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I hear from a lot of people that the best way for very young children is through self directed play and that any adult directed activities are at best not helpful and possibly actively harmful to their development. Is there any evidence behind this view?

Adult directed activities might be things like having a “colour of the week” where the adult points out that colour, demonstrates examples from a collection of objects brought together for this purpose. Or setting aside a time to look at letters and naming them. Or focusing on counting objects around the house. Instead of just waiting for the child to ask about these things during their free play. I guess it would also include more maligned activities like flash cards.

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tl;dr: It's probably fine. :)

There's no one best way to parent. If you're doing your best to support your toddler's learning and engage with her/him, chances are you're doing great.

Opportunity cost in toddlers' activities

One thing that's easy to lose track of is that when your toddler is doing a given activity, it means s/he isn't doing something else. Whether or not adding "educational activities" to your toddler's day is a good idea depends in part on what they'll replace. If you replace time s/he would usually be watching something on TV with an "educational" game, that's probably improving the learning opportunities. But it's more likely that you're thinking of replacing other kinds of play with "educational" play, which is less clear cut.

Just by toddling around, toddlers are learning a ton about their own bodies and the world (how to walk, run, jump, balance, what they can lift and what they can't, what's good to eat and what isn't, etc.). By watching and interacting with the people around them, they're learning the ins and outs of their culture, how to express their needs, how to be a friend, etc. Replacing everyday toddler stuff with structured educational activities can have a cost in terms of what they're not doing. It's easy to forget how valuable it is for a toddler to spend time learning how to jump in a puddle, putting on pants, practicing taking turns with a sibling, or just noticing the world.

If you keep in mind that regular old play is a great way for toddlers to learn, that will help you put the decision to plan adult-directed educational activities in context. It's fine to decide to do that, but it's good to think about what that activity is replacing.

Tradeoff between learning from others and learning through exploration, a.k.a. "the double-edged sword of pedagogy"

Another issue is that the learning that happens during adult-directed activities is different from the learning that children do independently. Humans in general and kids in particular are excellent at both learning from exploration and learning from other people. Even very young babies show a propensity to imitate (lots of research on this, here's an overview), which is the quickest way to learn behavior from the people around you --- when in doubt, just do what everyone else is doing!

In general, being good at learning from other people is great. But there can be a downside: Children may stop exploring things for themselves if they're being "taught" about it.

In a study on this topic, researchers invented a complex, weird toy that had lots of interesting features and did a bunch of things. They wanted to see whether the way adults introduced the toy to preschoolers changed how the kids would play with it. Kids were randomly assigned to either a pedagogical (adult-directed) condition or a non pedagogical condition. In the adult-directed condition, the experimenter would say:

In the Pedagogical condition, the experimenter said, ‘‘Look at my toy! This is my toy. I’m going to show you how my toy works. Watch this!’’ The experimenter then pulled the yellow tube out from the purple tube to produce the squeak sound. She said, ‘‘Wow, see that? This is how my toy works!’’ and demonstrated the same action again.

In the other condition, the kids got to see the same action, but the experimenter acted like it was a surprise instead of "showing" the child how the toy worked:

In the Naïve condition, the experimenter said, ‘‘I just found this toy! See this toy?’’ As she brought out the toy from underneath the table, she pulled the yellow tube out from the purple tube as if she did so by accident. Then she said as if surprised, ‘‘Huh! Did you see that? Let me try to do that!’’ and performed the same action to produce the squeak sound.

Then kids were allowed to play with the toy on their own without any further direction. They got to play with it as long as they liked, and could just let the experimenter know when they were done. What the researchers discovered was very interesting: Kids who got the pedagogical (adult-directed) explanation of the toy spent less time playing with it, and tried fewer actions on the toy; they were less likely to explore the rest of the toy's functions, and instead just do the action they were shown over and over. As the researchers note:

These results suggest that teaching constrains children's exploration and discovery.

This study has been featured in news articles (like this one) if you want to learn more.

So deciding to actively teach your toddler can have benefits in that you have a lot to teach them (of course!), and you can draw their attention to all kinds of interesting things and patterns. But be aware that showing your child how things work may cut down on their own instinct to explore things for themselves.

What's a good learning opportunity?

So adult-directed teaching for toddlers is maybe valuable, but not without costs. Let's step back for a moment and answer the idea behind the question rather than the details of the question itself: How can you maximize learning opportunities for your toddler?

Babies and toddlers watch and listen to everything around them, and are learning more or less constantly (even when they're sleeping). Expectations for the "right" or "best" way to interact with babies and toddlers varies a tremendous amount across different cultures. While Western parenting tends to emphasize adults' active participation in children's learning, that sort of engagement is by no means necessary for children to learn effectively (see this article, Teaching: Natural or Cultural?, for more discussion, and this recent article for an example of a culture with very limited conscious involvement from adults in toddlers' learning).

That said, caregivers have a lot of control over what kinds of experiences their children have, and therefore what's available for them to learn from. Research on child development in Western cultures suggests that finding ways to introduce variety in your language, such as by reading to your baby, is associated with faster language learning (here's a study about variety in language in picture books compared to regular caregiver speech, and see citations within it for research connecting exposure to variety and learning outcomes).

There's also research showing that responsive parenting facilitates toddlers' learning. Here's a nice description and summary of some of that research. Responsive parenting is characterized by noticing where the child's attention is and following through with them on that. For example, an example of responsive parenting would be if you notice your toddler looking at a tree, you could say something like "Do you see that tree there? Look at that nice, rough bark. Wanna touch the bark?" Actual interactions between caregivers and children are generally a mix of adult directed, responsive, and child-directed moments. When OP gives examples of "adult directed" learning activities, some of them could still be responsive (e.g. if you're focusing on practicing counting, you could follow in on your child's attention and count whatever they're paying attention to).

Some additional research suggests that, for babies and toddlers, presentation via screens isn't particularly good for learning. While older children do appear to learn from educational video material, babies and toddlers generally don't, except with lots of caregiver social interaction along with the video (in which case you might as well just be interacting with the baby without the video playing). So it's probably a safe bet to skip the "educational" videos for children under 2 (e.g. here's the Mayo Clinic's statement on the "baby einstein" videos, and here's a great article on the topic more broadly).

Another activity that is less effective than parents might hope is practicing the alphabet. Although learning about letters can be a fun way to get children to start engaging with the printed word, memorizing the alphabet itself isn't necessarily the best way to support later reading and writing ability. Instead, focusing on "phonemic awareness" --- the idea that words are made up of smaller speech sounds (like the "s" noise that starts both "sand" and "citation") --- is much more likely to support later reading and writing development. See more on this topic under this PSE question: How to further an aptitude toward early literacy.

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  • On the subject of educational videos I did intend to avoid them completely till 2 but I started using them to keep him still during nappy changes and he has learned a surprising amount from them. He watched one called “the phonics song” and now can recite various objects that begin with a letter (by name rather than symbol but some by symbol) and he’s learned a lot of colour vocabulary from another one. I was as surprised as anyone. I really thought it was just meaningless colours and sounds to distract him from smearing poo everywhere. – AsksStupidQuestions Oct 18 '17 at 14:16
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    Very cool! To be clear, I'm a big proponent of doing whatever works :) Videos are an excellent way to get a baby to hold still for a couple minutes (when I did child development research, we used baby einstein clips in the lab for exactly that reason, because they worked so well to get babies settled and quiet before the study). The advertising from those companies can give parents false expectations about the learning value, though, so I like to bring up the research on the topic when I can. – Rose Hartman Oct 18 '17 at 19:53
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Considering the majority of learning in countries where the parents have time to spend with their babies and toddlers is adult directed, there is a great deal of support for it being the right way.

That said, having elements of self directive learning is also positive, and as the child gets older this is expected to increase as a percentage of total learning.

Without adult direction, language is unlikely to develop effectively, for example.

Having been very much brought up in the hot housing learning ethos of the 70s, and being a long time member of Mensa etc., I am a strong proponent of both the benefits to the child of structured learning, and the emotional benefits of self directed play.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Rory Alsop Oct 17 '17 at 16:05
  • "Without adult direction, language is unlikely to develop effectively" --- this isn't quite correct. Children do need exposure to language to learn it, but adults certainly don't need to "teach" language or even tailor the language they use around children at all to facilitate language acquisition. In Western cultures, parents typically do use special infant-directed speech and an occasional teaching attitude, but adults' behavior toward children varies a tremendous amount across cultures. – Rose Hartman Oct 17 '17 at 18:53
  • I think you misunderstand my point. Happy to discuss in chat. – Rory Alsop Oct 17 '17 at 18:55

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