Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Teaching and learning moments in everyday life

I want to share two anecdotes and discuss what I see as a fundamental principle that I think each demonstrates about learning in families.

Anecdote 1

I took three of my grandchildren to the zoo a couple of weeks ago (with my daughter Nicole) and on the way in I overheard a comment from a little boy (about 5) that got me thinking. We had to walk along a path past a hole in the ground where they are building a new car park. The little boy asked his Dad about three times "I wonder what they're doing in there Dad?" The tone was, as you'd expect from a five-year-old out for the day with Mum and Dad, all excitement and anticipation. It was Dad that he asked, three times. Not Mum, but Dad. Dad was talking to Mum and didn't hear him, or maybe he was too deep in conversation with Mum for him to notice. I was tempted to say, "they're building a car park", but I kept quiet.

This seemed to me like a missed opportunity for learning and maybe for increasing the strength of the bond between father and son. This could have been the last of 25 questions he'd asked his Dad since parking the car, and maybe the only one he hadn't answered; who knows. The context of course was that I was going into the zoo full of my own sense of anticipation of a day with my daughter and her three children (and my grandchildren), Jacob (5), Rebecca (3) and Elsie (1). I thought about the many opportunities that they'd have this day to learn; the fun we'd have together. Learning in families so often happens in the cracks of the day, in the small moments as we do things together.

Above: Samuel (age 2) and me on another trip to the zoo.

Anecdote 2

A second event that occurred on the same day as the above resonated well with the zoo event and in the process reminded me of a childhood memory that also demonstrated the same point of this post. After coming home from the zoo, Jacob was looking at his cutlery while he ate (the knife, fork and spoon each have a single digit number, "1", "2" or "3" on them). On a previous visit to our house he'd surprised us by saying (out of the blue) in the middle of a meal, "The biggest number I can make with these numbers is 321". But this time (several weeks later) he piped up, "The smallest number I can make is 123". We chatted some more about numbers, "What's the biggest number starting with two that you make?" etc. This triggered a memory of my childhood that I shared with my daughter, Jacob and everyone else at the table.

"When I was about your age Jake, my Dad taught me to read using a metal plate. Well he taught me the alphabet anyway". I explained how my Dad would use an enamel plate with the letters of the alphabet around it to melt cheese (for toast) on the top hotplate of our kitchen fuel stove. As he scraped the cheese off (I can still hear him saying "This is the best part son, the crispy bit") he would check my knowledge of the alphabet. Over a number of such events he sharpened my knowledge of letters. I still remember it vividly over 50 years later.

What's common here and what's the point I'm trying to make?

Each of the teaching/learning moments is different in terms of who initiates the conversation, how it is structured, the content, where it is set and so on. But all are similar in one special way; each opportunity is unplanned and each occurs as a child and an adult (in some cases more than one adult) do everyday things together.

What's one of the most important things you can do to help your child to learn? And, what's the one of the best things you can do to strengthen your relationship with each of your children (or grandchildren)? Spend time with them! And as you do:
  • Listen to them
  • Answer their questions
  • Look for teachable moments
  • Point out things that you find interesting
  • Share your memories, your values, and your beliefs
Where do these teaching/learning moments occur?
  • While you bath your children
  • While you're walking
  • While you're eating together
  • Watching TV
  • Reading with them
  • Throwing rocks into a creek
  • Tossing a ball
  • Hanging out washing
  • Weeding the garden
  • Doing the recycling
We need to spend time with our children for this to happen. In a previous post (It's all about time: How busy lives affect families) I addressed the impact that busy lives have on families; we lose a great deal when we spend less time with our children, or when we're simply so busy that any time with time is basic maintenance. One last point. I'm NOT saying that all of life should be filled with planned teachable moments (but of course they have their place), sometimes (to quote my wife Carmen) "It's important just to be with children, to spend time with them with no agendas". And of course, as the above examples demonstrate, these times together can throw up the unexpected.

Above: Me, Elsie and Samuel in the children's playground on a previous trip to the zoo


Louisa Claire said...

Hi Trevor, I have just come here from your daughter's blog and am soooo excited! I have a new baby girl and have been looking for a resource just like this one! In fact, this morning I was going to go online and do some research about the reading program for pre-school aged kids so I could learn more. I am so excited about reading through your blog and learning lots of new ideas of how to interact with my little girl!! Thanks for making the effort to write and maintain this blog. This may be the first of many comments you get from me. I hope you don't mind questions! (and exclamation points)

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Louisa, I'm pleased that you like the blog and it seems to meet your needs as a new mother. How wonderful it is to bring home your first child. I can still remember the excitement of talking to my daughter (Nicole as it turns out) every chance I had from birth. I would lay her on my legs with her feet reaching my body and her little head being level with my knees and I would just talk, sing and make as many gestures and noises as I could. It was in these moments that her language development began and the foundations for reading were laid. Carmen likewise talked constantly to her. Very soon (I mean in the first few weeks) we were reading to her, then she was eating the books, literally, before she reached the stage that she was eating them metaphorically (which came in the first 12 months). She followed us everywhere demanding to be read to, and then at others times, just sitting surrounded by books as she worked her way through them. The story was repeated with our second daughter (Louise!) and now with 4 grandchildren (in a different way of course for grandchildren) whenever we get the chance.
I will look forward to your questions as you enjoy your little girl and teach her about the wonder of books.

Louisa Claire said...

Hello, hello! I have just finished reading to Gracie from the Rhyme Bible Storybook. It's amazing how the rhyme captures her and holds her attention! Oh. so exciting. Thanks for responding to my comment. Time to start devouring your blog while the little one sleeps. Thanks Trevor!