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Kids learn differently! (part 1)
4 differences: kids make progress suddenly; kids can learn from ridiculously short sessions; kids prefer to be guided instead of receiving verbal instructions; kids can learn autonomously by sensing.
During the past 3 years I have spent an average of 20 hours a week with my kids helping them learn all sorts of things. One of the most important lessons I have learned is that kids learn very differently compared to adults and most learning methods are not well suited for their brains.
So I stopped adopting a particular approach and started experimenting, constantly altering all things related to the learning activities. My objective became to find the right setup and eventually extract some general principles that could be applied to any activity. Let me tell you about a few differences I noticed about the way kids learn:
Kids make progress suddenly hence be patient, keep practicing and don’t focus too much on progress otherwise you might be disappointed.
Kids can learn even with ridiculously short sessions (1-20min) if they practice often enough (few times a week).
Kids learn by being guided instead of instructed so look for ways to guide them without talking or to minimize verbal communication.
Kids learn intuitively by sensing but they need your help to practice beyond what they are capable of.
Children have real understanding only of that which they invent themselves. Jean Piaget
Let’s explore how kids learn and find a practical framework to help them learn anything effectively and playfully. Help me make progress by subscribing and sharing this newsletter!
Kids make progress suddenly
When children are learning, they might not display gradual progress nor increased interest in the practice. Parents and educators who are patiently investing time and energy trying to teach children something might be frustrated by not seeing any progress, maybe at the point of giving up altogether.
When adults are learning they make roughly steady progress improving session after session, week after week and month after month. Children instead might not display any progress for months or even years, despite hours of practice. Sometimes they even regress… can you imagine something more frustrating?
But magically, one day, they master it! Every time I see it, I am shocked. How can it happen at once? How is it possible that one day they don’t know how to do something and the very next day they master it, love it and keep repeating it!
The only possible explanation I have is that children's brains process learning in batches, in the background even when they aren’t practicing. The batch is being processed all the time but they don’t display any progress until the batch is completely finished processing.
For example, my daughter Elisa has been doing baby parkour at the gym since the age of 2, now she just turned 5. Jumping has always been difficult for her, in part because she has vertigo. Even for tiny jumps I always had to hold her hand and lately, when she started jumping alone, she was constantly afraid and ending up landing on her butt. Then one day, at the park, out of the blue, by her own initiative she jumped from a high platform to another one below, almost fell and instinctively made a second jump to avoid falling. She didn’t hesitate a second, like if she knew what she was doing. She enjoyed it so much that she kept doing it 10 times in a row. I had to stop her because her legs were getting tired and eventually she might have fallen for real.
Here is a different example. When Elisa was learning to read at 3 she had trouble reading the word “est” (pronunciation /ɛ/, french for the English verb “is”), I had to remind her how to read it literally hundreds of times. And yet, she never knew how to read it. I suspect because she wasn’t accepting the concept that some words don’t follow the general pattern and have to be memorized instead. But finally, one day, she started reading it correctly and never misread it since, not even once.
Similarly, she never displayed much interest in reading and for two years I always had to negotiate to get her practicing for a few minutes, until one day, of her own initiative, she started picking books from the shelves and reading them to her little brother, and kept reading them from the first page to the last one. She also started reading books to her classmates in school. Again, change came suddenly.
My practical advice is to have faith, be patient and keep practicing without focusing too much on progress.
Kids can learn even with ridiculously short practice sessions (1-20min)
Usually adults need to practice with 45-90 minutes long sessions to make progress. Children instead can make significant progress with much shorter sessions, ranging from 1 minutes to 20 minute, as long as they are frequent enough (at least a few times per week).
The length of the session is determined by the ability of the children to stay focused. In general children can focus only for very short periods, especially when they are introduced to new activities, they saturate quickly, want to stop and go play with something else.
The upside is that children can learn many different things each day, often making surprising connections between some apparently unrelated things they have learnt. Probably this is because their mind is more flexible and empty than adults.
If I had to speculate I would say that children need less practice because they are learning simpler things but also it seems like children’s brain has a greater ability to learn by constantly simulating lived experiences subconsciously.
For example, when my daughter turned 2 years old I bought her a balance bike (a bicycle without pedals). I used to bring her outside to ride the bike but at the beginning she would only do it for one minute maximum, refusing to jump on the bike again for the rest of the day and sadly I had to carry the bike around myself. I was frustrated also because I thought she didn’t learn anything and that she didn’t like cycling, a passion that both me and my wife share deeply. Nonetheless I kept persisting and after a few one minute long sessions I noticed that she learnt how to move the handlebar to balance the bike. This milestone helped her feel secure, find pleasure and ride for much longer.
My son who recently started on a balance bike displayed the exact same behaviour, once he understood how to use the handlebar he started riding the bike everywhere inside the house. Though going for long rides outside is still a challenge. I am helping him push a little bit to get him to ride longer in order to improve his pushing skills.
My practical advice is to practice frequently even if with ridiculously short sessions.
Kids learn by being guided instead of instructed
Children have difficulties learning by following verbal instructions, especially when they are younger than 6 years old. In my experience, for physical activities they learn best when the instructor repeatedly guides them to perform the right movement by holding their hands and feet. And, for mental activities, by guiding them to practice with exercises (this method is called Scaffolding, I will explain more in my next article).
Children can only follow instructions when they are familiar with the specific task or the task itself doesn’t require a high level of precision.
For example, if they are told to get on a skateboard they know how to do it, but if they are told to position their feet in a specific way on the board they aren’t able to do it precisely, even if you showed them physically what it meant already a few times or if the shape of their feet is drawn on the board. The instructor has to repeatedly re-position their feet in the right spot and, after enough repetitions, finally they will recognize the feeling of having their feet in a specific position and spontaneously adjust to find that feeling. In this video I do just that with my son.
Similarly, when they learn to read, we can explain all the general rules but in my experience, once they know the alphabet phonetically, it is more effective to guide them to read simple books, helping them read the words they can’t read, yet. Letting them derive the rules autonomously or explaining it only when faced with the particular word in the book. Some books for early readers are very good at selecting words to introduce rules implicitly and gradually and providing enough repetitions to let children acquire the rule by practicing. (see HarperCollins - I can read and in french: Larousse - Mes premières lectures 100% syllabiques). These books are also written using simple fonts, big characters and big interlines to help the untrained eye of children (few people know that reading requires a lot of eye movement training).
At the end of the day this is also the way children learn their mother tongue, just by practicing in a real life context, which is completely different from the way most adults learn foreign languages: using books and taking classes.
My practical advice is to find ways to guide children through practice by talking as little as possible.
Kids learn intuitively by sensing
Children also learn autonomously by following their senses and intuition while practicing. Compared to adults they are more inclined to naturally evolve their technique towards minimizing effort. I think because, unlike adults, they don’t have a specific representation in their brain of what needs to be done, so they just go with the flow and naturally adjust to do what comes easier.
For example, I have been helping my daughter to practice climbing. I don’t know any technique about climbing so I started by helping her carry her weight and guiding her to find the closest hold. After two years of practice, at the age of 5, she now practices autonomously. She taught her-self how to balance, shift her body weight to facilitate the climb and how to fall. Her movements are calm and smooth, she checks her grips before applying force, she always stays upright, very close to the wall. It seems she received proper training. Of course she needs to take some formal training to improve her technique at some point, here I just wanted to highlight at what extent children can also learn autonomously and intuitively by feeling with their senses.
Similarly, when she was 5-6 months old, I gave her a tiny bite of food for the first time. I left it on the table in front of her. She put her hand on top of it and grabbed it deep inside her fist. She brought the fist to her mouth but couldn’t put it inside, so she put it back on the table. She repeated the exact same experience once more, didn’t succeed and put it back on the table again. Finally, at the third attempt, she changed strategy and grabbed the bite of food using only two fingers so she could easily drop it into her mouth. In contrast, state of the art machine learning algorithms require millions of attempts to figure out. Here MIT professor Josh Tenenbaum explains how human minds are different from state of the art artificial intelligence neural networks, also check the work of his computational cognitive science lab.
My practical advice is to let children learn autonomously by helping them practice beyond what they are capable of rather than teaching rules or explaining concepts!
If you are interested in cognitive science, check the work of Susan Carey, professor at Harward who has long researched how the learning process differs between children adults and primates. Here an interesting one about children logically understanding “no” and “not”.
Have you also noticed something different about the way kids learn? Tell me by leaving a comment or just send me an email hitting the reply button. We will discuss it in part 2!
Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed it!