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How young children learn

Children’s brains, from birth, have immensely powerful and flexible capacities to attend to sensory information (seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling the body’s position in space, touching and tasting), including a developing awareness of the body, and the body’s place and movement in space. From birth, the brain has a very powerful capacity to organise experience into categories and make connections between experiences.

We view the birth to five age range as a “sensitive period” for children’s development and learning. Both under and over-stimulation are potentially damaging to children during sensitive periods of development. Therefore we always offer a rich, stimulating, multi-sensory environment for children, whilst avoiding overstimulation (e.g. too much visual stimulation).

 Children have very different temperaments. Some children need stimulating, questioning and communicative adults in order to encourage them to explore and experiment. But more outgoing children can have their development hindered by this type of approach, experiencing it as interfering. All children need adults who listen attentively, develop conversation, and think out loud together with them.

Children need to feel emotionally secure at nursery, if they are to have the confidence to explore and learn. They need to feel confident about the transition between home/parent and nursery/key person. Children in nursery need adults who can hold them in mind, can think about their emotional state, and can regulate their emotional state when it threatens to become overwhelming.

Children’s powerful learning mechanisms mean that a lot of their development happens through playing and experimenting with high quality materials. For example, through many experiences of playing with water and other liquids, children move from simple actions (e.g. a baby flicking water with her fingers) to more complex, co-ordinated actions (e.g. a four year old carefully pouring water from one container into another and then carrying the container over to the sand and mixing the two substances together).

Through repeating and practising these physical actions and experiments, children develop concepts about shape, space, and the properties of substances. Children are also learning through the movement of their bodies, and feeling sensations on their bodies. Moving the body builds brain as well as muscle; movements that start off with the body can then be extended to movements of tools and play materials. It is difficult to learn to write if you haven’t mastered big movements with your shoulders and arms.

The development of language from the second year onwards gives children an additional and immensely powerful mechanism for organising experience and learning from it. Through conversation with adults and other children, they are increasingly able to distance themselves from what they are doing and reflect on it, or see another point of view. When adults engage with children cooperatively (e.g. thinking over a problem together; guiding a child by discussion through a process like cooking a cake which the child could not do independently), they are providing a very powerful structure to support children’s learning.

Play is an integrating mechanism in children’s learning, bringing together social, emotional, sensory, linguistic, and physical development. Resources, adult help, and teaching need to be geared to the development of the child. For example, the first symbolic play is with props which closely resemble real things (a pretend tea cup, a pretend telephone) and is generally imitative. So resources and adult involvement in play need to be geared to this. In the third year, more complex pretend play develops, where an object can stand for almost anything the child imagines, and where the ideas for play are increasingly thought up by the child, rather than simply in imitation of adults; therefore resources which closely resemble real things start to become a hindrance to developing play, whereas previously they had been helpful.