Children's learning theories

Updated April 17, 2017

The ways in which children learn and develop vary greatly from child to child. It is important that children are held to their own standards and not those of their peers. However, children can be assessed and compared for the purpose of ensuring that major milestones are reached. There are a vast number of children/s learning theories in circulation that raise issues of student development, learning and school readiness. Three methods have had a profound impact on kindergarten readiness practices: maturationist, environmentalist, and constructivist. No one theory has been adequate to fully explain learning and/or development thus far.

Maturational Theory

The maturational theory, developed by Arnold L. Gesell, suggests that development is a biological process that occurs in sequential order, in a specific time frame. From this perspective, maturational teachers, caregivers, parents and families believe that a healthy child will acquire knowledge naturally as he grows. Families are encouraged to recite the ABCs and use words so the child can naturally learn them. Maturational theorists believe that all healthy children will be ready for kindergarten if taught with patience. If a child is not ready for kindergarten, parents can use alternatives, such as holding a child out of school for a year, or retention. Retention in this case means letting a child complete the grade again. Preschool can be used under maturational theory but it is not as necessary as providing a child with practice and a chance to grow naturally at their own rate.

Environmentalist Theory

Environmentalists believe that a child's environment/surroundings shapes her learning and development. The child reaches the age of kindergarten readiness when she can respond appropriately to the school environment. Responding appropriately includes listening to directions, rules and regulations, demonstrating positive behaviour in a group setting with peers, and so on. Environmentalist teachers, caregivers and families believe that children should learn by rote or repetition. Having children copy words or letters several times and/or trace them would be ways to help children learn.

Constructivist Theory

Constructivist theory was developed by Jean Piaget. Constructivists believe that children learn when they interact with the world, people and their surroundings. Constructivists also believe that children actively participate in the learning process. If a child can interact with the world and people around them, he is ready for school from a constructivist's perspective. Constructivist teachers and families view each child as a unique individual with his own special needs and background. For a constructivist teacher, cultural sensitivity is extremely important, as they take into account the whole child. A constructivist teacher understands that a child's home culture has an immense influence on the child's knowledge and learning.

Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory, developed by Albert Bandura, suggests that children learn new behaviours through rewards or punishments. If children observe a positive outcome for their peer's positive action, they are more likely to model, imitate or adapt the behaviour themselves. Social learning also suggests that children can learn simply by observing. However, while children may watch their teachers and families read and write daily, they are more likely to model this behaviour if they see that teachers and families are happy when they pick up a book or pencil.

Multiple Intelligences

Dr. Howard Gardner developed the theory of multiple intelligences. The theory of multiple intelligences suggests that children can be intelligent in different ways and that each child has strengths but also weaknesses. Teachers who follow the theory of multiple intelligences ensure that the curriculum plays on the strengths of each child in the class. Therefore, a skill may be taught to a class in a variety of ways to ensure that all children understand the concept. Multiple intelligences include verbal/linguistic, musical, logical/mathematical, visual/spatial, body/kinesthetic, intrapersonal, interpersonal, and naturalist.

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