.
Space, place and environment
At home with you, your child learns about their own size and shape – for example, ‘I’m bigger than our stool but not as big as our table’. Your child also learns about their place in their community and their influence on the world around them. 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
When it comes to healthy eating and physical activity, you’re a key role model for your child. If you choose to have an apple rather than a snack bar for morning tea, your child is 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.
Numeracy, literacy, handwriting and music
You help your child build early numeracy skills with everyday counting – for example, ‘How many bears are on the bed?’ or ‘Can you put all the red pegs into this basket?’ Or you can sing nursery rhymes with your child that include counting.
And your child develops early literacy through reading and storytelling with you, playing simple sound and letter games like listening for words that begin with the same sound, and looking at pictures, letters and words in the environment – for example, on signs and in catalogues.
Your child’s handwriting skills develop when you encourage them to draw, scribble and write. For example, if you’re writing a card or a shopping list, you could give your child some paper and a pencil so they can join in. ‘Writing’ also helps your child understand the connection between letters and spoken sounds.
Singing with your child, putting on music for them to dance to, giving them musical instruments to play (homemade is just fine), and finding dress-up clothes for them to use are all great ways to get your child started on learning about music, drama and dance.
By encouraging your child to try plenty of new things, you help your child learn more about who they are, what they enjoy and what their strengths are. This is good for your child’s confidence and self-esteem.