“Mom, look what I found!” My daughter holds up a roundish, light-coloured nut. “What is it?”
“Hmmm.” I take the nut from her and peer closely at it. It’s smoothness feels cool against the palm of my hand. “It looks like a hickory nut. We’ll look it up when we get home, just to be sure.”
The October sun is warm as we hike. Autumn wildflowers are a profusion of riotous colour all around, and the treetops are ignited with red and gold fire. Although it isn’t a school day, natural curiosity has us exclaiming over feathers, nuts, burrows, birds and anything else we can find along the trail.
This is learning at its best.
Not a formal curriculum or meticulously planned lessons, although those have a place.
The kind of learning where natural curiosity leads the way.
“God has put into children a nearly unquenchable thirst for knowledge. As a parent, you want your child to have a strong mental muscle of curiosity that compels them to become self-directed learners. Curiosity—the drive to know—is in many ways the source of all learning.” (Clay Clarkson, Educating the Whole-Hearted Child, p. 84)
The most important thing we can do as parents and educators is to allow our children’s curiosity to direct learning. Not all learning, mind you. There is a time and a place for rigour and discipline. But always, the joy and excitement of discovery should be nurtured.
How do we do this?
1. Create opportunities for discovery
Go on nature walks or to museums. Read rich literature together. Take advantage of field trips. Let them ask questions.
Let them play.
Unstructured, unscheduled, free play. The kind of play where they can explore their interests and where they can get messy and make other things messy.
Not all learning has to be adult-directed. Children discover and learn through play as well. They learn about physics through block towers. They learn about nature through backyard discovery. They learn about natural laws and boundaries through creative exploration.
Children learn through play.
2. Don’t brush off your child’s questions
Children ask a lot of questions. Sometimes, there just isn’t the time to answer those questions. Other times, the answers seem out of reach. Still other times, we get tired of answering or the questions seem just plain silly. But questions really are important.
That doesn’t mean that you have to drop everything to answer every single question. I will often say, “I’m not able to answer that question right now, but can you please remember it so I can properly answer it later?”
And if you don’t know the answer? Be honest. It’s perfectly okay to say, “I don’t know the answer. Let’s look it up and see what we can find.”
3. Teach Research Skills
Teach your children how to (safely) use the internet to find answers to their questions. Teach them how to differentiate between reliable and unreliable sources of information. Teach them how to use field guides, encyclopedias and other reference books. Teach them how to use the library. Teach them how to find the right people to answer questions in person.
I say this over and over again: The most important thing a child can learn is how to learn.
Teach your children how to learn. This skill doesn’t just cultivate their curiosity while they’re young; it’s vital to life-long success.
4. Don’t be afraid to deviate from the lesson plan
There are many times where a difficult question has side-tracked our school day or even turned into a lengthy unit study. This is the beauty of homeschooling. We have the freedom to chase rabbit trails.
Last year, my girls kept a chalkboard list of all the topics that caught their interest. Slowly and methodically, we picked our way through the list, learning about things like the Arctic, honeybees, certain animals and more. This year, when my parents brought us an alligator head from Florida, we launched into a really interesting study of Florida’s swamp ecosystem.
Make room for interest-led learning.
5. Model Delight-Directed Learning
Every Saturday morning, I get up before everyone else is awake. I either sneak out to a coffee shop or down into the living room. I power up my laptop. I sip hot coffee.
And I learn.
My girls know that I am taking online writing classes. They are aware that I am developing my skills and passions. They also see me attend Wednesday night classes at church, where I learn and grow spiritually. They see me leave for homeschool meetings and they know that I’m going because I need to glean from others. They see me read books. They watch me ask questions, find answers and share little tidbits of my discoveries with anyone who will listen.
They don’t miss a thing.
That’s why it’s so important to model a lifestyle of learning. Children learn by example, and if we model a love of learning, we will encourage our children to love learning.
The love of learning—a natural curiosity and delight—will lead our children farther than any lesson plan ever will.
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