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Playful learning step-by-step: Step3, autonomous learning
A step-by-step guide to help any kid learn something new playfully.
In step 3 we help kids start practicing and gaining autonomy or quasi-autonomy.
Reaching the autonomous practice or autonomous learning stage is our first goal because it helps kids train more and improve faster. If children enjoy practicing they will practice spontaneously, more frequently and more intensively. Simultaneously freeing up time and energy for other activities.
For example, it took almost 2 years for my daughter to become autonomous at reading books but now, at age of 5, when we go to the library she autonomously selects books and starts reading them. Instead it took her just a couple of weeks to become autonomous at climbing, similarly she starts climbing when we arrive at the gym and autonomously selects new challenging routes.
How can we help children become autonomous as easily as possible?
1. Don’t correct mistakes
It is counter intuitive but correcting mistakes is irritating, making children less likely to enjoy the practice and come back again spontaneously. But if we don’t correct mistakes how can they ever improve? In my experience children know when they are repeatedly making the same mistake and self-correct. We just need to be patient and wait for the self correcting process to happen. Sometimes we can speed it up by sporadically correct mistakes or by designing an exercise that makes the particular error more self-evident.
For example, now that I am teaching piano to my daughter I prefer not to correct her. I don’t say anything about hands posture, rhythm and wrong notes. I am aware she knows when she makes multiple mistakes or when her hands are not moving efficiently. I know she is trying hard to do better and that’s enough for now.
Different analogy, when people learn a new language they often make mistakes when talking. If the person they are speaking with cuts them off to correct every error they make, it becomes unproductive and discouraging for the learner who, most likely, will stop talking. Instead the learner only needs to be corrected sporadically, or not at all, and will improve by hearing other people talking anyway. This is how children learn their mother tongue.
2. Identify the basic skills for autonomous learning
To do this I imagine myself busy with something and only able to give minimal guidance to my child to help him/her practice and learn something new about the specific activity or subject. What kind of instruction or support could I give him? Reading a book, running an experiment, teaching someone, practicing a drill, learning a new technique, writing something, filming something, inventing something, creating something… What kind of minimal skills does he/she needs to have acquired already?
It is true that in addition to basic skills it also takes willingness to practice and learn autonomously. But, in my experience, willingness automatically comes when children are confident they can improve autonomously. It is a self-reinforcing mechanism.
For example, as I write this article I identified four basic skills to autonomously learning piano. One, playing notes with all fingers and both hands coordinated together (hands); two, reading basic musical notation (eyes); three, keeping the tempo using a metronome and/or singing while playing (rhythm); four, playing a melody just heard a few times (ear). I will re-assess whether these are the right ones after testing them using the most simple exercise imaginable. Theoretically these should allow my daughter to play a new melody from a book or by hearing it and maybe, combined with basic music theory, allow her to compose a new melody.
3. Build a repertoire of favorite exercises and drills
Now we need to find or invent ultra simple exercises and materials to train those basic skills. The key to success is to start with the easiest difficulty level imaginable, train skills separately but also together. If our child doesn’t like the exercise it is probably too difficult already, it is better to change quickly or at least alter it to make it more appealing.
Training for autonomy often requires learning multiple skills at once resulting in slower visible improvements, ultimately reducing learner’s motivation. That’s were making practice more playful can help bridge the gap.
For example, beginners rarely play the piano with a metronome and sing notes and bits when they play. It requires a great deal of coordination but if we start with a single note and a slow tempo it becomes easy. Introducing these skills later, when the children already plays complicated melodies could be even more challenging.
At times we should also let children explore the activity freely and encourage them to repeat the things they do that help them acquire those basic skills needed for autonomous learning. We can also invent different variations of the exercises they create. This also helps children noticing the countless degrees of freedom they can play with.
For example, I saw my daughter naturally liked playing the first five notes of D major scale (C, D, E, F, G) on the piano using the 5 fingers of her right hand
(I don’t know if having this kind of finger strength and dexterity from day one is unusual but, if it is, I suspect she built it by climbing and playing with lego technic and lego dots since the age of 2. There are synergies in learning!).
So little by little I introduced her to different variations of this exercise, like: playing the same notes with her left hand, playing starting from other notes than C, playing ascending and descending, playing legato and staccato, playing the entire scale switching on 3rd finger, playing every other key of the scale to subtly introduce harmonics, etc. She now performs these exercises as warm-up routines before playing something from a colourful beginner’s book she likes and uses to work on musical notation.
This was the last step of my playful learning guide but more tips on how to facilitate practice are coming, stay tuned.
Thanks for reading and let me know if you find it useful!