HOW CHILDREN LEARN IN PRIMARY SCHOOL Nirupama Rao (Psychologist-Child Development and Parenting Consultant)

“Learning is experience. Everything else is just information” Albert Einstein.

From the second we’re born, till the minute we die, the process of learning goes on continuously. We learn about the world and our environment primarily through our senses. Babies and young children take in the world through all their senses.
Thus begins their learning journey. As pointed out by Pavlov, conditional learning kicks in early and the baby starts making associations between their behaviour and the response that that behaviour evokes from the people in the environment.
If I cry, I get a diaper change. If I touch something hot, I can injure myself. If I throw a tantrum, I can have my way.

“The future belongs to the curious. The ones who are not afraid to try it, explore it, poke at it, question it at turn it inside out”- Unknown

‘Curiosity is the very basis of education’ – Arnold Edinborough

Learning thus, is an automatic, natural process. Human beings are programmed to learn and evolve. They love to learn because they are naturally curious! If we use the right methods to teach and use curiosity as a tool, children would never have to be pressurised to learn and learning would never have to be stressful.
Unfortunately completely contradictory to the quote by William Butler Yeats, our education system has become more of filling a pail than lighting a fire- the fire of a child’s curiosity.

“Millions of people saw apples fall. But Newton wondered why”- Bernard Baruch

Conventional learning approaches do not have time for curiosity. Teachers don’t have time for it as they have a curriculum to complete. Children’s questions are not usually encouraged.

Learning Theories
The popular theories of learning are
● Pavlov’s Classical Conditioning where humans and animals learn through association and conditioning,
● Skinner’s Operant Conditioning wherein positive response to a behaviour reinforces it and a negative response reduces it;
● According to Bandura’s Social Learning theory, children learn by observation and imitation
● Lesser known but common sense, is Rudolf Steiner’s seven year stages of learning and development approach which is applied in Waldorf schools that are based on his research.
According to Steiner, the way children learn changes every seven years according to their developmental needs and stage.

Like Bandura said, they learn by observing the environment and imitating the adults in the environment. In fact, walking is learnt through imitation. Steiner goes on further to say that children do not learn from what we say or do but who we are. Adults have to be worthy of being imitated by children as their primary mode of learning in the first seven years is observation.

Children are naturally movers and doers. Young children learn a lot through their own physical bodies- through play, movement, exploration and experimentation. They just need ample opportunity to do so, to keep their curiosity and wonder alive and to create a lifelong love for learning. It’s not appropriate to expect a four or five year old to sit at a desk and focus for hours.

For the past one or two decades, we have been hearing a lot about accelerated learning or an early start in learning. Infants as young as 6 months are exposed to flash cards to maximise the golden period of learning. If this were true, the concept of adult education would not exist. Research has proved time and again that the brain is plastic and even when half the brain is lost, the other half compensates.
However, 0-7 is a period of physical development and it certainly is a time when children should be given a chance to develop their muscles, fine motor and gross motor skills, balance, eye hand coordination and all the readiness skills required for future academic learning. This can be achieved through movement and play or activity based learning.

We’re all familiar with the Chinese proverb-
“Tell me, I may forget,
Show me, I may remember,
Involve me, I’ll understand”
In the next seven years that is 7-14, children learn through the faculty of feeling and the senses. The best way to teach them at this stage is to engage them through sensory experiences and concepts brought in through concrete learning where they can touch and feel their way through the learning process. This is what we call “experiential learning”. Songs, stories, field trips, art, poetry, movement, activities and games etc., can go a long way to not only help them learn but also retain what they learn. Repetition combined with movement ensures that the concept is stored in long term memory.


While it’s true that children learn through all their senses, different children have different senses as their dominant sense. For some it’s visual and for some auditory, while for others it could be tactile or kinesthetic.
If a teacher uses all the different senses in introducing new concepts rather than just the “chalk and talk” method that only uses visual and auditory senses, teaching and learning could be much more effective.
Children learn better in freedom, joy and through experience and interaction, by being active and involved in the process.

“Learning is not the product of teaching. It’s the product of the activity of the learner”- John Holt, author, How Children Learn, How Children Fail

“If the child cannot learn from the way you teach, you need to teach in a way that the child can learn”.

But this would take a lot from the teacher in terms of motivation and interest. Learning is most effective when it can happen in a joyful manner that is devoid of stress, fear and pressure. The entire educational system has to undergo a change to make learning more experiential, based out of real life experiences rather than competition.
There are many new schools coming up that are either attempting to bring back ancient wisdom or new progressive approaches in education. The main objective is that children should be taught in a way that learning actually happens and is retained for a longer period. There is also more focus on soft skills, environmental consciousness and an attitude of giving back to the community in the new schools.
The trend is positive and the future of the coming generation of children looks bright as they have more and more opportunities to discover their own potential. The goal of any education should be to help children discover their own unique potential. Good education, especially in rural areas and lower socioeconomic sector has the power to positively transform the destiny of the child.



Dear friends,

My name is Nirupama Rao. I’m a psychologist with 24 years of experience in the field of Special Needs and Child Development. I am a mother of 2 girls, 22 and 12.

I have previously run my own Waldorf kindergarten/ Centre for children for special needs called Niraamayaa for five years. I have worked in various school, hospital and NGO settings.

Have authored and published two books:

Parenting- The Art and Science of Nurturing with Dr Shekhar Seshadri, NIMHANS

The Autism Story. A little illustrated fictional booklet.

I love writing and post articles on this blog whenever inspiration strikes on various topics.

I currently work with preschools and with parents of young children with autism, attention, emotional and behavioral issues.

I also conduct awareness workshops for parents, teachers and general public on Autism, Special Needs, Child Development, Waldorf Education, on Conscious, Simplicity and Slow Parenting Styles.

There are many factors that exacerbate attention, sensory and behavioural issues in sensitive children. I educate the parents about these factors and help them to understand how conducive diet, rhythms, lifestyle and environment (physical and emotional), will maximise the potential of their children.

I work with the mothers closely and help them with their anxiety. I handhold the parents and guide and support them through various stages of the child’s development by leading them to the right resources. I believe in long term support.

I help parents see the gifts in their children and together work out ways of strengthening them; to celebrate the uniqueness of the child; to respect and accept differences in the child; and to eventually become their advocates.

I work from my home office at Hiranandani Powai, Mumbai.

I consult by appointment.

Thanks and regards,

Nirupama Rao