Christopher, for instance, listens carefully when people talk; he first said "spatula" at 16 months. Alexandra, his twin sister, bounds off across the playground -- she was the first in the group to go down the big, twisty slide all by herself. Grace watches carefully from the sidelines before enthusiastically exploring new things later on. Alex observes; he can often be found studying his board books intently. Phoebe, my daughter, revels in hands-on play in sand, mud, and water.
When I see the different ways these kids respond to and pick up information -- by leaping in or watching first, by looking at things or picking them up -- I wonder if these are clues to how they'll learn best as they grow. Will Phoebe always want to get her hands on things? Will Christopher always respond most strongly to words and sounds? And do these tendencies matter?
An increasing number of researchers say yes. Every child has a distinct "learning style," or way of observing her surroundings and gaining new information. While everyone learns individually in a variety of ways, we all -- children and adults -- do it best when using particular senses and ways of exploring the world.
Many researchers agree that there are four primary learning styles: auditory (based on hearing), kinesthetic (based on movement), tactual (based on touching and feeling), and visual (based on seeing). Young kids tend to be kinesthetic and tactual -- that's why they seem to be in perpetual motion and obsessed with touching everything in sight -- but even the littlest one may prefer another learning style.
"You can see this with a youngster who particularly likes music or appears to listen very intently: He may be an auditory child," says Priscilla O'Connell, a doctoral student at St. John's University, who studied learning styles in children ages 6 months to 3 years. "A child who's especially attracted to colorful toys may be visual."
Susan E. Davis writes about health and child development for a number of national magazines.