All parents want their children to be curious learners who get pleasure from the simple act of gaining knowledge. It’s even better if our children can retain this love of learning for life. But how do we, as parents, help instill that desire in our children?
“For me, it begins with acknowledging that all children are born curious about their world. They’re asking questions and have the desire to know more about what they experience,” says Elisabeth Stayer, kindergarten and first grade teacher at The Roeper School, an independent PreK-12 school in Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills for gifted children.
When parents and educators follow a child’s lead, encouraging them to pursue their curiosities and passions, this spark stays alive, Stayer says. “Following and listening and honoring what they are thinking about is how we instill that love of learning.”
It’s all the more important to encourage a long-term perspective on learning when external goals like tests and awards often dictate what and how children learn.
“The real goal is lifelong learning, not just learning when kids are in school and then they are done. It’s about building on what they are interested in and pushing that out a little more,” says Sosha Haynes, science teacher for Roeper’s kindergarten through third grade students. “If a child is interested in dinosaurs, for instance, we should be following their lead and branching out to share something connected to that interest.”
Supporting interest is all the more important in the gifted student population, where children’s strengths can sometimes be inconsistent across skill sets.
“At Roeper, we leverage the strengths and passions students come in with to build skills in other areas,” Stayer says. “For instance, a student may be able to talk at length about something they love, but not put it on paper. When we know their motivations, we are able to grow in areas they need to develop more by using these strengths and interests.”
Why a love of learning is important
When children commit to continued learning, they’re more likely to take risks intellectually and learn from their mistakes — ultimately contributing to a stronger society, agree the teachers. They also keep their minds open to new ideas long after they leave school.
“There have been so many changes in knowledge since I graduated from college and if I had shut down and stopped learning once I was out of school, I wouldn’t know about all the new discoveries and changes in society and the way we look at things,” Haynes says.
Lifelong learners have the attitudes, skills, resilience, persistence, curiosity and adaptability needed to continue pursuing new ideas, Stayer says. “And it’s not just the acquisition of knowledge, but the skills to continue after failing and making mistakes,” she says. “It’s about building new skills and finding new information outside of formal education so that when we are faced with challenges, we will pursue solutions.”
Roeper students remain engaged by participating in project-based and problem-based learning — both providing real-world opportunities to build knowledge, skills and dispositions that will benefit them as people.
In an example of problem-based learning, one student came to class with a concern about the impact of personal protective equipment (PPE) on wildlife. Her teacher honored this interest and together they built a project around it.
“The idea that masks and gloves in the environment are causing harm to wildlife piqued a lot of interest among students, who began gathering information and asking questions about stakeholders and how to communicate solutions,” Stayer says.
Meanwhile, in science class, Haynes worked with the children to gain knowledge about the scientific side of the problem. What harm were discarded masks, with their elastic ear loops, causing birds, squirrels and other wildlife?
The result was a series of public service announcements for a “rip, snip, clip” campaign and letters to those with the power to lift the solution to a wider audience.
“This was such an empowering project for the students. Some children who were reluctant writers became immediately engaged and started writing PSAs because they were passionate about this problem,” says Stayer.
Through project-based learning, Roeper students also explored the science of flight through kites. While the children prepared for a kite festival and crafted their own kite tails, they learned the physics of flight. The project extended across homeroom and science class for a well-rounded learning experience.
Encouraging lifelong learning at home
Beyond taking an in-depth look at how your children are learning at school, you can influence and support natural curiosity at home, no matter your child’s age.
Start by following your child’s lead, rather than imprinting upon your child what you want them to learn. “The topic may not be your passion, but work with them and honor their genuine curiosity,” Haynes says.
Remember that it’s OK to tell your child you don’t know the answer — but that you’ll work to find the answer together.
Model by expressing your own curiosity. “In everything you do, verbalize your interest,” Stayer suggests. On a walk, wonder aloud why a flower looks the way it does or if you can figure out the type of tree based on its bark. “Sometimes parents need to co-wonder and ask their own questions,” Haynes says.
If your middle or high school student veers toward sports and away from academics, dig into the copious learning opportunities available within every sport. “What is the percentage of successful free throws by their favorite basketball player? What does that mean? Let your child become the teacher by being interested in what they like,” Haynes suggests.
Most of all, be present with your child and honor their curiosities. In doing so, you partner with them to build the lifelong skills and dispositions they need, says Stayer.
“I recognize how busy parents’ lives are, so know that this doesn’t have to be a huge time commitment,” Haynes says. “It’s not about spending five hours on projects with your kids, but about listening and asking meaningful questions.”
Learn more about The Roeper School’s Lower School in Bloomfield Hills and Middle and Upper School in Birmingham. Visit roeper.org.