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Development: How Young Children Learn



  • Young children learn in several ways. They learn by doing things for themselves, practicing and repeating new things, watching and listening to you, playing, and by exploring new places and activities.
  • You can help your child by being patient, letting him try new things, communicating clearly, and encouraging your child to be active.


Young children have a lot to learn. Understanding some of the ways that children learn can help you develop your child into the person you want him to be. Start by making your home a good place to learn. Provide simple, safe items and activities that interest your child.

Each child is unique. While some behavior and growth milestones tend to happen at certain ages, a wide range for each age is normal. It is okay if your child reaches some milestones earlier and others later than the average.

Children learn by doing.

Let your child try to do things by himself. Young children need to be watched closely and kept safe. However, they learn to make choices and build confidence by dressing themselves and putting their toys away. Give your child enough time to complete each task. Resist the urge to help. Praise your child for effort, rather than results. Let your child try things that are a challenge. He will feel successful when he can do something that he thought was hard.

Children learn by expressing thoughts and feelings. Provide craft items such as paper, crayons, and play dough. Help your child collect small objects such as leaves, feathers, and bits of fabric to make things. Display what they make and help them take pride in their work.

Children learn through repetition.

It takes practice for a child to drink from a cup, learn new words, or cross the street safely. Your child doesn't get bored when he repeats things. He needs to practice the same thing over and over again. Be patient, and be prepared to repeat things several times before your child learns the lesson.

Children learn from what you say and do.

When teaching your child, give reasons when you ask your child to do something. Say, for example, "Please move your truck from the stairs so no one falls over it", rather than "Move it because I said so."

Make rules and let your child know what will happen if he breaks a rule. When your child breaks a rule, follow through each time and do what you have said you would do. Your child will learn that you mean what you say.

When your child does something wrong, focus on the behavior, not your child. Instead of saying "You are a bad boy!" say, "It's not OK for you to draw on the walls." This helps your child learn that it is not OK to do certain things, without being scared that you do not love him anymore. If your child knows that you love him even if he makes a mistake, it makes learning easier. Set a good example and deal with your child in a quiet, calm manner. Help him understand why his behavior is not OK. When you discipline your child, use time-outs rather than yelling or hitting him.

Praise your child when he does something well. Let him know that you notice him learning new things. Also praise him when you see him sharing or being polite when playing with other children.

Communicate through talk, gestures, singing, and reading. Teach your child songs and nursery rhymes. All of these kinds of communication can help your child learn about language. Your child will learn reading skills while watching and listening as you read to him. He will start to figure out that printed symbols have certain meanings.

Children learn by play.

Give your child toys and books that have movable parts or that change in some way when moved or opened. Young children love to open flaps and explore the insides of things. This lets your child see what happens when he takes action. Listen to his comments and answer his questions.

Play helps children learn to solve problems, such as how to get toys upright if they fall over. Play can help your child express emotions like anger and fear. When they stack up blocks, children learn about colors, numbers, shapes, and balance.

Playing with others helps children learn how to share and not always get their own way. Give your child lots of chances to play with other children. Always be sure and supervise young children playing together. Limit the amount of time your child spends in front of a television or computer screen.

Children learn by exploring.

Take your child to do and see new things. Go for walks in your neighborhood or to the park. Point out trees, animals, and the weather. Visit museums, libraries, zoos and other places of interest. If you live in the city, spend a day in the country. If you live in the country, spend a day in the city. Go to cultural events with foods, music, and dress that is different from your own.

Let your child play music, dance, paint, or dress up in costumes.

Developed by Change Healthcare.
Pediatric Advisor 2019.4 published by Change Healthcare.
Last modified: 2018-05-24
Last reviewed: 2018-05-21
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2018 Change Healthcare LLC and/or one of its subsidiaries
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