Understanding Learning Styles

Does your child prefer words or things? Does she invent stories or stick to the facts? Encourage her unique approach.




The term learning style refers to how children — and adults — investigate the world, learn concepts, incorporate what they learn, and, finally, use what they've figured out. Here are various learning styles that you may have noticed in your child, your child's playmates . . . and yourself!

  1. Simultaneous/sequential: diving in or thinking things through
    A simultaneous learner likes to plunge right into a project. Her basic attitude is: Let's see what happens if I do this! Or if I do that! This kind of learner may be more inclined to take risks than a sequential learner. A sequential learner, by contrast, likes to sort materials and methodically think through what he wants to accomplish before getting started.

    Here's what you can do: Encourage a simultaneous learner to express his actions in language. For example, when he is about to embark on a project, help him use terms such as first, then, next, and lastor finally. Challenge your sequential learner. Pose questions to bring out his creativity: "What are four different things we could make from these materials?" or "Let's invent three different endings for the story we just read."

  2. Connecting/compartmentalizing: relating or separating
    The child who learns by making connections gazes alertly at the world and sees patterns everywhere. If one day he sees, say, two red blocks and one blue block in his preschool classroom and the next day a similarly colored pattern on a peanut butter label, he'll link the two in his mind. By contrast, a child who compartmentalizes tends to separate patterns. For example, if he's painting, he'll copy a pattern that he sees (red circle, blue splash, green lines) but probably won't connect this pattern to another similar one in his environment.

    Here's what you can do: Help your connector refine her focus. Having that ability will enable your child to gain control of her wide-ranging thought processes. Take her into the kitchen and encourage her to identify things that cut, things that clean, and things that cook or cool. Entice your compartmentalizer to notice all the fascinating patterns and links in his environment. Open-ended questions using the words how and why, rather than what and when, will help.

  3. Inventing/reproducing: making things up or using what's there
    The inventor enjoys using his imagination. His classmate, the child who learns by accruing facts, enjoys reproducing what she hears or copying something she sees. She gets less pleasure from making things up in her head.

    Here's what you can do: Help your inventor learn to categorize. Suggest that he make collections of leaves, soup-can labels, pictures from magazines or original drawings of things that are hot, cold, slimy, or scratchy. You can have him help you put away laundry; if he absorbs information (socks go on your feet, two socks of the same color go together, and so on), he's learning to sort, an important pre-math skill. For your just-the-facts child, offer open-ended questions and opportunities. Rather than asking, "What are the colors in the rainbow?" you might say, "Where do you think the first rainbow might have come from?" Let her imagination soar!

  4. 2-D/3-D: symbols or things?
    The typical two-dimensional learner gravitates toward words and other symbols. A three-dimensional thinker, on the other hand, feels more comfortable working and playing with concrete things.

    Here's what you can do: Encourage your 2-D learner to expand on her drawing or writing. Suggest that she pantomime, dance a story, or tell a story with puppets. She might also make a diorama for her tale out of clay or pipe-cleaner people. Help your 3-D thinker work on writing and drawing skills. You might have him draw a storyboard and tell you the story so you can write it out. You could also help him make up a poem or song about his story.

Remember that these categories are not a way to measure a child's intelligence, nor is any one way of learning superior to any other. Most preschoolers will make use of many learning styles; in fact, a child can have more than one preferred approach at one time. This is a time in a child's life when she should be encouraged to sample and explore so that she feels comfortable juggling a number of learning styles.

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Learning Styles