When your children were little, you were their first teacher, showing them the world through everyday tasks. They learned their colors, shapes, letters, and numbers by going grocery shopping with you, looking at books, and playing simple games. Learning was informal, playful, and abundant.
Now that they’re older, their days involve homework and school projects, and you’ve likely shifted to coaching from the sidelines. But for kids to keep their love of learning alive, it’s important for them to connect their academics to their lives outside the classroom. Looking for hands-on learning experiences in daily routines—doing everyday things in new ways—helps kids in school and in life.
“We’re wired to be natural learners and are born with a fire to learn,” says Erin Ramsey, an early childhood specialist and senior director of Mind in the Making, a project on the science of early learning developed by Families and Work Institute. That enthusiasm often fades as kids grow older. Notably, in a 2006 Indiana University study that asked high schoolers why they go to school, the majority of participants listed reasons such as to make money, because it’s the law, and to earn good grades to go to college, rather than to learn. Only one-third said they liked going to school.
How do we keep the love of learning alive? It starts with parents modeling curiosity through reading, exploring, and asking questions. If we do, our kids are more likely to be curious, too. This includes not answering their questions immediately but instead asking questions back and doing research together to discover answers. “Not knowing all the answers leads to curiosity, which equals a love of learning,” Ramsey says. And, she says, it’s never too late to start, no matter how old your kids are.
Adopting a tone of open curiosity about a child’s learning and following her lead will nurture her interest, explains Fran Walfish, child and family psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent. If parents get too involved in controlling or overdirecting their kids, the kids may end up worrying more about pleasing parents or giving up—and then learning stops.
Create a Culture of Learning
The Mind in the Making project promotes the idea that that true learning is a lifelong endeavor and that families should create a culture of learning that involves setting goals (parents, too). It could be anything from going to the library to learn more about asteroids to running a lemonade stand to earning extra money for expensive sneakers.
“Help kids find those things they’re passionate about that they can’t do at school and build on that,” Ramsey says. Keep it fun and engaging, and perhaps most important, keep your own goals for your child out of it. “They need the opportunity to think it through and go after their own idea,” she says.
Along the way, kids will be learning seven important life skills, or executive functions, that benefit them in the classroom and, later, in the workplace. These skills include focus and self-control, perspective taking, communication, making connections, critical thinking, taking on challenges, and self-directed/engaged learning. They’re the subject of the book Mind in the Making by Ellen Galinsky, child development expert and president and cofounder of Families and Work Institute.
These life skills are as essential to learning as academic skills and are the building blocks for connecting learning to the real world, according to Galinsky. For example, kids need focus to achieve goals, but focus also benefits classroom academics because it involves paying attention, remembering the rules, thinking flexibly, and exercising self-control. Perspective-taking may not seem related to the classroom, but in fact studies have found that young kids who can take someone else’s perspective do better in kindergarten because they can understand what their teacher wants and expects. And kids who are willing to take on challenges will learn more. It’s important to applaud kids for effort and strategy rather than personality or talent and help them see that mistakes are an important part of the process.
Tempting as it is to see home activities as a way for kids to get ahead, it’s important to keep them playful and hands-on. Be a team with your child, Walfish suggests. At the same time, it’s fine—and beneficial—to help kids make connections between experiences and academics, Ramsey says. For young kids, for example, use “math talk” (how many? let’s count, let’s measure) to pose questions when setting the table or following a recipe together and point out that the skills they’re using are the same as in their math lessons.
Ramsey encourages families to look for learning opportunities that uniquely fit their own family’s interests. Here are a few ideas for real-world learning.
Games: Board games and card games help kids get better at making connections as well as teach focus, self-control, perspective-taking, and math skills. Playing Chutes and Ladders improves young kids’ number recognition and counting. Monopoly improves addition and subtraction. Games like Red Light/Green Light or Simon Says promote focus.
Grocery shopping: Have kids practice writing skills by creating a shopping list and work on math skills by deciding which items are most important for the available budget, measuring items sold by weight, or calculating how much dog food to buy according to the dog’s weight. Younger kids can practice reading ingredient lists and sorting groceries into perishables, boxes, and canned items. This “family work” gets kids counting, sorting, and categorizing as well as creates a culture of working together, an important life skill.
Book talk: Ask openended questions about books you’re reading with your kids. Not only does the conversation get kids considering another perspective, it promotes communication and participation that will pay off in the classroom. It also builds vocabulary and attentive listening skills, and deepens kids’ understanding. If you’re not reading aloud anymore, ask older kids to recommend a book they liked so you can read it and discuss.
Dinner table conversation: As simple as it sounds, extended dinner conversation about complex topics such as current events has been shown to increase vocabulary and literacy skills. It also builds communication skills and teaches the art of listening.