Tips to stimulate learning in your child

A home environment can be such a wonderful learning environment. A warm caring home has all the ingredients conducive for learning. For optimum learning children need their basic needs met; they need to feel safe and secure; things need to feel familiar and predictable and they need to have some sense of control over their surroundings. This is usually the case for most children when they are at home.

How do children learn in the early years?

Young children learn through play. They are active learners. They are sensory learners. They learn best through doing. They enjoy hands-on learning opportunities where they initiate their own play, where they can practice, make mistakes and repeat until they master it.

Young children do not usually respond well to sit down classroom style lessons. They are not usually capable of or have a desire to control their bodies, or focus their minds on something that isn’t of interest. Young children have so many of their own ideas and interests that they override your need to teach them something that you think is important. Children in their early years are very good at self-directed learning; they will seek out the answers if given the opportunities.

How do children learn and develop?

It’s important to consider how children’s bodies and minds develop during the early years to understand how they learn.

There is so much happening for a child during their first five years. Some research shows that more learning takes place in your first three years than in any other stage of your life.

During the first 6 to 12 months children are learning whether they can trust the world around them to meet their needs. They are very much sensory learners which is why almost everything goes into their mouth; they explore with all their senses. Usually if it feels good to touch, then they usually put it straight into their mouth to help them decide whether they like it or not. This is typical development. They are also developing their cause and affect concept for example I do this, you do that or I do this and that happens. Think about the child who continually drops a spoon from the high chair. They are not only learning about gravity but they are also testing for consistency in response. They are also learning about tolerance levels in the people around them. Young babies around the 9 month mark are starting to understand that if they can’t see ‘it’ or can’t see you that ‘it’ and you still exist.

From 12 months to 2 years children are learning how to use their bodies in new and powerful ways. They are also developing a sense of themselves as individuals who operate separately from their primary caregiver. They are beginning to understand that they have some level of control over their surroundings. They are learning how to manipulate things to work in their favour. This is a very important skill which will carry through the rest of their life and if developed well will enable them to get their needs and desires met in a positive way. Their attention span is developing and their ability to focus on something for sustained lengths of time is extending. They learn through repetition.

From 2 to 5 years children are striving for autonomy. They are gradually learning how to become more social and are developing attachments and friendships with others. They slowly learn how to play cooperatively, how to listen to another person’s point of view, how to be empathetic, how to do things for themselves. Plus there is an explosion of academic learning such as counting, recognising letters and colours and shapes. Children during the preschool years are able to compare similarities and identify where things are different. Unconscious biases and stereotypes are beginning to form and are becoming apparent based on their life experiences and influences around them. For many pre-school children the competitive urge seems to kick-in around now too.

How do you help your child learn at home?

The most obvious ways to stimulate your child’s learning at home is by spending quality time together doing things whether it’s playing games or completing household chores together. Learning happens everywhere, anywhere and all the time.

Like all of us, we learn best when we are interested. My rule of thumb is to keep the learning relevant and fun. Draw out the possible learning opportunities during the everyday things you are doing. For example if you are climbing stairs, count them or if you are walking down the street point out the street signs. I find that if the child loses interest in the game it may be that I have tried to control the situation too much. So I let go, I give the power back to the child and let them stipulate some rules for a while. Then I observe how well they stick to those rules. Children under 5 years of age will often change the rules as they go along to suit themselves; this is typical of their cognitive development. I sometimes question the idea behind the rule change and I often find the reasoning very clever. Remember they are learning a lifelong skill of manipulation. This is where you can really see how strategic your child is. I will often attempt to change the rules too to see whether they allow it, and if not why? Later they will learn to stick to one set of rules but for now keep it fun and flexible.

Some of the most noticeable time we see learning at home is when we are playing board games or card games. These types of structured games can be fun but they can also provoke frustration in children. Depending on your child’s age and stage of development my tip is keep the game simple. There is no need to enforce all the rules at once. You can add elements of complexity as the child masters each rule. For example the card game snap may begin with matching the red cards and matching the black cards at first. Once this is understood and mastered then you can discuss changing the rule to match by suit and have fun with that concept. Then you can match by number. This is helping your child to understand that objects can be distinguished by more than one feature. Allow your child to share the control, allow repetition, expect mistakes and keep it fun.

There are endless teachable and learnable moments throughout the day in the home environment. For example think about the task of folding the laundry. Who would have thought that you could emerge numeracy through folding clothes? You can count the items, sort them into categories, add them together, subtract, and introduce fractions by folding into halves and quarters.

A very easy way to incorporate literacy into the home learning environment apart from the obvious reading books together is to create lists together or stock take items together. You can invite your child to help write the shopping list. They do not necessarily need to write the names of things, they can draw the picture of the items. Recognising that symbols have meaning is early literacy, plus simply having time holding a pen or pencil is strengthening their muscles and will assist with writing later on. Children usually love counting so inviting your child to do a stocktake and tally up how many different items you have on paper or counting passing cars and tallying them up is combining many aspects of learning.

The key with incorporating learning into household chores is to allow extra time and don’t worry too much if the pile of washing isn’t folded as neatly as when you do it yourself – at the end of the day there are no medals for the neatest pile of folded washing but the teachable moments will last a lifetime.

I usually find that I have more fun when I focus on what the child is learning rather than what they don’t seem to know yet. For example we may not be playing the game of snakes and ladders correctly but the child is having fun, they are focussed, they have sustained attention, they are persisting, they are willing to play till the end, they are sharing, taking turns, they are expressing their thoughts and listening to my ideas, and they are learning how to win and lose…that to me is a successful game of snakes and ladders even if we are going down the ladder and up the snake.