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Approaches to Learning

Approaches to Learning - Younger Toddler (8-21 months)

It's go time! At this age, your young toddler is most definitely on the move - and so is their approach to learning. You'll notice plenty of curiosity and excitement as they experience new things. Think of yourself as a loving, nurturing tour guide for their ever-expanding world. Continue to introduce and encourage new experiences in a safe, secure environment. You'll be starting them off with a solid foundation for lifelong learning.

About this domain

The Approaches to Learning domain addresses how children learn and includes children’s attitudes toward and interest in learning. It reflects behaviors and attitudes such as curiosity, problem-solving, maintaining attention, and persistence.


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Curiosity, Information-Seeking, and Eagerness


AL Goal-1: Children demonstrate curiosity and eagerness and express interest in the world around them.

Watch a trusted person to gauge their level of curiosity and eagerness before interacting with objects or other people.

Imitate facial expressions and movements of others.

Show curiosity about their surroundings (points, facial expressions, simple words).

Show delight when exploring and making things happen (clapping, smiling, repeating actions over and over).

Enjoy sensory experiences (splashing water, tasting, touching, and shaking objects).

AL Goal-2: Children actively seek to understand the world around them in play and everyday tasks.

Initiate activities that interest them and try to get others involved.

Use toys and other objects to make things happen (kick a ball, push a button on a toy).

Move toward people and things that are new and/or interesting.

Seek information from adults by pointing or with a questioning look or sound.


Suggestions for Enriching the Environment
  • Design the environment with safety as a priority. Ensure that all surfaces and furniture are free from potential health and safety concerns. Sanitize frequently, especially any surfaces children put in their mouths.
  • Provide a variety of textures, including many soft surfaces and comfortable furniture that encourage climbing and exploration and a home-like atmosphere.
  • Include materials that will allow children to use all of their senses, which could include: several types of music; outdoor wind chimes; paintings; children’s art work; flowers and other plants; fabric; and a variety of different types of books.
  • Provide uncluttered spaces for relaxation, as well as room for moving.
  • Provide a variety of materials children can use to express their creativity and represent what they are learning, including washable, non-toxic paints, crayons, and markers, as well as paper, and open-ended materials such as blocks, containers, and fabric.
  • Regularly add new materials to the indoor and outdoor environment that will engage children’s interest and encourage them to try new experiences and ask questions.
  • Organize and arrange materials in an inviting manner. Use trays or place-mats to make materials look interesting and stand out. Add real items as props for pretend play.
  • Provide children with adequate time to fully explore materials both indoors and outside.
Effective Strategies to Support Children's Development and Learning
  • Notice and respond to children’s interests and encourage them explore and learn more. Infants may show their interest through simple reactions, which we can acknowledge, describe, and then provide additional experiences. We can also encourage them to notice each other’s activities.
  • Support children’s exploration and discovery. For infants, this may begin with providing tummy time with stimulating toys. Document learning with photographs that can be shared, displayed or added to photo albums, class books or portfolios.
  • Provide a wide variety of experiences for children of all abilities. Adapt materials and activities as needed to ensure that all children can participate as fully as possible.
  • Share your excitement and interest in activities, wonder at plants, animals, and events in nature, and your joy in learning new things. Encourage children to do the same.
  • Show genuine curiosity. Be a role model, showing how to approach new situations and engage in learning.
  • Provide activities and materials that support children at their current level, as well as those that offer a challenge. Support and encourage children as they work on these challenges. Be especially sensitive to children with special needs. Observe children to know when to offer additional support, allow for independent exploration, or when to end an activity. (“Maria, look how that toy is lighting up when you push that button, can you do it again?”)
  • Have rich conversations with children, listening, responding to their ideas, interests, questions, and concerns.
  • Provide a variety of props and pictures that will allow children with limited vocabularies and dual language learners to learn more about topics that interest them and communicate their ideas more effectively.
  • Encourage children to listen carefully to others, ask questions of one another, share, and compare ideas.
  • Combine new materials and activities with familiar ones to allow children to explore changes, and then to return to activities they are comfortable with, when needed.
  • Let children watch new activities from a distance if they are uncomfortable joining right away, and then participate when ready.
  • Avoid overwhelming children with too much stimulation, especially those with special sensory needs.
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Initiative, Effort, Engagement, and Persistence


AL Goal-3: Children demonstrate initiative and effort in play and everyday tasks.

Express choices with actions or simple language (points or reaches for desired objects or food options).

Seek to repeat experiences they enjoy or those that result in feeling successful (climb up and down stairs).

Try to help with self-care (brushing hair) and activities (turning pages in a book you are reading together).

AL Goal-4: Children are engaged and maintain focus in play and everyday tasks.

Focus on self-selected activity for a short period of time (decide to play in the sandbox and stay there for a couple of minutes).

Focus on an interesting activity or interaction shared with adults for a short period of time.

AL Goal-5: Children persist at challenging activities in play and everyday tasks.

Keep trying to accomplish tasks that they are not initially able to do (put objects inside container, use spoon, put on hat).


Suggestions for Enriching The Environment
  • Provide interesting, engaging materials, inside and outdoors, at children’s current levels of abilities, as well as materials that will require more effort and challenge.
  • Design the room using interest areas or centers where children can make choices. Organize materials so that children can choose and put away supplies on their own. Keep materials on low shelves; use child-sized furniture and materials, making adaptations as necessary so all children can access them.
  • Provide extended periods of uninterrupted time for children to work in self-selected interest areas and on activities that that they choose, promoting engagement, independence, initiative, risk taking, and persistence.
  • Keep some materials out for several days or even weeks to encourage more in-depth involvement and persistence.
  • Provide space to store children’s unfinished work so they can return to them over a period of several days or longer.
Effective Strategies to Support Children's Development and Learning
  • Provide children with opportunities to make choices in activities, materials, food, and interactions with other people.
  • Provide a wide variety of materials and individualize activities that are responsive to children’s interests, temperament, and developmental level so that all children can experience success.
  • Model persistence by trying multiple ways to accomplish something and talk with children about what you are doing (keep working on different ways to open a window that is stuck as you talk with the children).
  • Give children plenty of time to play, create, investigate and complete tasks and projects. Encourage them to take their time and avoid rushing to get finished.
  • Prepare children for transitions using cues to gain their attention (ring a bell at five, three, and one minute intervals to inform children that they need to wrap up what they are doing)
  • Encourage children to keep trying by asking questions and offering support. (“Where do you think this puzzle piece could go? It’s hard but you are really trying.”)
  • Recognize when dual language learners or children with limited communication skills need additional support to be able to express themselves (providing words, visual cues, gestures, or simple sign language).
  • Encourage children to finish activities they have started so they can enjoy a sense of accomplishment at completing a task.
  • Plan for activities or long-term studies that allow children to think about a topic over an extended period of time. (explore bugs with the children for a number of days or week in a variety of ways such as reading books, exploring outside, and drawing pictures).
  • Emphasize the importance of effort, not just getting a “right answer.” Encourage and praise children’s efforts.
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Risk-Taking, Problem-Solving, Flexibility, and Resilience


AL Goal-6: Children are willing to try new and challenging experiences in play and everyday tasks.

Try unfamiliar experiences and interact with new people with a familiar adult nearby.

Move away from a familiar adult to explore, but check in frequently.

Show interest in toys that offer a challenge and try to make them work.

AL Goal-7: Children use a variety of strategies to solve problems in play and everyday tasks.

Try one or two strategies to get what they want or solve a problem (try giving a peer an alternate toy to get a desired toy from him/her; try to put a ball in a box—if it will not fit, gets a bigger box).

After unsuccessful attempt to solve a problem, ask for help from an adult (point, gesture, speak).

Vary actions on purpose to solve a problem (bang then turn shape to fit in sorter; shake handle then pull.

Use available resources to accomplish a goal or solve a problem (push a stool to a counter to reach for something).


Suggestions for Enriching The Environment
  • Provide plenty of open-ended materials, both indoors and outside, that can be used in more than one way and materials that challenge children’s problem-solving abilities (new, challenging puzzles; different kinds of paint and brushes).
  • Establish a consistent routine that promotes children’s sense of expectation, while also being flexible to teachable moments.
  • Provide time for reflection in the daily schedule (use snack time for conversations about the morning’s play activities).
Effective Strategies to Support Children's Development and Learning
  • Talk about what you are seeing, doing, and thinking. Use language to identify items in the environment such as what you are eating, what children are doing, and how you are solving a problem. (“We ran out of juice, so I’m going to pour some water instead.”)
  • Let children know you care about them and appreciate their efforts.
  • Encourage children to use materials in new ways. Validate their feelings of disappointment when their efforts are not initially successful. Encourage them to try solving their problem another way.
  • Model flexibility and positive approaches to new experiences. Demonstrate your own willingness to try new ideas, activities, materials, foods, etc.
  • Help children who have difficulty trying new things, by introducing the material or change slowly, and preparing them in advance for changes that are coming.
  • Encourage children to seek help from each other or an adult when needed. Role-play a variety of situations that involve solving problems and asking for help, providing words that children can then use on their own
  • Support and praise children’s efforts, helping children see that their efforts are more important than final products.
  • Support children’s efforts to think flexibly and do things in their own way.
  • Help children take safe-risks. Be there to ensure their safety.
  • Talk out loud while reasoning through a problem or working through a task to model the problem-solving process for children.
  • Teach children the steps involved in problem solving: identifying the problem, generating possible solutions, choosing a solution, trying it out and evaluating how well it worked.
  • Engage children in applying their prior knowledge by prompting them to ponder why something might have happened, such as why a plant might be wilting.
  • Set up safe and engaging science activities and experiments that give children opportunities to use their thinking and problem-solving skills.
  • Encourage children to talk out loud as they reason and work through a task.
  • Suggest that children ask for help and support one another. Model this, especially for children who may have limited social interaction skills or additional challenges.
  • Routinely involve children in thinking through real-life problems (how to clear a path through the new snow).
  • Promote reflection by asking open-ended questions as children are working on a project.
  • Help children use conflict resolution skills when they are working through problems with other children. Model negotiation skills by talking about the problem, the feelings related to the problem, and how to explore possible solutions.
  • Acknowledge and celebrate children’s successes. Encourage them to recognize their own achievements and congratulate peers on their successes.
  • Help children identify coping skills that will help them when feeling stress, such as asking for a hug, holding a blanket and taking a break.
  • Role model relaxation skills, such as deep breathing, slowly counting and progressively relaxing muscles to help children cope with challenges.
  • Encourage children to think of mistakes as opportunities to explore alternative solutions and ways to complete tasks. Avoid making critical or negative comments. Acknowledge when you yourself make mistakes and talk about how you try to learn from them.
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Play and Imagination


AL Goal-8: Children engage in increasingly complex play.

Play alongside other children, sometimes imitating their actions.

Imitate adult actions with objects, first with real objects and then with objects that are used to represent another object (talk on phone, feed doll, use a chair as a pretend car).

Take turns in simple games (pat-a-cake, peek-a-boo).

Offer toys and objects to others.

AL Goal-9: Children demonstrate creativity, imagination, and inventiveness in play and everyday tasks.

Do new things with familiar objects or combine them in unusual ways (use a dressup boa as a snake, pound a drum with a plastic bottle, try to stack bears).


Suggestions for Enriching The Environment
  • Incorporate movement and interest into the environment, using such things as fish and other pets, objects suspended from the ceiling, and music for dancing.
  • Periodically rotate toys and materials to spark new ideas.
  • Provide a variety of open-ended, real-life, materials for children to investigate, including boxes, wooden blocks, and safe household materials.
  • Provide large amounts of time for children to make choices and play imaginatively.
  • Adapt materials and the environment as needed so that children of all abilities can participate fully.
  • Set out a variety of art materials that encourage creativity. Change these materials periodically to give children new experiences.
  • Add unique objects to interest areas, such as toy animals to the block area to expand play and imagination. This could include objects that fit with a theme or project you are working on.
  • Encourage divergent thinking by combining unlikely objects and activities, such as adding colorful fabric squares to the math area or artificial flowers to the sand table.
  • Transform the Dramatic Play/Housekeeping area periodically to promote new play scenarios, such as Post Office, Restaurant, Vet Office, Pet Store, Flower Shop, Grocery Store, Bank, Library, etc.
Effective Strategies to Support Children's Development and Learning
  • Observe children’s individual interests and abilities and provide a variety of materials as well as indoor and outdoor activities that allow them to pursue their interests and develop their imaginations.
  • Expand children’s experiences by exploring new places and introducing them to new activities.
  • Nurture creativity by encouraging children to use materials in unique and creative ways.
  • Assure children that it is fine to get messy as they work with materials. Recognize that some children will not be comfortable with messy activities. Support children in thinking of alternative ways they can do the activity.
  • Ask open-ended questions that encourage broad, creative thinking; “What would happen if... Why do you think... What could we do... etc.”
  • Follow children’s lead as they play and design activities that will allow them to pursue their interests.
  • Model skills that support children’s ability to join others who are playing, as well as how to invite others to join them.
  • Provide a variety of props to support children’s pretend play.
  • Encourage children to plan and talk about what they might do in the dramatic play area (roles they might like to play, props they might like to use, etc.).
  • Support children’s ability to use their imaginations (help make up new words to songs and new endings for stories).