Right now, the school days of our three teens consists largely of challenging
courses; such as, pre-calculus, French III, molecular biology, advanced placement
history. For the most part, they are cracking the books from early in the
morning to sometimes late at night. College-level texts, highlighted
extensively; notebooks scrawled with study notes and lengthy math problems;
graphing calculators, reams of analytical essays-in-progress, stacks of lecture
videos: the evidences of their learning are scattered about almost every room of
How do they stay motivated and focused (for the most part) and not buckle under
pressure nor revolt? Let me roll back the clock for you. Here’s what the early
elementary days looked like at our house…
Leisurely mornings; frequent field trips to nature parks, museums, and science
centers; long afternoons curled up in a favorite chair with a book;
uninterrupted time for puppet shows, imaginative play and art projects. Lots of
trips to the library, lots of time for thinking, lots of time in the backyard.
In short, I believe the prolonged season of carefree, open-ended learning when
our children were young laid the foundation for diligent and directed studies
during high school. Why? Because they weren’t burned out by years and years of
formalized, structured learning already. When it came time to confine much of
the day to seatwork, to evaluate learning with tests and grades, to plow through
rigorous and foreign matters; we were ready for the challenge. It was something
new, something different, a signal of new responsibility and maturity on our
part. Time to apply ourselves in a disciplined, focused way because this is
going to count towards our future.
Further, I believe that less formalized approach to the elementary years was a
critical preparation for this future learning. Here’s why:
Kids who bring broad background knowledge to something challenging; such as,
biology have an easier time processing and categorizing all the new information.
That’s because they already have experiences, often tactile, to connect this
new information up to. The kid who has spent hours exploring the stream that
runs through the woods in the backyard has seen the mayflies, speckled trout,
tadpoles turning into frogs, variations in leaves scattered about the ground,
and tracks of various animals fresh in the mud early each morning, etc. When you
show this kid the complex system of taxonomy field biologists have developed for
categorizing living things, he isn’t thrown for a loop by all these Latinate
names: he’s been categorizing living things unconsciously for years. He knows
the distinguishing characteristics of many plants, animals and insects. He’s
caught and collected a lot of them. The only thing he has to master in this
scenario are the difficult names. Whereas, the child who has only had days
filled with reading about them in his elementary science textbook is trying to
memorize the scientific name of something he’s never seen, let alone handled.
He doesn’t have the framework in place to do it.
How We Learn
Our brains process knowledge into long-term memory through repeated exposure to
information in a variety of different contexts. That’s why it’s so important
to approach school subjects from a variety of different avenues. I like to use
lots of different books, videos, field trips, art projects, and experiments to
give kids plenty of opportunities to create these multi-sensory experiences.
When children have this as a foundation before formal learning, I think you’ll
find that challenging material can be assimilated much more quickly and with
little frustration. When I see one of my children struggling in an area, I know
the root reason is too little background knowledge to build upon. I try to think
of a way to get back to those lazy, carefree days of childhood when we could
leisurely explore information, make games about it, ask questions, do research,
turn it into the basis of an art project, etc. Getting back to that fundamental
level then gives us solid footing when we return to cracking the books in a
systematic way again.
Relax, They’re Learning
Especially during the holiday season, the best of home school programs can come
grinding to a halt. But, really, underneath, learning can be taking place
without you directing it. Just get a trunk of dress-up clothes together,
encourage the creation of a holiday play while you’re busy in the kitchen,
undertake the making of special gifts, or give everyone the afternoon off to
read. As long as your child is engaged in an activity she has initiated and that
requires the use of the imagination or intellect – learning is taking place.
In fact, a better foundation for later, formal learning may be being laid.
In His Sovereign Grace,