How does one foster a love of learning in a child? Will I find it if I google ‘What is the best app to help my child learn?’ Surely someone has figured out the secret sauce to turn these sweet little mini-mes into the next Einsteins who find their callings, love the Lord, earn free rides to college, land the perfect jobs and care for me in my old age.
While we don’t get to know ahead of time what God has planned for each of our children, there are things we can do that not only equip them for lifelong learning but build our relationship with them at the same time—and it’s simpler than you might think.
Read stories together
Everyone loves a story. Children don’t learn vocabulary from lists or learn how to write from instructions on how to construct a sentence. They learn from being read to and talked to as infants and toddlers, from reading on their own, and then through thoughtful conversations when they are older. This is how we all learn new vocabulary and means of expression, and for pre-readers, it is essential that they begin with the verbal now and progress to the written only later.
“Writing, of course, comes of reading, and nobody can write well who does not read much.” (Charlotte Mason, School Education, p. 233)
Read stories to your children that you enjoy reading. Stories should be well written, not twaddle—trivial or nonsensical writing with low-level vocabulary and simplified expression. If the story doesn’t excite your mind, it is unlikely to captivate your child’s. Choose from the classics—books that have stood the test of time. There is a big difference between Disney’s version of Winnie the Pooh and the classic written by A. A. Milne. And while your 7-year-old may not be ready for the original versions of Homer, consider reading some of it aloud and including authors like Rosemary Sutcliff, who has retold the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Always be reading aloud a book that is written above a child’s level of reading. That plus conversations are the way to build their understanding of the world around them and how it works. These are foundational to a child’s understanding of their language. Consider the grammar a child has learned before the age of 5. They have figured out verbs—which ones are irregular and which only need “ed” at the end for past tense. All of this and much more happens effortlessly as we engage the child with good stories and conversation.
What’s more, reading with children, even older children, provides a shared experience around the story and the opportunity to draw on it for deeper conversations. Don’t stop story-time just because your child is now able to read on his own. Reading good literature aloud around the dinner table after a meal can be a rewarding family tradition.
Observe the world around you
Learning to observe carefully is another important life skill. From relationships to studying to driving, if children don’t learn the keys to acquiring detailed information from their senses, how can they ever expect to process that information and arrive at the correct conclusion?
With young children, one of the best places to observe is nature. Go out and look at God’s creation. You don’t have to live in the country to see ants marching single file, building up a hill of sand in a crack on the sidewalk and carrying crumbs underground. Instead of banishing the spider hiding in the corner of your garage, call your daughter over to look at the intricate web being created.
Hands-on science experiments also offer a great opportunity to compare and contrast, to see cause and effect, and to practice developing hypotheses and drawing conclusions. Asking questions like, “What do you think will happen?” is a great way to engage a child’s imagination. And remember, cooking is actually a science experiment! Try baking with your children; food is always a great motivator, and even flops are a chance to discuss what went wrong and learn.
There are things to observe—learning opportunities—all around us if we slow down and take the time to pay attention.
Engage in conversation
Talk with your children. Ask questions and encourage them to do the same. While the endless questions of a 3-year-old can become tiring, remember, they are trying to understand the world around them.
As you sort socks together, you can compare and contrast, but you can also engage their imagination. What does happen to those missing socks? Where do they go? Is there a secret shoot in the dryer that they use to escape and now they are traveling the world?
When reading books, ask them which character they liked the best and why. Ask them what they think it would have been like to live in that time period or world. Ask them about the villains—why do you think they turned bad? What could they have done to choose differently? Is there still hope that they could change their ways?
For older teenagers, watch the news or listen to a podcast or a sermon together. What is happening in the world? Or what is happening in the lives of their friends and family members? Are the choices people are making leading to positive or negative outcomes? Share your own mistakes with your children. When we allow them to see that we aren’t perfect we make ourselves more approachable while helping them grow in wisdom. We can also show them that the world does not end when we make mistakes.
Wherever possible, relate your conversations to God’s beauty, goodness and truth. This is the essence of what it means in Deuteronomy 6 when we are commanded to teach our children “when we walk by the way” to “Love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.” There is beauty in God’s creation, and there is beauty in the storytelling or visual arts that we create as God’s image-bearers. As our children learn to see and appreciate that beauty, we can help them tune their minds to the goodness and truth that accompanies it. The more we can do this by encouraging our children’s curiosity, the more we equip them to be lifelong learners who naturally seek God in everything.
Providing your child with a rich education doesn’t have to be toil. Rather, it can be a part of the natural rhythm of your life. Enjoy the world through the eyes of your child. It is relaxing for you and foundational for them.