Infants & Toddlers: How Babies Learn Through Discovery

How you can help infants and toddlers learn through their own investigations

  • Grades: Early Childhood, PreK–K

A Note About Safety

To create safe spaces for crawling and exploring, be sure to cover all electrical outlets. Wastebaskets and low tables should be protected so there are no sharp edges. Provide soft surfaces under climbing equipment so that a baby who climbs and tumbles will not be hurt and can set out determined to try again.

Babies figure out how space works as you give them freedom to pull up and cruise along a sturdy couch or a large chair. Lure them into spatial adventuring by placing interesting toys on a low shelf. This will invite them to paddle across a room in order to explore the toys you set out so attractively.

Babies need to act in order to learn. They bang, taste, rub, shake, chew, roll, and try in every way they can to learn about their world. You have the challenging job of keeping babies safe, and, at the same time, encouraging them to explore freely. How can you provide secure, loving care and also nurture the passionate curiosity that little ones bring to every activity?

Encourage Explorations by Baby Watching!

By 3 to 4 months, babies often wave a hand slowly back and forth toward the face. It's as if they're trying to figure out how come the front and back of their hand look so different. They still cannot control the motions of the arm and may even bop themselves in the face while exploring their hands! A few months later, they hold a block in each hand and deliberately shift their gaze back and forth between the two blocks. Be sure to offer babies a small, easy-to-hold toy in each hand to encourage their investigations. Small wooden cubes are fine. Spoons are easy to hold and make an interesting sound when banged together.

Listening to early babbles will clue you in to babies' explorations with sounds. From the beginning, babies experiment by producing throaty vowel sounds and, later, consonant-vowel combinations. Wise teachers latch onto these sounds and turn them into words for babies (such as "ba-ba" for blanket or bottle). Toddlers experiment with imitating their teachers. Say, "la-la-la" using different tones as a baby touches the keys on a xylophone. The baby soon learns to experiment with the xylophone stick and produces sounds too while singing "la-la-la."

Purposeful Movement

Deliberate investigations are a hallmark of scientists. Babies also experiment deliberately. At 5 months, they tear paper cheerfully to bits. Over the next months they dump and pour out cubes in a cup or toys in a basket.

Babies learn to use their bodies as a means toward achieving a goal. They lean and stretch in order to reach for an interesting object (such as a cracker held out close to them). Toddlers learn that if a ball rolls under a table or chair, they can flatten down and crawl underneath a small space to retrieve it.

Babies also learn the science of spatial relationships by playing with blocks. They work hard trying to fit a larger cube onto a smaller one, but the larger block tumbles down. Eventually they begin to learn the principle that a smaller cube is stable on top of a larger cube-but not the other way round! Persistence and willingness to keep on trying are important ingredients for scientific "discoveries," whether by tiny persons or adults.

Click here to view and download A Letter to Families (PDF)

  • Subjects:
    Early Learning, Life Experiences, Social and Emotional Development, Learning and Cognitive Development
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