How Do Children Actually Learn Best?

When it comes to teaching children, there are a LOT of ideas out there.

“Children have to have stimulating toys!” (read more on that here)

“Children need educational shows!” (read more on that here)

“Montessori style!” “No, they need to be with other kids their age!”

There are plenty of rumors floating around, and maybe one day I’ll write a post addressing some of these rumors. But today’s post is about how children actually learn. Some of these points may surprise you!

Children learn from modeling

This one should be a no brainer for anyone who has any experience with children. Unfortunately, the younger generation is still being brought up by media, which tells me right off the bat that they need to know how children learn.

If you’ve taken a psychology class in high school or college, you’ve probably come across Alfred Bandura’s Social Learning Theory. This is the basic theory that people learn from other people.

Bandura’s famous Bobo Doll Experiment, showed that children were predisposed to act aggressively if they saw aggression being modeled for them by an adult. Bandura then went on to perform another experiment, in which aggression was modeled by a human model, by a human model on film, and by a cartoon character. The study found that children are influenced most strongly by a real-life human model, then by a human model on film, then lastly by a cartoon character.

more recent article published by Rachel Barr, examines a plethora of studies done on young children’s ability to transfer knowledge from 2D (television and books) into 3D (real life). Across the board, children under the age of 3 learned significantly faster from real life models than they did from televised models.

That is to say, children learn much better from people in their life than they do from TV, no matter how educational the program.

Children learn better from the unexpected 

This may seem novel at first, but if you think about it for a minute, it begins to make a lot of sense. All humans learn better from the unexpected.


Because if something is expected, we’re less likely to give it a second thought. However, something unexpected causes us to scratch our heads and try to puzzle out why on earth that may be. We spend more brain power thinking about it, and we’re more likely to remember it.

Furthermore, according to this article, being surprised puts your mind into “thinking mode”, allowing you to learn better directly after the surprising experience.

Learning is contagious. Once curiosity is piqued about a certain subject (such as an unexplained phenomenon), that curiosity transfers over to other subjects and increases the person’s desire to learn.

Surprising your children with new or unexpected activities may just get them interested in learning all kinds of new things!

Physical activity improves learning

This one drives me crazy. It is a well-supported fact that physical activity has cognitive benefits for children (and adults!), yet the American school system continues to be woefully underdeveloped in the areas of physical education and recess. More on that another time.

There are a host of reasons why this is true, but let’s start with the most obvious.

Children don’t enjoy sitting still. They enjoy moving around and playing. Making them sit still to learn for long periods of time teaches them that learning is not fun. If children only associate learning with sitting quietly, they are missing out on a holistic learning experience.

The list of direct cognitive benefits is too long to list, but a few key ones are:

  • Increased oxygen and blood flow to the brain
  • Growth of brain cells and brain tissue
  • More connections between nerve cells

Physical activity’s benefits for the brain show up in improved memory, better focus, and more positive emotions. All of these are important for learning.

Make sure your child is getting AT LEAST the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity per day. Take them to the park, let them run around in the yard, get them involved in a sport… the possibilities are endless!

Frequent breaks allow greater learning 

Separate from physical activity, children need frequent breaks to disengage from learning. This is free play time, not an adult-directed activity.

Finland is currently a world leader in education. Their school policy would be abominable to Americans – it goes against everything we currently practice when it comes to education. They believe in long recesses, short school days, and 15 minute breaks between every class to run around outside and play.

But you know what? It’s working.

Children are happier to go to school. They’re more focused during lessons. Why is this?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children need time to solidify what they’ve just learned in their mind. They actually lose material by not allowing the free time to encode what they’ve been taught. Switching straight from one cognitive task to another maintains a steady stream of information coming into the brain, without giving the brain time to process and store it.

Children behave better when they have breaks. This results in a less stressful environment for both students and teachers (or kids and parents!).

Free play promotes creativity and imagination, which are often neglected in the academic arena. But you can’t have one without the other. A smart child with no hint of creativity will be less successful, just as a highly creative child with no focus to reign in their imagination will also get nowhere. It is important to let children develop their creativity, even as you focus on teaching them academically.

Allow children frequent breaks during learning, particularly if you see they are getting fidgety. While I believe that sitting still is a skill every child does need to learn for life, children were made to play. Sitting still all day is not what they were designed for, and frankly it isn’t good for them. Not physically, not cognitively, not socially.

Children learn best when they understand, not memorize

There has been an educational reform to aim at comprehension instead of memorization. You probably already know that children learn best when they have a deeper knowledge of the material. But how do you go about teaching them so that they understand, rather than memorize?

The International Academy of Education gives several great recommendations for parents and teachers.

Have children repeat the material back to you in their own words. Nothing says “I understand this material” better than a summary straight from your child’s mind. And every time they do this, they’re solidifying the knowledge for themselves.

Give examples of material as you go over it. Examples make learning real, and counteract the tendency to just memorize the words. Once your child has acquired the concept you’re teaching, have them come up with examples (different than yours) of what they’ve just learned. This shows that they can generalize the information you’ve taught them.

Have them solve problems related to the material they’ve been taught. We often do this in math: explain the concept, then solve the problem relating to that concept. But you can do it in other subjects as well!

Ask them more difficult questions relating to the material, but not direct quotes. For instance, if you are learning about the concept of heat, ask them what the opposite of hot might be. If you are learning about water, ask them what other things are wet like water. When they understand material, they should be able to relate the information to similar concepts, or to opposite concepts.

Have them use inductive and deductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning requires you to give your child specific examples and see if they can come up with the general concept behind them. For instance, you could ask: “What do snow, ice, and refrigerators all have in common?” (they’re cold). Deductive reasoning gives the general observation and asks what some specific examples might be. “Can you tell me some things that are cold?”

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to children and learning, but hopefully you’ve found some of these notions helpful and can implement them when teaching your children!

How do children actually learn best? How can you teach your child in the most effective way? Read to find out! | Mom but not a Mom

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