How do children learn?

Learning is a deeply complex neurological process that is widely studied across the world. We discover more about it every day, but we’ve got a very long way to go before we understand it confidently. How, then, can we help children to learn?

How children learn
Cluey Learning Monday, 28 June 2021

Ways children learn

Children, like all humans, are constantly taking in new information. Unlike their responsibility-laden and socially aware adults, children have far fewer filters on what information they will metabolise. This means that children and young adults can learn through:

  • Seeing
  • Hearing
  • Touching
  • Tasting
  • Smelling
  • Reading
  • Pretending
  • Playing
  • Practising
  • Creating


Learning grows with your child

As brains and bodies grow and take on more information and experience, the ways learning is achieved and expressed grow too. Where a kindergartener plays with blocks and games, teenagers may play with the rules and with boundaries. Where a year three student tells a story in which every sentence begins with ‘and then’, a year 12 is telling a story about themselves—building their adult identity from the ground up.

While it would be very convenient for us adults if children followed a predictable formula of learning and growing, they’re a belligerently unique, creative, surprising and individual lot. We can measure what and how much they’ve learned in a particular subject over a set amount of time through educational assessment, but this is limited by the questions that we ask and the ways we ask them to express their learning.

We also can’t measure whether they’ve learned by measuring their brains or taking their temperature. So we have to be on the look out for the signs of learning at all times.


How to recognise and encourage your child’s learning at any age:

Channel your child’s readiness to learn

As anyone who’s been caught swearing by a child knows, children are predisposed to learn. They do it constantly, effortlessly and indiscriminately. The trick is in getting them to turn this incredible capacity to learn towards content and skills that will be beneficial to themselves and others in future.

So, whether they’re in a classroom all day or off on a raucous excursion in nature, children will be learning throughout—it’s just a question of what we want to encourage them to learn.

Befriend Frustration

The second sign of learning can be the hardest to watch and encourage: frustration. As adults, we do everything we can to protect the children in our care from the negative things in life like—anger, confusion, frustration and fear. But all of these emotions—in the right amount—can be powerful indicators of deep learning which will prove satisfying for the child later on.

The magic happens as long as the frustration is within a sweet spot (known as the ZPD or Zone of Proximal Development in the biz) where the learner is going beyond their confidence towards an achievable but challenging goal.

The ZPD moves every single day and the simplest analogy is in learning your times tables. Once you’ve got one and two under your belt, three, four and five are tricky but attainable. Once you’re confident with them, six, seven and eight become your new ZPD and on it goes.

When we’re looking for frustration we’re not looking for acting out or self-criticism. How children manage their emotions is also a part of the learning game so anything from a bit of sighing and pen tapping to occasional tears can indicate productive frustration. The difference between productive frustration and unproductive frustration is that the first is always followed (eventually) with a big smile, pride, satisfaction and relief.

Look for Laughter

Another sure-fire sign of learning is much easier to stomach: laughter. Whether you’ve suffered through a particularly adhesive ‘meme’ or are a veteran of forgiving the fart-joke phase of childhood, you’ll know how powerful laughter is as a tool for mobilising memory, creativity, experiment and language acquisition.

Laughter is especially powerful in helping children to learn social skills and cultural content. Laughter is a uniquely spontaneous, unpredictable and infectious indicator of learning so if we’ve got them laughing, we know they’re learning.


How to help your child learn

3 ways to help your child to learn

  • Create stories
  • Nurture relationships
  • Let your child take responsibility

As well as being able to judge whether a child is learning from their emotional responses, we can design the educational situation to encourage learning. There are countless ways we do this and various scales (from a single interaction, through to classroom culture, school culture, family dynamics, social context etc) but some broad categories are: story, relationships and responsibility.

Create stories

Story is a huge learning tool. This doesn’t just mean good novels or picture books, or informative documentaries or funny educational videos. Using story for learning means helping the learner to create a story that relates them to the content.

A child is more likely to remember teaching the whole class about sea turtles because they watched David Attenborough last night on TV than they are to remember simply watching the documentary. The result is the same—the child acquires specific knowledge and understanding—but the depth is different because the child had the opportunity to become an active part of the learning story.

Story-secrets (or surprises) can be a helpful sub-genre of story learning. Having to keep a secret for a particular amount of time (with the full knowledge that the “secret” will eventually be spilled and cause surprise, ideally to a loved one) activates memory in a way that’s very difficult to replicate otherwise. It means the child is etching the “secret” information in their memory all the time to make sure they’re not spilling the secret or spoiling the surprise.

For this to be productive, the child needs to know from the outset exactly when the secret is to be shared, otherwise it can cause anxiety, frustration and fear. It’s also helpful to have at least one surprise-ee be an adult who can react appropriately to complete the learning story.

Build relationships

Learning is fundamentally about relationships. Whether your child likes their teacher makes a huge difference to their learning because, as humans, we’re all eager to be liked, praised and to make the important people in our lives proud of us. Sometimes, strong relationships outside the classroom can overcome weaker ones within it (with the teacher or peers).

In other cases, students prefer to build learning relationships beyond the formal classroom—with tutors, siblings, online learning communities, parents, carers, extended family, grandparents. Whatever network of learning relationships works for your child, if they’re being seen, heard and supported then they’ve got the optimum conditions for learning. If that’s not the case yet, help them to explore options to widen or deepen their learning relationships.

Tips to help your child deepen their learning relationships

  • organise a study party or homework afternoon with a friend
  • call a grandparent or elder-friend for the next tricky maths question
  • read them a story with tricky words in it before bed

Take responsibility

Finally, when children find themselves in positions of age-appropriate responsibility and expectations of helping, they become very motivated learners. This is connected to relationships and building positive stories about ourselves, but it’s also about the young learner deciding what kind of a person they want to be.

Activities to help your child take responsibility for their learning

Creating conditions of responsibility in learning can look like:

  • classroom teamwork
  • household chores
  • charity work
  • caring for a pet
  • planning some questions for an older friend or relative to help them keep their memories sharp
  • leadership roles in schools

Asking a child what they’d like to take responsibility for, and negotiating what they could or should take responsibility for, can be a rewarding and productive learning experience for the whole family or the whole classroom—try it out!

Tips for primary school learning

– Create time to play with people of all ages
School can really only expose your child to social interactions with people their own age. Extended family, friends and siblings can be enlightening playmates (if you don’t believe me, ask the Old People’s Home for Four Year Olds).

– Read to your child regardless of their age
Creating a positive experience of reading will help to motivate your child to read without you

– Practise the boring bits
Turn times tables into a car game, make spelling quizzes a family ritual and foster friendly fights over the meanings of words. This will help to build the foundational neural pathways that your child will need later on

– Think out loud when doing adult jobs
Children want to know how your world works, so tell them in ways that they can start to understand

– Invent stories, games and jokes with them
Inventing things together makes them more memorable and creates that story that involves the child

– Give them all the time you can spare

Tips for secondary school learning

– Encourage your child to learn without you
This can be study groups, classes in their non-school interest areas or learning a skill from a friend.

– Invite independence
Build your expectations of your child’s participation in the smooth running of the house and their own lives (food, transport, budget, etc). These practical things will foster independence in learning.

Share the struggle 
Being a disciplined adult is difficult and learning to be a disciplined adult is harder. When you’re tired and frustrated, explain why. This will help your child to learn empathy, to plan for their future and learn how to help others

– Talk about learning 
This is something we teachers call ‘metacognition’ and it means talking about how you’re thinking, practising study skills, transferring skills from one subject to another. If you’ve ever been glad of a training session in your work, tell your teenager about how and why.

– Provide fuel 
This means providing food and occasionally actual fuel, but it also means finding ways to spark their interest. The child who was once confident, curious and creative is still inside your teenager (who may be even more confident, curious and creative than before – they’re all unique) so if they’re not interested in the curricular menu, find the educational dessert that will make them jump up and down. A childhood obsession with ponies might turn into teenaged work experience at the vet or the zoo – you’ve got more experience in your teenager’s interest than anyone else, so you’ve got the best chance of finding, or rekindling, their educational interests.

– Emotional support
Teenagers often don’t know what’s going on emotionally or how to talk about it. Things that were fine yesterday are a disaster today, and who knows what tomorrow will bring. The best you can do is to be there on all the days, to recognise the frustrations and the joys of learning and to remind them that you’ll be there tomorrow too.


How can Cluey’s online tutors help you?

Cluey’s expert educators can help students to build their learning networks, take responsibility for their learning and write positive stories about their learning experience. Our tutors create learning environments that encourage laughter and productive frustration, and can help your child to find the confidence they need to succeed in their individual learning story.

We offer primary and secondary school tutoring in Maths, English and Chemistry. We have helped thousands of Australian students to catch up where they’re falling behind, ace their exams and become more confident learners equipped for life beyond school.

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