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Learning in the baby to preschool years

0-5 years

Learning happens everywhere and all the time for babies, toddlers and preschoolers. Your child’s experiences in these early years lay the foundation for her learning in later years.

About learning in the early years

Babies are born ready to learn, and their brains develop through use. So your child needs a stimulating environment with lots of different activities that give him plenty of ways to play and learn. He also needs lots of chances to practise what he’s learning.

Babies and young children learn best when they have warm, engaged and responsive relationships with their main carers. So you have a vital role to play in helping your child learn through these early years. You are your child’s first teacher, and your child will keep learning from you as she gets older.

How babies and young children learn

Your young child learns through everyday play and exploration in a safe and stimulating environment.

Your child’s relationships with you, other family members and carers – for example, early childhood educators – are the foundation for your child’s healthy learning and development. Lots of time spent playing, talking, listening and interacting with these people helps your child learn the skills he needs for life, like communicating, thinking, problem-solving, moving and being with other people and children.

Your child learns best by actively engaging with her environment. This includes:

  • observing things, watching faces and responding to voices
  • listening to sounds, making sounds and singing
  • exploring – for example, putting things in her mouth, shaking things and turning things around
  • asking questions – for example, ‘But why?’
  • experimenting with textures, objects and materials like water, sand or dirt
  • doing things that stimulate all of her senses – touch, taste, smell, vision and hearing.

Your child also learns by being involved in his learning. This could be as simple as:

  • choosing books to read
  • pointing to pictures in books
  • choosing objects and toys to play with
  • picking out vegetables for dinner
  • measuring out flour for muffins.

If your child has the opportunity to try lots of different activities, it gives her lots of ways to learn and chances to practise what she’s learning. For example, it’s important for your child to have activities that are inside and outside, physically active or quiet, free play or more structured, and so on.

Your child needs your support for learning. For example, he might sometimes need you to show him what to do. But he doesn’t need you to give him all the answers. Letting your child make mistakes and find out for himself how the world works is a big part of learning. Your praise and encouragement when he tries hard will keep him interested and help him feel good.

No two children learn the same way or at the same pace. Some children learn better in one environment than another. If you’re worried about the development of your child’s learning, you can check that things are on track by talking to a health professional or your child’s educator.

What young children are learning

You and your family have a vital role in what your child learns in these early years.

Self and relationships 
From you and your family, your child learns that she’s loved and important. She learns trust – for example, ‘I know you’ll be there if I fall over’. She starts learning to understand her own needs, thoughts, feelings, likes and dislikes. Eventually, family relationships teach her about getting on with other children and grown-ups.

Language and communication 
When you talk and listen with your child, and read and sing together, you’re helping him learn about language, written and spoken communication, and taking turns and listening in conversations. 

Space, place and environment 
At home with you, your child learns about her own size and shape – for example, ‘I’m bigger than our stool but not as big as our table’. She also learns about her place in her community and her impact on the world around her. For example, ‘My home is in this street, the park is down the road, and my friend lives in a different street’, or ‘The plants grew because I helped to water them’.

Health and physical fitness 
When it comes to healthy eating and physical activity, you’re a key role model for your child. If you choose to have an apple rather than a snack bar for morning tea, your child is more likely to do the same. If you go for a walk rather than watching the TV, your child learns that exercise is a good, fun way to spend time together.

Other areas of learning 
You help your child build early numeracy skills with everyday counting – for example, ‘How many bears are on the bed?’ or ‘Can you put all the red pegs into this basket?’. Or you can sing nursery rhymes with your child that include counting.

And your child develops early literacy through reading and storytelling with you, playing simple sound and letter games like listening for words that begin with the same sound, and looking at pictures, letters and words in the environment – for example, on signs and in catalogs.

Your child’s handwriting skills develop when you encourage him to draw, scribble and write. For example, if you’re writing a card or a shopping list, you could give your child some paper and a pencil so he can join in. ‘Writing’ also helps your child understand the connection between letters and spoken sounds.

Singing with your child, putting on music for her to dance to, giving her musical instruments to play (homemade is just fine), and finding dress-up clothes for her to use are all great ways to get her started on learning about music, drama and dance.

Helping your child learn

You can help your child learn by:

  • showing an interest and responding to his efforts as he plays and learns 
  • taking turns in playing games with your child
  • showing your child how to deal with losing by playing games together and modelling how to be a good loser
  • playing rhyming, shape and number games together
  • encouraging your child to listen to longer instructions – for example, ask him to bring two things from his room, then three things, then four things
  • using simple language and not overloading your child with information – that is, give the simple explanation rather than the complicated one
  • limiting distractions – for example, turn off the TV while your child plays on the floor or put your phone away when you’re sharing a book or talking with your child.
By encouraging your child to try lots of new things, you help her learn more about who she is and what she’s good at.

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Last updated or reviewed
12-12-2016

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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