One of the best investments that we can make for our children’s future is to nurture their natural love of learning. Every baby that I’ve ever met has been curious and eager to learn more about the world. As parents, it’s our responsibility and privilege to guide our children and encourage their natural thirst for knowledge. Luckily, this doesn’t require a lot of money, it’s a gift that even the poorest parent can give to their children.
Here are a few of the best ways to encourage and help your child learn and grow. This list isn’t just for parents, as grandparents, aunts and uncles and family friends can also make a huge difference in encouraging the children in their life!
1. Talk to your child. This might seem like silly advice. After all, why wouldn’t you talk to your child? Yet, studies have shown a remarkable difference in how much parents talk to their children and show a correlation between talking to children and their future development. Pretty much any kind of positive communication between parents and children is terrific, but if you’d like specific tips, this handout from the University of Maine has some great tips.
2. Encourage experimentation. Don’t be too eager to step in and show your child the right way to do something. Let them learn by trial and error. This might mean allowing extra time to let a toddler dress or feed himself or patiently encouraging them to try again when they want to give up too soon. Children who learn that the process matters as much as the result will approach learning with a positive attitude and see failures as a sign to evaluate and try again until they get the desired result.
3. Make outdoor time a priority. Children learn more than we can imagine by having free time outdoors. Activities like running, spinning, swinging, balancing and climbing aren’t just fun for children, they help young brains grow and develop. Divide your time outdoors between activities that you do with your child and stepping back and letting them figure out their own fun. Your backyard and local parks can provide lots of enrichment with special trips to the forest, the beach, a pond, a nature preserve to provide variety.
4. Count and read everything! I’m not a big believer in flashcards and pushing the preschool set to read. Instead, I think that showing children how important letters and numbers are in our everyday life helps to give them the encouragement to learn for themselves when they are ready. As you go about your daily life with your child, pause to read signs out loud to them and make comments about how the information has helped you.
Let them see you make lists and write notes and look up information. Let them help you count the apples as you put them in the bag or figure out how many cupcakes are left after everyone gets their share. This kind of practical, hands-on experience with reading and math helps them learn in a low-pressure way. As they ask for more (i.e. asking you how to spell things, trying to count even higher) you can build on what they’ve already learned in a natural way that’s fun for everyone.
5. Teach them the joys of delayed gratification while working towards a goal. Most children are naturally a bit impulsive, have short attention spans and aren’t huge fans of waiting. Helping them learn how to think long-term and delay gratification is a process that takes the entire 18 years we have with them (and usually a bit beyond that!)
You can start teaching them by letting them help you with small projects that involve doing a series of steps to make a finished project. Cooking, crafts and simple science experiments are great for this. Start with smaller projects that can be completed in a short amount of time and build up to bigger projects that spread out over days or weeks.
Sticker charts are another good way to teach children that hard work over a period of time pays off. It also helps children visualize how much they’ve done and how much they have left to do to earn their reward. Many parents are afraid of “bribing” their children with sticker charts and other rewards based schemes, however I believe that children have a more difficult time thinking in the abstract and giving them concrete ways to see their progress (or lack of it) can be motivating and help them take pride in their accomplishments.
As children get older, give them more autonomy in setting goals, planning how to reach them and executing their plan. A weekly allowance is a good tool for this.
6. Be a good example. Let your child see you reading for pleasure. Show them how you use the library, the Internet and other resources to learn how to do new things or find useful information. Use your flops and failures as opportunities to model productive ways of dealing with setbacks. Be involved with their education and give them the help they need to succeed. Be patient and let them help you as you do your chores, DIY projects and hobbies. Let them know every day how much they are loved and that you believe in them. Praise them for their hard work and effort.
A love of learning opens up innumerable doors for your children. Invest your time and energy into planting the seeds in your children early on and you’ll all reap the benefits for a lifetime.