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The Fun of Learning vs. School

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Let me start out by saying I’m a father of a five year old as well as a middle and high school math and technology teacher. Despite the title of this article, I’ll attempt to lean away from the harsh politics in the hope of a more optimistic sentiment in the power of parenting and schooling.

Firstly, I want to share the moment Susan and I discovered our 18 month old son knew all his letters and he’d been secretly learning to count too!


So at that moment I knew we’d passed another landmark event all parents go through – the moment we felt our son was a little prodigy!


It sparked something in the teacher part of me to question (1) Where does the motivation and excitement in learning come from? (2) How long can we keep the love and joy of learning alive? And finally (3) What kills the fun of learning? (Please don’t assume school… !)

Well after the giggles reading letters, my son didn’t have a chance to stop. Soon after graduating letter tiles, he moved on to Post-its.

post-its

Post-it notes are such a great tool for toddlers to practice their numbers and letters. They’re tactile and by nature repositioning and correcting is fun and encouraged. So at this point having the next fun learning activity ready at the right time seemed an important step in answering question #2 above (How to keep the love and joy of learning alive?). As for the source of the motivation and excitement (question #1 above ) I believe at these early stages all children are naturally very curious and parents have a great opportunity to develop children’s interests and curiosity or we risk stifling it. Our cheering and happiness at what our son was achieving clearly encouraged him to run back for more tiles to keep pleasing us and/or demonstrating what he’d learned.


This has to be an important mission for parents – to effectively provide encouragement and praise while considering expectation.


Different parenting styles, different experiences of how we were raised by our parents and even cultural differences all play into how a child’s curiosity and interests are to be developed. I remember sitting down for dinner in a restaurant with another family and beginning to talk to the kids about school at which point the father told them to take out their cell phones and play on them. The kids withdrew into their devices and only surfaced to ask about dessert 30 minutes later. Curiosity, experience and opportunity stifled?

While reflecting on those early days of my son learning his letters and numbers I used to think that it was at that point in time (~18 months) he became a student, but it was actually much earlier. He’d been experiencing letters through conversations, PBS Kids, and other development for months. My wife also took Oliver to our local Queens library for ‘Mommy and Me’ reading time each week since he was around 16 months old. While there they would sing nursery songs, hear a story,  dance and do crafts – all for free. It was a great experience and they attended until he turned three.experiences

The years following Oliver’s secret learning we decided to expose him to as many things as we could afford: Taekwondo, soccer, trips, art class, books, toys, devices and apps! We wanted to see what sticks and really to give him interesting and exciting experiences ranging from feeding ducks (to develop empathy and caring), to visiting museums, zoos and aquariums (to begin an appreciation of history, art and nature) and learning about technology. When his nana bought him a camera he learned and loved photography then I exposed him to math and puzzles (to develop grit), and he had lots of fun with building with lego, crafts and art (to develop his creativity). Something else that definitely deserves credit is his enrollment at a local church ‘Mommy and Me’ program starting at the age of 22 months until he attended Pre-K. These programs usually run from $50-100 per semester. The curriculum consisted of learning the alphabet and phonetics, bible stories and hymns, crafting, free play and usually included a snack time. There are many opportunities in New York City to provide your child with learning experiences – check out your local library, community centers and houses of worship.

I’ve been a teacher in NYC for close to 10 years and since having a child I feel enlightened and humbled by being on the other side of a parent teacher conference. My first was in Oliver’s nursery in Bayside, Queens. I clearly remember the moment his teacher Mrs. K said he was very well behaved in class… (completely what I expected, but what was unexpected was Oliver’s reaction to Mrs. K’s compliment…) He looked up at me immediately after the compliment while we were all squatting on those tiny little chairs, with a careful smile and a face full of pride that I hope I reflected back. Such a great feeling – and another opportunity to develop or stifle (even by lack of response) his sense of achievement.


I share these experiences with you, yes because I am the proud father of an amazing five year old, but also because I feel strongly that some children (not just in my school) are not getting the praise, encouragement and development they deserve and need.


I’m excited and hopeful when I hear a father and son talking sports stats and debating teams or when I eavesdrop on a mother discussing the ingredients of a product in a grocery store. Yesterday I heard an older sister and brother figuring out the price of headphones after a 25% discount. How cool is that?

lab

I’ve only completed 5 years in my career as a parent but I’m hopeful, reflective and deliberate. Reflecting on being an educator before and after having a child has taught me that children are students before they ever step foot in a school and parents are their “first and forever” teachers. Activities and experiences do not have to be expensive, but it is essential that we avoid stifling potential and that we do our best to develop our kids’ interests and promote their sense of achievement.

What are some of your tips in fostering a love of learning in your children? And what about the next five years – any tips for me? Please share.

So are schools and teachers to blame for dampening a love of learning? Is there a correlation between students starting to take tests at school and starting to lose the joy of learning? I’ll leave my opinions on this for another day but please share your opinions and comments below. 

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