A to Z’s of Early Childhood

The science of child development and learning

E is for Everyday Learning Opportunities

Making the Most of Everyday Routines

Everyday routines at home, in early education and care programs, and in the community offer thousands of opportunities to support children’s early learning and brain development. They also provide natural opportunities for children to learn important skills. Research shows there are strategies adults can use to provide meaningful learning opportunities to children during their everyday routines.

Thinking Beyond Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic: 3R’s of Early Learning: Relationships, Repetition, Routines

Many people consider early reading, writing, and arithmetic skills (the traditional 3 R’s) to be the foundation for early learning because they are skills children need to be successful in school and beyond. Though these skills are important, research shows there are three important processes that shape children’s brain development and early learning. We refer to these processes as the new 3 R’s of Early Learning: Relationships, Repetition, and Routines. The new 3R’s of Early Learning are important because they focus on how children learn rather than what they learn.

Relationships, Repetition, and Routines

Supporting Children’s Development and Learning During Everyday Routines

Here are five strategies to make the most out of everyday routines.

It is helpful to think about and then write down some examples of what the child does most days, from waking up until going to bed at the end of the day. It is also helpful to think about things the child likes to do in routines and why. These routines provide many opportunities for children to practice new skills.

Make the Most of Everyday Routines

Look at examples of common routines!

A mother changing a diaper

Caregiving Routines

A mother playing with her child.

Play Routines

A father picking out milk with his son.

Chores and Community Routines

Each interaction the child has with others and with things during a routine is a learning opportunity. For example, playing peek-a-boo during diaper changes provides opportunities for a young infant to look and smile at you. Everyday routines like eating meals, playing, and walking to the bus have many opportunities for children to practice language skills. Think about how many times routines happen each day or week and the learning opportunities that are happening within them. It is probably a lot more than you think!


6-8 Diaper changes x 2 games of peek-a-boo x 365 days/year = 4,380 - 5,840 opportunities
10 minutes of play x 2-3 chances to repeat sounds x 365 days/year - 730 - 1,095 opportunities
3 requests for snacks x 1-2 requests for food or drink x 365 days/year = 1,095 - 2,190 opportunities
2 times walking to the bus stop x 3-4 chances to label objects x 365 days/year = 2,190 - 2,920 opportunities

“Developmental milestones” is a term meaning the age or stage when children first use important skills. For example, when a child walks at around 12 months, we say she or he has reached the developmental milestone for walking. Knowing about developmental milestones and when you see or hear a child do them will help you know which skills the child has learned. It will also help you know what the next skill might be to learn. Opportunities can then be provided for the child to practice and learn skills in everyday routines. To learn more about developmental milestones, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Developmental Milestones Tracker web page.  You can download a free milestone tracker app that can be personalized for each child.

Example Milestones for Infants
(less than 1 year old):
Example Milestones for Toddlers
(1 to 3 years old):
Example Milestones for Preschoolers
(3 to 5 years old):
  • 2 months – Begins to smile at people
  • 6 months – Brings objects to mouth
  • 9 months – Uses fingers to point at things or people
  • 1 year – Follows simple directions 
  • 18 months – Eats with a spoon and drinks from a cup 
  • 2 years – Says phrases of 2 to 4 words
  • 3 years – Carries on a conversation of 2 to 3 sentences 
  • 4 years – Catches a bounced ball most of the time 
  • 5 years – Counts 10 or more objects

Children learn best during everyday routines because they are motivating. To identify “next step” skills, think about what the child already knows and can do. Then think about what the child needs to know or be able to do to take part in a routine. These are the preferred skills to practice because they are most useful for the child within the routine and because they will promote further development and early learning.

Download the PDF documents below to learn about Everyday Learning Opportunities with common routines.

So many ways to learn!

Look at examples of common routines, what children might be doing in them, and which skills might be good to practice in them to see the many ways children can learn!

Some children might need more practice to learn a skill they use in a routine. You can create planned opportunities for children to practice and learn skills within everyday routines. Sometimes a simple change in the environment or in the routine can provide additional opportunities for a child to practice a skill. When a child does something you are supporting him or her to learn, be sure to provide a positive response. This can be describing what the child did, giving positive attention or affection, or giving the child access to something he or she enjoys or wants.

Making the Most of Everyday Routines

Look at these strategies and examples to make the most out of everyday routines!

A mother changing her baby's diaper. Example Learning Opportunities for Infants (less than 12 months old):

Routine: Diaper change
Developmental Milestones: Look at caregiver; smile at caregiver
Learning Opportunity: Play peek-a-boo. Smile as you say “peek-a-boo!” Then wait to give the baby a turn to look or smile back at you.
Child Behavior: The baby looks at you and smiles.
Positive Response: Smile back at the baby. Cover your eyes and start another turn in the game.

A woman reading a book to a child. Example Learning Opportunities for Toddlers (1 to 3 years old):

Routine: Reading a story
Developmental Milestones: Repeat words to label objects or pictures
Learning Opportunity: Point to a picture in a book and label it. Then say, “What is this?” while still pointing at the picture.
Child Behavior: The child says the correct name.
Positive Response: Say, “That’s right, it is a [name of object].”
** If the child does not say the correct name, say, “It’s a [name of object]. Can you say [name of object]?” If the child still does not say the correct name, say, “[name of object]” and try again later.**

A child picking up a ball on the ground. Example Learning Opportunities for Preschoolers (3 to 5 years old):
Routine: Play
Developmental Milestones: Use 2 to 4 words to ask for an object
Learning Opportunity: Roll a ball back and forth a few times. Then hold the ball, look at the child, and wait. If she does not use words to ask for the ball, tell her “Say, ‘I want the ball.’”
Child Behavior: The child says, “I want the ball.”
Positive Response: Roll the ball back to the child.

What We Know About Everyday Learning Opportunities

In the first three years of life, more than one million connections or “circuits” are built in children’s brains every second as they interact with adults and other children or with toys or other materials in everyday routines.1

Children’s repeated early experiences and learning opportunities in everyday routines and positive interactions with adults and other children shape how their brains develop. Circuits in the brain that are used more often are maintained. Circuits that are not used or that are not needed are not maintained.1-3

Children learn skills through their repeated experiences interacting with people and the environment.3,4

Young children experience hundreds of different learning opportunities each day at home, in early education and care programs, and in the community.3,5,6

Providing purposeful opportunities for children to practice important skills during everyday routines at home, in early education and care programs, and in the community promotes children’s learning.3,7,8,9

What We Are Doing

The Anita Zucker Center and our collaborators are helping families and practitioners learn how to use strategies that will support children’s learning in everyday routines.

Learn more:

Other Resources


  1. Center on the Developing Child. (2007). The science of early childhood development (InBrief). Retrieved from https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/inbrief-science-of-ecd/
  2. National Research Council & Institute of Medicine. (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development. J. P. Shonkoff & D. A. Phillips (Eds.) Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
  3. Carta, J., & Snyder, P. (2019). Fifty years of research on children with disabilities and their families: From changing behaviors to transforming lives. In B.H. Wasik & S.L. Odom (Eds.), Celebrating 50 years of child development research: Past, present, and future perspectives (pp. 235-254). Baltimore: Brookes.
  4. Bronfenbrenner, U. (1992). Ecological systems theory. In R. Vasta (Ed.) Six theories of child development: Revised formulations and current issues (pp. 187-248). Philadelphia, PA: Kingsley.
  5. Dunst, C. J., Bruder, M. B., Trivette, C. M., Hamby, D., Raab, M., & McLean, M. (2001). Characteristics and consequences of everyday natural learning opportunities. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 21, 68-92. doi.org/10.1177/027112140102100202
  6. Dunst, C. J., Hamby, D., Trivette, C. M., Raab, M., & Bruder, M. B. (2000). Everyday family and community life and children’s naturally occurring learning opportunities. Journal of Early Intervention, 23, 151-164. doi.org/10.1177/10538151000230030501
  7. Epstein, A. (2015). The intentional teacher: Choosing the best strategies for young children’s learning. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
  8. Division for Early Childhood. (2014). DEC recommended practices in early intervention/early childhood special education 2014. Retrieved from http://www.dec-sped.org/recommendedpractices
  9. Snyder, P., Rakap, S., Hemmeter, M.L., McLaughlin, T., Sandall, S., & McLean, M. (2015). Naturalistic instructional approaches in early learning: A systematic review. Journal of Early Intervention, 37, 69-97. doi: 0.1177/1053815115595461

Dedicated to supporting the well-being of young children and their families, the Anita Zucker Center has engaged with its partners to launch an ambitious initiative designed to provide accessible and practical information about child development and learning to support parents, caregivers, professionals and policymakers.

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