One little boy showed me a lot about learning | SierraSun.com

One little boy showed me a lot about learning

Lindsay Dunckel
Special to the Sun

TAHOE/TRUCKEE – I was sitting in a waiting room and, being me, I was reading a bit but really watching the kids in the room (watching children is truly my favorite activity, I always learn so much from them). A young mom was there with three young children, ranging in age from about 4 to 7 years. I could see that she really wanted the best for her kids – she worked with each of the younger two on academic skills while I was there and directed the oldest one to read to herself, reminding her to sit up and keep her hands out of her mouth.

She was very focused on helping her kids perform to the best of their abilities. Their behavior was impeccable. The littlest one, a boy about 4 years old, hopped up onto the chair next to his mom when she called him over, then adeptly read some sight words. They opened a binder that contained several worksheets that the mom directed the child in completing – copying simple words and writing sentences. It was a lot for a little guy, and he struggled with the fine motor control needed to hold a pencil and draw the letters. His mom corrected him when he faltered. Then she had to step into the other room for minute to be with one of the other children.

Freed from his mother’s directions, I watched as the little boy really started to learn something. First, he explored the mechanics of the binder, figuring out how to open and close the rings – yikes! he almost caught his finger, but he figured out how not to do that. Then he took the pencil and explored the bounciness of the eraser end and found that the whole thing could be used like a drum stick to create a rhythm on the arm of his chair. He tried making it fast and slow, loud and soft.

He found all kinds of ways to learn – but he probably wouldn’t have called it learning. It was clearly fun for him, unlike the worksheets and sight words.

At our best, we parents are motivated by wanting the best for our kids. But sometimes, it’s tricky knowing what that is. When it comes to learning and young children, here are three things that little boy and his mom in the waiting room demonstrated (and that the science of child development has showed us are true):

• Young children learn best through exploration – so let them play. It might look like it is just “fun” – but when a child is engaged and having fun is when the most learning takes place, and, as many early childhood educators say, it must be in the hands before it is in the head.

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• Young children learn best when they are interested in the topic – follow a young child’s lead and when you find something that interests him, engage him in discussion and exploration of that topic. If his mom had seen his interest in the binder, that little boy could have had a rich discussion that would have brought him new vocabulary and would have stretched his thinking skills as they discussed and figured out together why all three rings open when you pull just one.

• Young children learn best when the environment is interactive and responsive (which is why children don’t learn from television). When they are actively doing things and getting responses – from an object or, better yet, from a person – young children are quicker to learn. In giving only directions and corrections, the mom of the little boy missed a great opportunity to grow her child’s language and thinking skills.

A rich, give-and-take conversation takes a child much further. Children whose parents ask them open-ended questions and use language to converse with their children more often than they use language to tell their children what to do have bigger vocabularies and end up as better readers than children whose parents use language mostly to give directions and ask yes-or-no questions.

My time in the waiting room was up before the little boy’s mother came back. I’m hoping that she knows the joy that comes from connecting with a child over something that fascinates him or her and that her interactions with her children are richer than the little bit I happened to witness. And I am hoping that all of us with children in our lives will keep in mind that drilling on academic skills is not the recipe for happiness or even success. True learning is a lot more fun!

– Lindsay Dunckel, Ph.D., is executive director of First 5 Nevada County.