Learning happens all around us – how our children learn from life

Spring is all around and we see a new energy in our children and in ourselves.  How do we make the most of the energy burst before the year-end drain takes up all our time? 

Learning happens constantly, not only in the classroom and not only when you sit down to ‘teach’ your child.  Children learn through experiencing different situations, through doing and playing. 

Albert Einstein stated that ‘Play is the highest form of research,’ and this is where incidental learning comes to play. 

What is incidental learning?

“Incidental learning refers to any learning that is unplanned or unintended. It develops while engaging in a task or activity and may also arise as a by-product of planned learning.”

  – from Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning.

Where and when does it happen?

Incidental learning happens when we least expect it.  You are driving home from a busy day, your toddler is in a car seat at the back and he suddenly exclaims:  ‘MMMM’, pointing to McDonalds.  At some point, he would have heard the word associated to the McDonald’s sign. 

How does incidental learning take place?

Toddlers start to recognise Logos and brand names from as young as 18 months.  Even though they might not be able to pronounce the words yet, they will often make a sound or sign to communicate what they are seeing.  My daughter recognized KFC from that age. When she saw the sign, she would make the sound of a rooster crowing. This form of incidental learning (connecting an image to something it represents), is the start of reading in later years. 

Similarly, a child learns to associate a picture in a book, often quite abstract, with another concept or word.  Time spent on a parent’s lap, reading a story at the end of the day, is an experience that is characterised by incidental learning.  Children learn best when they are involved in the process on different levels, when they can see, hear and feel the experience.  These opportunities for learning do not need to be planned, scripted or defined before the time.  Just talk to your child, show him or her what is in the world around you, and learning will happen spontaneously.

‘Commonplace interactions provide contexts for supporting the development of cognitive and learning skills and the emotional security in which early learning thrives. Applauding a toddler’s physical skills or a second grader’s writing skills, counting together the leaves on the sidewalk or the ingredients of a recipe, interactively reading a book, talking about a sibling’s temper tantrum or an episode of classroom conflict between children – these and other shared experiences contribute to young children’s cognitive development and early learning.’

From Transforming the Workforce for Children  Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation  


Do you have any ideas for activities to promote incidental learning?  Send it to us at education@writeright.co.za before 15 November 2019. You will stand a chance to win a R1000 shopping voucher for our online store.  The winner will be announced on 30 November 2019

Now visit:

Three quick ways to encourage incidental learning

Incidental learning for English language learners

What is incidental learning?

Incidental learning - infants and toddlers

Hanlie Steynberg has home schooled her three children since they were small. She is a cum-laude UNISA graduate in computer programming and mathematical statistics, has a cum-laude honours degree in education and computer science, and has a Master’s Certificate in graphic design from Sessions Design School, New York.  She is currently busy with her master's degree in computer science.