Learning to Love Learning

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Experts say to begin reading with children soon after birth

By Kristen Duca

Lifelong learning—it’s a phrase garnering popularity as parents, perhaps now more than ever, are working to instill an early appreciation for in their children. After all, children with a thirst for knowledge often enjoy great academic and personal success. But with so many articles, books, experts and opinions on the subject, determining your plan of action can seem like a daunting undertaking. So we consulted three leading child development experts, and we’re happy to report some refreshing news: It turns out that all you really need is an engaged, in-the-moment attitude toward your children’s , and it’s never too early, or too late, to get involved.

Start At Home

Cultivating a love of learning begins at home, so it’s no surprise that a parent’s role is crucial to children’s development. Parents can begin by using their own interest in learning as a model for their families. Dr. Betty Bardige, early childhood author and consultant, encourages parents to read—and show their enjoyment of reading—in front of their children. “If you are excited about learning and willing to share what you love with your children, they will be intrigued with what intrigues their parents,” said Bardige.

Of course, reading with your children is one of the simplest and most effective things a parent can do. Professor Susan J. Schwartz, clinical director of the Institute for Learning and Academic Achievement at the NYU Child Study Center, recommends that parents read to their children regularly, regardless of age. For babies, Schwartz suggests books with visual stimulation, like big patterns and colorful contrast. Toddlers and young children like to read the same books over and over, but be sure to introduce new books into your routine, perhaps with similar themes or by the same author or illustrator to generate quick interest in a new title. When kids become too old for bedtime stories, parents can take an interest in summer reading assignments by reading the books along with their children, engaging in conversation about the books along the way.

Schwartz also suggests that families institute “family reading time” every day, in which everyone reads individually, but simultaneously. Even if it’s only for 10 minutes, this time establishes the importance of daily reading and encourages thoughtful conversations, which are another great tool for parents.

“Having conversations with your child, even before they are verbal, makes a huge difference,” said Dr. Joshua Sparrow, co-author with T. Berry Brazelton of Touchpoints: Birth to Three. Sparrow advises parents to always ask questions when talking with their child and to initiate conversations that invite curiosity.

Bardige agrees. Even in baby and toddler years, she says, parents should engage in constant conversation that is both playful and lively.

Everyday Learning

Whether you’re looking to teach your kids about math, science or history, the world around you provides infinite opportunities for hands-on lessons. “Parents can create wonderful learning experiences for children that are tactile and multi-sensory,” said Schwartz. Engage your children in interactive, project-based activities like collecting leaves, gardening, cooking, grocery shopping and conducting simple science experiments. These will help build a diverse vocabulary and teach responsibility and cause-and-effect lessons.

If your child doesn’t seem to be engrossed in a specific subject, try to spark an interest at home by using one of their hobbies, said Bardige. For example, if your child is crazy about baseball, bring home books about legendary players to encourage reading, or use a favorite team’s scores or statistics to teach math skills.

Let There Be Play

According to Schwartz, “play is a child’s work,” and parents can make play more formal or relaxed by altering their routine. For instance, some days parents may take their children to the sandbox and let them explore on their own. Another day, they might bring a measuring toy to teach the child about simple math concepts in a fun and informal setting. Counting steps from the bus to the entrance of a museum or keeping a piggy bank are casual ways children can learn about numbers, counting and money.

When judging when and how to participate in your children’s playtime, Bardige suggests that parents first let their kids explore independently. “Watch, wait, wonder and find a way to enter by taking cues from your child,” she said. “See if there is an opportunity to support learning by asking questions.” Sparrow agrees, encouraging parents to watch as their infant or toddler explores an object or new environment, but to be ready to move in when they become frustrated or uninterested.

Another way to enrich everyday play is to supply your children with materials that invite creativity, constructions and inventions. “Provide your children interesting play materials that are developmentally appropriate, like scraps of cloth, recycled paper or other materials for art projects,” advised Bardige.

“Look for gentle challenges that are just a small step away from where they are now,” Sparrow said. “The biggest motivation for a child is when the parent is engaged in play. Be present, engaged and tuned-in, and don’t multi-task when you’re with your child.”

Above all, Bardige advised, parents should enjoy the time they have with their kids. “Be sure to enjoy the ride,” she said. “Every child is different, curious and magical in his own way.”

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