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Understanding Preschoolers: How Children Learn and Develop

There continues to be increased awareness about how important the early years of life are for healthy brain development in infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. This is a great first step in prioritizing high quality early care and education experiences for all children. But this often leaves people wondering, well, so what? What does that mean? How do children actually learn? Understanding how children learn is critical to understanding why the early years are so important. Understanding how children learn ensures the environments and experiences we’re providing for them are developmentally appropriate, high quality, and will ultimately establish a foundation for future success.


Children Learn Through Play

You’ve probably heard this many times before, but what that actually means can feel fuzzy for a lot of adults. This is in part because we don’t remember our own early educational experiences very clearly, and what we do remember is probably from our elementary years and not appropriate for young children.

Play supports the way that children, naturally develop. The three main categories of development are cognitive, physical, and social-emotional. All three of these are developing simultaneously, and none of these areas develops in a silo. They are interconnected. A really clear example of two areas of development that might initially seem unrelated, but are, in fact, very related is language development and physical development. The development of verbal language relies on the physical development of the mouth, tongue, and throat. Having the right oral muscle development allows a child to experiment with sounds that eventually become language. By experimenting with sounds, infants and toddlers are also building the muscles they will need for speech.

Play allows for this holistic development because it naturally encompasses all three domains. And if that’s not convincing enough, the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has said, “Play is so important to optimal child development that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child.”

Let’s make this more concrete with some examples. Here are specific examples of learning domains and the play activities that support them.

Fine Motor is the development of the small muscles in the hands. Here are some play activities that support fine motor:

  • Stringing beads
  • Play dough
  • Legos
  • Finger plays
  • Dress up
  • Self-care
  • Drawing

Gross Motor is the development of the large muscle groups in the body. Here are some play activities that support gross motor:

  • Outdoor play
  • Obstacle courses
  • Dancing
  • Balance beam
  • Tricycles
  • Scooters
  • Ball play

Pre-math is the development of knowledge, skills, and concepts related to more formal academic math. Here are some play activities that lay the foundation for math:

  • Shape hunt
  • Playing “I Spy”
  • Block play
  • Build patterns
  • Sorting objects
  • Comparing sizes and shapes
  • Cooking

Pre-literacy is the development of knowledge, skills, and concepts that lay the foundation for reading and language development. Examples of play activities that foster pre-literacy development include:

  • Reading and listening to stories
  • Singing
  • Rhymes
  • Word play
  • Exploring writing (scribbling, making letters, etc.)
  • Conversations and questions, especially ones that help expand vocabulary

Social-emotional development is all about managing one’s emotions and building positive relationships with others. Examples of play activities that help build social-emotional skills include:

  • Naming emotions
  • Paying attention to others’ emotions and talking about them
  • Adult-supported conflict resolution
  • Dramatic play
  • Listening to stories and talking about character’s emotional experiences
  • Taking turns
  • Group activities

Preschoolers Learn Through Trusting Relationships With Adults

The presence of positive, trusting, and responsive relationships with adults is critical to a child’s development. Whether it is an adult responding to an infant’s cry or an adult supporting a preschooler through a melt down, these relationships are critical. It is through these relationships that children are able to develop positive self-identity, the confidence to explore the world around them, and a safe space to develop their own social-emotional fluency.

Adults play a huge role in supporting play as well. Adults are responsible for creating a child-centered environment in which they can thrive. They observe a child’s developmental progress and support it by introducing new materials, changing the setup of the classroom, asking good questions, and scaffolding emotional support.


Children Learn Through Repeated Hands-on Experiences

At any age the process of learning is about making connections between ideas and using existing knowledge to make sense of something new. Preschoolers are no different. The opportunity to explore something again and again and again is how they make sense of it. Think of the infant in the high chair throwing their cup over the edge over and over again. This might be irritating to you, but before you rush in to take it away, remember: this child is learning. The child is asking the questions: What happens when I drop my cup? What happens if I do it again? Is it different this time? How does my teacher react when I do it? What about this time?

Preschoolers and young children are natural scientists– observing the world, asking questions, and testing out their theories. Repeat exposure to ideas, materials, and experiences, solidifies the learning process. Adults can support this by making these connections explicit through questions and conversations.


Children Learn Through Predictable Routine

Young children, preschoolers included, have so little control over their lives– they are reliant on the whims of the adults around them. Having a predictable routine gives a child a sense of control over their days, and sets them up for success. In fact, a lack of routine can create behavioral problems that detract from everyone’s learning and happiness.

Beyond this, the routine itself is part of the learning. Giving a child a chance to practice moving from one thing to another, cleaning up when it’s time to clean up, learning important self-care skills like washing hands before snack– these are all routines that help a child become simultaneously independent and a member of the group.


Children Learn When They Are Interested

How do you learn best? It’s probably when you’re interested in the topic at hand. Preschoolers are no exception. They learn best when they’re interested in something, too. As adults we’ve developed the ability to control our attention in a much more sophisticated way. We can reason that we need to learn something even if it’s boring. A child’s brain isn’t developed enough for that yet. If a child loses interest in something, it’s going to be a losing battle to force them to stay focused, not to mention wildly developmentally inappropriate.

Allowing children choice in what they do and how they spend their time is really important for learning. If this seems at odds with a predictable routine, it’s not. In creating your predictable routine you can include time for “open exploration,” “free play,” “choice time,” etc. These are all different ways of saying the same thing: it is time for children to play, and they get to choose who they play with and what they do.

While the topic of how children learn is super important for our understanding of what’s developmentally appropriate in early learning, it would be a mistake to overlook when children are learning. And the answer to that is: always. From when they are born, children are learning. So whether it’s at home or at child care, children need the same things to grow and thrive, and that’s positive relationships with adults, ample opportunities for play and exploration, and a predictable routine.

Meredith Downing

Meredith Downing is the Curriculum Lead at Wonderschool, where she supports directors to build high-quality programs that help students grow and succeed.