Children Learn by Doing: Everyday Lessons in Everyday Tasks

Some time ago, I stumbled across this quote from educational reformer John Holt:

“Children learn from anything and everything they see. They learn wherever they are, not just in special learning places.”

I love this quote because it encompasses much of what I believe about children. Learning opportunities are traditionally thought to be between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. while they’re in school. But consider this: A child is in school an average of only 6.5 hours day. If we’re lucky enough to have a child that actually sleeps the recommended 10 to 12 hours each night (and not many of us are), that still leaves a solid six to eight hours with our child by our side.

We’re often spending even more time with our children than their teachers, exposing them to a multitude of learning opportunities — if we take a step back to recognize them.

How important are these learning opportunities outside of the classroom? As it turns out, they’re essential.

It all stems from research into children’s developing brains and something called neuroplasticity. It’s a big word for a big concept, but it boils down to the brain’s ability to change and develop based on new experiences. The more variety and experiences we expose our children to, the more we are increasing their opportunities for brain growth and development.

This isn’t to say you should take your anxious child into the middle of a crowded shopping mall and call that “good” development, but it highlights that any and all opportunities can potentially have a positive effect on our children.

Even a quick trip to the grocery store could turn into an educational opportunity, helping our kids recall specific items they eat day-to-day and that we may need to buy. “What do we eat for breakfast?” “What do we have for a snack?” Searching for items on a list — like a makeshift game of “I Spy” — can also engage your child in the activity and form new connections.

The great outdoors just behind your house or a neighborhood park is a great place, too. Any opportunity to see other kids outside of the structured school environment is a great opportunity for socializing and learning. Even just running errands can help kids learn when they observe us communicate with others.

It’s surprising just how much kids pick up without us having to “teach” them.

Lesson Plans for Life

It’s easy to say that these teachable moments exist, but how does it look on a daily basis? What sort of lessons should we be trying to teach? Here are a few places to start:

1. Taking turns:

girls smiling together

 This one is huge, and many parents implement it more than we realize. It can be as simple as encouraging siblings to share a toy or as complicated as forcing everyone to wait during holidays for each person to open one gift at a time. This behavior reinforces cooperation in our kids — even when they have conflicting desires with those around them.

2. Handling money:

everyday lessons

It can seem scary to give our kids even a little financial control, but they can handle a surprising amount of responsibility if given the chance. Letting them count out change or make a small purchase with their own budgets helps them step out of their comfort zones and speak to an appropriate stranger — not to mention to learn essential math skills.

3. Voicing opinions:

Mother and daughter cooking

When getting ready for a birthday party, ask kids what they think their friends would like. Even give them a choice between two foods for dinner. It helps turn a “chore” into a purposeful activity, giving them self-confidence so they feel they themselves as contributors in the family with their own agency and voice.

We may not have “teacher” as our listed profession, but part of being a parent is finding these opportunities to help our children learn — even if we never realize we’re doing it. The more we lean into these opportunities and see every moment as a chance to help our kids reach new heights, the more valuable these moments will be.

Written by Marwa Abdelbary, PT, DPT