Motivating children to learn.
My top seven practical, tried-and-true tips from a lifetime working with children.
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I’ve had all kinds of teaching and learning experiences with children- in mainstream schools and Steiner Waldorf ones; across preschools and primary schools and childcare centres; and with children of all abilities (and disabilities). And of course, I’ve been a parent for a very…. long…. time…. (feels like more than a lifetime!)
I’ve come to know that there are some things that are absolutely true when it comes to motivating children to learn, no matter what shape, size, age, gender, race, skill, or capacity they might be.
It is easy to motivate children to learn when these things are put into practice because learning like this is FUN. And we all know that when something is FUN, we can’t help but want to join in.
So, here are my top seven hints for motivating children to learn. A lot of this is simply common sense, but I know I need a reminder every now and then. (It’s all too easy when I’m busy to forget these things and fall back into the ‘boring’ trap, even when I know better!) Maybe you might find a little gold drop of insight or wisdom here too…
Seven Tips for Motivating Children to Learn
1. Invoke art
Children LOVE art. Art is simply ‘the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination‘ and children do this every single day without thought or worry. They love to draw, to construct, to build sandcastles and forts, to paint, bake and cook, and to craft with cardboard boxes and sticky tape and felt and fabric and just about anything they can lay their hands on. Their young eyes are also open to finding pictures in the clouds, letters in the branches of the trees, and they have no qualms about making toys from a stick, a seedpod, and a bit of string. In short, their world is their creative slate. As the first ‘teachers’ of our own kin, and also in professional practice, my top tip for motivating children to learn is to use the framework of ART** for the lessons you wish to share, teach and do. When ‘art’ is a part of the lesson, children don’t see ‘work’, they see FUN. Fun they want to join.
(Note: ART** – invoke art in any and all forms – painting, drawing, sculpture, woodwork, music, weaving, hand crafts, knitting, singing, dancing, karate, tai chi, yoga… whatever is your artistic resonance!)
I think it is really important here to say that everyone has the ability to invoke art. It is not something that only ‘artists’ can do. You become an artist when you begin to open your eyes and see the world through a lens of creativity, and then put your new ideas into practice. Writing some kind of ‘lesson plan’ as you ponder and wonder how you’ll encourage a child to complete their homework, or learn to read, or practice spelling words is the perfect opportunity for your inner artist to fire up! (A ‘lesson plan’ can be as explicit as writing step-by-step ideas on a teaching template, or informal, as you simply jot a few ideas down on a piece of paper. How you do it depends on your personality type.) The key is to think of the ‘problem’ (eg, how to motivate my child to practice spelling words at night) and then strive to find a FUN ARTISTIC way you can work your way through, and around, that problem. The more you flex that creative thinking muscle and come up with a bunch of potential ideas you might try in your quest to engage your child or children, the more ideas will come right back at you. I guarantee it.
So, start making letters with playdough, writing spelling words in the sand, painting poems on big sheets of butchers paper, singing maths timetables, dancing your way through counting practice, or completing homework in rainbow colours. Do what must be done to invoke a sense of fun!
2. Capture the rainbow
Add colour. There is nothing more unappealing to young children than black-line masters or photocopied sheets of boring work. In my experience, these things are little more than time-filling (and time-wasting) efforts that rarely engage anyone- teacher or student. But there is one thing guaranteed to capture attention- a rainbow of colours. Give a child a blank sheet of paper and a pack of coloured pens, markers, crayons, chalks or paints, and eyes will open wide.
In one school where I worked, the teachers took great pains to draw marvellous and detailed colourful chalk scenes on huge blackboards, depicting the themes and the contexts of the work planned for the day. Each task or activity the children were required to complete was up on the board too, artistically presented, yet clear, articulate and inviting. Children were asked and required to present the fruits of their work with a similar level of care, respect and colour, and by golly, did they ever. The blackboard served simply as inspiration. What the children did in response to their set task was often even more spectacular! Their hearts and souls were captured on the paper inside their work books as the children truly and deeply invested in the content and context of the task- researching, noting facts, writing persuasive arguments or narrative stories, and illustrating the work to match.
I think all kinds of work tasks might be made more fun with a dose of colour. Drawing stories, doing maths questions in coloured pencil, illustrating science experiments, illustrating spelling words- there is no limit to the potential of colour. So, why not use this little story as inspiration and invite children to illustrate or design their own work in this way?
Imitation is the key, so as parents and teachers, it might also be helpful for us to play with art, borders, whimsical illustrations, and doodles in our very own “work book” (shopping list, to-do list, diary..) too.
Illustrated and artistically coloured tax books, anyone?
3. Pair up
I once heard it said that children learn 80% of what they retain NOT from the person teaching it, BUT from the chitter-chatter they engage in afterwards with their peers and classmates. It is when they jiggle the information about, piece it together, and make it fit within their own contexts of life that the learning connects.
So, let them pair up more often! Working alone can be very isolating and frustrating, especially for those children who need to ‘talk it out’ or bounce their ideas or conclusions off someone to check they are on the right track. Peer support is key. BUT, if there is no-one else, BE that person. Be that sounding board, that listening ear, that person who helps them join-the-dots. Break down the info into the smallest pieces possible and encourage them to put it all back together again.
4. Concrete over abstract, every time
If you or I had a choice as a child to sit with a piece of paper and answer questions, OR play a game of some kind to find out the answer, which do you think we would have chosen? Yes. A game. To young children, anything that requires them to DO something WITH something IS a game of sorts.
I’ve been watching a group of children make 3D pyramids. They were asked to draw a template of shapes on a large piece of cardboard, cut them out and finally piece it all together with sticky tape. When their shape was ‘seaworthy’, they were instructed to fill the shape with sand, and measure how much sand their shape could hold.
THIS activity could have been done on paper in maths books. (Boring much?) But I guarantee you, this lesson – which has so far filled a week’s worth of maths sessions- is not only teaching them concepts of maths such as volume, shape, and mathematical vocabulary, it is also teaching them how to happily work within a group, giving them opportunities to practice social skills such as turn-taking, and being able to accept that you don’t always ‘win’. This task is a perfect example for the kids to see that learning can be purposeful and meaningful, AND fun.
Last year, I took my son Ned to the Brisbane Museum Explorasaurus Exhibition. What captured his attention? Was it the huge information posters, or the awesome life-size pictures of dinosaurs, or static displays? NO! It was the hands-on, interactive experiences where he was INCLUDED in the task of learning about dinosaurs through activity. Digging for bones, making dinosaurs roar and move, playing with the shadows to check their actual sizes, and comparing his finds with the other children there. Hands on. Concrete material. Remember this tip as much as you can, and you’ll have all the motivation you’ll need to get them to focus and join in.
5. Be like a fishing hook with the right bait
The easiest way to motivate children to learn is to teach them what they want to know, and about what they are interested in. It also helps to teach them using the right ‘modality’- using visual things such as videos, graphs, web diagrams and illustrations for visual learners; music, sound, and oral stories for auditory learners; and hands-on style activities for those who learn best when they use their body, their arms and legs, fingers and toes, in the process.
If one is clever enough, entire units of learning can be taught through any favourite hobby. Take fishing for example… if the child likes to go fishing with dad, maths is all about predicting the weights of different types of fish in the local area, weighing and measuring the fish you catch, writing a narrative story or a diary about a particularly fun fishing adventure, typing up a fish-inspired recipe and cooking it for the family too (there’s science for you!), drawing diagrams to compare fish lengths vs other animals in the sea, illustrating a poster of popular Australian fish and seafood, creating a jingle for an ad about fish conservation, or writing and recording a documentary about a famous local fisherman or fish naturalist.
Here’s another example. If your child loves ballet, you might start a savings fund and plan and plot a chart to save up enough money through odd jobs to take a trip to the city to see a beloved show. You might enrol your child in local classes, invite her to design her own birthday card for a ballet-inspired gathering, research famous ballerinas and draw up a poster showing their achievements, list the 20 most popular ballets of all times, create a new song for a modern ballet production, plan and prepare for a home-grown fiesta (invitations, food preparation, decorating) with the extended family featuring popular acts such as a ballet recital and others, plan an energy-boosting nutrition plan (ballerinas need stamina!) and write recipes to try out, write notes of thanks to inspiring ballerinas who encourage you through their work (they might even write back!) and create an informative how-to video of the 5 most popular ballet steps for other children to learn.
Remember, when the subject is fun…
6. Laughs a minute
Tell jokes. Laugh. Do something unexpected. Be irreverent.
In the middle of a task, do something out of the ordinary. Pop on a pair of kooky carnival glasses and keep a straight face while telling a story. Or blow a honky tonk whistle. Or sing a random silly song. Or give them a gentle poke or a blow a raspberry. Prepare them a warm mug of tea, or deliver a tiny chocolate egg. Reward their self-directed motivation from time to time and you’ll see continued voluntary engagement. The anticipation of a joke or a laugh or a treat will keep them coming back for more, just in case!
Of course, I can’t forget this one, even if I wanted to. Children of all ages LOVE to win a prize, and a little sticker or a stamp after a period of good, solid focused work really does work wonders! Ethically, I’m not a big fan of ‘rewards’ like this, but a bigger part of me also knows that if I want to motivate children to do anything, I need to work within THEIR worldview. Like it or not, most children can be and will be easily bribed into doing something if they know they will get something out of it. I know many, many teachers who keep a little stash box of cheap and cheerful treasures they collect during sales and in variety stores, for those times they need an extra incentive. Food treats work too (gelati shop visit anyone?) and for lots of children, the offer of a set amount of time (ie: 30 minutes) of computer/ipad/screen time is a HUGE pull.
I know that when I’m using this strategy (and I do!), I try to make it an ‘active’ reward, rather than a ‘passive’ one. (I write about this in my Creative Parenting book.) By active, I mean, anything that encourages and builds relationships with the child while DOING something- a visit to the movies together, a fishing trip, a visit to the local creek, a short stretch of time at the local playground, a visit to the skate park after spelling, or 10 minutes mum-and-son time on the trampoline. All of these things reward the child with your time and attention. There is nothing better to inspire and motivate a child than positive ‘feedback’ like this! They really, truly love it, possibly more than everything combined.
So, I’d love to know, “What is your favourite tip to motivate children to learn?” Do tell me your tricks too!
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