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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 your child 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 your child develop into the person you want your child 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 or herself. 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. Your child will feel successful when doing something that your child 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 pieces of fabric to make things. Display what your child makes and so your child can take pride in the work done.

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 repeating tasks or words. Your child needs to practice the same thing often. Be patient, and be prepared to repeat things several times while 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. Explain that removing a toy from the stairs prevents someone from tripping on it.

Make rules and let your child know what will happen if rules get broken. 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 calling the child bad, point out that the behavior is not OK. This helps your child learn that it is not OK to do certain things, without being scared that you do not love him or her anymore. Your child should know that, even if making a mistake, he or she is still loved. Set a good example and deal with your child in a quiet, calm manner. Help your child understand why a certain behavior is not OK. When you discipline your child, use time-outs rather than yelling or hitting.

Offer praise when your child does something well. Let your child know that you notice the new behaviors. Also offer praise when you see your child sharing, being polite, or 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 aloud. Your child 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 taking action. Listen to your child’s comments and answer any 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 such as anger and fear. When stacking blocks, your child 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 2022.1 published by Change Healthcare.
Last modified: 2019-12-02
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.
© 2022 Change Healthcare LLC and/or one of its subsidiaries
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