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Raising Kids Who Love to Learn

Life with my 2- and 4-year-old boys is rarely quiet. So when the house suddenly grew very still one afternoon, my first thought was "Uh-oh." I dropped the shirt I was folding and made my way toward their bedroom, envisioning fresh crayon marks on the wall, pillow stuffing strewn about, or cookies mashed into the rug.

What I saw when I peeked in on them was a complete surprise: There they sat on the floor, two grass-stained, disheveled boys, their blond heads bent intently over . . . books. I tiptoed away and whispered a small "thank you" to the parenting gods. Maybe all those hours spent reading everything from The Poky Little Puppy to Pokemon books were actually paying off.

Most parents read to their young kids, which helps encourage imagination, language, and an early love of learning. But not all children remain curious and inquisitive into adolescence. Alarmingly, studies have found that from third grade on, a child's enjoyment of learning drops continuously -- a phenomenon some researchers blame on the increasing focus on grades and report cards as kids get older. Younger children, on the other hand, learn for the sheer joy of it.

You can do a lot now to help your child maintain this healthy attitude throughout school. Follow our simple strategies to teach the value of learning and nurture the kind of kid who will find algebra and biology an exciting challenge rather than a chore. Make learning child's play. To captivate a young mind, let your child do what comes naturally: play. "It allows kids to experiment with everything from attitudes and ideas to shapes and colors -- all in the name of fun," says Richard Ryan, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Rochester, in New York.

All children start out with an instinct to explore and discover. Multipurpose toys like blocks, crayons, paints, dress-up clothes, stuffed animals, and action figures capitalize on that instinct. "The best learning toys are the ones that can be used in endless ways," says Lucy Calkins, Ph.D., a professor of curriculum and teaching at Columbia University's Teachers College, in New York City. Stash playthings in storage containers, and pull out only a few at a time. That way, your child won't tire of them as quickly or get overstimulated. "When you put out less, children tend to do more with their toys," explains Dr. Calkins, who cowrote Raising Lifelong Learners (Perseus Press, 1998).

Talk to your child about interesting things you've learned, whether the subject is sports, science, art, or cooking, suggests Deborah Stipek, Ph.D., dean of Stanford University's School of Education, in California, and coauthor of Motivated Minds: Raising Children to Love Learning (Owl Books, 2001). "If you read an intriguing article or watched an educational program, tell your kids about it." Explain in simple terms what happened and why you found it so interesting. Your kids will sense your fascination even if they can't fully understand the topic. And you'll be sending the message that learning doesn't end with childhood.

Surround Her with Books
Harvard University researchers have found that consistent access to books can increase a child's motivation to read. What's more, a U.S. Department of Education study reveals that the most proficient readers tend to be kids whose homes are stocked with many different types of reading materials, such as newspapers, magazines, books, and encyclopedias. To foster your child's affection for reading, keep books within easy reach -- by the kitchen table, next to her bed, in a basket by the couch, and in the car. Let your toddler flip through old issues of magazines, even if she ends up tearing the pages. Set aside a special time to read together each day. Talk about the story and ask your child what she thinks is going to happen next. Active participation boosts her understanding and keeps reading fun.

Build on Your Child's Natural Interests
If he goes through a dinosaur phase, visit a natural history museum, take out library books about prehistoric times, or buy a model T-Rex that you can assemble together. Or maybe he loves bugs, trains, or outer space. "Don't be disappointed or worried if he isn't into the same thing as the kid down the street," Dr. Stipek says. "Tapping into his unique fascinations will keep the spark for learning alive."

A University of Chicago study of exceptionally high-achieving athletes and artists found that the common denominator among these gifted individuals was their having parents who early on recognized the child's interest and provided as much support and encouragement as they could. "That's our job as parents; children point the way, and we help them clear a path," says Raymond Wlodkowski, Ph.D., coauthor of Creating Highly Motivating Classrooms for All Students (Jossey-Bass, 2000).

You can tap into your child's interests even when he's a baby. "More learning will take place if you give your infant time to see, touch, or taste the objects that he's already interested in, rather than move him on quickly to another toy or activity," says Claire Lerner, Ph.D., a child-development expert at Zero To Three, in Washington, D.C.

Know When To Back Off
After interviewing hundreds of parents, Dr. Ryan and his colleagues found that those who have the most motivated children didn't micromanage or pressure their kids. "They aren't the type to jump in and say, 'You're doing that wrong; let me do it for you,' " he says. "Instead, they let their children figure things out for themselves, while still showing their support." By overcoming challenges on her own -- whether a jigsaw puzzle or a math problem -- your child gains a sense of competence, something that all enthusiastic learners share, Dr. Stipek adds. Her research found that middle-school kids enjoy subjects more as their competence increases. "You're more likely to want to do the activities you feel you're good at."

Your child probably fires dozens of questions at you every day. But turning things around and posing some to him can fuel his excitement for learning. For instance, asking, "Why do you think the birds always come back to that same spot in the backyard?" can spark a conversation that introduces a variety of interesting concepts.

But beware of turning your child's life into a pop quiz. "Some parents make the mistake of asking kids to display their knowledge," Dr. Calkins says. "They'll ask, 'What color is this?' even though it's obvious that their child knows it's green. If you want your child to stay excited about learning, it's much better to engage him in an active inquiry than to ask him to spit out routine knowledge."

And when you ask about his day, be specific ("Did the guinea pig in your classroom have babies yet?") rather than too general ("How was school?"). "Everyday talking is essential to learning," Dr. Calkins says. "Kids need to be able to take the hubbub of their lives and spin it into narratives if they're going to become capable readers and writers."

If you don't know the answer, look it up. If your child is curious about something, take the time to explain it to her. But if you don't have a clue either, it's perfectly all right to say, "I don't know. Let's find out." Turn to a dictionary, an encyclopedia, or the Internet, and do some detective work together. "You're showing her not only how to find more information but also how thrilling it can be to learn new things," Dr. Stipek says.

Avoid Rewards
Numerous studies suggest that offering kids a prize for doing something, whether it's reading a book or completing homework, can actually undermine their pleasure in the activity. Why? The focus shifts from the learning process to the reward, says Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards (Houghton Mifflin, 1999). Without the sticker, the ice cream, or another treat, the child no longer wants to do the activity, even if it was something she used to truly enjoy. "Kids learn best when they're able to act on their natural curiosity about the world," Kohn says. "Rewards and prizes tend to undermine that."

Focus on the Process, Not the Outcome
"Many parents are too achievement-oriented and focused on the future," Dr. Wlodkowski says. It's an easy trap to fall into: You worry about how your toddler will do in preschool, and when she's a preschooler, you wonder if she's cut out for kindergarten. Though it's natural to want to prepare your child for what's ahead, you may unwittingly push her to learn too much too quickly, or place too much emphasis on her accomplishments. "If your goal is to foster a love of learning, it's far better to take an interest in what your child is doing rather than how well she's doing it," Kohn says. "Your continued interest in her activities is the best motivator of all."

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Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the May 2002 issue of Parents magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.