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How Children Learn

Have you ever stopped to think about how a child’s brain works? It may look like your child is just sitting there doing nothing, but in reality, the brain is a hum of activity.

Our brains never stop firing, whether the child is awake or asleep. 

Children are constantly learning. As science has continued to progress, there have been many theories about what it means to learn. Here are five of the most importance theories of how children learn.

Top Five Theories of How Children Learn

1. Behaviorism

In the 1900s, Behaviorism became a popular way to explain how children learn. This theory sees the learner as passive, merely reacting to outside stimuli.

Behaviorists believe that learning is shaped through reinforcement and punishment. Reinforcement (either positive or negative) encourages a behavior to recur, while punishment discourages the behavior. 

Much of early behaviorism research was done with animals (Pavlov’s dog, for example) before John B. Watson launched the Behaviorist School of Psychology in 1908.

2. Cognitivism

Around 1960 Cognitivism become the prevailing notion of how children learn. It was seen as a popular response to Behaviorism.

The basis for this theory focuses on cognition, problem solving and language acquisition. It de-emphasizes observable behavior. This theory also views the learner as an active participant in the learning process.

3. Constructivism

This learning theory suggests that, rather than being an empty vessel or blank slate, children actively construct knowledge through social interaction. Meaning that past experiences as well as cultural factors greatly influence learning, and one person’s learning can differ greatly from another’s.

Piaget (1972) and Vygotsky (1978) were pioneers in Constructivism which is a theory that recognizes the value of social interaction in the learning process. 

Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky noted the importance of the MKO (More Knowledgeable Other) as a hugely influential partner in how children learn. The MKO might be the parent, teacher, friend with more knowledge, or even a non-living resource like a book or a website.

Vygotsky’s theory includes the Zone of Proximal Development, which is where Vygotsky says learning occurs.

The Zone of Proximal Development is the difference between the learner’s independent abilities and his abilities when coached by a MKO. 

When children are learning you want to make sure that lessons and information given is not too difficult, or too easy. This is the Zone of Proximal Development. The zone where kids are capable of taking in information without getting too overwhelmed or frustrated. 

4. Schema Theory

Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget heavily influenced Constructivism. He introduced the concept of schema into the fields of psychology and education.

Schema theory explains that all knowledge is organized into units within the brain and these units are called schemas.

According to Piaget, schema is not only a category of knowledge, but also the process of acquiring that knowledge.

As new experiences happen and new learning occurs, existing schemas are modified and new schemas are developed.

Schema is also known as ‘background knowledge’, and is a big piece of the puzzle of how children learn. 

For example, if I have never seen the ocean, I will have no schema for the ocean. When learning about whales, I need to learn the background knowledge that allows me to understand whales.

So this may include developing an understanding how the ocean looks, smells and sounds. I should see pictures and be able to visit the ocean, exploring it first hand to ensure I have a solid understanding. The more background knowledge I have, the easier it is for me to make connections between concepts within the schema.

Piaget’s Stages of Development

Piaget’s theory suggests that all children move through four stages of increasingly sophisticated intellectual development. His theory addresses fundamental learning concepts such as object permanence, causality, and justice.

There is an age range listed for each stage rather than a definite number because all children are on their own developmental journey.

Stage One: Sensorimotor – Birth -18/24 months

One of the biggest milestones of this age is object permanence which means that something still exists even though it is hidden. In order for a child to reach this stage, he or she must form a schema (mental representation) of the item.

Click here for our FREE Ultimate Guide to Schema Play

Stage Two: Preoperational – Ages 2 to 7

One marker of this stage is symbolic thinking. This is the notion that an object or symbol can represent something else. 

Stage Three: Concrete Operational – Ages 7 to 11

This stage marks the beginning of operational (logical) thought where a child has the ability to work out a problem in his or her head rather than using concrete objects.

The concept of conservation also occurs during this time – the fact that something can stay the same even though its appearance may change.

Stage Four: Formal Operational Stage – Age 11 and over

The ability to think in the abstract is what marks this particular stage.

5. Multiple Intelligences

Harvard Professor, Howard Gardner, proposed the theory of multiple intelligences in 1983. This theory challenges the notion of IQ – a single number that tells how ‘smart’ someone is.

We also know that our emotional intelligence, or EQ, is much more important than our IQ.

Gardner claims that there are eight ways individuals express their intelligence.

  • Verbal-Linguistic: analyzing information and producing work involving oral and written language (speeches, books, papers, etc.)
  • Logical-Mathematical: developing equations, making calculations, and solving abstract mathematical problems
  • Visual-Spatial: comprehending maps and other graphical information
  • Musical: producing and make meaning of different types of sounds
  • Naturalistic: identifying and distinguishing among different types of plants, animals and weather formations found in the natural world
  • Bodily-Kinesthetic: using one’s own body to solve problems
  • Interpersonal – recognizing and understanding the desires, moods and intentions of others
  • Intrapersonal – recognizing those same things in one’s self

Bottom Line–Children learn through play

Despite the variety of learning theories, most experts will agree that children learn best by being happily and actively engaged in play.

The way that kids play will look very different in a two-year-old child than a fourteen-year-old child. Hands on experiences and activities that allows kids to actively engage in their learning are the best ways for kids to learn. 

Learning will not take place if survival needs go unmet or the learner is feeling unsafe. Teachers often reference Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs when citing learning difficulties.

We must take the time to know our children, invite them into the process, and provide them with a safe space to explore and lead themselves to new knowledge.

This is how children learn.

Interested in getting your little one to play independently?

Check out my Purposeful Playspace e-course to learn how to create a space for your children that invites them to playin ways that are more engaging, purposeful and independent.

Want more information about how play impacts your child’s development?

Check out my e-book: Simply Play: Everything You Need To Know About The Most Important Part of Childhood

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