7 Learning Lessons from a Toddler

A while back I was on the phone with a former client to whom I had not talked since my son was born. “I know you probably wouldn’t want to think about it this way,” she said, “but it must be like having a little learning laboratory in your home.”

True – that’s not really how I tend to think about it, but on the other hand, it does feel like there is a mad scientist running around my house at times, and it’s fascinating to watch. I’m sure I could cite at least 50 lessons I have learned from watching, but here are seven big ones for starters:

Ask why

Regular readers here already know I am a big fan of asking why, but boy am I getting a dose of my own medicine these days.  “Why” is the fuel that powers a toddler’s learning engine as far as I can tell. And there is nothing like being asked “Why” several times in a row and dozens of times a day to make you examine your own assumptions, definitions, and established beliefs about the world.

Lesson: Keep asking others why, and be sure also to ask yourself why on a regular basis.


Every parent knows you hit a stage where you have to be careful what you say because it is likely to be repeated right back at you – and then to relatives, neighbors, and teachers. The toddler brain is a sponge that is amazing to watch in action.

Lesson: Never stop looking for good examples to imitate – it is often the best way to pick up new knowledge and skills.

Bang your head

If I had a dollar for every time my son has bumped his head attempting something that a more cautious (i.e., older) human being would never attempt we’d be well on our way to paying for college tuition. Lots of crying results, but eventually the activity that caused the fall is either mastered or abandoned.

Lesson: Take some risks – you won’t learn much otherwise.

Do it now

It doesn’t matter if you’ve got dinner dishes in your hands and a basket of laundry balanced on your head – now is the time the new train tracks in the hallway need to be inspected. Or to see how tall a tower can be built with wooden blocks. The trivial details of day-to-day existence don’t matter.

Lesson: Don’t let get bogged down in the details or put things off. If you want to learn, start now.


(It’s easy if you try)

From cooking up a variety of delectable dishes in the bathtub for imaginary dinner guests to deciding to eat up all the porridge before Goldilocks arrives, my son rarely let’s reality stand in his way.  In the process, he takes his mind into new, undiscovered places all the time.

Lesson: You don’t necessarily need books, classrooms, or any of the other traditional trappings of learning. You’ve got whole worlds of learning with you all the time.


Even to the point of seeming irrational.

Some things are just too thick to be stuck to the refrigerator with magnets, but if you try 20 or 30 times, you just might figure out a way to make it work. (Which, in fact, he did.)  As adults, of course, we are much more inclined to give up – or turn on the TV – at the first sign that learning something new is going to take a great deal of effort. 

Lesson: Stick to it. Only 9,000 hours left to go.

Laugh. Often.

One of the introductory questions I was asked recently when speaking on a panel was “What’s the funniest thing you have ever done with e-learning.” Forget the “e” – I couldn’t recall much funny in learning at all.  My son, on the other hand, laughs hysterically when he discovers that there are outdoor vacuum cleaners at gas stations or when he decides to change “please” to “pleak” for no other reason than to see how it sounds. (Entire avant garde movements have been founded on less.)

Lesson: Learning really can be fun – and even funny.


Like I said, these are just for starters. I’m sure I’ll point out others at some point. In the meantime, if you have or had toddlers in your life, what are some lessons you learned from them? Please comment and share the learning.


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5 thoughts on “7 Learning Lessons from a Toddler”

  1. Jeff,
    It’s amazing what children can teach us. I have three who have three distinctly different ways of approaching life and learning. When they were toddlers, I learned something different from each of them, but the common theme with my three was wonder. When you become an adult, you forget the amazing wonderment of learning something new. When you see that wonder in a child’s face, it sparks the joy that learning offers.
    Great post! Thank you.

  2. Pingback: 7 Learning Lessons from a Toddler « Neil Barker's ESL & Language Learning Blog

  3. Neil – Funny, you are the second teacher in the past 24 hours to tell me they plan to point students to the site. I welcome all readers! (And boy do I wish I could learn a language as fast as a toddler does.)

    Jesse – I’ve had a similar experience at the barber. Thanks for sharing your story and insights.


  4. Excellent post. I think this provides a great comparison and much need motivation for my adult EFL learners. Many of my adult students often ask me what’s the best way to teach their children English. I think I may just direct them to your post and tell them to imitate their children. Thanks.

  5. Jeff, great blog post. I have a toddler and I couldn’t agree with you more. One lesson I recently learned was on the way to the barber where he declared to me that he wanted to sit by himself this time in the barbers chair. I was nervous that he would upset when it came time to cut his bangs but I did not say anything to him and decided to just wait it out and see what transpired. He did great and was very proud of himself for having had his haircut by himself. So, I would say we should let go of our fears and try to anticipate things that might go wrong. Things will work out well in the end.

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