The Most Important Skill You Can Develop to Help Your Kids Learn

Life with young kids gets intense.  Some mornings pass in a blur of crumbs and diaper changes. Last Thursday I was apparently so busy that I walked right out the door carrying a sippy cup, which I didn’t notice until ten minutes later when I got to my Pilates class. I’m sure that parents who work feel the strain even more than I do. There is so much room for guilt, too, a nagging feeling that I’m not doing enough, that my children are somehow missing out, that they aren’t going to meet their potential, and I should be doing more to help them learn.

This makes me wonder – how do we take the time we have with our kids, however much that is, and really make the best of it? If we only have time for one thing, what should it be?

I suggest that the answer to these questions is quite simple. It’s not flashcards, planned activities, an outing or even reading. The answer actually looks quite passive, yet I would say it is a key component of quality time, connecting with our children, and ultimately fueling their development.

The best thing we can do with our kids it to practice the skill of observation.

Sensitive observation, focused attention, really taking the child in without interference is the key to understanding babies and responding appropriately. Through observation we can detect everything from the early stages of tiredness (and be able to prepare children for sleep ahead of the curve) to what they might be learning while they play, when not to interrupt. Janet Lansbury, Elevating Childcare

It’s tempting to approach our children with all guns blazing, especially when we are feeling guilty about not spending enough time with them and are trying to make the most out of a small amount of time. But even though we have the best of intentions, they are our intentions, and that is the wrong place to start, particularly in the early years. We must challenge the idea that learning and development can and should be measured in coloring nicely inside the lines, matching shapes, and cooperating with our ideas of what a child ought to be able to do at a certain age.

Instead, we need to understand that a child’s development is a long-term process, and we can best help this process by becoming students of our children. If I haven’t noticed that my toddler is easily matching up two-piece puzzles, I might not bring out the four piece puzzles from the attic to provide a new challenge and he won’t have the opportunity to progress. Alternatively, if I demand that my toddler shares toys when his concept of possession is extremely fuzzy and undeveloped, it is going to cause frustration and resentment on both our parts, rather than cooperation and growth. I might even make toy snatching worse.

This is where observation becomes critical. If the only thing we have time to do is to take fifteen minutes to quietly watch your child as he plays, it is worth it. Think of what can be gained:

  • You will really see what your child is interested in. In a lovely example from Outdoor Learning in the Early YearsHelen Bilton points out that you may initially think that your toddler is interested in cars and trucks, but it may really be that he is interested in rotation – how the wheels spin. This means that you will know to bring in other toys or objects that explore this concept (like a spinning top) instead of more toy cars!
  • You can encourage the development of their attention span by not interrupting and allowing them to be absorbed in their play as long as possible. I’ve noticed that my attention span has gone out the window since I’ve had kids, because I rarely have the opportunity to focus on anything for more than twenty minutes at a time. Concentration takes practice, and coming alongside your child quietly helps them do this.
  • You can ask relevant questions about what they are doing, which can encourage learning (when you know you won’t be interrupting), like why they made a certain choice, or to explain what they are doing.
  • You will be able to offer specific feedback (I like how you gathered all the red blocks and then put them in a row). This affirms to your child that their play is important, and motivates them to continue.
  • You will gain an understanding of your child’s progress. You’ll see that the baby, who appears to be a late walker, is actually learning to cruise along the furniture, something he wasn’t doing last week. You’ll notice that the young toddler isn’t making proper sentences, but is able to use single words to communicate an entire story. They may be reaching their ‘milestones’ in their own time, but you’ll know with certainty that they are on their way to meeting them. Or, if you realize that your child isn’t progressing, you’ll be able to confidently seek professional help.
  • You will learn when to intervene. Children don’t learn well when they are stressed and frustrated, but they are shortchanged if they never have a chance to fail. Observation helps you learn when to encourage your child to try again, when to give a little help, and how much help to give.
  • Undistracted observation (phones out of sight!) communicates to your child that he is interesting and worth your while. By letting your child lead and following his interests, you express unconditional love and care. 
  • You will become even more fascinated by your child. I’ll never forget the moment when my son learned as a baby that containers can hold things. He spent ten minutes putting a block in a bowl and then picking the bowl up. It sounds simple, but it felt extremely poignant to witness his realization.

Getting started with observation is simple.

Put the phone away and sit near your child. If you distract them from what they are doing, ask if they can show you what they are doing and gently encourage them back to what they were working on. If they want to play with you, don’t sweat it, just play along, and then, as much as possible, watch and listen. Depending on what they are doing, you might look particularly at their gross or fine motor skills, their use of language, their social interactions with you or another child, their imaginative play, the way they solve problems, and so on.

Spend as much time as you are able on this. If it’s a few minutes, that’s fine, if you have longer, that’s fantastic.

Different settings lend themselves to different types of play, so make a point of observing your child indoors and out of doors.

Chat with your child about what they are doing. Maybe take notes or photos. It doesn’t have to get crazy, but physical or digital records could become something that you treasure when your child is grown.

And then – be satisfied. You are getting to know your child, and as you do, you are giving them exactly what they need to reach every bit of potential they have inside them. We all have a lot to learn!

Supporting Learning in Young Kids

Observing your young kids might seem passive, but it’s the best thing you can do to support their learning

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