You can’t instill a love of learning in children. This is because children are born with a natural curiosity and love of learning. From the moment a child takes their first breath, they are learning and those early years are a time of non-stop curiosity and discovery.
What you can, and should do, during these early years especially is foster that natural inborn love of learning. Once the love of learning is nurtured, it is important to keep it up throughout the years. This isn’t as difficult as it may seem.
Here we will briefly discuss how learning takes place and then cover the most effective ways to help your child love learning throughout their life.
How Children Learn
In their book, Humans as Self-Constructing Living Systems, Martin E. and Daniel H. Ford stress the fact that the human brain is designed to provide the capability to learn what is needed at any given period of life. This can be seen in the way a baby quickly learns to recognize facial expressions in order to understand when his parents are pleased or upset.
Learning is necessary for survival and the more reward gained from learning something, the greater an individual wants to learn. The better a person is at something, the more they enjoy doing that thing because their passion can lead to a state known as “the flow”. This is when they become totally immersed in what they are doing, and hours can pass by without notice.
Studies conducted by both The Natural Learning Institute and the Evolution Institute focus on examples of how children learn naturally in environments where formalized schooling isn’t always available. Their studies show that there are several traits that all children, whether from remote areas or highly-populated ones, share.
1. Children learn best through doing.
Think about activities such as walking. You don’t tell a child he first needs to learn how to put one foot in front of the other and then wait until he learns to do that before moving forward. The child watches those around her walking and tries. She falls, adjusts her balance and tries again. She keeps practicing until she learns to walk, and eventually run.
The process requires encouragement from those around her and the ability to accept failure at first, but through persistence, she learns what is necessary to improve a skill she wants to learn. This is true for almost everything.
By allowing a child to do something, they can use all their senses and instinctively will use the learning method that works best for them. Making the learned material relevant to life makes it learnable.
2. Children excel in mixed-aged groups.
Children are more likely to want praise and acceptance from other children. By allowing children to play in mixed-age groups, younger ones learn skills from older children. Older children, in turn, learn skills like patience and how to teach. Both age groups benefit by learning the skills that are necessary to be successful in that situation.
3. Learning requires a safe environment.
This is obvious where physical safety is concerned, but children can feel attacked and unsafe in many situations. If they believe they have angered someone in charge, disappointed someone and feel scared they may lose that person’s love, or feel their self-esteem being attacked, they feel unsafe. This can occur when someone who is teaching laughs at their mistakes, tells them consistently they are wrong or dumb, or in some other way makes them feel they are being attacked emotionally.
Often the child will start to shy away from anything that resembles that unsafe situation. When you feel you need to fight simply to survive, physically or emotionally, that survival takes all your energy and learning can’t take place.
4. Children learn best when they choose what to learn.
We all know a child who may be able to tell you the difference between the spots on a leopard and those on a cheetah or how polliwogs are different from tadpoles but can’t remember who discovered America or where Iowa is on a state map. That is because they asked about the first things. It was their question and they will hold tight to that answer. They didn’t ask about the other things, at least not yet, so the information did not stick quickly in their brain.
5. Children learn best through play.
This combines hands-on activity, fun, and interest. Making a subject fun and interesting will go a lot further than asking a child to memorize a list of things or recite some facts that the child can’t see a use for. Using music, art, and role-playing work much better than simple memorization.
Now that we know the type of environment that is best suited to keep a child’s love of learning alive, let’s take a look at what we as adults can do to further strengthen that love.
Actively Enhancing a Love of Learning
Some of these things may seem familiar from other things you have read or heard but others will be new. Every child and every family is different and you and your child will instinctively know what is working and what isn’t.
What is most important is to keep trying until you find the perfect combination for your situation.
Let Them Lead
Two of the most frequently used words from a child are “how” and “why”. Let a child lead you on the next learning path by taking the time to answer their questions. You don’t have to go into long explanations that may turn into lectures and cause them to lose interest. Answer as simply as possible and wait for the next question.
Your child may ask for more information immediately, and then you can get a bit deeper into the subject or they may be satisfied for the moment and not ask for more information for days or weeks. If you can regularly satisfy their curiosity without going too deeply into the subject, they will trust you to come back when they are ready for more. Watch and listen for their interests and questions and you will know where to concentrate your teaching efforts.
Let the child jump in a puddle to see what happens. Give him a stick, a stone, and a cup to explore the puddle in other ways. Be ready to answer questions, but let them decide how they want to explore. You can ask questions that may lead them to explore further but don’t focus on getting all the answers right now.
There will be other days and other puddles. There will be questions and discoveries to share. You may find yourself learning a thing or two in the process as you experience these things through the child’s eyes.
Become the Student
Children love sharing what they have learned. What they don’t like is someone always telling them “I knew that.” When your child learns something new, become the student and allow them to tell you in their way what they have learned. Show interest and ask questions that someone who just learned this may ask to help bring out the details.
Admit Not Knowing Everything
Many adults don’t like to use the words “I don’t know.” A child needs to hear these words but he also needs to hear something else. He needs to hear “but let’s find out together.” This teaches a child that there are ways to find answers outside of simply asking someone. You can teach them how to research and where to find answers. Together you both will learn something new.
Discuss, Don’t Lecture
Let’s revisit that puddle. Instead of going into a long lecture about how the puddle was made, try asking your child how she thinks it was made. See if you two can come up with more than one answer and eventually settle on the correct one. Maybe it rained into a hole, or someone carried a bucket of water and poured it there. Don’t be afraid to discuss answers you know are wrong or seem ridiculous.
Let your child’s imagination soar and then talk about how each idea would have had to happen, with the child’s input. You will be amazed at how even the youngest of children will end up coming to the correct reason if given the chance to figure it out.
Don’t Use Negative Correction
This can be a difficult one. A child may hold up a shoe and say “du” with a huge smile. Your first instinct is often to correct the child and say “No, say shoe.” You sound it out and have them repeat it several times. Slowly that smile disappears.
Here is a child that has heard you say “shoe” many times but may not yet know exactly how to pronounce the word, but they think they have it correct and are proud of learning what this object is called. Reword your reply by making it positive.
Saying “Yes, that is a shoe (emphasizing the word shoe)”. The child gains acknowledgment for associating the word with the item and it won’t take long before they are pronouncing it correctly. Say you are watching a child try to do something and the way he’s doing it isn’t going to work. Instead of telling him he is doing it wrong say something like “This way may be easier.” or “Let’s see if this works.” In this way, his efforts are rewarded by success without feeling like he failed or caused disappointment.
Allow Them to Fail
A child who never learns that he will sometimes fail is in for disappointment that may be devastating to fragile egos. It is important that she learns that nobody is perfect and not everyone can do things perfectly from the very first try.
What is important is that you don’t allow that failure to stop you from continuing to try. Talk with her and ask why she thinks something didn’t work out. Together, come up with ways something can be done differently the next time that might bring success. This helps the child learn that failing at something once or twice doesn’t mean the end of the world. It only means it is time to look for other ways around the obstacle.
This is related to the above concept. Children, and adults, often become bored when things become too easy. Teaching perseverance allows you to gradually provide for natural growth in an area. Don’t let giving up become an option without a certain amount of effort. It should never be an acceptable answer unless there has been the opportunity to say “I tried this, this, and that.” This doesn’t mean you allow your child to become so frustrated they don’t want to try anything new, it just means you give them a reasonable chance to know the feeling of successfully mastering a difficult task.
Show Your Love of Learning
Children learn by example. Keep pursuing learning opportunities of your own and let your child see you feel pride in success and a sense of accomplishment from learning something new. Let them associate good feelings with learning by seeing how happy it makes you.
We may often think our children are self-absorbed, but one of the greatest things to a child is to see someone they love smiling and happy. Let your learning create that smile for them.
Make Learning Relevant
Associate concepts with things a child cares about. Flashcards with different colors on them may be fun the first time but quickly get boring. However, looking for blue cars on a walk, or trying to find the letter “B” on street signs, puts the concept in a format that is relevant to your child’s day.
Taking a child with you to the grocery store can help them learn that bananas are yellow, one can of soup plus one can of soup is the same as two cans of soup, and 69 cents is less than a dollar which means there is money left over for a treat. The lessons are there regardless of the age and they are related to what the child knows and already understands so they stick better.
Put Them in the Situation
Provide many different situations for your child to learn. Let him talk with the veteran in a wheelchair who seems to not mind. Take them to places where their hands can touch without disapproval, such as hands-on museums. Don’t assume they are too young to experience an outdoor concert or attend an art show.
Almost any situation that you can provide safety in all aspects is ripe for learning. Exposure to all types of people and situations will give a child a chance to see what the world has to offer and will make him curious to find out what else may be waiting to be discovered.
The wish to learn is present from a child’s first breath. As parents and teachers, the best we can do is keep that wish alive throughout their growing years. Providing a strong foundation will help make any bad experiences less damaging to this love but a lifelong love of learning requires consistent encouragement and example.
Your child was born programmed to know when it is time to learn a certain thing and how they will best learn it. Learn to trust this. Your respect and trust in your child will enable them to look to you for answers they need when they need it.
Learning and growing together is one of the most incredible experiences you can have in life.