Children are built to learn. They are born into a world with no information about it – they have nerve signals in and out of their fresh new brains, and they have to learn, from scratch, what it all means. That’s hard in a powerful and fundamental way. Cultivating this love of learning is one of the most important things you can do as a parent.
It is, however, important to cultivate this love of learning without being pushy. Nobody likes books they were forced to read in school. Your child’s upbringing represents a powerful opportunity for you to, gently, guide them into habits of learning and thinking that will guide them for the rest of their lives. Here are five simple steps to help you get started.
1. Make Science a Story
The details of science are often dry, tedious, and complicated – but, for all that, the overarching story that science tells is one of mind-boggling stupendous events taking place over unimaginably long stretches of time, on vast and tiny scales. There’s drama in that. There are explosions and dinosaurs in it. If you can’t get a child interested in that, you’re a corpse. Tell that story. A fascination with science from a young age, even in the broad strokes will help them get through the tedious parts when they’re mature enough to handle them. You’ll be shocked how much your kids will learn when they find a topic that really grabs them, be it dinosaurs, rockets, genetic engineering, or stars.
2. Make Thinking a Game
For almost all mammals that play as children, the play is actually practice for adulthood. Kittens playing with dry leaves are training for the hunt. The same is true of humans. We enjoy puzzles and challenges, and the mental circuits we build doing them also help us when we need to solve real problems in real life, either for work or in our personal lives.
There are a number of games which can help your children build up these circuits – classic thinking games like chess and go are great. But you can also do more – get creative, and practice basic arithmetic with poker and card counting. Don’t discount the value of some videogames to teach money management, goal-oriented thinking, and spatial reasoning (just play them first yourself). Teach vocabulary with scrabble. Play with them with riddles and logic puzzles and paradoxes. Ask them questions and have them go find the answer themselves. A child with a ponderous look on his or her face is a sign that you’ve done something correctly.
3. Make Your House a Library
If your children don’t like reading (or are too young), read to them and give them audiobooks. They’ll get tired of how slow you read eventually. It doesn’t matter what they’re reading – books are gateway drugs. Bad books lead to better books lead to a lifelong addiction to reading. Fill your house with books in and out of their reading level, and make it clear that they’re welcome to any of them.
As a matter of fact, make your library a library, too. Weekly trips to the library give your kids a much wider access to books and make fun family outings. There is nothing as magical as a library to a curious mind.
4. Make Yourself Smarter
Kids learn most by example. If you spend all your free time watching TV, that teaches them nothing good about their future habits. Young children want to be like their parents. Teach them that that means reading books, getting excited about ideas, and explaining their decisions in a logical, orderly way. The better the habits you build in yourself, the better the habits you’ll pass onto them.
5. Don’t Ever Tell Them They’re Smart
This one’s important and counter-intuitive. Research shows that children who are praised for being smart have more academic and professional troubles than children who are praised for their hard work – children who are smart don’t know how to be smarter, but they do know how to work harder. That’s something you can encourage, and it’s a skill you can teach.
While you’re at it, teach them not to be too afraid of failure. If we take advantage of opportunities optimally, fully half of our ventures should fail, on average. Teach them to take chances. When they try something and don’t succeed, the questions to ask aren’t ‘why did you fail?’ They’re ‘what can we learn from this?’ The difference between someone who succeeds and someone who doesn’t is often the ease with which they get back up when they fall.
Kristen Thomas is an avid blogger and contributor to TheLearningExperience.com, a leading child care provider with quality daycare centers throughout the United States.