Child’s Play: Make Learning Fun

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Never underestimate the value of even 15 minutes of quality time spent with your child. Remember, you are your child’s first teacher!

Daily life with my very busy 3- and 5-year-old girls is rarely quiet. So, whenever the house is suddenly still and totally quiet, it’s time for me to act. I drop whatever I’m doing and head to their bedroom, sure I’m going to see marker or stickers on the walls or shampoo poured out on the floor. Recently, I was caught by complete surprise. There they were, bellies down on the carpeted floor, deeply engrossed in … a book! I tiptoed away and gave a small “thank you” to myself. Maybe all those hours spent reading Knufflebunny over and over again were actually paying off.

Most parents read to their young kids, which helps encourage imagination, language and an early love of learning. But not all children remain curious and inquisitive as they get older. In fact, studies have found that from third grade on, a child’s enjoyment of learning drops continuously — a phenomenon blamed on the increasing focus on grades as kids get older. Younger children, on the other hand, learn for the sheer joy of it.

You can do a lot now to help spark a love of learning in your child, says Mark Hogan, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Education Department at Belmont University. He says parents should make learning time play time. To captivate a young mind, let your child do what comes naturally: play. And play with him.

“Early learning, as well as late learning for that matter, is about discovery and wonderment,” Hogan says. “Engaging the mind is crucial for further development in learning, so parents can create games of discovery in everyday activities,” he adds.

All children start out with an instinct to explore and discover. “When going to the store, make it an adventure with your children,” suggests Hogan. “Tell stories on the way, thinking out loud, ‘I wonder what we should buy today?’ ‘I’m looking for bananas, they are yellow … will you help me look for yellow things?’” Hogan says to take playfulness even further. “Are these bananas (ask your child holding up carrots)?” “Silly Mommy!” Or, “Can you look in this area and find the peanut butter that has a ‘J’ on the container?”

Lots of busy parents may say they don’t have time for this type of luxuriating at the store, but sparking early learning may be more important than busy parents realize.

“As your child gets ready to learn to write,” Hogan says, “make it hands on!” He suggests using Jell-O or yogurt spread out in front of your child so he can draw shapes and letters into it. “The messier, the better,” adds Hogan. And while setting aside daily time to “work” with your child is important, it should never be drudgery.

“I’m of the opinion that ‘work’ is really ‘play and discovery’ with preschoolers,” says Hogan. “Prescriptive drilling really does lead to burn out and unengaged learners later. If parents think of learning development in preschoolers as teaching ‘speaking,’ ‘viewing,’ ‘listening,’ then they really have set up the child to become an engaged learner later in school and into adulthood,” he says.

Live Playful Learning

Practice talking to your child about all of the interesting things you’ve learned during your day, suggests Deborah Stipek, Ph.D., co-author of Motivated Minds: Raising Children to Love Learning (Owl Books, 2001). “If you read an intriguing article or watched an educational program, tell your kids about it.” Explain in simple terms what happened and why you found it so interesting. Your kids will sense your fascination even if they can’t fully understand the topic. And you’ll be sending the message that learning is all day, every day. Your kids will learn to share what they’ve learned with you, too, and eventually conversations will flow on a regular basis.

Build on Your Child’s Natural Interests

If your child goes through a car phase, take out library books about cars, go to a car show if possible, purchase small cars and create roadways together to drive them. Or maybe he loves bugs, trains or outer space.  If he loves fish, by all means, take him to the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere to see the fish tanks in the indoor section there. Tapping into your child’s unique fascinations will keep his spark for learning alive and up his confidence for learning, so recognizing unique interests early is very important, says Hogan.

“The encouragement and support of interests allows for individual personality to develop. The difficulty for some parents is when their child’s interests are vastly different than their own. Remember it’s not our desires we are trying to live out as parents, it’s about raising children who are healthy and flourishing,” Hogan adds.

A University of Chicago study of exceptionally high-achieving athletes and artists found that the common denominator among these gifted individuals was their having parents who early on recognized the child’s interest and provided as much support and encouragement as they could. “That’s our job as parents; children point the way, and we help them clear a path,” says Raymond Wlodkowski, Ph.D., co-author of Creating Highly Motivating Classrooms for All Students (Jossey-Bass, 2000).

Be Willing to Answer Questions & Investigate

With your ability to make day-to-day living playful learning for your child, you will begin fielding dozens of questions every day, and that may sound exhausting. So turn things around and pose questions to him to fuel his excitement for using his noggin. For instance, asking, “Why do you think the birds always come back to that same spot in the backyard?” can spark a conversation that introduces a variety of interesting concepts.

When you ask questions of your child, make them specific, i.e. “Did the guinea pig in your classroom have babies yet?” rather than simply asking, “How was school?” “Everyday talking is essential to learning,” says Stipek. “Kids need to be able to take what’s happening in their lives and spin it into narratives if they’re going to become capable readers and writers.”

And when you don’t know the answers to your child’s questions, show him how to look it up. Take the time to explain it when you discover the answer and watch as your child registers understanding. It’s perfectly all right to say to your child, “I don’t know the answer … Let’s find out.” Turn to a dictionary, an encyclopedia or the Internet, and do some detective work together. “You’re showing him not only how to find more information but also how thrilling it can be to learn new things,” Stipek says.

“If your goal is to foster a love of learning, it’s far better to take an interest in what your child’s doing rather than how well he’s doing it,”Stipek says. “Your continued interest in his activities is the best motivator of all.”

Danielle Watts is a mom and freelance writer.

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