When asking the question, how do children naturally learn? This is a seemingly simple question to answer. However, within the following discussion it will become apparent that the way children learn best is an extremely complex area involving many variables. The key aims of this discussion are firstly, that children learn best in suitable child centred environments that meet their needs both developmentally and physically (Mooney, 2013). Furthermore, learning from being active and using multisensory methods are extremely important to engage and stimulate learners (Pound, 2006). Crucial to this analysis is how exploratory active learning is best delivered through the medium of play (Neaum, 2010). We shall look at why language development supports and furthers learning outcomes ( Fisher, 2013). To back up and illustrate these ideas it is necessary to indicate how child development theories and theorists have been involved and evolved in to the modern-day curriculum. Importantly in the context of this essay the Foundation Phase Framework (FPF) in Wales (WAG, 2015). It is important to note the positive factors that aid learning, additionally recognising there are factors that hinder and affect learning outcomes. Connecting these different areas of this discussion should demonstrate that it is the interplay of all these factors that produce the best learning outcomes.
To begin with, considering at how children learn from being active, Maria Montessori put forward a theory discussed by Mooney (2013). Montessori stressed the importance of child centred environments. This incorporates not only the classroom environment, but also effective learning practitioners and the chance for learning to take place outdoors. She introduced child size furniture and provided real tools and objects for the children. The premise behind these changes is the question, will children learn how to use these objects without the chance to actively engage in using them? Another important point of Montessori’s theory is the accessibility of materials and resources for learners. Low open shelves enable easy access to resources and materials, encouraging and giving the chance for them to take an active role in their learning experience (Mooney, 2013). Ways to achieve this could be the use of labels or shadows within each resource area, photographs of materials that belong there, not only for easy access but essentially, learners can clear up and understand what is expected from them. If the teaching practitioner can prepare a suitable child centred environment, then learners have the chance to learn and explore in their own time within open ended and free play opportunities. This could be outdoors looking at nature, creative tasks or physical education (Pound, 2006). Montessori’s stance was that children gain confidence and responsibility from this type of learning. Learning through doing. We can see how this can foster a feeling of independence, inclusiveness and confidence in the learner.
Jean Piaget’s theory compliments these ideas which advocates learning through action (Mooney, 2013). Piaget had the belief children learn best whilst doing and creating. By doing things themselves they gain meaning and therefore understanding. We can take from this the difference between showing learners a book or a video explaining how a seed grows or the practitioners can provide seeds, soil and plant pots and learners can plant the seed and watch it grow. Both activities can impart knowledge, but the practical task has the potential to create meaning and ebbed the knowledge more effectively.
In Wales the Foundation Phase Framework (FPF) supports the idea of learning through being active within a child centred environment and encourages child led learning opportunities (WAG, 2015). The FPF describes learning through first-hand experience, building on prior experiences, includes risk taking and autonomous decision making. Furthermore, the FPF uses the idea of play central to how children learn from the ages 3-7 years.
Considering the idea of learning through play we should discuss some of the theories that underpin this. Piaget supported the idea of learning through the senses (Pound, 2006). His thinking was that infants learn by manipulation of their environment. For example, by pushing and pulling objects they can learn through their bodies, or in other words their senses (Mooney, 2013). Fredrick Frobel also supports this view, his theory advocated learning through the senses and described the interconnectedness of all areas of education from mathematics to creative tasks (Pound, 2006). This idea can be recognised in the FPF where the curriculum suggests holistic and multi-sensory learning (WAG, 2015). Holistic in this context refers to the whole child and learning through the senses is a helpful way to understand this concept. Children learn through what they see, hear, feel and even taste. By recognising the whole person as a learner, it is possible to see the almost limitless opportunities that learning can arise from.
FPF promotes learning through the 7 areas of provision (WAG, 2015). Within all these areas there is potential for children to develop and learn holistically through their senses. For example, a learning practitioner can provide resources in the malleable area such as play dough or a water area and through their experience the learner can develop many different skills. Skills such as personal and social development through teamwork or even solitary play. Mathematical development from observing the volume of containers and shapes with play dough. Knowledge of the world through exploratory play in the roleplay or home area as well as within the small world area. Not forgetting the fine motor skills development that is needed for handwriting and other tasks (Fisher, 2013).
How might teaching practitioners and home caregivers further this learning? To answer the question, it is important to look at the interplay of relationships between adult and child in discussing how children learn. Lev Vygotsky and Jerome Bruner (Doherty and Hughes, 2009) both stress the importance of social interactions within the learning journey. Vygotsky emphasised the importance of an effective teaching practitioner and believed them to be crucial to further the development of the learner. This view sees talking, listening and observing as essential. This back and forth interaction can build or scaffold learning as the practitioner can react and respond directly to the needs of the child or learner. This technique gives teaching practitioners a chance to actively observe, therefore, enabling them to respond to learners individual needs and allows for effective assessment.
Central to the child development theories and ideas explored above are that play can be a useful tool for learning. What is meant by this and what are the learning opportunities that arise from this? One way of looking at this is if we think of children as explorers. By recognising their need to experience their environment fully we can see how play can be effective in developing all the skills needed. Learning through play is stimulating and fun and has the potential to develop the whole child (Moyles, 1994)
Learning through repetition is another important factor to discuss. Within the context of play-based learning we can see there is the opportunity for repetition that is motivating rather than tedious. It is not about repeating the same task over and over but more about allowing the child to practice these new skills and develop. Meggitt (2012) describes the infant brain being in a period of sensitive learning. This is a key period of brain development where the child is ready and receptive to learn. Each time a child repeats an experience, within their brains neurons connect to make permanent neural pathways and consolidate knowledge. Within the Foundation Phase classroom, areas of continuous provision are best kept constant and should change very little (WAG, 2015). This is an example of how routine and repetition can impart a secure and safe environment, beneficial for wellbeing and therefore learning (Pound, 2006). Repetition is needed to master skills, coordination and strengthen neural processing for further learning (Neaum, 2010).
It is important to view the complexities of learning and development as interlinked. In the classroom, learning and teaching the 7 areas can be cross-curricular and happen alongside each other (WAG, 2015). For example, a practitioner can model a real-world situation in the role play area where the learners can act out and explore. This activity can then be used as a theme at story time or taken to the block area and extended further. These seemingly simple activities have the potential to develop and extend language skills. Language and language development are an important instrument in being able to understand and consolidate concepts (Neaum, 2010; Fisher, 2013). The interaction of the children taking part in this activity will also be developing the social skills and well as increasing their knowledge and understanding of the world, demonstrating the cross-curricular nature of this type of Pedagogy. Materials and resources can then be added to extend and enhance the learning continuum (WAG, 2015).
Learning through play if delivered correctly should be child led and inclusive. Responding to the learner’s ideas and suggestions in how and what they want to learn is crucial in building enthusiasm and independence. With good quality and a wide range of educational resources, learning can continue to develop naturally (WAG, 2008). Enthusiasm, confidence and independence is beneficial to allow children to explore and experiment. This idea is supported by Bruner’s theory that children need to be able to try out new things without the fear of failure. Fostering a safe and secure environment is important as a lack of wellbeing and distress could hinder learning, especially in the more introverted or risk-adverse learner (Moyes, 1994). This view is strengthened by Dweck (2017) in her research into developing a growth mindset. She suggests that being able to face obstacles and failure in some areas of learning is beneficial, as challenges can be embraced, and learning can move forward through gaining the ability to problem solve.
As discussed there are many factors that relate to how children learn. We should consider factors that affect or impede how children learn. Learners are unique, and each child will have very a varied skill set and ability. It is not possible to expect one child to be the same as another and abilities do not necessarily follow in a chronological order. These ideas are supported by both Piaget and Erikson who believe that each stage of learning should be completed to progress to the next stage(;;;;;;).
Finally, not only are learners diverse in their abilities. We live in an increasingly diverse society with many social and cultural differences. These differences should not be ignored in the discussion on how children learn. Susan Issacs tells us that for a positive learning outcome, the emotional and physical needs of the child are crucial. All of a child’s needs must be met in order to facilitate effective learning (Pound, 2006). If a child doesn’t feel safe and secure at home as well as the classroom this could ultimately cause distress, have a negative impact and hamper learning (Neaum, 2010). For example, can a child develop physically if they are not provided with enough food? Will a child learn language skills if they are not spoken to? Or will a child develop creative thinking without the chance to explore and play using their imagination? Lack of social mobility, vulnerable members or society and poverty can affect ability and chances to learn. Not forgetting learners may have special educational needs. Considering these points, we can see why the FPF aims to address this as much as possible by being child focused and supportive. By having a sound knowledge of child developmental theories practitioners can pick up cues and respond to issues that may arise it also provides the rationale for effective learning strategies. The FPF advocates fostering a sense of equality and belonging within the learning environment. Also, a positive relationship between the home and practitioners is beneficial and should interconnect as much as possible (WAG, 2015). Positive relationships will hopefully produce the most successful learning outcomes.
In conclusion, we have seen how complex and interconnected the themes are in the way that children learn. Each of the factors discussed seem to be just as important as each other. Furthermore, the positive interplay between these factors are fundamental. Active learning in a child centred environment is a helpful starting point. Additionally, the chance to learn indoors as well as outdoors allows for important physical development to be incorporated with learning. The ideas discussed are underpinned by sound research and wide-ranging theories in child development. Importantly, learning through play (free play and practitioner focused) can make concepts more meaningful and fun. Effective Pedagogy and practitioners are imperative to successful learning outcomes. With encouragement and praise learning will be more enjoyable and the outcome will positively reflect this. This leads on to the need for safe and secure environments at home and within the classroom, both being necessary for effective learning. As a final point we have grasped how the FPF encompasses all these themes by taking into account the needs of whole child and learning holistically. The premise behind this is that not one area of the curriculum is separate to another when discussing how children learn best, but moreover it is all these areas working in harmony with each other.