How Toddlers Learn – Anecdotes from a Parent-Toddler Classroom

How Toddlers Learn – Anecdotes from a Parent-Toddler Classroom

Learning happens best when the senses are engaged. This stands true for everyone, but especially for toddlers who are still discovering and experiencing the world around them for the first time. Babies are born with basic sensory systems that grow amazingly complex within the first few months as new stimulus is processed and millions of connections are sparked. This is what makes young learners incredibly curious and perceptive. With every passing moment, they observe, process, and model the people and things they see around them. They try to imitate the sounds they hear, they associate what you say with what you show, and they respond keenly to all kinds of stimulus. All of this plays a foundational role in children’s development.

Although all young learners are alike in their exploratory capabilities and their infinite potential, they are each unique in how they express these capabilities and develop their potential. For instance, while some learners really enjoy messy activities such as playing with paints, mud or craft materials, others shrink away from these and prefer ‘neater’ options like block play.  Loris Malaguzzi’s “The Hundred Languages”, beautifully expresses how every child learns in their own way. To add to this, I would like to share some of my own experiences of teaching the youngest learners at the Toddler’s Den Mumbai campus.

Learning Through Touch

A baby’s first experience to the surrounding environment occurs through the sense of touch. It plays a vital role in helping them explore and make sense of the objects, people, and environment that surround them. Almost all sensory and play activities have some element of touch which allows children to begin developing preferences for certain kinds of textures. For instance, one child may not like the prickly feeling of grass touching their feet while another may really enjoy the feel of wet mud or flour. Tactile learning and touch is essential for a child’s growth in physical abilities, cognitive and language skills, and even social and emotional development. Touch is not only imperative for short-term advancement with infancy and early childhood sensory experiences, but also for children’s long-term development. What textures does your child enjoy?

Some dough-making fun in the parent-toddler class

Learning Through Seeing

After snack time one day, we were about to sing the goodbye song when I observed an 11-month-old brushing her palms on the mat in an effort to clear away some stray rice puffs she had dropped. Her parent shared that the child had observed the domestic help at home clean up after meals using cloth to brush away crumbs. This demonstrated that the baby had formed an association that taught her to clean-up after eating. This may on the face of it seem like a very small and simplistic thing to learn, but the significance of forming associations becomes clearer when we remember that children repeat the behaviour that they see most often and that gets the biggest reaction! What behaviour are you encouraging for your toddler?

Learning Through Expressions

Before they can quite speak, toddlers begin to associate words with what they feel. For instance, when one child touched ice during a  sensory exploration, she scrunched up her face and made a sound – ‘cooooo’ – as if she was trying to utter cold or cool, a common word that she has definitely heard older people use. Her mother affirmed the attempt and responded with, ‘yes dear, it’s cold, the ice is cold’.  This example helps us to understand that toddlers are able to apply their prior experiences in a new situation. This can happen with other feelings too and forms the basis of how children begin to express themselves through language. It might seem commonplace but using these everyday expressions of a child as a means of introducing new language and vocabulary can help build a strong pre-literacy foundation. What are the opportunities you see for introducing new words to your child everyday?

Sensory exploration with water in the parent toddler classroom
Sensory explorations with water offer a wealth of learning opportunities.

Learning Through Sound

Whenever we play music in class, whether it’s during circle time, musical engagements, or indoor gym activities there is one little boy who claps his hands every time the music stops. He has probably picked this up from birthday parties or similar events where people cheer and clap after songs are played or sung. This shows that children internalise patterns that they experience and reminds us to always model the behaviour we want our children to embody. What kinds of sounds and music are you introducing to your little one?

Learning Through Smell

We all know that children have a tendency to put things in their mouth, but did you know that they also use their sense of smell to decide if they really should nibble at something? There’s a child in my class who tries to put almost anything in his mouth, so I was intrigued to see a sudden break in this behaviour during a ‘scoop the lemons’ activity. The strong citrusy smell of the lemon did not appeal to him and he made a face instead of trying to put the lemon in his mouth the way he routinely does with so many other less-than-palatable things. This is a perfect example of how sensory information can play an important role in the decisions children make and the behaviour they depict. What are your child’s olfactory preferences?

Scoop the lemons activity in the parent toddler classroom
For this little one, lemons are okay to play with but not to smell or taste!

Learning Through Taste

Childhood is full of firsts and one such special moment happened when one of our learners  tasted an orange for the first time ever during a sensory exploration in class. She felt and smelt the fruit with much curiosity, as her mother helped to peel and segment it. Finally, upon sampling a little piece, she smacked her lips in delight and reached for more.  Seeing how much the child enjoyed the fruit, the parent bought some oranges for her a few days later and subsequently shared that the child clearly recognised the fruit, eagerly gesturing to be given some to eat. This sweet little instance depicts how young children are continuously building memories, which reiterates the importance of providing them with joyous and meaningful avenues of exploration and learning. What new tastes are you introducing to your child?  

Child peeling oranges as part of a sensory exploration.
Discovering a love for oranges!

How parents and facilitators interact with children is of utmost importance given that every experience for a child is a building block of learning. In a classroom setting such as the ones we have at Toddler’s Den, facilitators design and curate learning activities that can arouse children’s curiosity in interesting ways and engage their senses effectively. At home and beyond too, it is important for parents to be curious about their child and observe them keenly in order to pick up on opportunities for building the child’s learning. Every little instance can be a wonderful learning opportunity. It could be as simple as playing with a loose thread on a new carpet or tinkering around with a cardboard box. So, what new thing did your child learn, explore or discover today?

Written By:  Nitika Shah, Lead Teacher

Toddler’s Den Mumbai