In our culture, teachers are firmly tasked as the primary educators of our children. However, as a teacher myself, I strongly believe that it is parents who should have the greatest role in their children’s education. By that token, my wife and I have strived to foster a positive learning environment in our home and everywhere we go. We are not perfect parents by any means, but we feel the following are four ways to turn everyday experiences into learning opportunities that have worked well with our daughters.
1. DON’T TALK DOWN TO YOUR CHILDREN
We speak to our 8-year-old and 6-year-old just like we would to anyone else and use the same vocabulary as if we were talking to an adult. This leads to learning opportunities literally every day. For instance, our daughters regularly ask us when we use a word they don’t know. We also regularly sit by our daughters as they read aloud to us every night while completing their required reading for school. When they come across words they don’t know, we explain it to them, and the light bulb turns on. For instance, recently while my 8-year-old daughter was reading me the book Strider, by Beverly Cleary, she came across the word “compulsory” and questioned what the word meant. Giving her an example, I told her if something was compulsory, it was something a person had to do. “Oh,” she said, acknowledging her understanding, then resuming her reading until the next word came up.
2. TAKE CHILDREN TO MUSEUMS
Taking trips to museums can literally open up a whole new word for kids. Some kids might think museums are boring, but thankfully our daughters have had enjoyable experiences in museums and love going to them. One particular experience helped solidify museums as a place of fun and learning for them. Last summer, we took our daughters to the St. George, Utah Daughters of Utah Pioneers Museum and the Silver Reef Museum – a little something to do while it was hot outside. I have to hand it to both museums for being so kid-friendly just by doing one simple thing – a scavenger hunt for any kid who walks through the door. The docents give each kid a paper with little illustrations of items in the museum and the kids have to go around the museum, find those items and cross them off. If they find all of them, they get a prize. My daughters were way into it. My wife helped one daughter and I helped the other and as they found each item, we described it to them.
My favorite experience at the Daughters of Utah Pioneers Museum was when we reached the chamber pot. A docent was standing right by it and asked my daughters what it was. My daughters didn’t know, so she explained that it was basically the way people relieved themselves back in the day. My daughters were horrified at the fact she was teaching them, not being able to fully grasp how someone could “go to the bathroom” in something like that. So, not only did it teach them a lesson about the past, but it made them realize just how good they have it with indoor plumbing and privacy when they need to answer nature’s call.
A little while ago, while driving by another little museum we visited last summer, the Red Cliffs Desert Preserve Visitor Center , my 8-year-old begged for a repeat visit because she wanted to see the desert tortoise and Gila Monster in residence there. Unfortunately, both were asleep, but she didn’t seem disappointed. Both daughters enjoyed lying on a little rock overhang attached to the tortoise’s lair and peering over to see it. Museums with live animals definitely have the upper hand!
Our most recent trip to a museum, the Lost City Museum in Overton, Nevada, yielded some how-good-you-have-it realizations by seeing a replica of Ancestral Puebloan houses, Piute sandals, and the one that took them aback the most – Piute baby carrier. They saw that we’ve come a long way in our architecture and technology!
3. TURN DRIVES INTO LEARNING EXPERIENCES
Turn drives into learning experiences by providing a running commentary on what you see. This can be anything, a city, a mountain, a historic landmark, a car or truck next to us – you name it and kids can learn from it.
For instance, on one of our last drives up I-15 to northern Utah, as we passed the town of Beaver, I told the girls a little about one of my favorite historical figures, Butch Cassidy (who was born in Beaver), after seeing a billboard advertising Beaver’s Butch Cassidy Inn. Comparing him to Robin Hood (robbing the rich to help the poor, of course) helped in my explanation, even though their exposure to Robin Hood is the fox character from the classic Disney movie. When we passed Fillmore, Utah, I told them how the town got its name – a nod to 13th U.S. President Millard Fillmore (who served from 1850-53), a ploy by Brigham Young to help Utah on its path towards statehood (It didn’t work, since it took until 1896 for Utah to achieve statehood).
In short, whatever you see on your seemingly interminable car trips or even on short drives to the store, add some commentary. At the end of the drive, give your kids a quiz to see if they remember anything (just kidding)!
Other things to keep kids engaged on trips:
State Game: Print a state a map of the U.S. for each child and tell them to look at license plates and color in each state when they see a license plate of that state. For instance, when they see a California plate, they color in California on their map (and sometimes they go a step further and keep track of how many plates they see for each state). It’s a great way to teach them geography.
Going to the Store Game:Something else we’ve done is play a game in which we say we’re going to the store and each person says something he or she bought at the store corresponding to letters of the alphabet. So the first person says something that starts with “A,” then the next person says the thing that starts with “A” then the next person says that very same thing plus something that starts with “B.” So the last person has 26 items to list. It’s a good exercise for memory
4. TAKE CHILDREN TO LIVE THEATER PRODUCTIONS
Taking children to live theater productions, anything from a community production to a full-fledged Broadway musical can become memorable experiences. For instance, one of our favorite annual family traditions is attending live, outdoor productions at the Tuacahn Amphitheater in Ivins, Utah. They absolutely love it and are enraptured by the sights and sounds. These experiences do a great job at opening up the door to cultural literacy – seeing plays that have become a major part of American culture, some of which were adapted from novels. Attending the Wizard of Oz two summers ago was a particularly good experience for my daughters in some other ways – teaching them about weather events like tornadoes (which they’ve been deathly afraid of ever since), but also teaching them about a significant piece of our nation’s history – the Dust Bowl and Great Depression.
In short, take every opportunity to teach your kids everyday. Let it all soak in to those “sponges.” Please share any great learning activities you do with your children!