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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.