They can’t tie their shoelaces, and they may not have that whole hand-eye coordination thing down just yet, but there are still plenty of life skills grownups can pick up just by mimicking little kids. The strategies children use to learn about the world around them are especially worthy of closer inspection. Below, seven science-backed educational techniques that kids naturally use … and how you can too.
1. DO IT OVER … AND OVER … AND OVER AGAIN.
One of the oldest, most intuitive principles of education is repetition. (Even Aristotle, when speaking of “natural tendency,” considered the benefits of repeating a given task frequently.) It’s no wonder then that it seems almost ingrained in humans, starting at the youngest of ages, to perform the same action again and again (say, by reading the same picture book, or stacking a set of blocks in the same way). As a skill is practiced over days and weeks, the activity becomes easier, while naturally forcing the skill to a subconscious level where it becomes permanently stored for habitual use at any time. Kids inherently know that practice really does make perfect.
2. USE ALL OF YOUR SENSES.
One of the first ways babies begin to understand the world around them is by using all of their senses—not just sight and sound, but touch, smell, and taste—to make connections. This doesn’t mean adults should stick a calculator in their mouths the next time they’re stuck on an equation, but it’s worth considering that learning can be just as tactile as it is cerebral.
3. IMITATE OTHERS.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s also a sure-fire way to learn something new. Although it doesn’t take a scientist in a lab coat to prove that it happens—just watch a toddler mimic the actions of his older brother—a study of 14-month-olds did find that imitative play is a crucial learning tool. When these kids watched an adult use a specific body part, their brains lit up in the areas that corresponded with that particular movement. Further research has shown that visualization—watching others doing something, and imagining you’re the one doing it—can help you perform better when it comes time to do it yourself.
4. TURN UP THE MUSIC.
Ever wonder why nursery rhymes are so popular with the toddler set? Because music can help them communicate. In a 2012 study, 1-year-olds who participated in an interactive music class had a greater sensitivity to rhythmic tones and structures and developed better social skills, like waving goodbye and smiling. The benefits of a good song don’t end there, which is why listening to classical or uplifting music, particularly while studying, has so often been linked to increased mental capacity and focus.
5. PLAY “PRETEND.”
If you’ve ever seen a child use a discarded box as a futuristic rocket ship, you’ve witnessed the joys of “pretend.” This imaginative play also has cognitive benefits: Research suggests that make-believe games foster empathy, problem-solving skills, and mental flexibility, which has been shown to lead to increased creative performances years later. Adults hoping to gain some of these same traits might benefit from improv classes, which use fantasy scenarios and role-playing to maximize a person’s vocabulary and quick thinking.
6. GET PLENTY OF SLEEP.
In the first years of a child’s life, particularly during infancy, there’s more logged hours asleep than awake—with good reason. In an experiment in which scientists taught babies how to remove a puppet’s mitten to find a hidden ball, infants who napped immediately after the demonstration were better at recalling the trick. Similarly, adults consolidate and transfer memories to other parts of the brain as they sleep. Just as toddlers are off-kilter when they skip a nap, pulling an all-nighter before an exam might be more disruptive than helpful.
7. ASK “WHY?”
If you ever told a child a simple fact and received a never-ending supply of “why?” questions in return, you know that a curious mind is rarely satisfied. It turns out there are real benefits to holding on to that childlike curiosity throughout your lifetime. Research has even shown that people who make an effort to continually learn new things lead longer and more satisfying lives than those who are content to accept the world at face value.