A few years ago, my son tested into his school’s Gifted program. When we met with his Gifted instructor for the first time, she asked us some questions about our child: What does he like to do for enrichment at home? What sorts of things do we do with him to foster learning? What subjects interest him? I remember feeling very awkward at that moment, as I had no idea how to answer those questions. My son was six years old at the time. I couldn’t pinpoint anything that we really did that made him this way. No music or art lessons, no supplemental workbook pages at home, no private tutoring. I remember feeling like I should have had a better, more eloquent response, but all I could muster was, “We talk to him and bring him places.” And that was sort of the end of the conversation. That meeting left me wondering if there was something I was missing. Were there things we were supposed to be doing at home? Should my husband and I have taken more of an active role in engaging our son in learning? I didn’t realize it at the time, but it turns out we do play an active role in his learning. It just happens organically rather than in a structured manner.
Opportunities in Daily Life
While we don’t go out of our way to make everything a learning experience, my husband and I do use teachable moments as they present themselves. For example, when we are traveling in the car, we point out the map on the GPS and explain where we’re going and how we’re getting there. We’re Christian, but we watch TV shows that put other religions in the spotlight (silly as it is, a favorite is the Rugrats Chanukah episode). But, it’s not all about education in the traditional sense. We also emphasize the importance of life skills, like speaking up and ordering at a restaurant. As soon as my kids could talk, we had them ordering their own food. Now, at ages 8 and 5, they read the menu, direct any questions and special requests to the server, and order with manners. These are all small gestures, but we find they make an impact.
Setting the Bar High
We’ve raised our expectations. Maybe our kids don’t completely understand our explanations when we’re discussing the GPS. Maybe they don’t grasp the differences between us as Christians and our friends who are Jewish. They might not value the opportunity to place their own orders dining out. All this stuff might be over their heads right now but they rise to meet us, and if they aren’t already there, they’ll get there eventually. Whether or not they truly comprehend, it’s all about the exposure at this point.
The Gifted program is often student-led. The instructor discusses with the students which topics they’d prefer to learn about, and that serves as the basis for her lessons. When I heard about this strategy, I loved it. It’s a great opportunity to allow the kids to take ownership of their education and dive into their favorite content. We carried this over to our home as well. For example, my youngest loves cats. It seems silly to buy a 4-year-old an encyclopedia of cats, but we did. He’s almost six now and still looks at that book at least every week. He can’t read it all, but he finds things to learn just by opening the book. My oldest loves facts. As much as I’d love for him to get into a fiction series—I know he’ll find something he likes if he would just give it a chance—it’s not his thing right now. We recently bought him an atlas and The Guinness Book of World Records, and he is immersed in his reading. And, when the kids ask those random why questions that we all know and love, we usually look them up (because I rarely actually know the answers). With Google at our fingertips and Alexa in our living room, there’s no excuse to say, “I don’t know.”
You don’t need fancy apps or workbooks or extracurricular academic preparation. Those things have their place, but often the best learning opportunities present themselves, only require a minimal amount of time, and make for some interesting conversation. Just be present and engaged with your kids, and I think the rest will sort itself out.