Navigating the World with Little Explorers: How to Support Children’s Learning in Everyday Experiences

Children are curious explorers. They love to ask questions and learn more about their world. And children can learn anywhere – at home, at the beach, in the car, at the grocery store. Their world is limitless and as many parents experience, their questions are limitless, too. Even though children can independently explore their world, their learning is enriched when they explore with others. Learning does not usually occur in isolation, but rather with the guidance and support of a community. 

A prominent theory in developmental psychology known as the Sociocultural Theory of Cognitive Development explains that children learn through social interaction from more knowledgeable others like parents and caregivers (1). One way that parents support children’s learning is through scaffolding, or supporting a child’s thinking so that they can perform a task or reason at a level higher than what they could do on their own. You can think of scaffolding a child’s learning like the scaffolding at a construction site – a temporary structure that supports the construction crew as they work. Just as scaffolding supports the construction crew and materials to construct a building, a parent supports a child as they learn new ideas and concepts. 

Parents play a crucial role in their children’s cognitive development. They create learning environments for children before they start school, and during the many hours they are not in school. The key is that parents are actively involved in these learning opportunities along with their child. In research conducted at a science museum, it was found that when parents visited a museum exhibit with their child, children spent more time at the exhibit than when they visited an exhibit alone (2). Parent involvement during learning opportunities can be powerful and influence how children engage with content and learn from content. However, not many parents are aware of the learning opportunities available in science museums, let alone their everyday lives. When parents were surveyed about the educational value of different museum exhibits, their ratings were lower than that of experts (3). However, when signs were placed in the exhibit to highlight the learning opportunities available, parents’ ratings of educational opportunities were more like the experts’ ratings. When parents are aware of the learning opportunities that surround us everyday, they can better support our curious explorers. 

As mentioned before, children can learn anywhere – at the dinner table, on a hike, in an airport. Learning does not only occur in more structured spaces like school or at the museum (although, museums can be a really fun and amazing place to learn about cool, new things!). So if children learn everywhere, how can we best support them as they navigate their world? Below are some tips for supporting our little explorers’ adventures. 

The Three T’s: Tune In, Talk More, and Take Turns 

The Three T’s was developed by Dana Suskind, the founder and director of the Thirty Million Words Initiative, an initiative to encourage parents to talk to their young children starting at birth (4). The amount of language and the amount of unique language children hear from birth is incredibly beneficial for their language and cognitive development. 

So the first thing that parents can do is tune in. Follow your child’s attention and interests and try not to redirect their attention to another activity. For example, if your child is playing with Legos, but you want to read a book to them, it is best to follow their lead and read a book at a later time. It takes a lot of effort for a young child to shift their attention and if their attention is shifted to something they are not particularly interested in at the time, they are most likely not going to learn from that activity (4). So in this case, sit down with them, help them build that Lego tower, and talk about what you are building! 

The second T is to talk more. As you go about your day, you can narrate what you are doing, comment on what your child is doing, reminisce about an experience or talk about the future, and expand and elaborate on your child’s speech. All of these practices will not only build your child’s vocabulary, but they can also help your child learn new concepts. For example, describing the foods you see as you are grocery shopping or asking your child to guess how many slices of bread are in a loaf of bread will build your child’s vocabulary and even math skills (5)! Reminiscing about your most recent visit to the zoo will remind your child of the animals that they saw and help them remember what they learned during the visit (6). 

The final T is to take turns. That is to take turns in conversation with your child and to make sure that you don’t dominate the conversation, giving your child a chance to respond. This strategy helps your child build their conversational skills. One way to take turns is by asking your child open-ended questions that give them a chance to reflect and provide a response, potentially prompting more discussion. For example, during a visit to the dinosaur exhibit at the science museum, you could ask, “How do you think the dinosaurs got to be so big?” This question will prompt your child to reflect on what they just learned in order to reason through an explanation. 

Explanations: Simple Is Great! 

Parents do not need to know it all in order to help their child learn. There is no need for elaborate explanations for how things work. Simple, in-the-moment explanations from parents are enough to help children process information and begin constructing and developing scientific reasoning (7). And explanations that connect the current information children are processing with something they are familiar with already are especially helpful. For example, a parent might explain that in the water cycle the sun heats up water on Earth causing it to evaporate into the sky the same way the stove heats up a boiling pot of water and creates steam or water vapor. These explanations are prior knowledge connections and they help children apply what they know to new situations (8,9). 

In fact, not having a complete explanation is a great opportunity to teach your child problem-solving skills as you learn alongside your child. Typically, when parents and children are faced with a challenging task, parents are more inclined to take over and reason through the task themselves, not including their child in the learning process (10). However, this can be detrimental to the child as they do not have the opportunity to learn the information. In order to avoid this, make sure that your child is actively participating in the learning process – asking questions and experimenting with possible solutions. Reasoning together and co-constructing knowledge together have powerful effects on children’s learning outcomes.

Information-Seeking: The Power of “I Don’t Know” 

Similar to how simple explanations can help children learn, saying “I don’t know” can also be a powerful strategy to support children’s learning. Parents who say they don’t know an answer to a question can use this opportunity to help their children develop the skills they need to search for the answer on their own and use their resources to problem solve (11). Parents can show children how to look up information and the differences between credible and unreliable sources of information. Admitting that you don’t know something can be difficult – even to a 5-year-old. Instead of leaving the question unanswered, use this opportunity to show your child how they can use the resources available to them to find the answer. 

Children are little explorers – navigating their world while learning new skills, strategies, and concepts. And it is important that they have engaged and enthusiastic co-navigators to guide them along their adventure. As co-navigators, we don’t need to know it all. We just have to be willing to engage with and learn alongside our children as they explore. So maybe the next time you are at the science museum or even at the grocery store or on a walk in your neighborhood, use this opportunity to help your child engage with their world and possibly learn something new. Here’s to happy adventures! 


1 Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Harvard University Press. 

2 Crowley, K., Callanan, M. A., Jipson, J. L., Galco, J., Topping, K., & Shrager, J. (2001). Shared scientific thinking in everyday parent – child activity. Science Education, 85(6), 712–732. 

3 Song, L., Golinkoff, R. M., Stuehling, A., Resnick, I., Mahajan, N., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Thompson, N. (2017). Parents’ and experts’ awareness of learning opportunities in children’s museum exhibits. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 49, 39-45. 

4 Suskind, D. (2015). Thirty million words: Building a child’s brain. Penguin Random House LLC.

5 Hanner, E., Braham, E. J., Elliott, L., & Libertus, M. E. (2019). Promoting math talk in adult– child interactions through grocery store signs. Mind, Brain, and Education, 13(2), 110– 118. 

6 Jant, E. A., Haden, C. A., Uttal, D. H., & Babcock, E. (2014). Conversation and object manipulation influence children’s learning in a museum. Child Development, 85(5), 2029-2045. 

7 Crowley, K., & Jacobs, M. (2002). Building islands of expertise in everyday family activity. In G. Leinhardt, K. Crowley, & K. Knutson (Eds.), Learning conversations in museums (pp. 333–356). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

8 Callanan, M. A., & Jipson, J. (2001). Explanatory conversations and young children’s developing scientific literacy. In K. Crowley, C. D. Schunn, & T. Okada (Eds.), Designing for science: Implications from everyday, classroom, and professional science (pp. 21–49). Erlbaum. 

9 Willard, A. K., Busch, J. T. A., Cullum, K. A., Letourneau, S. M., Sobel, D. M., Callanan, M., & Legare, C. H. (2019). Explain this, explore that: A study of parent–child interaction in a children’s museum. Child Development, 90(5), e598–e617. 

10 Gleason, M. E., & Schauble, L. (1999). Parents’ assistance of their children’s scientific reasoning. Cognition and Instruction, 17, 343–378. 

11 Mills, C. M., Danovitch, J. H., Mugambi, V. N., Sands, K. R., & Pattisapu Fox, C. (in press). “Why do dogs pant?”: Characteristics of parental explanations about science predict children’s knowledge. Child Development.

Thumbnail photo credit: James Wheeler on Unpslash