It used to be thought that all that was needed for children to learn was for them to encounter the same information over and over again and keep studying until it sank in. Today, we know that rote learning, strict rules and punishment don’t actually get very good results. Creating a positive learning environment, whether at home or at school, helps children realize their true potential – but how should you go about it?
Getting in touch with natural curiosity
We are all hardwired to learn. Just look at the young of other species and the ways that constructive play helps them develop an understanding of their environment, such as kittens practicing their hunting skills on mosquitoes. Children will do this naturally if left to explore, so the most important rule of setting up a learning environment is to fill it with interesting things. Once their natural curiosity is engaged, they’re much more receptive to both unstructured and structured learning. A nature walk, for instance, will prompt questions about animals and plants and the environment much more readily than a lecture about them, and children will also be better at remembering what they’ve learned there. Providing intellectual stimulation encourages them to start thinking about particular topics, and the experience of learning then becomes empowering rather than something that’s focused on pleasing others or avoiding punishment.
Encouraging the development of learning skills
One of the most important things that any of us ever learn is how to learn. Rather than simply providing children with information, it’s important to encourage a questioning approach and give them hands-on opportunities to test their ideas. Starting very early in life, this can be a precursor to learning about the scientific method. Trips to the library together or using a computer together can help them learn how to look up things and, in time, how to cross-reference sources and determine how reliable any given source is likely to be. When children are asked how they think a piece of information might be found, they’ll feel much more excited by their discoveries than when they’re simply told what to do.
Catering to individual needs
All students share certain basic needs: for intellectual stimulation, emotional reassurance and a sense that they are engaging in something that has value either to themselves or to a group of which they are a part. They also have more specific needs. When learning moves at the same pace for everyone, some become bored and struggle to concentrate, while others develop feelings of anxiety about their ability to keep up, becoming distracted as a result. Some struggle to participate in group work because they lack confidence, and some don’t have the tools necessary for self-discipline and self-directed work. Getting to know their needs as individuals and making learning tasks flexible enough to accommodate them leads to much better overall results. When parents direct learning at home, it’s important for them to try to observe their children’s needs objectively rather than projecting onto them.
Making students feel safe
It’s impossible to learn when anxious or afraid, so parents and teachers need to make sure that they create learning environments that feel safe and secure. This isn’t just about external threats (it’s worth bearing in mind that excessive safety drills can increase anxiety), but it’s also about managing negative experiences and tackling bullying. It’s also important to recognize that not all students will experience fear or discomfort in the same way. As Bree Picower has noted, classrooms in which white children learn happily, feeling safe from external threats, may present a different experience for children from different racial backgrounds who don’t feel like part of the group. Working to tackle this sort of exclusion by helping students learn about each other has positive outcomes for everyone.
Learning about one another also helps to build connections within a group, which helps learning in all sorts of ways. Children often learn much more effectively for each other than when all the delivery of knowledge is top down, and parents and teachers can keep an eye on their progress to ensure that misunderstandings are not passed along. Non-competitive games and group tasks in which students take on different, complementary roles are great ways to facilitate this sort of engagement. Children learning from home can connect with other children remotely through safe learning initiatives in order to improve their social skills. Connecting with others helps students to develop empathy and the confidence that they need to deal effectively with others. It also helps them to recognize that sometimes their peers know things that they don’t – a great incentive for learning more.
The creation of a positive learning environment has been demonstrated to result in much better educational outcomes, from higher SAT scores to better long-term information retention and a greater appetite for learning in later life. When we engage with children’s natural desire to be informed and empowered, getting them to study becomes easy.