Understanding how young children learn best

An everyday event in any playgroup, nursery or group. Nothing that Michael did was remarkable or surprising, and most people observing Michael would have said that he was playing in the way most young children play. But this little vignette tells us quite a lot about Michael and gives us an insight into what he already knows, what he can do, what he is interested in and how he chooses to spend his time. Information like this is essential to anyone working with young children.


What we mean by learning ‘Learning’ is a word we all use frequently and often without really considering what it means. It is a word we use to describe an enormous range of experiences and events.


Think about these statements: ‘I learned, early on, that I wanted to be famous.’
‘Children learn through play.’ ‘When I first learned to read I couldn’t get enough books.’ ‘Jamie learned to talk at nine months.’ ‘I learned to drive.’ ‘At school I had to learn poetry off by heart.’ ‘I never learned another language.’ ‘I used to hate olives, but then I learned to love them.’
If you analyse each of these you will find that we sometimes use the word ‘learning’ to talk about how we acquire skills— learning to drive, to walk or to use a knife and fork, for example. We use the word to talk about how we acquire attitudes— learning to enjoy the books or appreciate the taste of olives. We use the word to describe how we appreciate how to relate to other people. In short, the word ‘learning’ is a broad term that defines what happens to us in a range of circumstances and over an indefinite period of time. You will know that children learn at home, in the playground, at school, in the streets. Learning happens all the time.


What some people believe is actually happening when we learn is that connections between cells in the brain are laid down and strengthened. So, ‘learning’ also has a very precise meaning. At birth, the human infant has all the brain cells needed for human development. In order for the human being to function, however, connections or pathways need to be formed between these cells. You will have read that learning during the first five years of life is more rapid than at any other time. This is why the early years of life are said to be so crucial in terms of learning.
Some research has shown that these neural pathways are formed most effectively through experience. Each time a child encounters something new and interesting, the child explores the new object or situation, and as he or she does, connections between brain cells are laid down. However, there are dangers in just accepting this statement without more careful consideration. Most of the research done has been done on privileged children from privileged backgrounds. Certainly children learn through their experiences, but not only children from privileged backgrounds learn. A learning
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