Encouraging Unplanned Learning by guest author, Catherine Ross

One of the biggest defining factors of a school education is that the learning that happens there is almost always planned. Teachers begin with a curriculum, from which they formulate lesson plans. During the lesson, all learning is directed to fit into the structure advised by the lesson plan. Teachers have a clear goal when they begin, and then test the students to see whether the goal has been achieved. At the end of the year, there is a clear record of what the students have learnt, and to what extent they have learnt it.

However, the learning does not stop when kids leave the classroom. It continues in the playground and after school hours, perhaps with more interest and involvement than ever expressed in the classroom! When kids capture and observe a worm that they dug out of the backyard, or experiment with various structures to figure out how to make their wooden blocks building sturdier, they are learning very important lessons in science and math without even realizing it. This alternate, unplanned way of learning comes naturally to kids and requires no formal structure or process at all. This is unplanned learning, and based on my experiences I have come to believe that it is the more effective and enjoyable form of learning for all involved.

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Photo by James Emery

Unplanned learning can happen anywhere, and at any time of the day. It can happen with kids who go to school, as well as those who are homeschooled. It can happen on a lazy summer day or while you’re vacationing in Hawaii. It can happen between any two individuals. It is inexpensive, exciting and stays with the learner for much longer. However, it does require a few basic conditions in order to be effective.

Imagine a classroom setting, where the teacher is discussing insectivorous plants. A student, excited by the topic, asks the teacher more about how the insects are tricked into landing on the plants. However, the teacher, equipped with a lesson plan and limited by time constraints, tells the student that the question is not related to what they are supposed to be learning. While this began as a perfect opportunity for unplanned learning, it progressed in a way that was demoralizing to the learner and may even dampen the student’s natural desire to learn. While unstructured learning does come naturally to kids, certain experiences may reduce the frequency of their occurrence and sap the joy of learning and discovery from their lives.

However, as a parent, you are in the perfect position to encourage unplanned learning right at home. Here are a few things that you can do to get your child learning by leaps and bounds, and enjoying every minute of it.

1. Take every interest of your child’s very seriously. If your daughter is fascinated by horses, take her to the library to pick out books on horses. Better still, take her to a stable where she can pet, feed and interact with them and get her questions answered by the caretaker. Apart from learning more about horses, your daughter will be practicing her reading and social skills and learning lots about animal behaviour in general!

2. Look out for learning opportunities. When you are at the grocery store, allow your first grader to pay for your things and collect the change. When your child asks you a question, encourage him to do research instead of answering it directly. While waiting at a doctor’s office, give your child reading practice (and a few lessons in life science) by helping her sound out the posters on the wall.

3. Create a healthy learning environment.Instead of waiting for learning opportunities to come your way, create them on your own. Buy your children educational toys such as tangrams and let them play learning games online. Plan trips to a zoo, a nature center or/and a museum. Make regular trips to the library. Do fun science experiments at home. Supplement these learning opportunities with interesting discussions and additional reading material, especially if they show an interest in the subject.

And very importantly, never ridicule a question of any type. If you don’t know the answer yourself, find out together. Show your child that learning does not just happen with textbooks and worksheets. You will plant the seed for a lifelong love for learning in your kids, and they will be ever grateful for it.

Author Bio: Catherine Ross is a full-time stay-at-home-mum who believes learning should be enjoyable for young minds. An erstwhile elementary school teacher, Catherine loves coming up with creative ways through which kids can grasp the seemingly difficult concepts of learning easily. She believes that a ‘fun factor’ can go a long way inenhancing kids’ understanding and blogs at http://kidslearninggames.weebly.com/

World Cup Fever: At-home activities

World Cup fever has made an appearance at our house.  The boys (eldest and middlest) have immersed themselves entirely in all things “football”.  I was surprised how much they actually know about the sport.  Sure, they play soccer every Sunday morning, but as far as I understood that was the extent of it.

The symptoms of World Cup fever are evident in their clothing choices (football jerseys gifted from travels afar by generous relatives), their outdoor playtime (baseball has taken a backseat) and even their Sunday morning friends are joining in the antics of swooping arms, praying hands and bent knees while chanting that now familiar word: Ole!

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Because I have an unnecessary compulsion to turn the everyday into teachable moments, my unsuspecting boys have been the recipients of an on-going geography lesson.

Here’s what we’ve been up to:

Flag Match

We searched the official FIFA website for all of the teams playing in the 2014 World Cup.  We wrote out each country on half an index card and glued a print out of the corresponding flag on the other half.

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We then cut the cards in half to make our own “World Cup Match Game”.  If you want to make it easier on yourself, a printable version (along with other World Cup activities suitable for kids) is available here.

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Flag Tally

Our neighbourhood is ripe with flags.  They are visible everywhere from car windows, to front porches and store windows.  We counted the flags while making the walk to and from school each day, but after that grew tiresome and school finished-up for the summer, we made a tally sheet to document the most popular teams in our neighbourhood (and on a few very long car rides).

We created our tally book by printing a simple three-column table (flag, country name, tally).  We printed the 2014 World Cup country flags, cut them out and glued them into our tally book.  This is an easy way to involve younger siblings.  Cutting and pasting are great ways to build fine motor skills.

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We used our World Flag sticker book as a resource to correctly identify the flags.  This task could have easily been accomplished by using a website, but I wanted the boys to look up the flags using the geographical index and matching each flag with the correct country.  Real books, people.  Remember those?

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There were some snags.  Many flags have similar colours.  Belgium and Germany can be easily confused, but after taking a few minutes to identify the direction of the stripes, the boys learned to be more careful in both their gluing and their matching.  Remember to stretch the sounds while spelling out the country name and look for phonetic patterns.  For example, the “y” at the end of Italy, Ivory Coast and Germany all make the same sound.  Colombia, Algeria, Nigeria, and Australia all end in “ia” and together those vowels sound like “ee-ah”.

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Countries are proper nouns.  Remind the writer that all proper nouns begin with uppercase letters.

Keep talking -while working together we discussed the various countries.  I asked them the following questions:

What language is spoken in that country?

Do you know anyone who has travelled to that country?

What continent is the country located on and what is the climate like?

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Want to take it a step further?  Consider making culinary connections by serving up a traditional dish from a winning country.

Caecillius est in horto. Mater non est compos mentis.

What does it say about your child when he, having grown weary of the old-school teaching style of his Mandarin teacher (Mandarin being a required subject at his school as part of the TDSB’s integrated International Languages program), decides to try to convince his parents to write to the school excusing him from further Mandarin lessons, such a concession by the school to be made possible on promise that his mother will home-school him in her free time in another language of his request? And he continues this campaign for a couple of days straight?

And what if his language of choice is Latin?

Despite his pleas, and much to his chagrin, eldest child has not been excused from ongoing attendance in Mandarin class. He is now, however, the possessor of the first four chapters of  Latin for Children, which he shall start working through over the March Break.

All of this is to say: be careful what you wish for, especially when – surprise! – your mother studied Latin in high school.  You never know when a request like this might bite you in the nates.