How Do Preschoolers Learn? 5 Learning Pathways Everyone Should Know

While most preschoolers learn in a variety of different ways, there are five tried and tested teaching methods for children that can be used by parents, caregivers or educators with great success.

Let’s look at how connecting words to actions, providing opportunities for imitation, participating in age-appropriate play, repeating lessons in various ways, and encouraging multisensory experiences can create fun learning activities for kids.

1. Making Connections

Preschoolers add to their vocabularies and increase their verbal communication skills daily. However, because they start from a limited foundation of basic vocabulary words paired with concrete thinking, they may not always grasp advanced concepts quickly.

Adult interaction in the form of guided conversation, open-ended questions, and visual and auditory cues provides the connecting links for preschoolers to use these growing vocabularies and daily activities to connect their learning experiences to their real life.

Here’s an example:

Listen to your child while he or she is playing with toys or blocks. Look for opportunities to ask questions or make comments that flow naturally with the child’s activity such as “What do you think we should do after your doll finishes her bottle?” or “What do you think will happen if we add more blocks to the top of the tower?”

Kids at play

Another way to help preschoolers make the connection between words and actions is by pointing to the individual words when they are learning to read books. Kids love repetition (we’ll discuss this more later), and as they hear and/or read the same stories over and over, they connect those words to that story.

More importantly, they learn those words always appear in the story in the same order and sequence every time. This teaches them certain events or actions have predictable results, which they can count on.

Finally, in addition to pointing to the words as you read books together, try asking questions about the storyline or the characters: “What do you think Peter Rabbit will do if he can’t find his coat buttons?”

The goal is to engage as many of the child’s five senses as possible to provide a richer learning experience.

2. Creating Multisensory Experiences

When you help children move from just seeing or hearing a lesson to experiencing it by touch, taste or smell, you create various links in their brains to that information. Because the information is stored in a variety of ways, they remember it longer and can retrieve it quicker. They also have the chance to exercise and develop their gross and fine motor skills when they engage in multisensory play activities.

For instance, when kids watch a video or read a book, they may or may not be engaged or paying attention. However, when they hear a story about what happens when you give a mouse a cookie and then they make cookies and enjoy them as a snack, they are more likely to remember not only the story but the aroma of the baking cookies, the texture of the cookie dough, and the taste of warm cookies washed down with an icy cold glass of milk.

As a bonus, as a parent, caregiver or educator, you may find creating expanded learning opportunities for your children or students increases your own creativity and enjoyment of life. After all, who says you have to be a preschooler to enjoy a cookies and milk break?

Here are three multisensory experiences that are guaranteed kid-pleasers are:

  1. Creating with clay or dough – if you make your own dough for playtime, use a recipe for an edible dough and you won’t have to worry if your child decides to experiment with the sense of taste. (See video for a recipe for tactile dough made with a flavored drink mix.)
  2. Playing with blocks or construction toys – these toys can be seen, felt, heard and so on. While you probably don’t want your child chewing on wooden blocks, if they decide to lick one, it probably won’t hurt them.
  3. Playing in water – give your preschooler a small tub of clean water and some toys, and you’ve just purchased yourself some me-time! They can taste it, touch it, smell it, hear it splash, and see it pour into or out of a container. In fact, most children will object when you tell them it’s time to stop playing.

3. Teaching by Imitation

Kids learn more from imitating those around them than they do from the highest quality lessons in any classroom. When they see their parents or siblings sharing with others or using good manners, they imitate those actions automatically. If they see their role models acting in inappropriate ways or using inappropriate language, they will mimic those behaviors or use those words as well. Listening to your children while they are playing can be an eye-opening experience, especially if you hear words and phrases you recognize using yourself coming out of their mouths!

While it isn’t always possible (especially when emotions flare or in the middle of temper tantrums or meltdowns), if you can step back from the situation mentally and be aware your child is looking to your for cues on how to act, you can use the opportunity to teach them by imitation to your advantage.

4. Repeating and Repeating

You may think you just can’t read that book, play that game or watch that movie one more time, but your child acts as though it is brand new information. Repeating pleasant experiences or hearing favorite stories or songs over and over is comforting to preschoolers. They enjoy knowing what will happen next, and it gives them a sense of control over their lives.

Let's play Bingo!

The preschooler years are when children start to ask questions – why is the sky blue, why can’t I eat more cookies, why do I have to go to sleep – and they may ask the same questions repeatedly because they are hoping for a different answer.

However, just as they learned that stories, songs and movies have predicable outcomes, they eventually learn some questions always have the same answers.

This repetition of activities or probing questions demonstrates how children use their expanding vocabularies and multisensory experiences to connect their day-to-day learning to their stored memories and prior skills.

5. Providing Challenging Age-Appropriate Play

Playtime is more than just a fun break from lessons for preschoolers. As they participate in pretend play and other age-appropriate activities, they are practicing and perfecting skills they will need later in life. For instance, when they are playing with dolls or action figures, they are practicing future parenting or problem solving skills. Working with real objects gives them the foundation needed for moving to more abstract concepts.

What Preschoolers Should Learn

Now that you understand how your preschool child learns, you might be wondering what preschoolers should learn before they go to kindergarten. In addition learning their name, address and phone numbers, here are some other things they should know:

  • Numbers from 1 to 10
  • Alphabet
  • Shapes: circle, square, rectangle, triangle, square and so forth
  • Colors: red, blue, yellow and so on
  • Pre-reading and pre-writing skills

You can help your child learn as much as possible by creating multisensory learning opportunities, helping them connect their vocabulary abilities to their real-life experiences, providing lots of time for age-appropriate play, and teaching them by imitation and repetition.

Image credits:
“Kids at play” by jacarino under royalty free license via SXC

“Let’s play Bingo!” by Anissat under royalty free license via SXC