How Young Children Learn


Understanding how young children learn helps us adapt our teaching or parenting to meet their needs in more effective ways.

This helps us to fulfil their needs and leads to a happy child, which is also great for us adults!

Young children learn holistically, which means they learn from everything all at the same time. Something they learn from one experience will connect with something else seemingly unrelated and form a connection which builds context and meaning – which is why it’s so important not to separate teaching into subject areas too early on. See creativity in early brain development for why this happens.

They also learn best through doing – active learning – and play is the best way of offering them these hands-on experiences.  Whether reconstructing real situations or building imaginary worlds, children can develop their thinking, language, imagination, speaking and listening skills through creative play, which prepares them for communicating and interacting effectively with others.

Young children learn a huge amount through their senses which become finely tuned long before they may have mastered speaking or reasoning skills. They need lots of relevant opportunities to explore the objects and materials around them with all of their senses. This helps them to construct and test theories, make decisions, overcome challenges, foster empathy, build resilience and solve problems for themselves so that they can become independent, confident and competent individuals.

How do we make learning personal?

We know that families are children’s first educators and, as such, children’s home experiences and the natural predispositions that they are born with play an important part in what and how they learn. Because of this, it’s important to take time and space to help children express who they are, form ideas, connections and interests over long periods of time, and have their needs and interests correctly interpreted – especially if they cannot articulate through language due to age, ability or culture.

It’s a great idea to invite parents and carers to help children take photographs, or draw pictures, of their lives at home so that they can share these in their setting and help practitioners relate to them more personally, as well as identifying common interests with other children.

How do the arts and creativity help early learning?

The arts provide a fantastic opportunity for young children to learn holistically, through play and with all their senses at once. For instance, one single movement session can support:

  • physical development by making body shapes that strengthen, co-ordinate and flex limbs
  • emotional development by building trusting relationships when practising balance or massage
  • cognitive development by counting jumps or devising rhythms and patterns of movement
  • linguistic development by articulating the sounds of movement (wriggle, jump, spring, etc.)
  • creative development by expressing their inner feelings and responses freely and innovatively

An effective early learning environment encompasses a diversity of experiences to stimulate and nurture children’s curiosity in the world.

A creative learning environment is simply an excellent early learning environment with:

  • a combination of well-chosen, open-ended, imaginative resources
  • a competent and confident staff team who value strong, positive relationships with children and parents, welcoming opportunities for families to become involved in their children’s learning
  • a leadership that values the creative development of staff as well as children.

In this environment, children will feel loved, secure, respected, free to learn through adventure and discovery, and able to reach their greatest potential.

We should concentrate on children’s strengths rather than their weaknesses, their capabilities rather than their incapacities, on their considerable intellectual and emotional powers…to ask questions, to imagine, to speak more than one language, to sorrow, to wonder, to console.

Young children will encounter, amongst other things, woodlice, gravity, shadows, seaweed, moss, yeast and water; but these first-hand experiences are not enough. They must also act as scientists, observing, comparing, connecting and demanding explanations. There must be time and space and opportunities for them to exercise these developing powers, to flex their growing muscles. The more opportunities there are, the more exercise they will take.
— Mary Jane Drummond, School of Education, University of Cambridge

Quoted with kind permission from 'Starting with Children – Towards an Early Years Curriculum', from the publication Take Care, Mr. Blunkett: powerful voices in the new curriculum debate, published in 1998 by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers