How Do Children Learn in Early Childhood (0-6 Years)?

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Yinka Awobo-Pearse

How do children learn in the early years? This is a question that if posed to many: teachers, parents, educational researchers or policy makers, the responses will vary depending on who you ask. Educational researchers and teachers may say children learn through play. They may also say that children learn by imitating adults. Another group may say that children learn by following instructions, teachers’, parents’ or a knowledgeable other. Another, by interacting with the environment through exploring, manipulating, discovering and assimilating.

Over the years, ongoing research supports the thinking that children learn through a combination of all of the above. The human brain, which is the master organ, responds to all stimuli. To clarify, learning here not only refers to letters, numbers and general knowledge, but includes the education of the child towards becoming a functioning member of the society, the real purpose of education. In early childhood, the focus should never be on what is learnt, but how the child is developing.

In the early years, you cannot separate learning from development as these go hand in hand. A child is said to be developing well when the child is learning new behaviours and is able to take on more complicated tasks and solve simple problems. For you to understand how children learn, you must seek to understand child development. There are four main areas of development in early childhood: personal, social and emotional, communication and language, physical and intellectual (which includes, literacy, mathematics, understanding the world, drama, dance, music, art and craft). These areas are interwoven, which means that the child develops in all areas simultaneously, albeit, at different paces. They are co-dependent and feed each other. A child that is well supported emotionally will be happy to try new things, making learning possible. This is what in education is referred to as holistic development. A child doesn’t choose to develop in one area today and choose another tomorrow. Learning is life for the child. Understanding that a two-year-old has a six-10 minutes attention span, period of concentration is useful knowledge that a parent, teacher, carer or child minder could use to choose age appropriate activity that encourages learning. Also, expecting a three-year-old to sit through a 15 minutes lesson is totally unrealistic and a recipe for disaster. It would result in frustration for both child and teacher.

The first thing to know is that every child is different. As each of us has a unique fingerprint, DNA, so is the way our brain, mind and body interact, unique to every individual. Each person processes information differently. What works for child A may not work with child B. Secondly, learning is not done in isolation. Learning is social, cultural, intellectual, emotional, personal and physical all at once. Learning is social because we learn through interactions with others. Children learn through their interactions with adults, other children, their environment and the society at large. Another way of saying this is that learning happens in context.

It has to make meaning to the child. For example, a child who lives on a farm, by age four, will have a basic understanding about planting seeds and harvest. Another four-year-old, who lives in the city, may know about planting seeds but wouldn’t have the same level of understanding about harvest as the child who lives on a farm. Learning is also cultural. A child learns the language, customs and ways of their community. Education is interwoven with culture. Learning is intellectual; the brain processes information, builds understanding before assimilation and abstraction happens. Also, Piaget (1896-1980), famously discovered through research, that children think and learn differently from adults. This informed a change in the way children were being taught in the classrooms. Various educational researchers picked up on Piaget’s work and developed it further to what we now know as how children learn.

Learning is emotional, if a child is unhappy or scared, such a child cannot learn. Children that grow up in conflict areas, war torn zones struggle to learn. Research also shows that fear paralyses the child’s brain in early childhood and stops it from learning. On the contrary, children that are cared for and lovingly supported are able to learn, develop and excel in school. Learning is personal. In our uniqueness, our interests and abilities vary widely. Even when given the same opportunities, the skills acquired, learning outcomes vary from child to child.

A child at 18 months old may speak clearly in sentences, another at the same age may have little language, use phrases or single words to express her/himself. Likewise, if I show two children the same picture, their reactions and what they notice will be different. Both are developing, learning, even though at different paces. Learning is physical. Growth makes new movements and interactions possible. As a child starts to crawl, walk, or run, the child has a wider area to explore and learn from. The child also has access to more interactions with people in the immediate area who now view the child as ready for more.

Third thing to note is that learning is progressive. We build on our knowledge and so do children in the early years. Information should be presented to children from simple to complex. For example, you learn to identify sounds before you teach reading. The fourth is that children present their knowledge in unique ways. A child may not be able to answer a direct question of what is 2+2. The same child may effortlessly count and pick out four pencils from a pile and add two more to it if needed without a plus sign in sight.

Fifth, environment is a big part of learning in the early years. The environment here refers to the people; teachers, parents, carers, child minders, guardians and family who daily interact with the child. The teacher must understand child development and how this will affect how s/he interacts with the child. Parents must understand their role in supporting the child from birth through early childhood, physically, emotionally and in developing language and communication skills. It also refers to the physical environment; home, school, town and country. Independence is central to a child’s development of self-esteem and learning in the early years. A child that is carried everywhere, on the back (as we culturally do) may have no desire to walk anywhere by her/himself. A child must be encouraged to do things for her/himself as soon as the child grows. A nine-month-old can hold her/his bottle and feed self if encouraged. A child needs a language rich environment, where s/he is constantly engaged in conversation and encouraged to talk to stimulate language development. The combination of encouraging and knowledgeable adults is necessary for learning and development of the child.

Sixth, children must have opportunities for practice. We have all heard ‘practice makes perfect’. Children need lots of opportunities to practice what they learn for assimilation to be complete. That is why you will see the child being drawn to the same activity over and over again.

Seventh, challenges are necessary to prompt the development of curiosity, problem solving and critical thinking skills which further cement or extend the child’s knowledge. Curiosity is a strong desire to know or learn. A curious child will ask questions, manipulate and explore her/his environment and learn. A child that can fix a four-piece puzzle comfortably can be challenged to fix an eight-piece puzzle. The adult when introducing this new puzzle may stay with the child to ‘scaffold’ this new activity. Scaffolding is a term introduced by Jerome Bruner (1915-2016) to represent the support given to learners to learn something more complex than what s/he already knows.

Dr. Montessori (1870-1952) famously said that ‘play is the work of the child’. In early childhood, children through play, imitate adults and are instructed to learn.

In summary, in early childhood, play is the child’s work. Children in early childhood learn through interactions with the environment, knowledgeable adults, teachers, parents and carers who respect their uniqueness, encourage, stimulate and challenge them in age appropriate ways that support their natural development. It takes everyone playing their role for learning to occur. Parents must be purposeful about parenting. The home environment should support the child’s natural inclination for movement, language development and independence. The teacher also must use her/his knowledge of child development to support each child in the classroom. This way the child will learn.

I will end with the words of John Lubbock: “The important thing is not so much that every child should be taught, as that every child should be given the wish to learn.”