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What's Your Child's Learning Style?

There are five toddlers in my daughter's playgroup. Each has shown a distinct personality since babyhood, but now that they're walking and talking, their different ways of interacting with the world are even more evident.

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.

Sampling Every Style

Even infants may display tendencies toward a certain way of learning, experts believe. "Some babies seem especially observant and attuned to details," says Barbara Marcelo Evans, M.D., a neurodevelopmental pediatrician at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, in Camden, NJ. "Others may be very verbal and vocal at an early age."

Whatever a baby's tendency, she's apt to experiment with various styles  -- often at the same time. A 3-month-old who stares at the rattle she waves in her tiny hand takes in information visually, auditorally, tactually, and kinesthetically. But babies go through short phases of focusing on a specific style. "A one-year-old may seem physically precocious, but that can level off within a few months, and then she may seem very attuned to listening instead," says Jim McCrory, Ph.D., a professor of education at Mary Baldwin College, in Stauton, VA.

All this experimentation is good for your baby. That's why many experts advise that even if you see a strong pattern in an infant or toddler, it's best to focus on stimulating all the senses, by exposing her to a variety of experiences.

Picking a Preference

A toddler may begin to display a particular learning tendency. Recognizing and responding to his preferred style as he explores new concepts and materials can help your child develop a sense of mastery. Though we sometimes think that there's a "right" way to teach almost any child a particular skill, learning-style proponents argue that there is a right way to teach almost any skill to a particular child.

Here's how you can recognize and support each type of learner:

Auditory learners gain new information best by hearing it.

Signs that your child's a listener:

  • She quickly remembers the words to stories and songs.

  • She follows directions easily.

  • She repeats overheard phrases and comments.

Ways to help her learn:

  • The more you talk, the more information she'll gather.

  • She'll enjoy listening to stories  -- about both real and imaginary events  -- and telling her own.

  • Songs and rhymes are a great way to teach new things  -- from colors and letters to remembering daily routines.

Kinesthetic learners like to get physically involved in learning, using their bodies to investigate new places and concepts.

Signs that your child's a mover:

  • He gleefully zooms down the slide-over and over again.

  • He pretends to be characters from a favorite book, mimicking the story's actions.

  • He always brings his toys to life, moving them about, and revels in active games.

Ways to help him learn:

  • If he acts out stories, it will help him understand and remember favorite books.

  • Teach new information by creating movement games. For instance, draw letters on the sidewalk and have him jump on the one you call out.

  • Have him role-play scenarios you've created to help him learn new concepts or remember important safety lessons.

Tactual learners need to feel and touch things to understand how they work.

Signs that your child's a toucher:

  • She's drawn to objects with interesting shapes and textures, and loves to play with blocks.

  • She needs to actually feel abstract ideas, such as touching an ice cube to understand how cold "really cold" is.

  • She has trouble following directions to unfamiliar tasks.

Ways to help her learn:

  • Introduce new tasks or materials, then let her try them.

  • Give her materials with interesting textures that are sturdy enough to stand up to intensive handling.

  • Offer her a variety of puzzles and table games.

  • Let her make shapes and letters with her finger in sand or flour, or form them with clay.

Visual learners pick up information best by seeing new material.

Signs that your child's a watcher:

  • He's mesmerized by photos, illustrations, and television shows or videos.

  • He remembers how to do things he's seen others doing.

  • He's quick to recognize shapes, colors, and letters.

Ways to help him learn:

  • Share picture books with plenty of engaging graphics.

  • Show him educational television shows and videos, which are a good way to explore new topics.

  • Demonstrate how to do new tasks or use materials he hasn't tried before.

  • Let him sort and match by creating murals or collages.

  • Make a chart with photos to show daily routines or household chores.

By tuning in to your child's preferred style, you may help him learn more  -- and more easily. That's not to say that we should only encourage our kids to do things one way. All children need to have experiences that call every learning style into play so that they can succeed in school and beyond. But when we help our kids learn in the way that's most natural for them, they're more likely to develop the confidence needed to master every learning style.

It's too soon for me to guess if my own daughter, Phoebe, will continue to be the mud-loving tactual learner she is today. But for now, I plan to give her plenty to get her hands on  -- and learn from.