A four-year-old in the block area is creating an intricate castle, while his buddy carefully balances each addition to The Tallest Tower in the World. One three-year-old splashes away at the water table; another patiently sizes up which objects will float and which ones will sink. Across the room two eager artists amass every material available to make the ultimate collage. Action, reaction, concentration, problem solving, decision making, joy — your program is alive with discovery as children approach learning opportunities in countless ways.

Although children may be sharing the same program, they investigate, learn, and process using a combination of several different approaches and learning styles. The learning styles presented here are not measures of intelligence or descriptions of temperament; rather, they are a way of describing young children’s different approaches to living and learning. Just as adults have unique learning styles made up of relative strengths and weaknesses, highs and lows, arcs and plateaus, so do children. These patterns reveal peaks of preferences and dips of dislikes, emphasizing one or two for a while, then sometimes shifting everything completely. This is normal and healthy. One day a child may jump in without hesitation and try something totally new; another time, that same child may hold back just a little, needing to watch what is happening and size things up before getting involved. Both approaches are fine; the child is finding out what works for her in a particular situation.

Let’s look at some of the different approaches to learning, keeping in mind that this is a time in the lives of young children when they should be encouraged to explore, shift, combine, and enjoy their learning styles and interests.

Two-dimensional/ Three-dimensional:
Learning Through Symbols

Four-year-old Louella loves writing and inventive spelling. She’s comfortable with pencils, paper, pictures, and using words to express herself. She’ll sit for quite a while just looking at stories and their illustrations, listening to and playing with new words, drawing and painting. It’s no surprise that Louella has already taken a few of her own stories, complete with illustrations, and put them together into her own special book collection. She is learning a lot by working with symbols and through other two-dimensional activities.

Another four-year-old in the group, Tyler, plays vigorously with blocks, cardboard, tape, and wooden figures, creating worlds of imagination. He built his cat a special house with a magic door (and an automatic mouse-delivery slot!). Using blocks, he designs an entire city for his family, including garages, boat docks, and places to trap bad guys. His whole body is involved in his work — clambering, twisting, balancing — as he narrates his own play: “Here’s the cat. Blam. Mouse delivery. Watch out. Get the car in the garage. Quick. Bad guy coming.” This is three-dimensional activity. Though an entirely different approach than Louella’s, Tyler’s play tells you that he is learning by working with concrete objects, taking in and making up worlds. In many ways these two preschoolers are not so different from one another, as both enjoy learning and expressing themselves creatively. Should they happen to be working on the same project — stringing beads, for example — Louella might use a picture of a pattern, while Tyler perhaps will pick up the materials to get a feel for them before starting to make his own creation. This is not to say that any child is locked into a particular learning style. It wouldn’t be all that unusual to observe Louella handling the blocks before she begins to build or Tyler creating his own structure based on a photograph. What’s important is that the classroom environment be flexible and responsive to the learning styles of all children, even as they change.

Consider: Both two-dimensional and three-dimensional activities give children opportunities to express themselves creatively. Tyler may need encouragement to write or draw, and his teacher could suggest that he make up stories, poems, songs, or a painting about his worlds. A child who seems to prefer two-dimensional activities can be encouraged to tell her stories using puppets or creative movement, or even build a simple diorama or setting for something or someone she has written or drawn about.

Simultaneous/ Sequential:
Leaping in or Taking Things a Step at a Time

Do you have children like Jessica in your group? At three, she is filled with curiosity about the world and most things in it. Thrilled with her selection of collage materials — cotton balls, glue, colored streamers, shiny scraps, and paper doilies — Jessica is totally absorbed in her art project. Her simultaneous approach to learning is much like the swimmer who jumps right into the pool rather than testing the water or deciding to use the steps. Often risk takers, children involved in a simultaneous approach to learning forge ahead and are sometimes as surprised as they are delighted with their creations.

Jimmy, another child in Jessica’s group, approaches learning in a different way. Making a collage sounds like lots of fun, but rather than jump right in, he looks at the available choices, collects what he thinks he’ll need, and may even line up his materials before he begins. Since he’s taking a sequential approach to this particular task, Jimmy may already have an idea of just what he wants to do with the materials or how he wants the end result to look. When things seem organized and perhaps tested out a bit, he works fairly methodically. However, it’s important to remember that this tidy style doesn’t mean that he lacks creativity or imagination.

Consider: Whether a child chooses to approach learning simultaneously or sequentially can be affected not only by that child’s attitude toward life but also, and more simply, by the mood of the day, the particular circumstances or materials, or even a whim. Both approaches offer children interesting insights and opportunities to learn. Activities that allow children to express themselves in these ways need to be readily available in early childhood settings.

A child who is excited and ready to approach learning in a simultaneous way may need your guidance (every once in a while) to help her slow down, think about a few of the results she is hoping for, and make a plan to get where she wants to go. Consider encouraging her to use language terms such as first, then, next, last, and finally. The ability to use language in this way can help her link sequence with spontaneity without totally inhibiting the discovery process.

If a child seems to be reluctant to veer from a sequential approach, a few suggestions or open-ended questions may do the trick: “Jimmy, what do you think will happen if we take a few of these colors and just mix them up? Let’s find out. We can always go back and do it another way later.” You can also try nonthreatening challenges in the form of questions: “What are four different things we could make from these materials” or “Let’s invent three different endings for the story we just read.”

Offering safe ways to try new methods, such as helping children see that planning doesn’t have to inhibit creativity or that discovery can be just as fulfilling as a specific result, can broaden children’s involvement in learning.

This article is an exerpt from the January 1999 issue of Early Childhood Today. The writer, Pricilla L. Vail, is a teacher and learning specialist who has given teacher-training and parent workshops at the Principals’ Center at Harvard Graduate School of Education, The Bank Street College of Education, and Cambridge University.