Supporting Children's Informal Learning

See also: Reading with Children

The traditional view of learning is, perhaps, that it happens in schools. But even a little thought makes clear that this cannot be true: children are learning from a very early age, certainly long before they start school.

This clearly means that parents have a key role in helping their children to learn. This page provides some advice about what you can do to support your children’s learning outside school.

Our page on Supporting Children's Formal Learning suggests how you can support learning in a formal setting such as school.

Exploring The Environment

Babies and young children are learning constantly about their environment.

Everything that they do provides them with new information as they explore the world. The most helpful thing that you can do to support learning is to encourage exploring, and ensure that they are safe to do it.

In practice, this means providing them with what they need, within reason, and in an age-appropriate way.

  • For babies, this is a variety of toys with interesting textures, looks and sounds, which are safe to put in the mouth. You will also need to allow them to explore a range of environments, including your house, but also other houses, gardens, and parks.
  • For toddlers, the scope is rather wider, and may also include mud, sand, soil, water, paint, playdough and cooking ingredients as ‘toys’, and more places to visit and play. The important thing is to enable hands-on play without worrying too much about mess.
This means that everything may get a bit messy at times. You can clean up later; children and clothes both wash.

As your child grows and develops, you and they will get different things out of the same places, so everything doesn’t always have to be new. For example, a baby may be fascinated by the ducks on the pond in the park. A toddler will probably enjoy throwing birdseed or small bits of bread to them.

A Range of Experiences...

If possible, try to give your children a range of experiences and opportunities that will enable them to develop both fine and gross motor skills:

  • Gross motor skills are anything to do with whole body movement, like being able to walk, then run, balance, climb, ride a bicycle and generally move around;
  • Fine motor skills are about being in control of small parts of your body, like being able to hold a pen, or model in playdough.

As you help your child to explore the world,  you may want to think about using a coaching approach with them. This means that you don’t tell them the answer to their questions, but help them to work it out by experimenting.

There is more about this on our Coaching pages, and particularly on our page Coaching at Home.

Language Development

Language development starts almost from birth, and is an ongoing process throughout childhood, and probably into adulthood, too.

From the age of just a few months, babies will start to make noises in imitation of speech.

Gradually they will become more coherent, and eventually distinguishable as words. Simple words and two-word phrases will give way to sentences.

To support this process, the best thing that you can do is to talk to your baby.

What you say does not have to be profound. Just talk all the time, telling them what you are doing, and what you and they can see. Effectively, provide a running commentary on your day.

Try to refer to everything, including yourself, by name, not by using pronouns. Pronouns are difficult, because they change depending on who is talking. It is better to say:

“Mummy’s going make Jack’s dinner now”


“I’m just going to make your dinner now”

Only you will ever be ‘mummy’ (or ‘daddy’ or ‘grandad’) whereas any number of people could be ‘I’. This will therefore make it easier for your child to decipher and decode your speech.

Nursery Rhymes

Nursery rhymes have developed for a reason: they help children to learn. This is because they are sung repetitively, and so become familiar friends.

Research shows that babies respond best to a familiar and loved voice singing nursery rhymes or simple songs.

In other words, however bad your singing, your baby will get the most out of you singing to them, not to listening to a CD or having music play on the TV. If you prefer, you can always sing along to a CD.

Music and Sports Coaching

Many children take part in music or sports lessons or coaching outside school.

The question for most parents is:

  • How much practice should they do outside lessons?

With a second question:

  • And how much should I make them practice if they really don’t want to do it?

We all understand that performance generally only improves with considerable amounts of practice, whether that is in sport or music. Jonny Wilkinson did not kick however many hundreds of points for England’s rugby team without practising obsessively for many years.

But you (or your child) can still enjoy taking part in something without being especially good at it.

You may, therefore, like to think about a few other questions, including:

  • Does my child do this music or sport because they love it, or because I want them to do it?
  • Are they happy with their level of performance?
  • Do they voluntarily engage in that activity outside lessons and seem enthusiastic about it? And do they want to do more, including what I would call ‘practice’?
  • I already have to force them to do homework. Do I really want to spend my life nagging my children to do something that they do not want to do, especially if it is voluntary?

All these questions get to the heart of whether this music or sport is actually for you, or for your children, and whether you think they should be doing these activities for fun, or to improve and perhaps, eventually, to shine in a wider arena.

You are the only person who can answer this question for you and your family, and there is no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answer, whatever anyone else suggests.

A conversation about music lessons

Julia is desperate to learn the trumpet,” Kay remarked to her friend, who had taught her six year old daughter Julia’s toddler music class.

Sam is already learning the trombone,” Dinah replied, mentioning her own son. “And they’re much the same age.

The question is,” Kay said, “will she do the practice if I let her have lessons?

Sam doesn’t,” Dinah said. “But I don’t force him. His teacher said not to, in case it put him off.

I suppose,” Kay said thoughtfully, “that ideally they would practise because they loved it.

Dinah laughed.

I used to practise my violin all the time when I was a child,” she said. “It never occurred to me not to. But then one day at ballet my teacher asked us how much practice we did outside lessons. It was a revelation to me. You’d practise ballet? The thought had never crossed my mind before.

They both laughed. Both also understood why Dinah was now running children’s music lessons, and not ballet classes.

In conclusion…

It seems likely that the best way that you can help children to learn is to give them a wide range of experiences and opportunities, and help them to follow and pursue their passions.

We all know that we learn best when we want to learn.

This applies to children too.