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How babies and toddlers learn

5-minute read

The first few years of a child’s life are critical for development. The experiences children have in these years help shape the adults they will become.

Your child needs a stimulating environment with lots of different activities that give them plenty of ways to play and learn, and lots of chances to practise what they're learning.

This information may help parents and families by offering ideas about things children enjoy, and by suggesting activities which you may enjoy sharing with your child. However, this is only a starting point — you know your child best, so use your own ideas about what your child can do and what they enjoy.

How children learn

We all know that playing is fun. It’s also the most effective way for children to learn. By playing, children can practise all the skills they’ll need as they grow up. To grow and develop, children need time and attention from someone who’s happy to play with them. Gradually, they’ll learn to entertain themselves for some of the time.

It can be hard to find the time to play with your child, especially when there are many other things you need to do. The solution can be to find ways to involve your child in what you’re doing, even the housework. Children learn from everything they do and everything that’s going on around them.

Get them involved

When you’re washing up, let your child join in, for example by washing the saucepan lids. When you cook, show them what you're doing and talk to them as you’re working.

Getting them involved in the things you do will teach them about taking turns to help and being independent. They’ll also learn by copying what you do.

Sometimes, things have to happen at certain times, and while it’s important that your child learns this, try not to have a strict timetable when you’re together. Your child is unlikely to fit in with it and you’ll both get frustrated. There’s no rule that says the washing up has to be done before you go to the playground, especially if the sun’s shining and your child’s bursting with energy.

Ideas to help your child play and learn

You can give your child lots of different opportunities to play, and it doesn't need to be difficult or expensive:

  • Reading — You can start looking at books with your baby from an early age. It will help them with their future learning. The time spent sharing books with your baby also allows you to bond with them and is good for their emotional wellbeing.
  • Playing with water — Babies, toddlers and young children love playing with water in, for example, the bath, a paddling pool or just using the sink or a plastic bowl. Never leave a young child alone with water. A baby or young child can drown in only 5cm (2 inches) of water.
  • Pretend cooking — Use a bowl and spoons to measure small quantities of ‘real’ ingredients (flour, lentils, rice, sugar, custard powder). You and your child can mix them up with water in bowls or egg cups.
  • Drawing and painting — Use crayons, felt tips or powder paint. You can make powder paint thicker by adding washing up liquid as well as water.

Teaching your child the everyday essentials

When children play, they’re learning what they want to learn. Often these will be things you want them to learn too.

Sometimes, though, they may need some extra help from you. For example, when they’re learning to use a potty, how to wash and dress themselves or what not to touch and where it’s not safe to run.

The following suggestions can make life easier for both of you:

  • Wait until you think your child is ready. If you try to teach them something too soon, you’ll both end up getting frustrated. If you try teaching them something and it doesn't work out, leave it for a few weeks and try again.
  • Don’t make it into a big deal. Your child might learn to eat with a spoon very quickly but still want to be fed when they’re tired. They might use the potty a few times then want to go back to nappies. Don’t worry. It doesn't mean you’ve failed. It won’t take them long to realise that they want to learn to be grown up and independent.
  • Keep them safe. Children under the age of 3 can’t understand why they shouldn’t fiddle with electrical goods or breakable objects. It’s easier to keep things you don’t want touched well out of their way.
  • Be encouraging. Your child wants to please you. If you give them a big smile, a cuddle or praise when they do something right, they’re much more likely to do it again. This works a lot better than telling them off for doing something wrong.
  • Be realistic. Don't expect perfection or instant results. If you assume everything is going to take a bit longer than you thought, you will be pleasantly surprised if it doesn't.
  • Set an example. Your child wants to be like you and do what you do. Let them see you washing your hands, brushing your teeth and using the loo.
  • Be firm. Children need firm, consistent guidelines. Once you’ve made a decision, stick to it. For example, if you start potty training but decide your child isn't ready, it’s fine to give up and try again a few weeks later.
  • Be consistent. For the same reason, it’s important that everyone who looks after your child teaches them the same things in more or less the same way. If you and your partner, or you and your childminder, do things very differently, your child won’t learn as easily.
  • Do what’s right for your child, for you and the way you live. Don’t worry about what the child next door can or can’t do. It’s not a competition. 

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: September 2020


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This information is for your general information and use only and is not intended to be used as medical advice and should not be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any medical condition, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes.

The information is not a substitute for independent professional advice and should not be used as an alternative to professional health care. If you have a particular medical problem, please consult a healthcare professional.

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