Incidental Learning: What Is It?

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Did you know that educators believe more than 80 per cent of what children learn comes to them through their vision? If you find that surprising, think of what happens when you enter a room. At a glance, you'll typically see and understand the contents of the room, who's there, what they're doing, and, if there's a window in the room, even what the weather is outside. Much of what children learn is acquired almost automatically and instantaneously—that is, incidentally—as they watch other children and adults interact with the environment and imitate their actions. Incidental learning is learning gained by observing people and activities around us, day by day.


baby sitting in a plastic tub holding a whisk,  surrounded by other kitchen items While dinner is prepared for the family, this baby is provided a safe place in which to explore many kitchen items. As he gets older, his mom and dad will show him how they are used.

If your baby has limited vision, he'll need extra explanations, descriptions, and repeated experiences in order to learn what other children learn simply by watching others and imitating them. It's not a matter of your having to teach your child about things 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, but you will want to keep in mind that she won't learn about the things she can't touch unless you help her. Even with things your baby can touch, she may need more time to explore them and some explanation from you to help her truly understand what they are.

  • Involve your baby, even when she's very young, in things you do around the house. When it's time to heat her bottle in the microwave, take her with you, tell her what you're doing, let her feel the cold air coming out of the refrigerator, carry the bottle with you, and let her listen to the sound of the microwave. When the bottle is ready, with your hand over her hand, let her push the button to open the microwave door and touch the warm bottle. Otherwise, if you always bring her bottle to her already heated, she'll have no way of knowing how it gets that way.
  • When you want to show your baby something, try to relate it to what she knows. For example, if you have a cat at home and your child likes to pet the cat and touch its legs and ears, relate the lion at the zoo to the cat. They both have fur, four legs, and ears. But lions are a lot bigger, don't live with people as pets, and can be found in the zoo or in the wild.
  • Give your baby hands-on experiences. The more your child touches, the more she'll learn. If she loves to eat oranges, let her help pick them out at the grocery store, put them in the refrigerator when you get home, take one out when she wants a snack, and help peel it. When she drinks orange juice, explain that it's made from the orange she likes to eat. You might even have her help you squeeze your own juice so she can really understand where the juice comes from.
  • When you show your baby an object, use the techniques called hand-under-hand or hand-over-hand. In hand-under-hand, your child's hands are placed on top of yours, and she can feel your movements. In hand-over-hand, your hands are placed over hers to guide her. If your child is exploring something unfamiliar to her, hand-under-hand may work better. It can be scary for her to reach out and touch something when she can't see what that something is and doesn't know anything about it.
  • Look for places to take your child that have things for her to touch. Petting zoos, science museums, and botanical gardens are often child friendly and open to touching. If you do go to a place where touching isn't part of the program, don't be afraid to ask if your child may touch. If you have other children, make sure they too get a chance:

    Venetia, whose daughter Maureen has retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), recalls, "When Maureen was little we went to Sea World, and afterwards I asked the trainer if she could touch Shamu, the killer whale. The trainer was great. He let her feel Shamu from top to bottom. I was thrilled at how much time he spent with my daughter. When he brought Maureen back to us, she was beaming. As we walked away my son said, "I would have liked to touch Shamu too." That really hurt! How could I not have realized he would have been thrilled to share that experience? At times I need to remind myself not to focus so fully on Maureen's blindness."

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