The Early Years: Learning Through Play - DuPage Children's Museum

Mess Fest | Saturday, June 22 | 9–2

Come Play!
Close button

The Early Years: Learning Through Play

July 21, 2016

I have been thinking a lot lately about our youngest visitors, the myths and realities that surround the early years, and what we do here to support the growth, and development of children from birth to 24 months of age. One myth that immediately comes to mind is that of an infant or toddler as a blank slate, waiting for us to fill them up with knowledge and skills. The reality is that if you watch an infant or toddler engage in the same activity over and over again, it becomes clear that from birth there’s an inborn drive for mastery. These moments, when, for instance, an infant rocks back and forth in the tripod position or a toddler fills and dumps a cup time and time again, are crucial in their development. Adults and other children play an important role in creating environments that promote these experiences, and provide infants and toddlers with the freedom, and support to master these tasks. Alison Gopnik, author and psychology professor who has dedicated much of her career to studying child development, referred to babies as being “the best learning machines in the universe.” A statement I whole heartedly agree with, and have witnessed day in and out throughout my career.

According to the article, “Why Begin with Infants?” from Zero-to-Three, “the early years of life is a period in which the foundation for future learning is being laid.” During infancy, the brain is developing at a faster pace than at any other time in a human’s development. An infant’s brain is a complex web of visual, motor, language and social-emotional connections that are essential for later learning. However, the further development of this complex web depends on how and how much the brain is used. (Source: Understanding Children, Civitas).

Promoting brain development and beginning with experiences that help even the youngest infants begin to understand themselves as “agents of change,” DuPage Children’s Museum has three Young Explorers areas specifically designed for children under two years old. These areas are intentionally designed keeping in mind the fact that research shows that children with high self-esteem, who feel loved and supported, are more willing to try new things, even if it means failing a lot as they go, persisting, and not becoming overcome with frustration, because they know they will be safe. Here, infants and toddlers can explore exhibits that are designed to consider their intellectual interests and physical capabilities, and that also promote brain development. These areas are a great place to learn, utilizing comfortable interaction with the most important adults in their lives.
Over the next three weeks I will highlight and do a deeper dive into our three Young Explorers areas which include:


Build It Young Explorers:
Here young children can experiment with their effect on the world while exploring the properties of gravity, motion and construction as in the surrounding exhibits: Make It Move and Build It.

Creativity Connections Young Explorers
This area encourages young children’s experimentation with color, light, shadow, texture and sound similar to the exhibits in Creativity Connections.

Math Young Explorers
This area offers young children the opportunity to explore mathematical concepts such as sorting, patterning and matching without numbers. There are blocks, beads, balls, and shapes similar to those in the Math Connections neighborhood.

Some things to keep in mind regarding playing with infants and toddlers – it’s all about the interaction!
Quality interaction with young children strongly influences brain development. Therefore, whether you are visiting the Museum or spending time at home with your child, make sure to:

  • Give your child lots of attention and positive reinforcement. This will help the child feel more confident, relaxed, happy, and ready to learn.
  • Provide consistent responses because in doing so, you communicate to your children that the world around them is trustworthy, and that they can depend on you. Especially pay attention to any signs of overstimulation (tuning out or frustration).
  • Have fun! Jump right in with playful actions or expressions (tickles, smiles, songs) and provide simple, novel objects or environments to explore.
  • Talk to your child. Listening to your voice not only is comforting, but also helps your child learn about sounds and language.
  • Introduce your child to peers. Toddlers are naturally curious and seek out opportunities to learn more about the world around them. Provide opportunities to let your child observe and interact with adults, and children. Slightly older children can demonstrate new ways to use or interact with materials.


(Source: Understanding Children, Civitas).