Learning All the Time

by ChristinaPilkington on May 2, 2011 · 0 comments

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I recently watched a commercial that really disturbed me. In the commercial, a woman appeared on the screen and started talking about “early childhood education.”  The image shifted to scenes of small children sitting at tables doing worksheets and then crowding together on a carpet waving their hands in the air.  The woman’s voice narrated over these images, talking about the importance of “getting ready to learn.”

She gushed about how small children need to “prepare for learning”, how they need to have professional help in “learning readiness.” The commercial extolled the virtues of sending your small child off to a building everyday where they would magically learn how to learn – as if it was a new concept for them.

Do we really believe children are not learning anything until they get to school? What were they doing when they first started talking, walking, running, figuring out social costumes and traditions, and becoming a contributing member of a family?

Children, and for that matter, most people do not need to be “taught” to thrive in this world, and they don’t need a special place where “learning” takes places. It takes place all around them.

Let’s look at the skills of talking and walking. They’re great examples of how people approach all different types of learning, not matter what ages they are. Almost everyone will successfully master these two skills and they do so without the help of professional teachers and a building dedicated to teaching them those skills.

The first thing a child does when she first learns how to walk and talk is to closely observe everyone around her.  She intently watches those she loves and is close to doing something that she comes to realize as very important. She very quickly figures out that walking gets you where you want to go quickly and talking gets you things you’d like to have.

This observation takes place over many months. In fact, it’s something that might takes up large part of her day. She devotes large amounts of uninterrupted time doing it.  She is not told to do this, or given a certain amount of time each day where she “must” do it. It grows out of an inner desire to fulfill her own needs and to connect more closely with those around her.

At some point she is no longer content to observe; she must now do. And the way she approaches doing and the way another baby the same age approaches doing will look very different from each other. Oh, they’ll each have first words and mimic sounds they hear from those around them.  But their first words will be different from each other, the sounds they choose to practice first won’t be the same, and the age they first begin to form words and sentences will not happen at the same exact time. No one will label one baby “smarter,” or “on level,” or “behind” because one baby spoke or walked a few months before the other.

A baby walks or talks by modeling those around her. In a way everyone around her “teaches” her to walk and talk. But there are no formal lessons, no tests or grades. Everything is fun and enjoyable. The baby watches how people form words and how they move their legs back and forth. Then he mimics those movements until he can match his motions and sounds to those around him.

No one thinks it strange if one baby approaches walking by holding on to furniture for months before suddenly letting go and walking all the way across the room (how my children learned to walk), and another baby takes a few steps at a time early on, but then does that for months before he can walk across the room on his own (how my nephew learned to walk). Each baby has his own timeline and method for learning to walk and talk.

This is the same way people learn other skills, or would learn them if we left them alone and let them approach reading or figuring out how numbers work according to their own timetables and methods. Just like babies learn to walk and talk by observing and modeling those around them, so children will learn productive, useful skills by observing those around them using those skills in meaningful ways.

The observing stage is such an important step of the learning process, yet it is often the step that is given the least attention by parents and “professional” educators. There is such a rush to DO, DO, DO that we don’t let children just sit back and watch for as long as they need. Pushing babies to walk and talk before they are ready is a futile behavior. Pushing children to read, or write or add is not only futile but harmful as well. It messes with the way their brains build neurological pathways and it also kills their interest and curiosity about that skill, too.

Children learn all different types of skills in many different ways. It’s our job as parents to respect and honor those differences. We must not let our schooled expectations get in the way of our children’s unique developmental timetables and individual way of approaching the world.

We all learn all the time. You can’t “prepare” people to learn. They just do. You can, however, delay or deter the natural learning process that occurs if you try to regulate or control it.

Don’t be fooled into thinking all children learn things in the same way and at the same time. Don’t be tricked into thinking some children have “learning disabilities” because they might not be ready to read when school says they should. There are children, not that many, but some children who have true neurological abnormalities, but most children will learn the skills they need to thrive in this world when they are interested and ready to learn them. Guide them gently when and if they need it and you will be amazed at how far they will go.

What schooled hang-ups do you still carry around about learning? Do you believe that learning can be turned on and off?  


Photo credit: Hamed Parham

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