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How Children Think and Learn
Authors: Jandy Jeppson with Judith A. Myers-Walls and Dee Love

Childcare providers can work with parents to encourage children’s thinking. Together you can help children build on their natural interests and abilities. You can do this by sharing ideas and activities with them. As children grow older, they think and learn in new ways. This happens just because they get older and have new experiences. All children are not the same at the same age, though. Each child has special interests and needs. The best way for a childcare provider to support children’s thinking is to work with their parents.

Think about a four-month-old child sitting in an infant seat on a table. What do her parents say to her and do with her? What does her childcare provider say and do? What her caregivers believe will influence how they treat her. The following questions are related to how children think. Researchers know the answers to some of these questions, but they are always learning more. Parents and caregivers can learn more, too.

Questions to consider:
   • What do babies and young children think about?
   • What do they know when they are born?
   • What must they learn?
   • How do they learn about the world around them?
   • What can parents and caregivers do to help children learn? 

Why should parents and providers care about children’s thinking?
   • You can understand more about why children act the way they do.
   • You can do things that will help children learn.
   • You can relax and enjoy children more.
   • You can help children practice the new thinking skills they are developing.
   • You can help children prepare for their next steps in learning.

Imagine graham crackers and milk. This story may help you understand more about how children think. One afternoon, a childcare provider serves children graham crackers and milk. Some children discover how much fun it is to put the graham crackers in the milk and watch them expand. Others like to blow bubbles in the milk. Some break their crackers apart, while others want a cracker that is not broken.

When children act in these ways, they are not trying to be difficult. They are not just making a mess or making demands. Instead, children are learning as they experiment with the milk and crackers. And they are showing what they understand when they ask you to serve the crackers a special way.

As a childcare provider, you know that you can use unplanned events to help children learn. Children may blow bubbles in their milk. You can ask them why they think milk bubbles last so long. You can compare them to water bubbles that disappear almost immediately. You can talk with the children about what happens when they put different foods or objects in milk. Some children will want their crackers divided and others will not. You can ask them what they think about that and why. When you find something children are interested in, you can build on their interests and learn more about them. Their interests may also help you decide on future activities to use in childcare.

As a childcare provider, you can help parents learn about children’s thinking. You can show them things to do to encourage children’s thinking. When you talk with parents, they probably tell you about their worries and ask questions. A mother may wonder why her toddler keeps playing with his food. You could ask her questions to find out why she is worried. Maybe you could ask her to give you a specific example to explain her worry. Maybe she is wondering if her child’s behavior is normal. Maybe she is not sure if she is doing the right thing about it. Her child may be getting enough to eat, but he is dropping peas on the floor—one by one—at dinner time. You can help her realize that this is not a health issue, but it does tell her about child learning.

Children use all the things around them to help them learn about the world. You could tell the parent that young children do not think about things the same way that older children and adults do. Children use concrete, hands-on experiences to help them learn. A toddler who drops peas on the floor may be trying to understand, “If I drop this, what happens next?” You can help parents realize that they can help their children grow. They can be part of the experiments by talking with children about them. The next time something like this happens, this mother can be happy to know that her child is learning. (But she still will need to pick up the peas!)

Parents want to know how to handle difficult situations. Dropping peas on the floor may be a chance to help learning, but it is messy. Another way to help this child learn is to tie a small toy to one end of a string and to tie the other end of the string to the high chair. The child can then practice dropping the toy. The child will learn that the toy comes back when mom uses the string to bring it back up. Mom can say, “Look, it comes back.” The toy and string are less messy than peas, and it is very easy for parents to recover the toy. As the child gets older, he can learn to pull on the string himself. The string gives the child a chance to drop things and see them come back, but it is not messy.

Children's thinking and developmental level influence many of the things they do. You can help them learn things like colors, shapes and sizes, classification (or how things are the same or different), humor, and play. You can learn more about these things and then share the information with parents. It can help if you also understand some of the basics about brain development.


For more information, contact Judith A. Myers-Walls, PhD, CFLE at

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