May 9, 2008

Motivating a Child to Learn

how to motivate a child to learn

Someone recently commented on School, an Endless Summer and inspired me to write a series of articles on my homeschooling experiences and philosophy. She asked how I motivated Peter to learn, so I'll start there.

Motivation is a big topic in the education world. Teachers take classes, attend seminars, and read books looking for the magic key to a classroom full of eager, busy students. The most typical motivators are rewards, contests, and grades (and the negative flip-side: detention, notes to parents, and removal of privileges).

I remember a church program Peter attended in kindergarten and 1st grade. For every Bible verse he memorized, he got a piece of candy. I wrote a letter to the director suggesting they stop that practice because I wanted Peter to memorize Bible verses because it was fun and useful. I wanted him to see the intrinsic value of it. But linking it to candy debased both him and the Bible. I think it turns our kids into animals sitting up for a treat instead of thinking, reasoning human beings who can choose to learn and exercise their brains just for the fun of it. And it made the Bible look like distasteful medicine that had to be endured for the sake of a piece of candy (they decided to stick with the candy anyway).

motivating a child to learnBut let me say, I have resorted to candy as rewards in other circumstances--like potty training and being quite. When Peter was almost three, he was the ring bearer in a friend's wedding. I placed a piece of hard candy on the floor to mark the place he was supposed to stand. And when the ceremony was over, his reward was to pick up the candy and eat it. It worked like a charm! That's him holding his candy after the service.

But real, lasting motivation comes from within the child. And it starts with what he likes to do. If you can foster his interests and keep learning fun and not a chore, he will keep coming back for more. I'm afraid what most kids learn in school (and in many homeschools) is that education is something to be endured until it's time to go play outside. "And if you don't do your assignment, recess will be taken away from you..."

I asked Peter today (he's 18) how I motivated him to learn. He said, "by not demotivating me."

That’s the key. Every child is born with a natural desire to learn and unfortunately, we adults are experts at killing it. How do they learn to walk and talk? Do we try very hard to teach that? Do we punish them if they fail? My mantra throughout the years has been “maintain the joy of childhood and the joy of learning.” Life is an endless fascination. Let’s capitalize on it.

Practically, here’s what I did:

1.I read to him every day before he could read himself. He chose the books from our pile of favorites. This was usually at bedtime as a prelude to sleep.

2.I took him everywhere I went and talked to him about what I was doing.

3.I never talked to him like a child. I remember this distinctly. Other parents talked to their children like they were too young to understand things, but I talked to Peter like he was an intelligent human being, asking his opinion and taking his ideas seriously. I remember one time talking about why things had different prices, and he said, "So that's why diamond rings are so expensive--people really want them!" That's right, Mr. Four-year-old Economist.

4.Since Peter’s true love is reading, I let him do it as much as he wanted. I’d get books from the library, but I never assigned his reading. I’d stand the books on tables around the house like librarians do and just walk away. Before I knew it, he was reading them all. And I never, never, never made him do book reports. I think those are artificial devices meant to check if a child read it, and they foster dread in the reading process. Instead, I asked him questions about what he learned and we’d start a conversation. Often his reading would lead to more questions and more trips to the library, and that is still true today.

5. I tried not to panic on days when nothing educational seemed to be happening. I reminded myself that if nothing else, he was free of stress and worry. His natural curiosity would kick in maybe tomorrow. And who knows what "ruminating" of previous learning was going on as he played video games or watched movies. The key is to provide an environment of learning but not to expect intense engagement every hour of the day.

6. I didn’t introduce formal school-type learning until 6th grade when he did a computer-based math curriculum. Up until that point he read a lot about math (there are great kids books on the subject) and we played math games, but he never had a worksheet unless he asked for one. Then in 8th grade we did a full curriculum for the first time. By this age he was pretty excited about it. For ninth grade he went to a private school that met two days a week, and for 10th-12th grade he’s been home full time, pursuing his interests (which lately has been reading philosophy dissertations on the internet).

Whatever your child’s interest is, that’s his door to a love of learning. If your child is into bugs, provide him with books, magazines and educational videos about insects. Let him become an expert. There is a whole world of knowledge that can revolve around bugs. And when he becomes interested in something else, let him become an expert at that too. Not only will school be fun, his self confidence will soar and he'll be hooked on learning.

If you want to learn more about this philosophy of schooling check Life Without School.

For resources to help you discover your child's unique learning style, click here.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

My kids went to school..
and sometimes, if you're lucky (and we were) schools can function in similar ways.

when in 3rd grade, on some vacation, we had afternoon plans..

and all morning B asked When are we going?
till in annoyance i reminded him, We have clocks.. look at them! we are not leaving till 3 PM don't ask again!

well he look at the clocks, and complained. they don't have numbers.
which was semi true.. at that point, almost all of the clocks had roman numerals.

I reminded him he KNEW the number on the clock, and could figure out which was which, and tell time.

He spent the next hour "learning' roman numerals.. they were his first 'code'--as he worked we pointed out some other roman numbers he had never noticed (on the mast head of the newspaper (immediately) , in the credits for films, in family photo's of headstones, on cornerstones(over the next few days)

he went back to school wildly enthused about roman numerals.

later that term, his teacher told me about the first week back.. when the kids talked about what they had done on the vacation.. and B talked about learning roman numerals (and how they were kind of a secret code.)

Mrs B said she alway hated teaching roman numerals.. and always postponed it to the end of the year, dreading it.. but with B's interest (and the perspective of secret codes) she went ahead and taught the whole class, and everyone learned, and enjoyed learning (as she enjoyed teaching!)

That's what learning is all about.. and good teachers (be they parents or professionals) key in on that.

(B is now in his mid thirties--and is a web master (of web masters) he still like secret codes.. (even if roman numerals and HTML (and Unix and..) aren't all that secret!

Copyright Information

All of the written content and photographs on are protected under copyright. But feel free to link to my content anytime. And if you have any questions, just contact me at yarnsoftheheart [at] gmail [dot] com. Thank you!
Clip art courtesy of and Pure Clip Art