Learning is a dynamic process that happens as soon as our senses are open to the world around us. I often
encounter curious, motivated people who, understandably, have no idea where to start when it comes to
teaching their children something new or expanding their own knowledge or skill. So, when does the
learning process begin, how does it work, and what can we do to make the most out of our brains’ natural
We begin to understand the world around us before we are even birthed into it. Research has shown that
infants in the womb are sensitive to their mothers’ emotional shifts, the unique sound of mom’s voice,
environmental sounds, and spoken word from the outside world (Graven & Browne, 2008). Extensive
evidence has also found that babies, once born, continue to draw patterns from their environments. They
learn that making eye contact can cause loved ones to smile and coo at them. Early on, they come to find
that using their voice (read: screaming and crying) lets caregivers know that they are ready for lunch.
These are examples of early communication development, well before the first real word.
Children learn many aspects of language through these same pattern-driven strategies as we, the speakers,
provide the tools for their success. Alt, Meyers, and Ancharski (2012) discussed three Principles of
Learning that are ever-important for a child to successfully communicate in their daily lives: variability,
complexity, and sleep consolidation.
The Principle of Variability states that children learn best when they are given a variety of examples of a
language form. Take the word ‘apple’: You could show your child a red apple from your family’s grocery
store, that is always in the fruit bowl in the kitchen. She will learn that this one thing is an apple. But
show her that juicy red example, then take her apple-picking in an orchard, then point out apples in her
favorite books and TV shows, and maybe draw pictures of red, yellow, and green apples together. This
strategy will help her to truly understand the concept of apple. This is making me hungry!
The Principle of Complexity states that the more language we use, the more a child will learn. So, say
what you want your child to say – instead of broken English with missing words (such as mommy kiss
baby, or you want green ball?), try speaking with the words you hope for your child to use (Mommy
kisses the baby, and do you want a green ball?). Sure, it probably won’t benefit anybody to try and talk
with the complexity of a Charles Dickens novel or use Ye Olde Proper English, but try to keep those
sentences complete with all the little language trimmings like a, the, and do. Your child is incredibly
smart and can pick out the important pieces.
Last but certainly not least, the Principle of Sleep Consolidation highlights what we all already know but
find so hard to follow: sleep is important for learning. The human brain does loads of different things
during all three stages of sleep that are vital for information processing, emotional regulation, memory,
and recharging so that we can pay attention to the next day’s new stuff to learn. I mean, if it’s not so
important, then why do babies do it so much? Because they’re lazy? No way. That high-quality sleep is
helping them grow into the best versions of themselves, inside and out. Some ways to take advantage of
the benefits of sleep include scheduling speech therapy sessions before naps, reading fantastic books just
before bed, and creating a consistent bedtime routine so that your child’s body can set itself up for a good
If there’s one thing to keep in mind about our kids, it’s that they are much more brilliant than we often
give them credit for. It’s up to us to provide the fuel their brains need to learn, which includes words and
sleep! Oh, plus lunch and apples.
Alt, M., Meyers, C., & Ancharski, A. (2012). Using principles of learning to inform language therapy
design for children with specific language impairment. International Journal of Language &
Communication Disorders, 47(5), 487-498.
Graven, S. N. & Browne, J. V. (2008). Auditory development in the fetus and infant. Newborn and Infant
Nursing Reviews, 8(4), 187-193.