How to Make Your Home a Learning Space for Little Ones

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“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” – Einstein

As kids, my brother, sister and I regularly wrote plays and performed choreographed musicals.  We built forts, rockets to the stars, threw tea parties (I served chicken liver-ugh! No wonder no one was eating my treats.) and spent a good deal of time running, climbing, laughing and believing we could do anything we put our hearts and minds to.  The magic and wonder of childhood is a treasure not to be lost in the interest of “growing up.”

Too often, growing up is seen as shutting down – learning to deny our quests for the impossible dream, to lay aside our creative impulses and get to work.  What we need to understand is that imagination is a gift we all have, and that using this gift increases intelligence by teaching us to look at the world in new ways.

Creativity is one of the most important life-skills our children need for the 21st century.  Scientists, entrepreneurs, and engineers all depend upon creativity to find new solutions to old problems.

“Dream big, work hard” is what my parents taught me, and what I am trying to teach my children too.  But my take on it is:  Dream big, play hard.  We all learn best through play.  Often our most inspired ideas come when we relax.

Children play hard.  They are actually doing serious work as they play, practicing for the real world.  They are trying on roles, imagining what it is like to be mommy or daddy, or how to run a business with their lemonade stands-whether real or pretend, practicing numbers and counting and how to handle money.  Any playground is filled with high level negotiations where children are learning social and language skills, along with organized thinking through game rules, and the art of collaboration by joining a team.  Children explore courage and try on justice by pretending to be superheroes or princesses.  Play makes the world the right size.  Big enough to manage so it does not feel overwhelming.  Through imagination, children build confidence and learn how to make good decisions.

Use your child’s natural sense of playful adventure to foster a life-long love of learning.  Make your home a learning place:

Questions are a sign of intelligence. 

From your toddler’s never-ending why’s to your adolescent’s infinite curiosity, take a deep breath and be glad they are asking questions.  Be patient and know there are no silly questions.  Stay away from the idea that there is a “correct” answer.  Get playful with your responses.  Ask a few “why’s” yourself.  Allow your child to take the lead.  Try not to stifle the curious, creative flow that may turn into the kind of big question my 3-year-old Alessio asked one day:  “Why do we want to live?”  His question startled me, but also made me think about gratitude for life and the things that are worth living for.  That question led us to all kinds of new places.  Never underestimate the power of talking with and listening to your child.

Learn to speak in positives. 

Criticism is one of the most lasting effects of parenting on a child, and can affect confidence. Let your children know you admire their courage to make mistakes, try again, take risks, and enjoy the process over the end result.  There is no such thing as failure, just opportunities to figure things out in new ways.  When your children show off a new skill, pay attention.  You are their biggest role model, and though you may not feel like their Super Hero, you are.

Go exploring in your backyard.

Find bugs, flowers, birds. Touch tree bark. Crinkle leaves in your fingers. Smell flowers. Name colors. Teach your child to explore his senses.*

Practice pretend play.

It’s a good way to build your younger child’s imagination and intelligence. Put out a few objects like an empty cup or a plastic plate and spoon. Pretend you are eating or drinking and see if your child will do the same. Games like this help develop language ability because it enhances symbolic thinking, which is the base for all language learning. It also teaches the child about ideas and how to transform the everyday world, which is the basis for all the arts and sciences. *

Creativity is a muscle; the more you use it, the easier it gets.

Encourage the arts in your own home.  Dance, play different types of music, sing songs, write poems, paint, draw, dress up.  Expose your children to culture whenever you can.  Go to museums and art shows.  Talk about what you see.

Read to your children. 

Reading fosters imagination, intelligence and language skills.  The earlier a child’s exposure to reading, the stronger the language skills.  Age 2-4 is the most important language development stage, which affects lifelong thinking patterns and cognitive outcomes.  Interactive reading is one of the most effective ways to help your child’s language skills grow.  Instead of just reading a story straight through, stop and ask open-ended questions like:  So why do you think Elmo did that?  Where do you think the Cat in the Hat went?  What do you think will happen next?

Let your kids tell you a story before bed.

Each night I ask my children, “What was your favorite part of the day?” We then talk about what happened and why it was great. We also talk about the things that weren’t so great.  If a child was mean to Alessio on the playground, I ask him, “Why do you think the boy was mean?” Discussing the day’s events helps them process solutions and think beyond themselves.

Engage with your child.

Turn off your phone, set aside your to-do lists and play.  Sip that cup of pretend tea.  Be voracious about gobbling the “delicious” chicken liver tarts your child has prepared.  Don’t say a word about what they “should” have done.  “Should” is a word that should be banished from child play.  Play is about being in the moment and letting all rules and expectations fly out the window, as high as they can go – a place where all things are possible.

Wishing you and your family many playful adventures, a life-long love of learning and big dreams that come true!

Ciao,

Princess Ivana
www.princessivana.com

Ivana is a modern princess married to a real Italian prince! Follow the Modern Princess on Facebook and Twitter 2PrincessIvana. She has a Masters of Education and has worked with children for 20 years in a variety of capacities, from designing educational toys for preschoolers to tutoring homeless children.

*excerpted from my new book, A Simple Guide to Pregnancy & Baby’s First Year (in stores April 21st, 2013)

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