By John Hattie and Kyle Hattie

Three-year-olds ask so many Why questions, it can be enough to drive parents to distractions at times.

Naturally inquisitive, preschoolers are trying to understand the world around them, learn how to interact with others, build coping strategies to deal with the unknown, and learn to make choices. This requires adults who will listen and engage in language with them on an ongoing basis. This development also requires children to have a sense of persistence and know when and how to seek help, when to stop and learn from others, and when and how to seek, hear, and deal with feedback.

Asking Why is the start of curiosity, which is why talking with children at about three year old is so critical.

If children do not have adults who listen, talk and engage with them, their world is impoverished, not understood, and that can be scary. Little kids can become less verbal, more reticent to learn, and fearful of not knowing. Seeing errors and not knowing as embarrassing rather than opportunities to learn is a killer for not only three years, but this can affect learning many years later.

Failure as a learning tool

Kyle Haimovitz and Carol Dweck investigated what happened to three-year-olds when parents believe that failure is an enhancing experience that facilitates learning and growth compared to parents who believe that failure is a negative experience that inhibits learning and productivity.

Enhancing parenting led to children being more resilient, more likely to engage in learning, and more willing to see mistakes as opportunities. The children of parents who saw failure as negative were more anxious and more focused on the outcomes than the how to learn and improve, and thought that ability is fixed and not changeable.

These learning beliefs stayed with the children, again showing how critical the three year age is for later learning.

The extent of exposure to language by age can lead to growth, or not.

Betty Hart and Todd Risley followed a group of children from low and well-resourced families. They recorded everything done by the children, to them, and around them. All children attended play groups, and eagerly engaged with a wide variety of materials and language. They all explored new vocabulary, but the developments and speed of increase of language differed between the groups.

By age three, the average child in low-resourced families was less than one-third exposure to language than that of the average child in a well-resourced family. By age five, the difference in the number of words that the child was exposed to (not how many different words, but the total number of words they heard) from the low and well-resourced homes was 30 million words.

There is a Matthew-effect (the rich get richer, the poor stay poorer) in learning, language, and curiosity that begins about age three.

Enjoy the Why questions, engage in listening and language, and help your child learn that making mistakes is a great opportunity to learn.

John Hattie is one of the world’s best known and most widely read education experts. Kyle Hattie is a Year 6 teacher in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. Both have a passion for understanding how children become lifelong learners. 10 Steps to Develop Great Learners by John Hattie and Kylie Hattie is available from all good bookstores.