The Path to Easy Learning

What parents can do.

Parents convey a lesson in life to their children by how they teach. Make learning arduous and children will run away from it. Make it exciting and successful, and you will frolic with your children down the path of learning rather than having to pull them along, kicking and screaming. Nothing turns off children more than dull or difficult things. Introduce excitement and success, and children will beg for more.

Parents often latch onto simple activities that are hyped to be appropriate for all children. Unfortunately, the “one-size-fits-all” approach doesn’t work in teaching. By using the two strategies described below, you’ll be able to custom fit any activity to meet your child’s unique needs, skills and desires.

MAKE IT EXCITING.

We often teach children through activities that are more like work than play. As a parent, educator and therapist for over 30 years, I’ve never met a child who chose work over play. Children will want to learn if we don’t erect barriers between them and a complex world. You can smooth the path by sneaking learning into exciting activities. For example, when my son was 4, I wanted to teach him about insects. Instead of using books, which he found uninteresting, we hiked into the woods and I created the “Great Bug Race.” After we each found an insect, we dropped them into the middle of a circle and we watched to see who crossed the outer edge first. For each new race, different insects were used. After one hour, he learned the names of ten insects, where they lived, how fast they moved, and in Justin’s words, even how they “peed and pooped.”

Twenty years later, he still remembers that wonderful day. This “excitement” strategy works for everything. For example, if your child isn’t learning new words as quickly as you would like, have objects mysteriously appear somewhere in your house. You’ll be amazed how quickly they will run to the kitchen every morning to see what sprouted from the top of the refrigerator. In teaching shapes, you can go to their favorite park and have your child find objects that are round, square, triangular or rectangular. As you can tell by the above examples, learning shouldn’t be a sterile activity. Make it part of your child’s environment and watch the sparks fly.

Start with a list of what excites your child. Don’t limit yourself. Activities can range from putting together puzzle pieces to flushing the toilet to hitting a baseball. Now, identify one little thing you want your child to learn this week. Next, decide which of the favorite activities would be most appropriate for learning it. That’s the blueprint for teaching children everything from shoelace tying to setting the table. For example, if your child loves to roller skate, you can teach the concept of friction by looking at why the wheel’s ball bearings need replacement so often. If your child loves to do artwork, you can teach evaporation by watching how paint dries.

I use this same principle when I consult with schools. Recently, I taught an elementary school teacher how to make a lesson on basic economics exciting by developing a game in which children designed and built “the world’s best playground.” The kids were thrilled. They assumed the roles of bankers, builders and designers. By the end of the activity, they not only learned money management, but a variety of things neither the teacher nor I could have imagined. These are only a few of the possibilities for making learning exciting. You’ll know how well you’re succeeding by using your own level of excitement as a barometer. If you’re bored, your child probably is also.

MAKE IT SUCCESSFUL.

Success is not something children should achieve only after repeated trials-and-errors. For years, parents were told success is more significant when children struggle. Somehow, effort made learning more meaningful and long lasting. Nonsense! Research has shown the opposite. Repeated failures don’t build “character.” Rather, it creates a positive self-image. One of the easiest methods for helping children succeed is to think small.

Unfortunately, we want our children to achieve everything yesterday. Not just a small part of it, but the whole thing. For example, with a child who is just beginning to print her name, we want her to write Mary, rather than just printing a great m. We are so focused on the goal that the path necessary for getting there is often ignored. Look at what your child is currently capable of doing. Then identify what you want him to accomplish. You now have your starting and ending points. Think about at least three steps between the two. There’s a tendency to make steps too big. But the most successful way to learn is to make each subsequent step only slightly harder than what preceded it. For example, Mary printed the letter m for one week on toys, bottles, pictures, etc. The following week she wrote ma, the third week mar, and the fourth week, mary. In four weeks, she was printing her whole name beautifully and never experienced failure along the way. That’s because the steps between printing each letter of her name were small. When I taught my son to ride a two-wheel bike, we went from me holding firmly onto the seat to occasionally letting go to letting go for longer periods of time to allowing him to ride by himself.

In the Wizard of Oz, the Munchkins tell Dorothy to “Follow the yellow brick road.” No matter what questions she asks the answer was always the same, “Follow the yellow brick road.” It also applies to how we should teach our children. Stay on an exciting path, use successful little steps, and you and your child will effortlessly make it to the goal.