This week, I attended the final session of an early childhood curriculum class that I have been taking all semester, and although I am extremely grateful to have my Monday nights back, I must admit that I was a little sad to see it end. It’s tough to say good-bye to people you have gotten to know over a period of months, and even more difficult to give up the enjoyment that comes with sitting with a group of like-minded individuals and talking about what you love. In my case, it’s education, and I can’t tell you how great it feels to share ideas and think about how I can move my own practice forward. I have been a total school-nerd for most of my life, and can’t really think of a time when I wasn’t taking a class, or signing up for a seminar, or registering for a workshop. Even when I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, I knew I wanted to be a lifelong learner.
Although – full disclosure – it wasn’t always that way for me. As a young child, I attended preschool three mornings per week. Surrounded by other children, playing with blocks and happily eating Saltines for snack, I was totally cool. Even in Kindergarten, where the stakes were raised ever-so-slightly, I held it together. Then, on my first day of first grade, something in me snapped, and I stopped liking school. And by that I mean I completely lost my marbles. I cried every day. I withdrew socially. I wallowed in misery to the point where I couldn’t get anything else done. Love school? For those first few weeks, I couldn’t even tolerate school. Of course, it wasn’t that way forever. Through the efforts of an extremely patient teacher, and some gentle prodding by my mom, I was not only able to survive, but also thrive, and I became a young girl who loved to learn.
And really, don’t we want the same for our children? Whether we are parents, or teachers, or both, we want to raise children who are curious, persistent, and enthusiastic when it comes to learning. We want to walk into classrooms and see kids who are abuzz with interest, kids who don’t give up when a problem is difficult, kids who truly love to learn new skills and information. But how can we do this? How can we grow a community of lifelong learners?
We know that even very young children have an enormous capacity for learning – from the moment they are born, children’s brains are forming new connections and development is moving forward. We can help this along by providing supportive but increasingly complex experiences to challenge them – for an infant, this might mean sitting with her on the floor as she explores a new toy, while for a preschooler, it might mean helping him solve a puzzle. As children encounter novel stimuli, they are working the incorporate the new with what they already know about the world. Anyone who has spent time with young children is aware that they love to ask questions. Encouraging children to answer their own questions – and chiming in with questions of your own – helps them develop problem-solving and critical thinking skills. And, although it can be tempting to perform tricky tasks for children, it is important to resist this impulse when possible – we don’t want children to become overly frustrated, but we want them to try to accomplish new things for themselves. The feeling of pride that comes with doing something for the first time is an amazing payoff! Finally, we can help our children cultivate their unique interests – taking them to the library, museum, or park provides many opportunities to expand upon what they already know, and shows that we are genuinely supportive of their learning. Children learn by watching the adults in their lives – if we think of ourselves as lifelong learners and display that attitude when we are with our children, they will begin to do the same.