The 10 Best Incidental Learning Activities for Preschoolers
Learn| By Amy Potter | May 28, 2021
What is incidental learning? We show how involving your toddler in everyday informal activities can support development and help develop learning skills.
Any parent will tell you kids are like sponges: constantly absorbing knowledge, words and behaviours from the world around them (even when we don’t want them to!). In fact, it’s our everyday activities that play one of the biggest roles in toddler and preschooler development – and it’s called incidental learning, which experts show is highly beneficial for our little ones’ growth. We’ve rounded up a range of incidental learning examples and activities that can help them make the most of every opportunity. Chances are, you’re probably already doing some of them.
Learn With Laundry
Next time it’s laundry day, put your kids to work! “Have baskets where children can sort out the lighter and darker clothes, which supports their sense of independence and responsibility,” says Nicole Sammut, a Sydney childcare centre manager. You could also get them to match socks, or group clothes by family members. They’ll be developing colour and pattern recognition, as well as sorting skills, while learning the importance of helping out at home.
Visit the Supermarket
A trip to the grocery store is ripe with learning opportunities. While you shop, try pointing out aisle numbers and written signs, counting and weighing items, or teaching food names to help with numeracy, literacy and vocabulary. “Children can help get food items from the shelf, which can be an introduction to counting,” says preschool educational leader Camille Aguilar. “For toddlers, it can be a fun colour-hunt activity – for example, a red apple or yellow banana.” You could even write a shopping list together before you go, to help them practise handwriting, or continue the shopping fun at home with some pretend play.
Play Supermarkets at Home
Getting hands-on in the garden can help develop learning – and life – skills. Counting seeds and measuring soil depth helps with maths; talking through the process teaches them new words (rhododendron, anyone?); and learning how things grow introduces them to science. The seed packets also demonstrate how symbols, and not just words, can relay information. “Involve your child in watering the garden, pulling weeds out and digging the soil – make it simple and fun!” says Camille. Don't feel limited by the need for a spacious backyard for this activity, you can do some pint-sized gardening in a courtyard or on a balcony, with some indoor pot plants or even a window sill herb garden will do the trick.
Head to the Zoo
With awesome animals and cool exhibits on tap, a family field trip to the zoo makes for a roar-some day out and provides fun learning opportunities, such as picking up new words and boosting observational skills. Looking at a map beforehand to read animal names, study symbols and learn about directions also helps build literacy. While you are there, “Ask what they can see and what the animals are doing,” says Camille. “Read the description on each display to help your child understand what their eyes can see and build that connection in their brain.” You can talk about how zoos are helping conserve endangered species and discuss how different animals prefer different kinds of environments and come from different parts of the world. Then follow up those observation lessons at home and at the park, pointing out various animals and insects, and asking open-ended questions about what lives in and around their natural environment. Before you know it, you’ll have young David Attenboroughs on your hands.
Enjoy Time Outdoors
Your regular trip to the park or playground is the perfect time to work on incidental learning and language skills – ask your kids what they can see, plus point out new street signs. Playground equipment, like the monkey bars, can help you to demonstrate concepts such as over and under, high and low, or up and down, while a nature-themed scavenger hunt can help with counting skills. You could even take your findings home for a fun art or journal project, says Camille.
Create Nature-themed Art or a Journal
Go for a Drive
Nip car boredom, or seat kicking, in the bud with road trip games that double as learning opportunities. “Singing songs during car rides, or engaging children in conversation about their day or the place you’re going to can support their emerging language and vocabulary,” says Camille. And don’t forget the retro classic game, I Spy. “It fosters children’s literacy and numeracy skills as they count or name objects parents are asking about. It also strengthens focus, concentration and comprehension skills.”
Talk About the Weather
We all dread a dreary day – kids stuck inside for 24 hours can test even the most patient parent. So, turn the drizzle into a great platform for incidental learning. Check apps, the TV or a newspaper for the forecast, and explain what the symbols represent. As well as teaching children how pictures offer information, they can also learn about patterns and seasons, make predictions and develop vocabulary. Asking them what might be appropriate to wear that day also helps encourage problem-solving and decision-making (hopefully they choose gumboots over white sneakers!). And develop recording and categorising skills by making a chart at home to keep track of the changes in the weather.
Make a Weather Chart
Make the Most of Storytime
Reading is instrumental in helping children improve vocabulary. But it’s not all about the words – you can use illustrations as learning prompts, too. Try picking items to name or count, asking what shapes they see and seeing if they can find something beginning with a certain letter. “You could also ask them to predict what will happen on the next page,” says Camille. “Aside from enriching vocabulary and comprehension, reading can help children understand that the book is held upright, pages are turned from left to right, words convey meaning, and images tell the story.”
Take Public Transport
Hopping on public transport means checking maps and timetables, buying tickets, reading signs and platform numbers… practical, everyday activities that promote an understanding of numbers, time and letter recognition. “Taking the bus or train is an opportunity to learn about the place they’re going, or the name of the station to get off,” says Nicole. “It also allows children to learn how to pay for their fare, as well as listen to the announcements on where they are.” It can be the perfect opportunity to have a chat about how public transport is good for the planet and can help boost their confidence for when the time comes that they have to catch the bus to ‘big school’.
“Cooking with children has lots of benefits,” says Camille. “These include literacy where children learn how to read (and follow) both visual and written recipes; numeracy concepts such as measuring and predicting; and scientific process as they observe the changes from ingredients into meals.” Try setting the table to help with counting, using number recognition to set a timer, talking them through a recipe to assist with vocabulary, or even letting them be in charge of measuring flour and sugar – as long as you can handle the inevitable spills!