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How to help kids learn anything!
4 steps to help kids learn anything effectively and playfully!
Three years ago I embarked on a quest to explore how kids learn. I helped my 5 years old daughter Elisa learning to read, arithmetic, 13 different sports and introduced her to music. My objective is to find a practical framework to help kids learn anything effectively and playfully. I still have a long way to go but let me share with you the 4 steps I have identified so far:
Sleep: obviously kids need good quality sleep in order to learn, help them go to bed early! Also research shows that naps after learning sessions improve learning consolidation. Naps might not be very practical, especially for active kids that only sleep when they are fully exhausted. But even frequent random 10 seconds breaks have shown to greatly enhance the speed and depth of learning (Bush et al. 2021 brain recordings showed neural replay, at 20 times the normal speed during those breaks, vastly increasing the amount of repetitions per unit of time). Personally, when I see my daughter showing signs of fatigue, I help her recovery by covering her eyes with my hand for a few seconds; I do it several times during the practice.
Desire: weeks before beginning a new practice I help my kids build desire for that particular skill or subject. Kids who are not willing to learn won’t learn, and will refuse to practice. When they start liking the activity at the point it becomes almost part of their identity, they are ready to start practicing. See below some practical examples on how to do that.
Practice: wait for the right time to practice or set routines, keep sessions short (1-20min) but frequent (few times per week). Prepare the practice session in advance, displaying hesitation makes kids lose focus. Alternate with different activities, deep breathing exercises or naps when engagement drops. Use many different approaches and perspectives, depending on the kid some might work better than others but they are all complementary to build a holistic comprehension. Give children minimal guidance, just enough to help them practice beyond their current capabilities. Break down skills and concepts into tiny subparts, practice them one at the time before combining them together. Slow down practice and build proficiency using oversimplified tasks before moving to the next level. Increase practicing speed to induce errors that will improve learning by triggering higher neuroplasticity.
Reward: the newer the practice the more encouragement kids need from you to endure the initial frustration of just not being able, yet. Little by little reduce reward to encourage kids to find more sustainable intrinsic motivation mechanisms.
If you have any suggestion to improve this framework, please, leave a comment or just send me an email hitting the reply button. I plan to publish an updated version in the coming months.
Study without desire spoils the memory, and it retains nothing that it takes in. Leonardo da Vinci
Some children are naturally passionate or even obsessed about certain activities and subjects. We, adults, should certainly help them cultivate those further but we should also encourage the discovery of new activities. In the end everything is connected to everything else.
I noticed that children enjoy pretty much any activity as far as they have achieved a certain level of mastery. Sometimes enough mastery to stop having fear, sometimes enough to be as good as the others or enough to enjoy practicing with minimal effort. But beginning is always the most difficult part because children often feel overwhelmed and discouraged by the challenge.
I make it easier by building the child's desire to practice. Sometimes even at the point of making the activity almost part of their identity. Ideally the desire generates enough momentum to help the child go beyond the first more frustrating stages of learning, reaching the point where they start finding intrinsic motivation.
Here are a few practical ideas to help you build desire:
Watch inspiring videos of people practicing the activity to learn. Even better if the children can identify with the performer, maybe because he/she is also a kid or he/she is wearing beautiful clothes or even animated movies of their favorite superheroes. As a child I became interested in engineering watching the animated series “Inspector Gadget”. Out of many cool videos, my daughter got into skateboarding thanks to this hilarious episode of the Simpsons. Unimaginable!
if the activity they are learning requires tools, leave them around, let them experiment, disassemble them and tune them, anything helps to create an emotional connection. Visiting dedicated shops is also helpful. Choose the style of the tool they like the most (color, size, material, design, logos, add stickers and glitters).
Bring them to places where people train, we are social beings afterall. Find places especially designed for kids. For example the gym where we climb has climbing walls shaped as castles with holds shaped as food, toys and monsters. The right atmosphere is a powerful motivator.
Practice the activity your-self and show them how much you enjoy it. Let them see how you struggle to improve. Maybe even give them a little role inside your practice. For example my daughter enjoys roller skating much more and she practices longer if I am also wearing my in-line skates.
Surround him/her with beautiful inspiring posters and photographs.
Practice is the best of all instructors. Publilius Syrus
Practice is the core of learning and the way you practice makes all the difference. In learning science there is a vast body of research on different ways of designing learning practices, like: project based learning, problem based learning, inquiry based learning, collaboration based learning, competition based learning, game based learning, computer based learning, informal learning, authentic disciplinary practices based learning (they are also all known under slightly different names). But before going into details I would like to share four general tips I use to make practice more enjoyable and effectively.
One: with children, always be patient and flexible. It might sound obvious but it is very difficult in practice. It is about finding the right balance between giving children freedom and requiring some discipline, so be sure to always have extra time to start practicing only when they are mentally ready and committed.
Two: set up daily routines, usually children acquire routines easily and they like to stick to the routines, even if the routine is about things they initially don’t like doing that much. For example, the routine can be something you do every day before school, after school or before going to bed. Be sure that the routine includes something pleasant, like reading a book to them before they read a book to you, or practice music after dinner before having dessert, or practice algebra verbally on the way home after school.
Three: Always present any practice from many different angles, it will help you find the one that works best for your children and also increase their curiosity, need for novelty and deepen their comprehension. If an approach doesn’t work, use another one but don’t throw it away just yet. Test it again the following week and every week after that, until it will eventually work or not... Use different tools, techniques, representations, make games, explore practical uses. Below Richard Feynman also explaining this concept.
For example, my daughter didn’t want to learn to play any musical instrument. I tried many different instruments and approaches for years but nothing worked until I realized that she loves singing and our voice is a musical instrument, too.
Let’s go back to the different learning techniques. In my opinion, most of those I mentioned at the beginning aren’t very practical for children although they sound extremely valid from a theoretical perspective. In my experience they are mostly helpful at learning how to make use of things children have already learnt rather than helping them learn new things. Maybe because the designed practices are too complex and don’t promote repetition enough. Also, in these practices, learning isn’t structured hierarchically, so it makes it more difficult for children to grasp the big picture, trace dependencies and understand how things relate to one another.
The four techniques I like the most and I use all the time are: scaffolding/guidance, break down activities in smaller bite sized components and performing in slow motion or at higher speed . Using these techniques young learners can practice outside their zone of proximal development (ZPD, Vygotsky), extending their range of independent activity. Let’s see some practical examples:
Scaffolding/Guidance: tutors can help children learn by manipulating their hands, feet and body or by rephrasing their words to better align with the task or giving hints to guide the actions of the learner. As the learner progresses, the tutor's support vanishes like the scaffoldings to make a building. Through scaffolding tutors might also catch errors detrimental to the practice while allowing other insightful errors. One important objective is to keep guidance minimal, just enough to maintain the learner engaged, dynamically balancing the frustration of making errors with the joy of doing new things right. By repeated interaction the learner imitates the modeled actions and associates them with the verbal directive of the task. This mechanism is often referred to as prolepsis. Because of its nature, scaffolding works best in one to one tutoring or small groups of students, finally becoming extremely impractical in large classrooms. It also relies on the particular connection between tutor and learner which is difficult to code into a standard procedure.
Break it down: I strongly believe that children can learn anything at any age but only if the tutor is capable of breaking down the skills and concepts into many tiny subparts that can be practiced and acquired individually before being put back together by the child. But how many subparts? As many as necessary until the child is able to start performing that specific part even if with a bit of guidance. In general I have to break down a good tutorial made for adults in 10 times more subparts to make it appropriate for my children. Some activities are so obvious to adults that there isn’t any tutorial on the internet or the tutorials are for super skilled players who want to perfect their technique to the tiniest detail.
Slow it down: when possible, slowing down the speed at which children practice can make them learn better. Most physical activities can be performed in super slow motion to give the brain extra time to analyse and react to perform the next step. Even jumping and catching can be manipulated by increasing the height of the jump with a trampoline or the distance of the throw for the object to catch. Similarly mental activities can be performed slowly by reducing the workload and increasing the time dedicated to perform them. Again it allows children to think deeper and differently about the same thing, ultimately improving their understanding.
Speed it up: Speed things up, around 20% beyond what children can manage, they will make many more mistakes but when speed is brought back to normal they will perform better. Errors induced during higher practicing speed improve learning by stimulating the release of chemicals to increase neuroplasticity (Epinephrine, Acetylcholine and Dopamine).
For example, I employed the techniques above to teach my children how to ride a skateboard in 10 steps. It took two years for my daughter who started at 3 and I just started with my son who is now 2 years old. I couldn’t use the tutorials I found on the internet probably because they are made for children older than 5.
Instruction does much, but encouragement everything. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Children have innate intrinsic motivation mechanisms that help them learn autonomously. These work well when success is obvious and immediate but when they start learning more complex things success is delayed and they don’t know if they are making progress, hence they seek for parents’ reward, extrinsic motivation. Reward is fundamental for reinforcing good practice.
Learning how to find and appreciate intrinsic reward is our ultimate goal but it is almost a skill that needs to be trained. Untrained individuals like children only recognize intrinsic reward when some big progress has been made while adults can find satisfaction from minor improvements or just from understanding what and how they need to improve.
In particular, children have a harder time to perform challenging tasks when the intrinsic reward is delayed and uncertain because they don’t know how to assess the probability of succeeding nor the time and effort required. We can encourage children to practice by making them appreciate small improvements, by guiding them to assess how far they are from accomplishing a certain milestone and plan accordingly.
Reward and encouragement come in different forms and can be used at different times for different purposes.
Before practice, verbal encouragement to boost children’s confidence. Encouragements can be targeted to overcome particular fears or weaknesses, to increase readiness or willingness, to emphasize the most desirable aspects of the practice and to remind future delayed reward coming. For example I encourage my daughter to not be afraid of tackling boys when playing football.
During the practice, verbal encouragement can be used to push children to make an extra effort, like coaches do with professional athletes.
At certain intermediate milestones. This one can be verbal (encouragements or expressions), physical (high fives, hugs or handshakes ) or other pleasant experiences like food, video games, songs, videos… At the beginning, include many intermediate milestones into the practice, then make them more and more sporadic until you eliminate them altogether. For example I like the mini-smarties, I give them 1 to 3 depending on the milestone. They are tiny (=less sugar) and colourful (=more pleasure).
At the end of practice, you can repeat and amplify all the rewards mentioned above for the intermediate milestones. You can also add longer experiences like going to desirable places. Use verbal encouragement to highlight wins and progress.
After practice, again all types of encouragement are welcomed. An additional one I like is to watch videos and pictures of them practicing. Usually children are more egocentric than adults, they like to watch themselves practicing and it reinforces their identity associated with the specific practice.
Research emphasizes the power of “random intermittent reward” to maximize effort performed while keeping dopamine constant. This approach solves the problem that the more regularly you expect reward the more potent and extreme that reward has to be remain effective at generating effort. I tried experimenting with these findings but I couldn’t make it work. In my experience children immediately lose interest if they don’t understand how reward can be achieved.
How do you help kids learn things? Tell me by leaving a comment or just send me an email hitting the reply button.
Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed it!