01 September 2010

Incidental Learning – But I didn’t teach them that!

How often does your child demonstrate their knowledge and you sit there thinking – how on earth does he know that, I’ve not taught him it? I know it happens a lot in our house. We don’t sit around all day with colour, letter and number flashcards (although we do have some that they play with from time to time!) yet somehow; maybe through osmosis, children seem to manage to learn this and so much more.

So how do children learn acquire general knowledge? The answer is simply by their observational skills and being given the opportunities to see things, ask questions and have information shared with them. All of this learning is incidental so they don’t realise they are doing it, as far as they see it they are going to the supermarket, watching television, having a bath or sharing a book but in reality they are doing so much more.

This post gives some ideas of how you can incorporate these incidental learning opportunities into your day.

First, make use of clocks! When your children wake for the day show them the time it is – talk about the big hand being on the (whatever) and the small hand being on the (whatever – preferably after seven!) or read the numbers on a digital clock. You’ve immediately started teaching telling the time / number recognition and you are still all in your pyjamas! You can repeat this activity throughout the day pointing out lunch time, bath time, bed time etc and telling them that at certain times things will be happening.

Breakfast and getting dressed give a whole host of opportunities. Labelling foods and clothes, colours, counting as you do up buttons, reading labels on food packaging plus developing the self-help skills related to eating and dressing.

Moving onto the household chores; sorting washing is great for learning colours – and the sooner you can get your child to pair up the clean socks the sooner it’s one job you can pass on! Tidying toys is an excellent opportunity to teach categories – all the animals in one box, musical instruments in another and the cars in a third. Cooking is a fantastic activity for incidental learning. Not only is your child learning the culinary skills, they are also reading (following recipes), measuring and counting, developing fine motor control – stirring, rolling, spooning, cutting etc, plus increasing their general knowledge by talking about food labels, where ingredients come from, plus all the describing words for example; dry, powdery, wet, lumpy, hot, cold, smooth or my son’s favourite ‘gungy’! Again a trip to the supermarket has a whole host of possibilities; colours, labels, counting, writing and reading lists (very small children can use picture lists) and money skills.

Of course children’s toys all have educational potential too. Whilst building with blocks talk about their shapes and colours. You can count the carriages on the train when playing with train sets and talk about where the people are going. Dressing up activities provide opportunity to explore topics such as people who help us through talking to your children about what they do, where they work, the vehicles they use etc, and role play with pretend food and plates / cutlery means you can talk about sharing, counting and even meal planning and healthy eating.
Games can teach turn taking, matching, counting and many other skills.

Then at the end of the day, counting the stairs to get upstairs reinforces counting and bath time provides another great learning opportunity, the simplest of bath toys – a set of stacking cups is a brilliant for learning colours, sizes, measuring volume and pouring. Lastly bedtime is a lovely time to share books snuggled up together – rhyming books help with phonic development, counting books are good for teaching numbers and all books provide the opportunity for learning to read simple words, talking about the plot, the characters, predicting what comes next and a whole host of other things.

Lastly, there are lots of reports about television being ‘bad’ for children – but a few well chosen programmes can enhance their knowledge base (and yours!). For example, at three my son was telling me about the sewage treatment process thanks to
Come Outside and Something Special has taught us all lots of signs and helped the children with their language development. Again, programmes such as the Numberjacks, Fun with Phonics and Alphablocks introduce numeracy and literacy skills without children really thinking about them.

So, in answer to the question – how did they learn that – the answer is you probably taught them without even thinking about it, what you see as a simple discussion about the weather will stick in a child’s head and before you know it they are telling you about the seasons, or even the water cycle!

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