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How children learn

Baby; child; learn; play; social; development; self; esteem; cultural; understanding; environment; communication; creativity; technology ;

The first and most important learning in a child's life happens within the family. Children learn from the way people treat them and from what they see, hear and experience starting as soon as they are born.


Children are natural learners and between birth and five years, and especially to three years, children grow and learn at the fastest rate of their lifetime. It is easy to see the enormous opportunity parents, and those who care for children, have in these early years to help shape children's learning before they start school.

There is so much you can do with young children. The section of this topic 'Things you can do with children at different ages' has lots of ideas.


How children learn

  • There are many ways of learning. Children learn by watching, by listening and especially by doing.
  • All children go through a number of stages but there are differences between children within each stage. There are also differences in the length of time it takes for children to move from stage to stage.
  • Children do best in an environment which is interesting and where they feel loved and safe.

Important areas of learning

The following areas of development are very important to young children's ability to learn and make the most of educational opportunities from birth onwards. They are all different parts of what children need to learn.


  • This is very important - it is learning about who you are as a person and feeling good about yourself.
  • Feeling valued, wanted and respected leads to feeling good about yourself and being confident.
  • Once children have this confidence they can try new things, explore their world, cope when things go a bit wrong and feel that they have a chance to do well.

You help build your child's self-esteem when you:

  • show them that they are lovable and loved
  • support them in trying new things
  • show them that you enjoy being with them and want to spend time with them
  • help them learn new skills and praise them when they try these out.

There is much more in the topic 'Self esteem for children'.

Social development

Young children are beginning to learn about feelings and how to get on with other people long before they are able to do this very well.

You help your children:

  • learn about feelings by giving feelings names, eg. saying "That makes you sad..., cross... or happy... " as a result of something happening
  • learn about feelings by explaining to them how others may feel, eg. "It hurts my ears when you shout"
  • learn about getting on with others when you yourself are caring about others and when you are caring about your own children's feelings
  • by talking to them and telling them what you are doing and why
  • by letting them begin to help at home and be part of caring for the home, eg helping with collecting the mail, feeding animals.


Don't try to make them share toys and other things that are important to them before they are ready to.

To a young child this doesn't seem like sharing - it just seems like taking his or her things.

Cultural understanding

Children need to learn that being different is OK - we are all different in one way or another. Your children will learn from you to value all the different things they can learn from others. Your attitude to different cultures will make a big difference to the way your children treat people from a different culture.

  • You can help their cultural understanding by telling stories about your own family history and background and showing them you are proud of it.
  • Talk about the differences and what we can learn from them.
  • Give your children opportunities to see and take part in cultural events - festivals, puppet shows, different foods and music.

These topics on the 'Kid's Health' section of our site may show you ways you can talk about some issues with your children.

Health and physical development

The foundations for good health are laid down in the earliest years. Babies, toddlers and preschoolers are naturally active and they learn through their bodies long before they can talk.

  • Give young children lots of opportunities for physical play - with some time outdoors every day if possible. Physical play helps them develop strength, balance and skills.
  • Encourage them to use their hands - cutting, threading, pasting, drawing. This may mean letting them get 'mucky' while they enjoy the 'feel' of different things.
  • Make sure they get plenty of rest and healthy food.
  • Take them to be immunised against diseases that could harm them.
  • Teach them about safety around your home, water and roads, but remember they are not yet old enough to protect themselves. They need supervision.
  • Make sure your home (and any other home you take them to) is safe for young children. Have a look at the topic Home safety.


Communication is one of the most important parts of our daily life. It means understanding what we see, hear and read, and being able to give messages to others in ways they can understand. Children need words for thinking and learning.

  • Have fun with words - say or sing rhymes, songs and jingles.
  • Tell babies what you are doing, and ask toddlers and preschoolers for their ideas.
  • Read and tell stories from when they are very young. Even babies get value from listening to your voice.

One of the most important things you can do for your children is to talk with them and listen to them as they talk to you.


Creativity is a child's own special way of expressing ideas, thoughts and feelings. Young children are curious and full of ideas. Once they can move about they like to explore and do things in different ways. By accepting their ideas and the things they make, you are encouraging them to explore, take risks and have a go.

  • Take them to entertainment for children - movies, face painting at the market, children's concerts.
  • Encourage them to sing and dance.
  • Provide boxes and dress-ups for pretend play.
  • Provide paper, paints and playdough.
  • Collect bits and pieces such as leaves, feathers, paper, fabric for making things and then display what they make.


Thinking involves looking and listening, questioning, trying things out and making decisions. Children need time to be able to try things over and over until they can work things out. Sometimes if they are getting frustrated they will need a little help from an adult.

You can help children think by:

  • talking about things as you do them, eg. "It's a long way so we'll go on the bus" or "I'm taking my jumper off because it is hot"
  • giving them things to sort and match, eg. coloured pegs or socks
  • doing puzzles
  • providing building toys so they can build things
  • telling jokes and riddles.

The environment

Children enjoy playing in and exploring their natural world - backyard, park and beach. At the same time they are learning about their built world around them - roads, houses, shops, schools. They will learn from you if you tell them why you do things when you recycle, mow, weed or paint the house.

  • Let your children explore outdoors.
  • Lots of this learning is messy play with sand, dirt and water. Making a mess can be an important part of learning.
  • Talk to them about trees, weather, birds, fish and animals.
  • Look for tiny insects that live in the garden - but don't encourage touching!
  • Plant seeds and watch them grow.
  • Watch a house being built (and explain why you need to watch from a safe distance).
  • Explore new places together like trying a new park or walking around a different block in your suburb.


Technology is about using things to solve problems, eg how to sweep the floor or cut material. Technology is all around us and helps to make life easier. Things like scissors, kettles, bike pumps, washing machines, cars and computers are part of technology.

You can help children think about technology when you:

  • talk about the tools you are using and how they help you
  • talk about different ways of doing things
  • make sure both boys and girls get the same chances to use things like hammers, brooms and computers
  • talk about what you could do without technology, eg how to get to the shop without a car
  • encourage thinking about how to use things to solve problems, eg how to stop a toy boat turning over in the bath or how to carry things from one place to another.

There is more to read in the Parent Easy Guides: Television and Safe technology use Prepared by Parenting SA A partnership between the Department for Education and Child Development and the Women’s and Children’s Health Network. 

Things you can do with children at different ages

Baby (up to 6 months)

Your young baby is an active learner. From birth up to the age of six months a baby shows this learning by turning his head towards sounds and movements; reaching up to hold his feet while lying on his back; smiling at familiar faces and voices; making different sounds; putting everything in his mouth.

  • Young babies enjoy being with people - faces to watch, fingers to grip, skin and hair to feel, voices to listen to, arms to be rocked in.

Baby (6-12 months)

Your baby is getting stronger and starting to move about. In the second six months a baby begins to explore the world around her. This can be scary at first and she may be afraid to let the people she feels safe with out of her sight.

  • Older babies will play happily with household items such as pegs, cotton reels, paper plates, used wrapping paper, spoons and plastic containers (but not plastic bags). They love things to crawl in and over, and to put into their mouths.

Early toddler (1-2 years)

Although unsteady on his feet at first, your young toddler loves being able to walk and climb. Falling over, small bumps and bruises are common. Parents are important as the secure base for toddlers to return to when they need it. It is very important for them to do things for themselves and their first word may be "No". They are starting to use words to tell you what they want.

  • Toddlers need room to explore and run. They need big things to hold and play with - big balls, blocks. They like simple ride-on toys and toys they can push and pull.

Older toddler (2-3 years)

Your two year old seems to be always curious and on the move as she explores more widely. She enjoys being with other children and learning to do more for herself. Tantrums are common because she is not yet able to do the things she wants to and she can get very frustrated. Speech becomes clearer and easier to understand.

  • Two year olds enjoy dress-ups, ride-on toys, stories, rhymes, and copying their parents. They are not yet able to share so having more than one toy of the same kind can be helpful if they are playing near other children.

Young preschooler (3-4 years)

Your young child begins to engage in make-believe play with friends, perhaps at playgroup. Learning how to get on with others is important to your child's development. This is a time when he asks many questions.

  • Young preschoolers enjoy drawing, painting, play dough, making things, swings and playgrounds and lots of time and space to run.

Preschooler (4-5 years)

Four year old preschoolers move well and enjoy physical activity. Their thinking shows in the things they say, draw, make and do. "Why?" questions are often asked. They are more able to see things from another's point of view.

  • They love stories and funny words, building with large lego, painting, make believe play and playing with others.
  • They enjoy trying out their physical skills at playgrounds and problem solving skills with simple computer games.

What you can do

As parents you are in the best position to know what your children like and what they can do and to support their learning.

  • The first and most important learning happens in the family.
  • All children are learners who will develop at their own rate.
  • Children learn best when they have interesting things to do and interested people to help them.
  • There are many ways of learning by watching, listening and doing.
  • Encourage your children from babyhood as they try new things and explore new skills.
  • Be guided by your own child's interests and pace.
  • Be positive with your children and encourage them to try new things in a safe environment.
  • Provide an environment where your children can explore, learn new things, try new things, practise what they can do and talk about what they are doing and learning. Teach them to watch, listen, think and question.
  • Don't feel guilty about asking for information or support for your child or for yourself. Every child is different and every stage of development brings new challenges, so there may be times when you need advice or support. Sometimes that support will be available within your family, sometimes it will have to come from elsewhere.
  • Give your children plenty of time to play. Play is important because it allows children to practise skills over and over again in their own time and to develop ideas at their own pace. While many toys bring great fun and challenges, play also can be provided without spending much money. Play materials can come from many sources.
  • Outdoors, there are sand and water, shadows, trees to climb and bushes to hide in.
  • 'Junk' items can help imaginative play. Big cardboard boxes make cubbies or trains, food packages and advertising brochures are good for home or shop play, old clothes for dressing up, old pots and pans and spoons for digging in the sand.
  • Parks have swings, slides and spaces for running and ball play.
  • Beaches have sand for digging, waves for chasing, stones, seaweed or shells for collecting.
  • Libraries have books and music along with games and puzzles for thinking, sharing and learning about rules.

Try to find activities which will support your child's learning in the areas of physical and social development, thinking and communicating.


South Australia

Contact your local preschool or children's services centre and ask to look at the 'Growing and learning in the Family' - booklet.

Your local district Education Office can tell you about parent workshops which you can attend and where to receive your own copy of the booklet.

Department of Education and Child Development - Great Start
Support for parents in building their child's literacy and numeracy skills through everyday activities.

More information and ideas

The Raising Children Network website has a lot of interesting information about how children learn and play 

For example:

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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