The first years of a child’s life is a period of rapid growth and development. In the context of a caring and nurturing environment, these first years should provide the basis for the competencies and the behaviors that support lifelong learning and a healthy development. Every child’s early experiences influence whether they can assertively explore their environment, and have the persistence they will need to overcome the many challenges they face when acquiring new knowledge, or learning a new skill.

Everyone has different ways of acting, thinking and feeling when it comes to learning and thinking. How your child approaches learning can be developed from birth, and it is shaped by her characteristics such as temperament and gender, and her environment. Caregivers can help children develop good learning and thinking habits by encouraging their curiosity, critical thinking, attentiveness, creativity, and persistence. How children, and even adults, learn and think is fundamental to language, socio-emotional, and cognitive development. Good habits become personal qualities which are foundational skills critical to different types of learning throughout the lifespan. Good learning and thinking skills are likely to bring about social and academic outcomes throughout childhood and into adulthood.

Research also shows that if children start school with a strong set of attitudes and skills that help them “learn how to learn”, they will be better able to take advantage of educational opportunities. While some learning skills come naturally to children, others can be developed through a supportive environment. The opposite is also true; children who experience significant levels of stress at an early age are less likely to develop these characteristics because of the effect of stress on early brain development. 

All children face challenges. Their learning can be affected by individual circumstances, such as culture and language. When adults support their efforts, children become more willing to try new things and take risks. Adults encourage children’s enthusiasm for learning by honoring their culture, valuing their curiosity, and setting up safe, interesting environments. Adults who nurture healthy approaches to learning form a strong foundation for future learning, success, and enjoyment of life.

Developing curiosity and initiative

Children have a natural sense of curiosity and wonder. With curiosity, children are motivated to acquire knowledge for its own intrinsic value, and they love to explore new ideas and learn new things. We can encourage curiosity and initiative in the following ways:

  • Provide children regular opportunities to explore new surroundings and try new activities by bringing them to explore nature such as parks, beaches, the Botanic Gardens, etc. Try out different activities such as hiking, cycling, and swimming. 
  • Notice what excites your child and help them to cultivate that interest. Developing a genuine love of a sport or activity will motivate children for the long term. 
  • Be your child’s biggest cheerleader! For children to persist on and accomplish tasks, they need to believe in themselves. Acknowledge your child’s progress, however small, so as to shape it towards a positive behavior. Look for progress and efforts to praise.
  • Be patient. Efforts are what matters most as they will eventually lead to success.
  • When children ask many questions, they are thinking, wondering and reasoning about the world. Respond to their questions with interest and enthusiasm. Your thoughtful answers can lead them to further insights and understanding.

Developing intellectual autonomy or critical thinking

Having critical thinking is the ability to think and reason for oneself. In the age of digital media, children will be exposed to messages and advertising about what they should buy, wear, watch, use, consume, look like, etc. Having the ability to question what they are told during the appropriate times is a crucial ability.  Parents can cultivate critical thinkers by:

  • Asking children open-ended questions.
  • Help your child develop hypotheses or reasons about why things may be the way they are.
  • Encourage critical thinking in new and different ways to make sense of information. Analyze, compare, contrast, and make inferences. These will generate higher order thinking skills.

Decision-making is one of the most important skills in adulthood and should be fostered early in your child’s development.

  • Let your child make simple and small personal choices, with a limited number of acceptable options. For example, you can ask what to pack for a school’s snack: an apple or a cereal bar. Or offer options for outing, such as the park or the playground.
  • When the child is old enough to make bigger decisions, you can start asking open-ended questions that have more important consequences; for instance: which hobby they would like to pursue, or which destination they would like to go on vacation.
  • Help children understand which decisions are negotiable and where the boundaries and limits are. As you work through a decision-making process, verbalize what is happening to help children understand why the decision is such. 

Developing attentiveness

Having curiosity maintains interest and motivation, and having intellectual autonomy allows one to think for oneself. These attributes will get the learning process started. Attentiveness, which refers to being alert and focused looking and listening, helps keep learning on track.

  • Don’t rush activities. Young children need a longer period of time to get involved in activities and to experience the “real engagement” that is an essential foundation for learning. Provide your children enough time to think and attempt the task before stepping in. 
  • Observe what your child is doing. If she is engaged and on the right track, don’t interrupt her. As challenging it may be, avoid completing the task for your child. 
  • Taking time to allow your child to navigate problems is integral to developing your child’s learning skills in the long run. For instance, allowing a one-and-half year-old to feed herself may be messy and time-consuming compared to feeding her, but with practice, the child will learn the skill of feeding herself and gain a new ability.
  • Encourage planning. Show the child how to plan ahead and steps taken to tackle a problem.

Developing creativity

Having creativity is the ability to invent and try new things.

  • Encourage children to question what they see, to try different ways of using materials, or to engage in new experiences.  By allowing your child to think differently, you are helping them hone their creative problem-solving skills.
  • Ask questions like, “What other ideas could we try?”
  • Encourage your child to generate options by saying, “Let’s think of all the possible solutions”
  • Allow children to use their imagination in playful, silly or messy ways. Pretend play at toddler age is a good example of how children are finding new ways to play with familiar objects. 

Developing persistence

Give your child support when she needs it, being careful not to take over the project completely is imperative.

  • Teach your child to make a plan for their project. This will help them stay on track and achieve their goals.
  • Teach your child the importance of splitting big tasks into smaller ones. Smaller tasks are easier to manage, to complete and provide partial rewards that keeps her motivated and more likely to finish the final project.
  • It can be tempting to take control over your child’s project; your task as a parent is to provide the right amount of support without accomplishing the tasks on your child’s behalf.
  • A person with a “growth mindset” is a person who believes that success is due to effort and is under his/her control. In contrast, a person with a “fixed mindset” believes that success is due to inborn abilities such as intelligence which is “fixed” or unchangeable even with effort. When someone with a growth mindset experiences failure, they take it as an opportunity to learn and improve. When someone with a fixed mindset experiences failure, they take it as evidence that they do not have ‘what it takes’ to succeed. Hence, instilling a growth mentality is important so that your child feels empowered to tackle challenges and learn from failed attempts. To encourage a growth mindset, praise efforts and attempts rather than outcome and traits.
  • Find the balance between intervening and guiding during a challenge. If your child shows signs of faltering or fear in engaging with a new activity, stay calm. Allow her to feel like she are in control. Give your child acceptable choices as options and allow her to make the decision. This will help her develop a sense of autonomy and control. Name and acknowledge your child’s feelings during the process.
Contributed by:
Dr Setoh Pei Pei
Assistant Professor
Nanyang Technological University, School of Social Sciences


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