The desire to learn is surely innate. How else to explain the fascination a baby finds in his crib mobile and later your car keys, cell phone, or even a bit of cereal? The natural curiosity your child has in the world around her, if fed and nurtured properly, will set her up for a lifetime of learning and discovery. Sometimes rote classroom learning threatens to destroy that inborn zest to absorb new things as children advance through school. Don’t let it! Read on to find out ways you can actively keep your child’s love of learning alive.
Wear Your Passion On Your Sleeve
“These days there’s so much talk about academic rigor and testing and accountability,” says veteran educator Mike Connolly, author of Teaching Kids To Love Learning, Not Just Endure It. “But I think we’d be better off if we talked about academic vigor. What invigorates learning?” According to Connolly, it’s the passion a teacher, parent, or coach shows in a subject that really gets kids interested in learning. For example: Are you passionate about politics? Bringing up the subject at the dinner table could help the fledgling social studies student in your house better understand governing systems. Have you enjoyed time spent in a foreign country? Talking about your experience can make a land come alive in a way the text from a geography book never will.
Provide Concrete Experiences vs. Abstract Ones
While conversation is good, parents can really step up the game of instilling a love of learning in their children by providing concrete experiences. Parents, in particular, have more time and resources to do this than regular classroom teachers do. “Start wherever possible with a direct experience as opposed to having kids just read about something or hear a lecture about it,” Connolly says. If your child is learning about the forest and has never seen one up close, consider taking a weekend trip to a nearby wooded area to explore the flora and fauna. Turn an otherwise mundane trip to the grocery store into a real-life application of what your child happens to be learning in math class. For example: Have her guesstimate what five apples will weigh before placing them on the scale.
Make It Fun
If you can coax a smile, you’ll have them in the palm of your hand. This is especially true when dealing with younger children. “Teaching little ones is all one big game,” says Barbara Lightfoot, a 1st grade teacher at Carter Elementary in Palm Desert, Calif. “You have to make it look like fun first and get them involved in making decisions about what they’re going to learn.” She suggests playing alphabet bingo to reinforce letters and the sounds of those letters. Then move on up to Scrabble Junior and other word games to help build vocabulary. “Teaching sight words with flash cards is of course one way to do it; however, if you play a game and make it a pleasurable situation, kids tend to learn more and they learn it faster because it’s fun.”
Another trick up a 1st grade teacher’s sleeve is using music to teach skills. “Singing and songs are really big language developers, especially for [English-language development] kids,” Lightfoot says. Simple nursery rhymes, for example, increase vocabulary, teach syntax as well as grammar, and help kids learn the cadence of a language with little effort but much joy.
Open the Floor to Questions
During his many years as a school principal, Connolly had the opportunity to observe countless teachers in action. It became apparent to him that the teachers who were most successful in engaging kids were the ones who invited their students to ask a lot of questions rather than the reverse. He recalls one teacher who, before launching into a science chapter about the universe, had her students go home and write out five questions about things they specifically wanted to know. Most came back with far more than that. You can easily set up intriguing situations for your own young scholar, too. It can be as basic as going in the backyard and turning over a rock to see what lives underneath. Hold your tongue and brace yourself for a flood of questions. That starts a discussion, Connolly says, and then together you can find a book to read for further learning about your discoveries.
Admit When You Don’t Know the Answer
“Education starts at home,” says Carol Wood, founder and owner of Total Learning Concepts, a private tutoring service in Gwinnett County, Ga. “Parents set the stage and the priority. The excitement and love for learning they display definitely spills over onto their children.” No need to paint yourself as all-knowing, however—in fact, just the opposite. “Be open to admitting you don’t know everything,” Wood says. “It’s not a weakness, it’s actually a strength to be able to say, ‘Gee, I don’t know that. I’d like to learn about that.’” This illustrates to children that learning is a lifelong process and that there will always be exciting new paths to explore.
Make It Real
In the quest to instill a love of learning, you’ll make more headway by catering to your child’s interests. While you might consider taking your child to a museum, bear in mind that not every kid is going to love tripping through an art museum, and another might yawn at the dinosaur exhibit. “If it’s not something authentic to them, if it’s not something they’re concerned with or that they enjoy or they like, they’re not going to do it,” Lightfoot says. “You’ve got to hook them.” Better to take the 8-year-old who’s really into bugs to the insect museum and save the great masters for another day in the future. After all, if you’re truly successful at creating an endless thirst for knowledge in your child, that day will eventually come!