Lifelong learning: Yay or Nay? (Yay!)

Educating our children is something we plan for pretty much from the get go. Be at it at home, the playground, daycare or school, our children are constantly learning, and it’s our job as parents to ensure they get the best education possible. However, that means different things to each of us. Before we proceed, let’s talk about a term that often gets glossed over – that is lifelong learning. What is lifelong learning? Lifelong learning is defined as the “ongoing, voluntary, and self-motivated pursuit of knowledge for either personal or professional reasons”. This translates to our children, or even us, for that matter, being students for life. In order to ensure lifelong learning, we need to keep learning fun and exciting. Does that not seem elementary? We do, indeed, learn throughout our life, and children are definitely learning everyday and everywhere, even when they are trying to learn to hold a spoon at home or play on a new slide in the park. At this point, learning is still exciting. So at what point does learning get associated with pressure, and  hinder with the spirit of lifelong learning?

For example, let’s take the milestone of learning to read. Why do we want our child to learn to read? Is it because it is a requirement, to learn to read by a certain age? (If so, what was that age, and how did you arrive at that age?) Is it in order to succeed in their careers later in life? Is it because reading is a key to the wonderful world of books and knowledge? A mother of toddlers may feel that children should learn to read by age 5, while a mother of an older child would disagree saying that her voracious reader started reading by age 6. Ideally, a child should have to read only when they’re really ready. In fact, contrary to popular belief, studies have shown that early reading does not have a direct correlation to lifelong learning. By forcing a child to read just because he/she is supposed to, we would be associating reading with pressure rather than fun. Instead, we can easily associate reading with fun, by exposing children to a wide range of age-appropriate books. For example, a colorful picture book with clear, large printed words is very attractive to a young child. By offering fun books, with different topics, to our kids, we provide our kids with great exposure, allow them to express their interests, and ultimately, making reading books fun. This practice will ensure that the child will WANT to read, as opposed to reading because they HAVE to.

So let’s start with a discussion on the curriculum offered in different schools. In some places like the US, private schools claim to be a year or two ahead of their corresponding public schools in curriculum, while other countries like India, parents have a choice between CBSE, ICSE, and other Boards of Education, all of which are equally competitive. The reasoning behind exposure to a high curriculum to keep students engaged and to ensure academic success throughout life. But does exposing a child to a higher level of curriculum than they are ready for invoke a spirit of lifelong learning?

And then there is the system of written examination, which is followed in most schools. Nowadays, children start taking exams very young. Preschools have interviews, and there are elementary schools that have entrance tests. Frequent evaluations are performed throughout the school year to assess how well students are learning. Tests and examinations are needed to evaluate how well a child is learning, but the way in which they are executed also matters. Do these examinations, which encourage students to score higher marks, teach children that we learn for the sake of examinations? Do examinations foster a sense of achievement (or on the other hand – fear!) in kids? And by ensuring that students cram for the exam, are we saying that students need to learn for the examination and not for themselves? If continuous examination encourages the students to learn for the sake of examination, then this system directly goes against the spirit of lifelong learning.

So why do we parents fall into the rigor of milestones and examinations with our kids? One reason is that we want our children to be successful in life, and typically this success is associated with career and prosperity, which is tied in with attaining more marks. But to what end? Do we really need our six-year-olds headed to coaching classes after a long day at school, instead of playing in the park? Do we need our elementary school-aged children participating advanced classes which they don’t really enjoy learning, or should we expose them to a variety of arts, sciences and hobbies which may or may not lead to a fruitful career? (And when did career become the focus for children who are so young?!) Another reason is that vicious circle called “peer pressure”. Of course, when we raise our kids in a society where high curricula and milestone-based learning are the norm, both parents and children are bound to face peer pressure to confirm to society. While a certain amount of peer pressure is good and needed, it’s getting to a point where everyone is under pressure to perform and the goal of lifelong learning gets neglected in the process.

With this in mind, let’s talk about a few ways we can foster a sense of lifelong learning in our children:

  1. Read! Read anything and everything that seems to interest your child. While there is no perfect age by which a child learns to read, it is never too early to start! Colorful picture books on a wide range of topics like animals, space, food, culture can open a child’s eyes to a wonderful world, and teach children that reading books is exciting for life.
  2. Fun with toys! Toys are one of the most engaging sources of learning for little ones! If you want to know how some of the most common toys promote learning, click here.
  3. Go out and explore! Learning doesn’t have to happen from a book or a classroom. Go for a hike or explore a museum. The playground is also a great source of learning. Even a grocery store is a source of learning, where the littlest ones learn colors, fruits, vegetables and the older ones can learn how to pay for their favorite treats (for example, “Do I have enough money for one treat or two treats?”) Who says math can’t be fun?

Personally, I am not in favor of forcing children to learn to read, or add and subtract, or memorize facts by a certain age just because I believe forced learning invokes fear and does not promote lifelong learning. In order to promote lifelong learning, we need to show our children that learning is fun and exciting. While academic success is definitely valuable, I think we’re going at it wrong. In order to achieve true academic success, it’s gotta stick – and to make it stick, we must encourage our children to love learning for life. By giving them a strong foundation of lifelong learning, we are paving them a path for true success in life.

A’s thoughts on Eclipses

We spent a lot of time indoors last week as A was unwell. We read books, colored and when we watched videos, they were generally on her favorite topics – space and the solar system. One morning, we were watching a video about eclipses and I explained to A “see, sun and moon are playing peek-a-boo”, an explanation which apparently tickled her fantasy.

That afternoon, when I was taking her to the doctor’s place at 4 PM, the moon had already risen but the sun was also still out. She pointed at moon and said “moon!”. Then, puzzled, she said “Uh oh!” I asked her, “Why uh oh? What happened?”

She pointed back and forth “sun! moon! sun! moon!”. After thinking for a few moments, she asked me “sun, moon, peek a boo?”

I was amazed that she’d grasped the concept of an eclipse, not to mention applied it to that instance where she saw that both the sun and moon were out. Since then, every time we’ve seen them together, she’s been asking them to play peek a boo!

Time change!

It’s time for the dreaded time change! Honestly, losing an hour of evening daylight drives me nuts during the fall (although the late sunrise isn’t a picnic either). I really miss hanging out at the park or even just outside with A as the sun sets early and the days grow shorter.

That apart, the fact that A is a stickler for time makes these time changes hard to deal with. The “Spring forward” and “Fall back” usually bring with them a minor jetlag, with the child wanting to eat/sleep an hour earlier/later.

Tonight, we put her to bed later than her usual bed-time (something which A was actually excited about!) with the hope that she’d sleep in tomorrow, as opposed to waking up an hour early. Well, here’s hoping!

Turning No into Yes (a theory)

Like any typical toddler, my little one’s current favorite word is No.

Me: “Do you want milk?”
A: “No!”
Me: “Do you want to sleep?”
A: “No!”
Me: “Do you…”
A: “No!”

I have been trying out a little hypothesis of mine, where instead of asking her if she wants something, I offer her a choice between two viable options. For example,

Me: “Do you want milk OR crackers?”
A: (thinking) “crackers!”

I’ve been trying out this little experiment all day, and so far it seems to be working. However, toddlers are smart and evolve very quickly 😉 We will see how long this lasts!


Kids learn at an amazing rate. It’s hard to keep up with them! It’s important to nurture that thirst for knowledge and encourage a spirit of life-long learning. It’s also amazing how early they establish interests. Some kids like cars and other modes of transport, others like everything about dinosaurs. My daughter established very early on that she liked anything and everything to do with “stars”, and all things space. It all started when she indicated that “Twinkle, Twinkle…” was her favorite nursery rhyme. She then moved on to a fascination with “sun-moon-stars” (in her words). Over a period of time, she amazed us by learning the planets, and constantly asking us to read her books on planets and space!

We have been working out ways to encourage her curiosity. As I’ve said before, I strongly believe in learning through play, so that learning stays fun. I’ve often heard that we should not pressurize children into learning, and I fully agree. However, I believe that we can encourage learning without putting pressure on kids, and that a child who wants to learn must be nurtured and encouraged. It’s also wonderful when children can choose their subjects of interest. In that vein, I’ve been working on ways to feed her curiosity about planets and space as long as she is interested.

Here’s a really easy one. We all have an excess of empty paper towel rolls. These double up great as telescopes! A has been playing with these empty rolls for months now as her pretend “telescope”. The next logical step was to bring the solar system to our home. Print colorful images of the planets, stars, the moon, anything really. (We downloaded ours from here, and I love the posters! Bright, attractive and detailed!) Stick these up all over your home, hand your kid the “telescope” and let them “star-gaze” from the comfort of your home.

There are a number of ways you can play around with this activity. You can start off with whatever your kid likes, of course. Play around and switch locations every now and then, add/remove elements, making it a fun new game each time!

Further, I’ll bet this activity would work to convert your home into any new realm for your kid to explore. Wildlife would be a fun one, for example. I imagine another popular choice could be dinosaurs. I’m sure everyone has their own great ways of implementing this, and I can’t wait to hear all about it!

2-in-1: A recipe for home-made clay, and a simple learning aid!

As a parent of a toddler, one must always have their repertoire stocked with several activities of every category: indoor, outdoor, toys, books, crafts, active day, sick day, you name it. Toddlers are a sponge when it comes to learning, and it’s great if you can incorporate learning activities in their daily play. I’m a big believer in learning through play, and find that with how eager children are to learn, it isn’t hard to incorporate learning through play in our everyday life.

As eager as we may be to pick the most fun activities for our kids, one must understand that kids operate on agendas of their own! I have had several days where I propose a really fun day, or some yummy food, only to have A dispose all my ideas! Just like anyone else, children have preferences when it comes to different kinds of activities, and go through phases. I’ve seen A go through phases of playing with different things – both outdoors (at the playground, with her ball), and indoors (specific toys, games, and her lifelong favorite – books). Recently, she has been very into drawing and coloring, as well as reading the alphabet and numbers. I figured it was a good time as ever to enter the world of arts and crafts!

I wanted to introduce her to clay, a great sensory play and a way  Like any toddler, tasting is a way in which she explores. Therefore, I wasn’t comfortable offering store-bought clay just yet. I chose to make salt dough because I figured that even though it contained only edible ingredients, it would taste so terrible that A would learn not to eat it! Making the clay is easy. There are several recipes online, be it the no-cook kind like this one, or the cooked clay like this. The first link also offers a comparison between the two. I chose to go with the no-cook kind, since I had plans to use up the clay quickly enough anyway. All you have to do is mix 2 cups of all purpose flour, 1 cup of  water with 1 tsp turmeric mixed in, 1 tbsp oil, 1 tbsp cream of tartar and 1/2 cup of salt and knead until smooth and pliable.

Score! I now had home-made, non-toxic, toddler-safe clay. But wait! The story doesn’t end here. Before we move on, let’s talk about learning aids. Simply put, a learning aid is anything that enhances learning. I believe that several unexpected items can be turned into learning aids. So here’s how the home-made clay can be turned into a learning aid of a different kind. For the last several weeks, A has been fascinated with the alphabet. So I decided to make her the alphabet! Just roll out the clay, cut out the shapes of the alphabet and bake it at 200F for about 30 minutes. Alternatively, you could also let it air-dry but I am too impatient for that. This method can be used to make shapes, numbers and pretty much anything else your toddler is currently fascinated with!

So that’s how we spent our Sunday. I am eagerly waiting to try out a bunch of projects with the clay: rolling, kneading, more shapes with cookie cutters, numbers, and a few more surprises. Do try this out, and let me know what you come up with!

The wonderful world of books

It’s been awhile since my last post! Between travel and spring-time activities, life with A sure got busy! After our trip to Hawaii, we spent two months in India, followed by a quick trip to New Jersey where I presented my work on LEGO and other STEM toys at ISEC 2017. What a wonderful experience! I learnt so many new things, and met some wonderful people. The rush that accompanies attending a great conference is one that cannot be matched!

Attending conferences is one of the many reminders that, in life, knowledge is one’s greatest asset. For a little one, there isn’t a more welcoming door to the world of knowledge than books. The question of how “little” your little one can start reading often arises. Surprise, surprise – you can start reading to your little one(s) while they’re still in the womb! Stories with a lilting tune, such as Dr. Seuss’ books are a wonderful way to read out to your yet-to-be-born child and help him/her recognize your voice. In our case, this actually worked – a newborn A could recognize both her parents voices as soon as she was born.

By about 3 months, the eyesight of an infant should be developed sufficiently to focus on objects, sometimes reaching out for them too. This is a great age to keep handy books which have simple images, with a good contrast and not too much clutter on the page. “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” is a classic, with the colorful images, the sharp contrast and the beautiful patchwork-style illustration of the sun, apples, the caterpillar and more. Another personal favorite of ours are pretty much all the books by Leslie Patricelli, with her simple storylines and adorable illustrations. A started off with “Baby Happy, Baby Sad” at around 6 months of age and has been working her way through her books since.

Since then, she’s moved on to other kinds of books! We love our open-the-flap books, or peek-a-boo books, such as the series by Karen Katz. “Where is baby’s belly button” was her first book, ever! “Brown bear, brown bear” is another interpretation of a peek-a-boo book that is a favorite of most kids. Touch-and-feel books are another great way of sensory play, encouraging babies and toddlers to understand smooth, rough, soft, slippery and more. We also love books that teach routines and discipline. “The Going to Bed Book” is a bed-time favorite, while “Hands are not for Hitting” teaches essential habits. Of course, timeless classics such as “Giraffes can’t dance” and “Goodnight Moon” never get old! Of course, while books with stories are wonderful, books with simple concepts of the alphabet, numbers and words are also important for babies and toddlers. “First 100 words” is a great book of this category, which sorts out common words into categories like eating, bathtime, bedtime, animals, etc.

Turning the pages of a book is an important milestone that indicates several things, including the development of the fine motor skill required to do so, the understanding of the process of going through a book, and most importantly, the curiosity of what lies ahead on the next page. It is important to understand that if the pages of the book get torn in the early days, that’s just a step in the process. Offering board books in the early years are a good way to help them learn to handle the process of turning pages before moving on to the more delicate paperbacks.

Reading is an important part of our daily schedule, and we incorporate it at several different times – during car rides, during quiet time / independent play time, and A’s favorite – at bed-time. On days when we stay at home, we always make sure we have a stack of books! It is never too soon to inculcate the wonderful habit of reading. What are some of your little ones’ favorite books?


Fun at Weebee’s, Chennai

I’ve been in India for a few weeks now, and my search for a fun and safe play area for A has been on since I got here. We checked out a couple of playgrounds in Bangalore. While these were fun, I sorely missed A being able to play independently, as they weren’t as child safe as I would have liked, nor did I find enough infant / toddler – friendly activities. 

When we decided to visit Madras, a quick search led me to Weebee’s in RA Puram which among other activities, had a play space and cafe where I could take A. Intrigued, we checked it out on our first day here and I’m so happy we did!

Weebee’s has several different play areas, both indoor and outdoor. Today, on her first day, we allowed A to explore indoors first, where she first explored a section made mostly with foam blocks. There were steps, a slide, a few rocking horses and more. My favorite part was that the space was entirely lined with foam mats, so even when the kids topple, as they are prone to, they are safe!

You see the steps leading up on the right? This led to A’s favorite space of all – a toddler safe ball pit!   She has a small ball pit at home given by her aunt, and she loves them! However most ball pits outside of home aren’t safe for her- too deep, hard flooring etc. Here, there were enough balls to keep her engaged, but not so much that she’d fall. Of course, this space was also lined with foam mats. I loved how the teachers at Weebee’s were so kind with A, encouraging her to throw, teaching her to catch and cheering her on when she got it right!

Playing in a ball pit teaches several skills. At the tip of the iceberg are throwing and catching. Further, you can teach your child colors and numbers, and show them how to sort. The ball pit is great sensory play, and it can be made even more so by adding balls of different sizes, kinds and textures. 

Moving on, there was a room full of fun and educational toys! I saw several favorites like variations of stackers, shape sorters and musical instruments. There were also blocks of various kinds. Needless to say, this was a room full of learning and budding creativity. 

They also had a number of pretend play areas, including a kitchen, a hardware set, and a number of fruits and vegetables plus utensils to pretend cook. Pretend play is a glorious way to stimulate the young one’s imagination, and I love taking her to places that have a dedicated space for pretend play. 

In addition, there was also a reading room, an outdoor play area with multiple play structures, and best of all – a petting zoo, with ducks, rabbits and even a rooster! I can’t wait to take A again to play in the outdoor section!

The rates for the play space are INR 250 for two hours, which I personally think is worth every paisa for stimulating and child proof environment that’ll make learning fun. We met some of the teachers and assistants, and were touched by how thoughtfully they treated the children, guiding and encouraging all the way. A quick chat with the owner proved to us that weebee’s was designed and structured with a lot of care and consideration for the little ones. Also, they have a cafe with some snacks and drinks in case you need some refreshments after burning all that energy. 

I’ve been looking around and felt that a lot of places in India don’t provide the safety and stimulation that the youngest children need, and Weebee’s filled in that gap perfectly for me. Parents / grandparents / aunts / uncles / anyone with a little one in your life, make weebee’s a destination for the child and I’m sure it’ll be a happy day for all! Until then, I plan to visit again as much as I can while I’m Chennai… maybe I’ll see you  there!

Meta-cognition in infants and toddlers

A recent discussion with a good friend and colleague brought up the topic of meta-cognition. Meta-cognition is, simply put, knowledge of ones’ own self. There have been arguments about the measurement of meta-cognition. How can we measure awareness of ones’ own self? Can we set guidelines or rules to decide how much one knows about oneself?

I have been fiddling with this aspect of knowledge for years now with no real outcomes. Truth be told, I’d all but given up on ever coming to any real understanding of meta-cognition, for it seemed to abstract to me! However, I recently chanced upon an understanding of meta-cognition in my toddler, A, which then lead to an avalanche of thoughts on different instances where A has demonstrated that she does have meta-cognitive knowledge, or awareness of her own self. In addition, I could also identify future instances where her meta-cognition would prove to be a milestone. Here were some of my thoughts:

  1. Awareness of one’s own hands and feet: At what point does a baby become aware of one’s own body parts? Sure, they look at their hands and feet, but they are not born with the awareness that these are parts of their body. The first time I saw A demonstrate any awareness was closer to 5 months, when she would move her hands and watch the movement (and of course, proceed to eat her hands!) This was one of the earliest demonstrations of meta-cognition I’d seen in her.
  2. Awareness of the child in the mirror: As we had a full length mirror right next to A’s changing station, A has been aware of mirrors since her birth. She was always fond of her friend in the mirror, “they paapa” meaning “that baby”. Of course, she didn’t realize that child was her own self for awhile! A simple test to see when your kid is aware of his/her own reflection is to put a hat on them while in front of the mirror. At some point, they try to take the hat off AFTER seeing their reflection in the mirror. This indicates that the child is aware that the child in the mirror is his/her own reflection.
  3. Toilet training: I would say this is a huge demonstration of meta-cognition. If you haven’t already, do check out the potty training checklist on babycenter or anywhere else. When you read it, you will find several checks that all require self-awareness – such as “Knowing how to pull pants up and down” or “Understands the physical signals that mean he has to go and can tell you before it happens or even hold it until he has time to get to the potty.” By understanding the importance of meta-cognition in this aspect, I have begun rethinking the entire process of potty-training!

As I said, there were way more thoughts in my mind once I saw some clear demonstrations of meta-cognition. I am sure these are aspects you have seen in your child too. I’d love to hear back from you – what are some of the ways you observed meta-cognition or self-awareness in your child? What are some of the methods you would use to measure this? Can you observe in yourself, and other adults around you as well? Do share!