Let The Children Play

“Will you play with me?” It’s a timeless question that some children ask out loud directing their hopes for play at loved ones and even at those they’ve just met. It’s also a question often unstated, particularly as children grow older and as their awareness of the vulnerability of a possible rejection grows. Almost nothing hurts more than the rejection of play or the anticipation of play that is then unrealized.

In my experience, by the time many students reach fifth grade they’ve learned that play is so rarely a part of learning at school anymore that they stop looking forward to learning at all. But this moment of global crisis is an opportunity to reset what learning can look like when we return to classrooms. To rekindle what’s worth learning. To invite play. To bring more joy.

At the heart of any learning situation at any age is the heartfelt desire to play. In his book The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness, Dr. Ned Hallowell proposes that when we have learning experiences that start with play, we create a cycle of happiness that can sustain us over and over again in life. Whenever I need to remind myself of what’s most important for learning and happiness, I ask myself “Where is the play?”

Here’s how the cycle works: When learning starts with play, it gives us a reason to practice. Learning anything is hard and usually requires repeated, intentional practice. When we practice enough, we reach a stage of mastery where we use less mental energy to continue growing in our knowledge and skills. When we reach a stage of mastery, other people recognize us for our efforts and success.

Here is essentially what we’re telling ourselves when this cycle is in place.

Play is inherently joyful–fun, even. The experience makes us want to keep trying. We lose track of time while doing it, don’t want it to end, and choose to practice. We’re able to recognize our own success. Finally, we feel seen, known, and loved by others. Without the first step, the cycle falls apart.

But the reverse is also true. When learning is initiated with tasks less play-oriented, practice becomes rote and boring and is then abandoned. If we give up on the “invisible practice” needed for automaticity to solidify, we never get to a place of mastery and ease. Or we get there through tears, arguments, and maybe some heated book throwing and pencil breaking. When we miss the opportunity for mastery of a new skill, it’s pretty unlikely that someone else will recognize us for our efforts or success. Rather, we will be recognized for the negative behavior that stemmed from a lack of practice and a lack of mastery ala No, David!

In this moment of learning from home, teachers and families have an opportunity to invite different kinds of play into learning that are incredibly difficult in today’s typical classrooms like:

  • using nerf guns to practice phonics and grammar skills
  • going on an indoor/outdoor scavenger hunt
  • creating reading forts with boxes, blankets, and pillows
  • using food to enhance learning like making structures with sugar cubes and learning the parts of a paragraph with Oreo cookies
  • telling or creating stories with toilet humor ala Captain Underpants
  • giving kids time and space to figure out how to play alone

But if all learning is strengthened by starting with play, what does that mean when we are back in classrooms? We know from research on the childhood roots of adult happiness that the primary components of a happy life are positive feelings, flow and fulfillment, emotional intelligence, and strong social bonds–all of which are enhanced through learning that starts with play.

Imagine a nonfiction unit of study. Rather than lead with the skills of identifying the main idea and key details, what if learning started instead with enticing photographs and the challenge to generate 20 questions about the image with a partner? Or a scavenger hunt for text features across different texts? Or the opportunity to build something from loose parts that will connect to a shared topic? Learning how to identify the main idea and key details in a nonfiction text is strengthened if we start with play first.

Or take a narrative writing unit. Rather than starting with a story map graphic organizer, what if you started with comic strips like Calvin and Hobbes to laugh out loud while learning about how characters often land in a sticky predicament? Or with costume pieces and small props? Or with stick figure puppets? Or with lines cut up from stories that the class has to put back together in order? Or with wordless picture books for students to add descriptive sentences, dialogue, and internal thinking? Students will understand and remember how stories work and what makes a great story if we start with play first.

When we return to classrooms, children will expect and need learning that is joyful and gives them a sense of purpose and recognition. It will require letting go and giving children, and ourselves, the freedom to make decisions and try something new.

If you want to read more about play, here I share some more ideas about how to invite play into learning and here my husband and I explore what play looks like in middle school. We also talk about play in Episode 5 of The Professor and the Principal podcast.

Have you played today?

The Professor & The Principal, Episode 5: Wanna Play?

In this episode, Chris and I talk about how we are inviting play into our lives and our children’s lives right now as we home school/crisis school our boys during the COVID-19 pandemic.

You can find us on Spotify, iTunes, and Anchor. If you have a moment, it would mean a lot if you could rate our podcast or write a review. Thanks for listening and subscribing!

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The Professor & The Principal, Episode 4: Navigating Strong Emotions

We are navigating strong emotions in our house as we experience Week Four of learning from home with our two boys, ages 8 and 11. We have our good days–mostly sunny days and Fridays–and we have all had moments of intense frustration. Thursdays are especially hard as we all reach fatigue and emotions run high. In this episode of The Professor and The Principal, my husband, Chris, and I talk about how we supporting our boys as the navigate strong emotions and how we are attempting, imperfectly, to use what we know about social and emotional learning to stay the course.

You can now find us on Spotify, iTunes, and Anchor. If you have a moment, it would mean a lot if you could rate our podcast or write a review. Thanks for listening and subscribing!

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The Professor & The Principal Podcast, Episode 3: What’s Worth Learning, Part II

We are on week three of homeschooling since the COVID-19 crisis hit our community and every day is starting to feel remarkably the same while also feeling immeasurably different. I’ve started a list titled “It’s Worth Learning” that I keep in the kitchen to help remind me what’s most important right now. So far the list includes things like:

  • how to tell a good knock-knock joke
  • to wait for others at the dinner table table before eating
  • how to do a Google search that gets you the answer you want
  • that taking a bath with a good book and some Epsom salts can make a lot of things better
  • that a better response to “I’m sorry” is just “Thank you”
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The Professor & THe Principal Podcast, Episode 2: What’s Worth Learning

In our second episode of The Professor and The Principal podcast, my husband, Chris, and I explore the question–What’s worth learning? We talk about this particular moment of the COVID-19 crisis and how it’s bringing this question into sharper focus for us as educators and parents.

Listen on Spotify (soon to be on Apple iTunes) or click below. Thanks for listening!

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What’s Worth Learning?

The generosity of this moment has been extraordinary to witness. In my small town, a local cafe is giving out free breakfast and lunch to anyone who isn’t able to work right now. People are cleaning out their closets to find masks to donate to hospital workers. Neighbors are saying hello and introducing themselves–albeit from six feet away. And teachers, authors, illustrators, coaches, and organizations have made available a world of online learning that we never had access to before.

If you are like me, you might be starting to feel a little flooded by all of the e-learning possibilities. Why haven’t we gone on a virtual tour of the Louvre yet? Shouldn’t we be joining authors online for live read-alouds? What about the swim team coach’s workout at 1:00 on Facebook Live? FOMO apparently rears its pervasive, anxiety-fueled head even in a social distancing world.

In our house, we are on Day 10 of homeschooling during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that a simple routine has been established, my husband and I find ourselves looking at the detailed plans their teachers have worked so hard to create, the extraordinary online possibilities to learn something new, the gift of time before us, (and our own work responsibilities) and we’re wondering…So what’s worth learning?

Most of my career has been about asking similar big questions in my work with schools and teachers: What are students learning? Why are they learning it? and How are they learning?

I’ve tried to take a step back during the last ten days to ask the same big questions about our own makeshift family schoolhouse. We are grateful for the plans our children’s teachers continue to make, the adjustments they are making along the way, and the world of possibility that now exists online. Yet, one of the gifts of this moment is the potential for a hard reset and conversation about what’s worth learning.

As our two children seesaw between contentment and frustration each day, we’re wrestling with the questions of What’s worth learning? and Who gets to decide?

Right now, if you’re a parent trying to Laura Ingalls Wilder this homeschool thing or you’re a teacher trying to figure out how to translate the magic that happens in your classroom to something on the screen, you’re being asked to make learning happen. Some of it will happen. A lot of it won’t. And that’s okay. Most of what our children will probably learn won’t be planned. But maybe that’s how most learning happens anyway.

I have a doctorate in education and my husband won Teacher of the Year once before becoming an administrator. Day One of homeschooling felt like our big moment had arrived. We could finally show our children what great teachers we were. By 2:00 both boys had moments of tears and our grand plans for inspiring our boys to become historians and for turning our kitchen into a science lab quickly dissolved. Thank God. Since then, we’ve doubled down on what’s simple and sustainable.

Now, we’re giving ourselves permission to strive for the bronze some days. We’re also quickly learning that supporting our boys to tear apart the couch cushions to make a reading nook is sometimes more valuable than forcing them to watch a videorecorded minilesson. Learning to pump their own bike tires is probably more important than watching the science video, especially if they already learned about the topic last year. Measuring out flour for homemade cookies may have more math applications than a workbook page especially when everyone in the family gets to benefit by eating warm cookies. It counts. It all counts.

What’s worth learning is a question that ancient philosophers pondered, Harvard’s School of Education has their answer to, and teachers in all forms respond to often minute-to-minute. The answer is both remarkably simple and deeply complex.

The Simple View

The simple view of what’s worth learning is by asking what’s relevant. This moment reminds us that it’s worth our children learning how to become more self-driven. To make decisions about their use of time after giving them some structure and choice. To deepen their own interests. To try something new. To take a break. To move when they need to. To realize it’s okay to waste a weekend binge-watching Naruto. To lock their brother out of the house and suffer the natural consequences. To find freedom in boredom. To help others when they can. To decide what’s relevant to them.

Learning to make a bread starter became relevant because the store is out of commercial yeast.

The hopeful part of me believes that this historic moment could help children learn some of the secrets of how to live a happy life by determining their own purpose.

A Little More Complex View

Some things worth learning are a little more complex. There are arguably certain bodies of knowledge, skills, and dispositions that give you more power if you know them. The more background knowledge you have about a topic, the easier it is to read and comprehend texts about that topic and to share your knowledge with others. If you know how to spell words conventionally, more people will read your ideas and take them seriously. If you know math facts with some level of automaticity, you will find more joy in solving complex operations because your brain won’t be taxed by the first step. If you know a bit about historical events, you are likely to ask questions and then find joy in the search for answers. If you have practice making art, you’ll feel more comfortable and confident making art.

Grateful for Art.Simple on Youtube for daily drawing class

That said, the most important metric for determining what’s worth learning is to watch your own child’s response. Notice what’s working and worth repeating and what is simply too frustrating and should be let go. Try to notice and recognize the ways your children are outgrowing themselves in small ways and let them know you see them.

If you’re trying to decide what’s worth creating routines around and what’s worth letting go, here is a quick (and imperfect) cheat sheet. Here I focus on reading, writing, and math for now.

Reading:

  • a love of stories: knowledge of how stories work will be useful for almost anything your children want to do in life; set aside time for daily read-alouds, share stories over meals about times when your children were little or before they were born, or listen to audiobooks together–Audible just launched a free collection for kids
  • getting curious about the world: if your children have been assigned nonfiction reading through online sources try to link what they are learning about to a bigger topic that might be of interest to them–have conversations about what questions the reading sparked for them and share anything you might know about the topic
  • how characters are just like us: have conversations with your children about the characters in their books, what the characters’ lives are like, anything that’s different from their own life, or what the characters make them think or feel
  • the sounds letters make: if your children have been given ways to practice phonemic awareness (the sounds in spoken words) and phonics (the sounds represented by letters in print) and they are still learning how to read it’s worth setting up short bursts of practice to maintain these skills

Writing:

  • our ideas and stories are worthy of sharing: sustaining free choice writing can help children realize they are writers even if they are using scribbles, drawings, and invented spelling to convey their ideas; set aside 5 or 10 minutes for freewrite time in a blank journal–imperfection is part of the writing process
  • how sentences work: sentence fluency is the ability to craft a variety of sentences for different purposes. Try using question words to help children write stronger sentences from simple sentences (for example, if they wrote Harry Potter played. Who did he play with? Where did he play? When did he play? Why did he play? How did he play?) Almost any writing in any genre can get stronger by using the 5W1H questions as a guide.
  • spelling: help children notice the patterns of how words in English are spelled by talking about how words are alike and how they are different. Try using sticky notes for matching word parts or to create a memory game. Use magnetic letters or a white board to dictate words or sentences and to have children write them in a way that isn’t permanent and where mistakes are meant to be learned from.

Math

  • automaticity: the more automatic fact retrieval is the easier more complex operations become. Use dice or numbers cut up on paper to practice mental math. Make three digit numbers together and practice taking away or adding five or ten. Use the same basic fact math practice sheet 5 days in a row so children experience the joy of getting stronger each day.
  • fluency: the more number sense we have the more we understand how operations work. Support children to draw or diagram their solutions to problems. Talk about how numbers can be represented different ways (for example, 587 is 500+80+7 and 400+180+7). There might be a correct answer to math problems but how to get there can take lots of different paths.
Independent reading routines at home have their benefits–namely, jammies, comics, and snacks.

Lastly, here are a few more tips that are helping me keep things simple and sustainable:

  • Choice blocks built into your day can help children discover what they want to learn or get better at –a predictable structure helps them anticipate the time for choice and even look forward to it
  • Reading aloud is one of the best ways to build connection, grow vocabulary, and build a love of stories–it is always time well spent; video chat with relatives to share snippets of books (our favorites are weird animal facts and joke books)
  • Use online resources like virtual tours and live author read-alouds if it is something your children want to try
  • Evaluate suggestions by your children’s teachers and ask yourself if there are any things your children already do naturally that may not need to be “assigned” right now
  • Use tactile materials when you can (sticky notes can become letter tiles, a cookie sheet becomes a magnetic surface for magnet letters, the dry erase board you use to write your shopping list can become a writing surface) especially for children in preschool-Grade 2.
  • Short bursts of daily practice (sometimes of the same repeated skill) is often better than longer practice sessions that lead to more frustration
  • Support children to set daily or weekly goals for themselves as a personal challenge–What do they want to try? What do they want to get stronger at? How do they want to outgrow themselves? How can they help others?
  • Not all screen time is created equal. Encourage screen time that supports creation. A new favorite in our house is Art.Simple.
  • Cookie breaks help.
Making sentences using Who, What, Where, When, Why, How

The Professor & The Principal Podcast

I’m thrilled to announce that my husband, Chris Cunningham, and I have started a podcast called The Professor and The Principal. In this first episode, we talk about how we are balancing structure and nurture, supervision and freedom with our own two children during the COVID-19 pandemic. We process what this time means, the gifts and challenges it affords, and the shifts this particular moment is requiring of us. In future episodes, we plan on sharing stories and strategies to bring more joy to you and the children in your life.

The family schedules discussed in this episode can be found in my previous blog post about when parents become teachers. You can listen below or on Spotify. We’re working on getting the audio to all of your favorite podcast apps, but it might take a few days for approval.

Thanks for listening!

Continue reading “The Professor & The Principal Podcast”

When Parents Become Teachers

Strikes and gutters, ups and downs–that pretty much sums up each day right now. We are two days into homeschooling in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic and we’re learning lessons as we go. My husband and I are both educators, so we are constantly wearing the multiple hats of parent-teacher/teacher-parent. Yet, this moment is calling on us to draw on our greatest levels of patience and understanding with our children and one another. We’re keeping our goals for this time simple–more strikes than gutters each day.

In our town, the hubs of our community–our schools, public library, and YMCA– have been closed for days. And social distancing has created a feeling of uncertainty unparalleled in our lifetimes. But you can hear children playing outside in their yards. Neighbors are out walking with their loved ones before dinner. Community members are self-organizing food donations and book swaps. And we have a mandatory break from our over-scheduled lives.

This gift of time is also posing particular challenges. Our children are 8- and 11-years-old, and I find myself grateful that my children are toilet trained, sleep through the night, and can get their own snacks from the fridge. If you have toddlers, your challenges probably revolve much more around basic needs right now. If you have high school or college students, they may be quickly underwater with the flood of independent expectations put on students with distance learning assignments. As schools and colleges close, every parent is all of a sudden a teacher.

In this post, I share what’s working for us and what we have learned from our pilot of sorts the last two days.

On the first morning of our new reality, we had our boys help us design a daily schedule that includes some academic time which we call “practice” along with choice blocks.

Rather than a list of possibilities for the choice blocks, we organized choice time into four categories drawing from the pillars that guide my work in schools. What could we do to connect with one another during this time? What could we create on our own or with someone else? What did we want to discover and get curious about? How could we make sure we move each day? We are adding as we go.

There are a lot of thoughtful daily schedules being shared online right now. You might find one that works as a starting place and recruit your children in the process of creating a schedule that works for everyone in the family. To make our schedule, we started out by having our boys make a list of things they wanted to do with this time. Every family has different constraints including the number of parents or caregivers available to help, the number of working parents, the number of children, and the number of accessible digital devices. What works for one family may not translate into success during this time for another. It’s easy to go into “compare-despair” mode when viewing each other’s Facebook posts. Remember, we are all experiencing strikes and gutters, but sometimes only the strikes are shared.

For us, starting the day without an alarm clock has been a gift in and of itself. We read or play on our own until 8ish. We then start our day together for family breakfast and a “morning meeting” of sorts. We talk about something we are each looking forward to as a way to set the tone for the day. That way, even when something gets hard or inevitable frustration sets in, we know there is something to look forward to in the day. We then make sure everyone has time for movement of some kind either by heading outside for a walk or by watching an online workout. Movement increases blood and oxygen flow and sets you up for cognitive development and overall well-being. When in doubt, move and get your children moving.

It’s amazing to see the spirit of generosity this moment has created. Publishing companies, educational websites, teachers, and parents are all sharing resources to support student learning at home. The wealth of resources online to support children’s learning has never been more accessible. Take a virtual tour of a museum you may never see in person. Watch a BrainPop video on a topic or join Scholastic’s free digital hub and learn something new. Watch a video of an author conducting a read aloud of their books or join an illustrator teaching a drawing class. In some ways, there has never been more opportunity to learn something new. That is, for children with access to digital learning. For thousands upon thousands of children, those resources remain out of reach.

Yet, more valuable than any online resource is the time and attention we give to children. Curling up on the couch and reading a book together. Telling family stories. Cooking side by side. Time outside. That’s what our children are most likely to remember anyway.

What Are You Making?

If you are like me, many of the moments you remember most from childhood might involve making something. There’s the pillow I made by hand in elementary school that I still have stored in a plastic tub in the basement. The Madonna-inspired music videos I made with my two best friends. The pumpkin bread each Thanksgiving. The project posters. The mix tapes.

As our modern world often demands 24/7 connectivity, there has been a surge of interest in making things as a way to unwind, release our creativity, and even to combat addiction: cooking from scratch, knitting, woodworking, essentially anything you do with your hands that focuses on repetitive actions at a skill level that can always be improved upon. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes this as entering a “flow” state where we reach a balance between skill and challenge that fosters in us an almost unconscious drive to keep trying. To keep making. Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as the secret to happiness.

In schools, we’ve seen the Maker Movement and project-based learning bring renewed focus on making. Mitchel Resnick, the LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research and Head of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab, explains that the Maker Movement is about more than gadgets and technology. It’s about making things you care about, things that are meaningful to you and meaningful to others around you.

Children are really the best makers. My eight-year-old makes flip books, comic books, lists, and marble runs. This week, while getting out the frying pan, he said, “I want to make my own quesadilla.” The urge to make is always there especially when the process and the product go hand-in-hand.

As we get older, the things we make sometimes change. Our eleven-year-old likes to make lists of basketball drills that he writes in a journal dedicated for this purpose. He made a Top Ten Basketball Players of All-Time slideshow just because. He doodles and draws, but mostly when no one else is looking over his shoulder.

Throughout our lives, we never lose the urge to make things. My mom is an avid and skilled needlepointer. Her favorite things to make are ornaments. Small projects that she can finish in a week or two. Thanks to her devotion to making things for the people she loves, we have dozens of ornaments that bring us joy at every major holiday. Her love of making ornaments is consistent with research that shows that the act of doing for others gives us an immediate sense of satisfaction unparalleled by things we can buy for others.

Of course, the act of creating can be frustrating. The lines we want to make straight may turn out squiggly. The drawing we hoped would be perfect may turn out “ish”. The building might collapse. And the cookies may burn. But when we try to make something and it fails we learn it’s okay to try again.

Writing as Making

It’s easy to forget that every piece of writing we craft is an act of making. In writing workshop, the question “What are you making?” is a more joyful alternative to “What are you writing?” This shift in language is subtle but significant. When we reframe writing as making, we free students to try and experiment much as they would when making something in the kitchen or in a laboratory or in a workshop.

Memoirist and writing teacher, Suzanne Farrell Smith, explains in her book The Writing Shop: Putting “Shop” Back in Writing Workshop that we can reclaim writing workshop as a method that draws from its namesake–the shops of craftspeople like carpenters, quilters, visual artists, architects, or cooks. She explains that a true writing workshop offers much more than technical expertise. It also offers “self-awareness, impulse control, seeking help, listening carefully, cooperation, conflict negotiation, appropriate risk-taking, grit, initiative, courage, [and] consideration of the health and well-being of others.”

Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play

When designing things you care about is the goal, it doesn’t matter what the materials are: wooden blocks, paper and pencil, seeds and soil, a keyboard and screen. What matters is the opportunity to design creatively and to play with the materials to see what happens. The Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab has developed a set of principles around making that, well, make a lot of sense.

First, when we make things, the joy factor increases when we are involved in a project, ideally of our choosing. I was visiting a school this week and the science posters I saw captured the immense creativity of these fifth grade students . They were free to choose a topic within their unit on the solar system that they wanted to learn more about and were free to display what they learned using a variety of materials. I had never seen three-dimensional student posters til now.

Second, when we make things related to our passions, or the things we care about, we are more willing to keep going when the learning process gets hard or we run into obstacles.

Third, when we make things with our peers, we learn to collaborate, negotiate, and make group decisions–all of which are essential for finding happiness. Of course, part of the beauty of making anything is that you can choose to do it alone or to make something with others.

Finally, the play involved in making is about more than fun. It’s about experimentation, creativity, and getting in a flow state all of which lead to greater overall happiness in our lives.

An Invitations Approach

I’m a believer in the power of an invitations-approach to learning. Giving students the invitation to make something with materials allows students to tap into their sensory selves, to embrace the mess, and to discover something new about the making process and themselves. In my classroom, I had a corner of recyclables especially paper towel rolls and plastic containers. One week’s worth of recycling led two boys to spend a month building a rollercoaster and another to design a playground. When we make something, we know we have the power to create again and again. There weren’t step-by-step instructions for things to create. The materials were the invitation.

At home, our kitchen table is often designed as an invitation to create with paper, pencils, markers, and other making tools handy. My boys are fortunate to be ongoing penpals with their great grandmother and great aunt who send them handwritten letters with questions that invite a response. They’ve grown up knowing first-hand that a personalized letter means more than an email or text and that the recipient will love it no matter the spelling errors. The letter is an invitation to write back.

A kitchen table can be an invitation to create, to write, and to make something

This past week, a big box arrived with an unexpected gift for my husband from a friend. The box was a bigger hit with our eight-year-old than the gift inside. He spent two weeks decorating the box, making holes in it, turning it into a make shift chair for his desk, and building a fort with it. He finally put it in his closet so that he can pull it out when he needs to release some creative energy and make something out of it once again. He has learned that he can create an invitation for himself for the future.

We Are Always In the Process of Making

Try a little experiment. Over the course of the day, take notice of all the ways you make things. Meals. Coffee. Writing. Friendships. Even mess. The more we are mindful of the things we are making, the more it helps us recognize we have purpose and meaning. Support the children in your life to notice the things they are making that have meaning to them and that have meaning to others.

Try These Simple Tips:

Reframe the writing process as a making process

Model things you are making in your own life

Create invitations for children to make things with a variety of materials

Embrace the mess that making inevitably creates

Read aloud books like Not a Box by Antoinette Portis, Ish by Peter Reynolds, and Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg that let children know making is worthwhile and imperfect

Learning Stuff is Joyful

“What’s the point of studying history? Who cares what happened long ago?”

Thus begins the first chapter of A History of Us, The First Americans, Prehistory-1600, a read aloud our family is engaged with on weekend mornings. The framework of the book is that history is full of stories and mysteries that intrigue us still today. In one weekend, our boys learned about bones from domesticated dogs 14,000 years ago, Neanderthal skulls, and the earth bridge Beringia that formed between Asia and Alaska during the Ice Age.

Will they remember the content forever? Probably not. But, with a time commitment of only about five minutes, our boys were primed to wonder about the past, the land we stand on, and people that came before us. And they did so through the comfort of the read-aloud.

We all know the adage, the more you know the more you can learn. But, what most people don’t realize is that any reading comprehension test is actually a knowledge test in disguise. The more background knowledge we have about a topic, the more likely we are to understand what we are reading. The more basic knowledge we have about history, science, geography, and civics, the more we can apply what we know to new situations and further readings. When you watch children light up from learning in classrooms (and on living room couches), it’s because they are positioned to wonder, imagine, and feel as though they’ve learned something useful and novel.

What’s happening beneath the surface of those lit up faces? When we learn something new, our brains have a rush of the reward chemical dopamine. Thanks to developments in brain imaging, we know that learning something new causes the brain to build connections and neurons. When learning occurs, we look forward to learning even more.

When we support students and children to learn about topics that grow their knowledge about the world, it naturally creates conditions that drive curiosity, empathy, and knowledge-building. It ignites a cycle of learning children want to repeat. After reading about the Ice Age and mammoths, our boys took off in their own directions. One to get better at skateboarding in the driveway the other to read his How to Get Better at Basketball book followed by drills in the basement. The day started with a new family ritual around learning and self-direction followed.

But, when you experience days without feeling as though you learned anything, boredom sets in. Not the kind of boredom that is part of a fulfilling childhood or that leads to creativity and productivity. But, boredom that creates habitual passivity and leaves you asking, “Is this all there is?”

As teachers and parents, it’s helpful to remember that knowledge-building matters not only for success in school but to prime children’s brains for all kinds of joyful learning. So what can you do?

  • At the end of the day, ask your students and children “What’s something you learned today?”
  • Balance read-alouds between books that support knowledge-building with books that are purely imaginative. Search the The Classroom Bookshelf for recently released books that I blog about with colleagues. In our home and in my classroom experiences, mornings are better for knowledge-building and afternoons and evenings are better for imaginative stories. At home, we are deep into the fourth illustrated Harry Potter and that remains an important way we wind down at night.
  • If you are assigning passages to support students to practice skills and strategies, remember that content matters–rather than a pinball reading experience of different topics different days, look for texts that support students to grow greater knowledge about a topic over time.
  • Share things you are learning from the cake you baked for the first time to books you’re learning from on your nightstand. Learning itself is joyful.