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5 Ways to Get Children Actively Involved in Learning

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Close up of a pine cone held in a girl's hands
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I can’t remember a day that there wasn’t some kind of “learning lesson” going on in our home. But most of those lessons didn’t involve sitting down and doing homework. Instead, my mom employed active ways to help us learn how to learn.

Optimistic. Creative. Perseverant. Focused. If you’re a parent or grandparent, these are the kinds of words you want to hear a teacher use to describe your child. That’s because these words describe someone who’s actively involved in learning. But what does it take to help our children become this kind of active learners? Let’s look at five ways to get actively involved in learning.

1) Each child in your home is going to engage differently with you – and with learning!

I’m a twin. And, yes, in school, none of our teachers could tell us apart. Until, that is, it came to our learning styles!

I’m not sure how my brother Jeff grabbed all the “I’m a natural at being an active learner” genes in the womb, but he came equipped to love learning. Without being asked, he started doing his homework the minute we got home from school. As for me? I, however, loved recess. If I remembered to bring home my books from school, I usually didn’t crack them open until my wonderful, stressed-out mom was driving us to class the next morning. It was like Jeff was born striving to graduate Summa Cum Laude (which he accomplished). I was thrilled just to graduate!

Let’s be honest: If you have more than one child in your home, they may look alike, but they are going to have different “fingerprints” when it comes to learning. One may be a visual learner. The other really gets it by being more hands on and tactile. Some may love reading or excel at math. Others, however, may seem to be totally happy being below average in everything.  But take heart: Most children can become active learners! And you can make a real difference in your child learning to love to learn.

Different Strengths

I’m grateful that my single-parent mother coached and encouraged me to be the best version of me I could be, not a clone of my brother. My mom was an observant student of what made me and my two brothers tick. We were all incredibly different in how we approached learning. In time, she helped us each to become lifelong, active learners because of the individual approach my mother took with each of us. My older brother, for instance, ended up driving heavy equipment. Jeff is a cancer scientist. And I’m a counselor. But all of us grew up hearing that we had our own unique, God-given strengths – and our mother encouraged us to link those strengths to learning.[1]

For example,  I can’t remember a day that there wasn’t some kind of “learning lesson” going on in our home. But most of those lessons didn’t involve sitting down and doing homework. Instead, my mom employed active ways (and I’ve listed several below) to help us learn how to learn. How to be curious. How to stick with something until it was done.

So let’s jump into several ways you can help that son or daughter become an even more active, secure, encouraged learner. Not every child will make the National Honor Society like a naturally bookish brother or sister might. But every child but can be encouraged to become the creative, successful person that the Lord has designed them to be. And that starts with you being willing to be “nimble” as you encourage them to learn!

2) “Mr. Roger It” when it comes to SAYING what you’re SEEING.

As you’re playing and just “doing life” with your child, you can do something that is incredibly helpful in encouraging them to learn. “Mr. Rogers It,” I say, a phrase named after the wonderful television host who was incredibly gifted at “seeing” and loving children.

Fred Rogers was a master at not just seeing what a child was doing, but saying what he was seeing! If you’ve seen even one episode of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, you’ll marvel at the running commentary he engaged in with children. Likewise, with your 3-year-old, when you “see” it, say it. You might say, “I can see you’re really working hard to get all those rings on the post. It’s not easy getting that last one on, is it?” Or with a 7-year-old, “I’m noticing you really concentrate on that math problem. Walk me through what you’re doing there.” There’s a reason sportscasters “call” a game that everyone can see. It gets us engaged! You saying what you’re seeing can help your children become even more actively involved in learning and help you learn what they’re seeing and thinking.

3) Never waste a trip to the store or errand when it comes to learning.

As someone who struggled with rheumatoid arthritis, my mom had an incentive to bring us along with her to the store to help lift or carry things. But for her, the world was a classroom, and every trip offered a lesson. And from the moment we got in the car, she asked questions and made observations that modeled active learning for us as kids.

Whatever we saw, mom noticed and asked us questions. Driving by a construction site, passing a stalled car or noticing a blooming tree offered natural opportunities to talk about how things were built, the need for maintenance and the way seasons work.

Yes, it takes longer to do a run to the home-repair shop when you’re with a child. You don’t have to point out everything in the store. But look for those opportunities to do math (“So we have 10 items to pick up. Help me by counting down each item we get. And when we get to zero, we’ll grab a hot chocolate!”). Or hear their heart (“You really like those big trucks on the construction site, don’t you? Is that something you could see yourself doing when you grow up?”). Or help them with an impromptu spelling lesson. (“Let’s grab spaghetti for dinner. Hey, how do we spell that?”).  You’re not wasting time; you’re looking at each trip as a learning opportunity. And keep in mind, you’ll have plenty of time to do chores alone after they’ve grown up.

4) Use technology in a healthy way to spur them to learn.

I’m all for turning down or turning off technology and encouraging reading and quiet times of rest instead. But there are still ways to bring technology into learning in a way that spurs kids toward becoming actively involved with learning.

For example, let’s say you’re on vacation, and you’re planning a trip to that city’s natural history museum. You might download the museum’s app, but then have your kids grab paper and crayons and create their own written “map” of the things they want to see there! And after your visit, ask each child talk about one thing he or she learned or saw that blew their mind. What were they amazed by, and why?

Or, if they are studying volcanos, look up some appropriate YouTube videos to bring more life to what they are learning. Have a kid who is stuck on spelling? Maybe typing or drawing on a tablet will help. You can use technology as an active-learning asset instead of a passive pacifier.

5) Set up a routine that brings rest to their souls

My wife, Cindy, was a teacher for 25 years. But for 10 years before that, I saw her lay an amazing foundation for learning with our two daughters. She wisely understood the importance of creating a routine that helped lay a foundation for learning. Yes, there were times when the “plan” was blown up on those days where there were sports practices or special events. But on most days, we even had a chart laid out for them that helped them to navigate their after-school hours.

First, it started with a snack and questions about their day when they hit the house. Then 20 minutes to veg out or run around outside. After that, it was time for homework. Then free time until dinner. Bath. More homework if needed. The family story time before bed.

“Train up a child” (Prov. 22:6) could be paraphrased, “Set out a routine.” This doesn’t require chaining kids to a schedule; but it does involve helping them move from one activity to another in a predictable, connected way.

Finally, keep in mind that a schedule can—and should—be personalized to each child. Some want to get their homework done right away, others need to run outside for 20 minutes before sitting down. You might have individual egg timers that the kids decorate with stickers or paint that count down until the next activity begins. With multiple kids, this could also allow you to spend one-on-one time with the child having free time or eating a snack.

Conclusion

In short, you can do it! You have what it takes to help your child get actively involved with learning by your seeing their unique strengths, taking advantage of all those trips and objects that you pass, and helping them have some predictable platforms for growth and learning!


[1] Need help in “seeing” your child’s strengths? Two suggestions are to read them The Treasure Tree, which is the story of four “best friends” with very different strengths. It includes a child’s personality test in the back. And for you, we strongly encourage reading The Two Sides of Love, and taking the assessment that comes with the book. It’s a great way to see your own and other’s strengths – and learn how to “bend” towards closeness!

© 2020 John Trent and Focus on the Family. All rights reserved.

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