Learning is as Simple as Finding Ways to Do What You Really Want To Do

One of the ideas I often explore on this blog is the curious adult notion that the purpose of childhood is to prepare for adulthood.

The average American will spend almost 12,000 hours of their childhood in school, not counting homework. Many will also go to pre-school. Most will go to college. And, all along the way, parents will beg their children to do things they don’t want to do or need to do as preparation for some vague and inexplicable future goal of adulthood.

Even as a young child this frustrated me. At six-years-old, I thought I was already a master of learning. I could communicate in one of the most difficult languages in the world — English. I could count well enough to buy all the candy that interested me at the gas station. I could follow enough rules to get along at home and church. I had figured out how to make friends (in the neighborhood) and influence people (my parents). And I hadn’t even started school yet.

Oh, yes, learning was easy: It was as simple as finding a way to do all the things I really wanted to do.

This is the essence and motivation of learning. It does not happen in a vacuum. If you get hungry, you find food. If you need to get somewhere, you find your way. If you get lost, you find your way back. It’s really that simple. Or maybe it’s hard. But if you really want or need something to happen, you find a way to get it done.

The problem is that adults see childhood learning not as mastering moments, but practicing for the future. They think children need to learn the map before they even have a place to go.

That might be a nice plan if it were even possible. It’s not. Too many destinations.

It might be an interesting pursuit, if it worked. It doesn’t. Too little childhood motivation.

Forcing people to memorize maps with no destination in mind is about as effective as forcing children to learn things in school when they don’t understand the point.

When my oldest son, Zac, was little, he asked my husband and I a deep question: “What’s softer,” he asked, “cotton candy or God?”

Adults think questions like these are cute. “Ha. Ha. That’s funny. Now stop day dreaming and learn your alphabet.”

We (adults) interrupt childhood and all the wonderful real learning and discovery that happens there to start preparing children for a future they can’t envision. When this process proves difficult, we do what all American parents do: we FORCE learning out of them.

At five years old, we sent our son, Zac, to kindergarten, where he worked on one new letter of the alphabet each week. After four weeks, we got an email from the teacher saying Zac couldn’t remember the name or the sounds of the letters they had worked on and could we please work with him at home.

Concerned parents that we were, of course we did what the teacher asked. Drill, drill, drill, regurgitate, regurgitate, regurgitate. Night after long night.

And Zac learned the four letters. Success!

Or was it? By the beginning of October of his kindergarten year, Zac hated school. He hated it so much he cried every morning, even on the day the class was slated to take a field trip to a local pumpkin patch. By Christmas, our family was meeting with a counselor to assist Zac with increasing school-related anxiety.

Here’s the truth about forced learning. It works. The child might hate it and the teachers and parents might too, but, if you work a child hard enough and drill him long enough, he will eventually be able to repeat back almost everything you want him to know.

Anybody can learn the alphabet this way. Anybody. Sit a child down and show him a flashcard of the letter “A.” Then say, “this letter is an A.” Lay the flashcard down and then immediately pick it back up again. “What is this letter?” If he’s forgotten, you might have to remind him. But repeat the flashcard process until he remembers the name of the letter. And he WILL eventually remember it.

Until he forgets it again. Which, in that case, means you start the memory process over again. This is how we teach children in schools. It may look different in some places and at some ages, but it’s basically the same all over, even in college: Learn stuff you don’t want to learn until you forget it. Then learn it again.

We don’t teach children. We condition them.

But, you ask, “Don’t children need to learn to do things they don’t like to do?” Or “Left to their own devices, won’t children choose to do nothing and never learn anything?”

Not at all. As children mature, they are increasingly able to understand the long-term benefits of any given decision and adjust their short-term actions accordingly, even in academics. If they really want to sing the alphabet song, they work hard to learn their letters. If they really want to read, they work hard to learn their sounds. Desire and need are the fuel of success and learning. Children and adults alike learn what they need to learn in order to do what they want to do.

This is “the grind” of life. People do the hard things in the short-term if they want the long-term results bad enough. For young children, school is all grind with no obvious payoff. This is why school takes so long to accomplish so little.

Recently we had a cable guy at our house installing a new cable box. It was 5 p.m. on a Friday afternoon and the guy entered carrying a huge “Gulp” drink from a convenience store. He had to go outside twice to take a smoke. He seemed indifferent when we noticed things weren’t working quite right. Finally, I shooed him on his way.

I know nothing about cable systems. I know less about electronics. But I know this: I wanted my cable system to work a lot more than the cable guy wanted my system to work. That put me at a distinct advantage over the expert. I sent the cable guy packing so I could get to work on understanding and solving the problem myself.

Never underestimate the potential of a person on a mission. Never overestimate a person who is not. Most children in school are on YOUR mission. You might as well get out the flashcards right now because the only way children are going to learn something of YOUR choosing is if you drill it in to them. But, if you wait until children are old enough to see and understand the need, they will learn it quickly and easily on their own terms. They will not need a childhood of flashcards, drill, and review to get it done.

After our disastrous school experience with our first child, we decided to delay formal academics with our second, especially the reading process. The results were startlingly effective. In fact, we didn’t have to teach our second child, Kelsey, to read at all. There came a point at about age 7 where Kelsey decided she wanted to be able to read all the beautiful and interesting books in our home. So she taught herself how to do it using a very natural approach commonly referred to as “whole language.” 

Learning to read is like all learning: Children learn what they want to learn in order to do what they want to do. 

Until next time…be fearless.

 

Smart People Unschool Their Kids

In the first year of our homeschooling, I met an unschooling family. I think there was only one in our entire town, a bedroom community of Lexington, Kentucky, where there was a pretty hefty homeschooling population.

Before then, I had never heard of unschooling, either by name or by definition. The idea of unschooling, where formal and systemic academic studies are set aside in favor of child-directed interests, seemed strange at first, even shocking. But here’s what struck me about this family: they were probably the smartest, most creative, most accomplished, and even the most fun of the hundreds of families in our local homeschooling community.

The unschooling family lived in a huge home on a lake and they often opened it for homeschool meetings and parties. They didn’t talk about themselves or their homeschooling a lot, but, in true unschooling fashion, their story naturally unfolded as I got to know them better. Mom and dad worked in “Research and Design” at the University of Kentucky and the children spent their days reading their favorite books and engaging in their favorite activities. The children were slightly weird and wonderful, like most kids, and very happy and passionate about all their pursuits.

I was intrigued, but unconvinced. After all, 200+ years of standardized American schooling couldn’t be wrong, could it? And, besides, I was schooled traditionally and I turned out OK, didn’t I?

As the homeschooling years rolled by I met more and more families who chose alternative schooling methods for their children. Each time, my head turned until I could no longer look away. Very smart people were unschooling their kids without pause or apology and the results were enviable.

I wasn’t really surprised when I recently read that Elon Musk—the man that Business Insider magazine calls “the world’s most inspirational entrepreneur” has eschewed traditional schools and favors educational approaches far more akin to unschooling. Or that Dr. Sugatra Mitra, the brilliant scientist who won the 2013 $1,000,000 TED prize for his work in education, strongly believes that even the most disadvantaged children can inspire, organize and discipline themselves to learn, and then outperform their traditional school counterparts at almost every turn.

Or that James Altucher, the well-educated (Bachelors from Cornell, Doctorate from Carnegie Mellon) and uber-successful entrepreneur and hedge fund manger who writes best-selling business books, has been begging his children to quit high school so they can unschool.

And yet most of us — those raised on a steady diet of systematic instruction — fear unschooling like we fear Black Holes and other mysteries of the universe. We do not understand what we do not know. And we do not embrace what we have not experienced.

I stumbled into the world of unschooling with my third child, Jesse. I wish I could say I was brave and sure enough to have chosen it, but I’m not as smart at Altucher, Mitra, or Musk. Nevertheless, unschooling was a foregone conclusion once Jesse refused to do school at home and I refused to have him do school at school. Here’s what I learned in the process:

Unschooling works. It’s not just an alternative to traditional schooling, but far better. It produces happy, self-organized children who love to learn and it lays the foundation for a joyful and complete home. Scientists, neurologists, psychologists, and even enlightened educators can tell you precisely WHY unschooling works. I can just tell you that it does.

My son, Jesse, took a lifetime hiatus from traditional school and then used the skills he learned NOT doing school (creativity, resourcefulness, self-discipline) to outperform his friends in college, most of whom had spent 12+ years “practicing” for college. The idea that we have to layer year after year of progressive information-sharing and academic assignments on our children in order for them to do well in college is a fallacy.

What’s interesting about Jesse, though, is not that he makes good grades in college (although I think it’s incredibly instructive to know that he does), but that Jesse thinks and acts differently than most of his peers. He’s more self-motivated and more resourceful, definitely more willing to seize opportunities and take risks. He loves to learn and is an inventive problem solver.

Jesse takes good care of his body, his mind, his faith, his relationships, and his finances, but he couldn’t care a fig about school. He thinks college is pretty much a waste of time, except as a place to connect with people and have fun. A few months ago someone told Jesse a local real estate mogul was visiting his university and Jesse, a budding real estate investor himself, dropped what he was doing and ran across campus to meet him. The guy offered Jesse a job on-the-spot.

This is the way Jesse rolls. For him, forging new paths and creating new opportunities are easy and normal. But it’s not so hard to seize life and chase dreams as an adult when you have spent your entire childhood doing the same.

Most people who teach children seem bent on insuring children do just the opposite. They insist children shelve their incessant desire to imagine and play in favor of sitting in quiet and dull classrooms. They put all their time and attention into corralling children’s intellect and controlling their energy. They succeed in creating excellent rote learners and experts at executing rudimentary, well-defined academic tasks. But they are left with a problem in the end: When children spend 12 years learning how to succeed in school, how in the world do they ever unlearn it?

Maybe the secret to why unschooling works has nothing to do with what it does, but what it doesn’t do. Unschooling prevents schooling. That may be the simple, most obvious reason why smart people choose to do it.

Until next time…be fearless.

Five Ways to Make Sure Your Child Hates Homeschooling

There is a strong correlation between the way children feel about homeschooling and the sustainability of their home schools. If your child enjoys homeschooling, it’s likely your family will enjoy the benefits of homeschooling for many years to come. But, if your child strongly dislikes homeschooling, your homeschool is destined to fail.

If you want your homeschool to thrive and last long into the future, it’s important to work hard to create an engaging homeschool program and environment that appeals to your children. If that’s not important to you, then consider the following:

Five Ways To Make Sure Your Child Hates Homeschooling

1. Mimic the calendar and school day of a traditional school.

One of the advantages of individualized learning is that children can learn more and in less time in home schools than they can in traditional schools. Don’t use the extra time you have to wear out your children with extra lessons.

2. Make sure you so tightly control your child’s social life that he/she doesn’t have one.

Most children desire to spend time with other children and, to a child, school seems like the most obvious place to make friends. As your child ages, homeschool parents need to make it a priority to carve out more and more time during the week for children to spend time with other children.

3. Pick curriculums that are more demanding, than they are effective.

There are many curriculums available that pride themselves on being “rigorous” and “complete.” These curriculums are typically dull and exhausting Avoid them in favor of books and homeschool programs that are interesting and inspiring. And, remember, curriculums that work well will naturally feel “easy” to children. “Easy” is good. “Easy” is your friend.

4. Designate so much time to formal schooling that your child never has the time (or the will) to engage in interesting and beneficial activities available outside the home.

A homeschooler’s year should be liberally peppered with trips, field trips, and activities outside the home. Activities like sports teams, scouting groups, and theater programs should be given priority, not just an afterthought. Schedule your child’s activities first, then schedule academic studies in the time that remains.

5. Turn your home into a school.

Avoid the trappings of formal schools. Your child doesn’t have to get up early. He doesn’t need to get dressed for the day right away. He doesn’t need a schoolroom or even a designated area for school. Instead, utilize the comforts (both physical and emotional) of home. It’s fine for a child to get up later that his school counterparts, eat a leisurely breakfast, and do school on his bed. These things will not doom him to a life of laziness and indifference later on. They simply are the benefits of doing school at home.

If you homeschool your children in a way that takes full advantage of the many benefits and pleasures of homeschooling, it’s likely your children will want to continue homeschooling. This is of critical importance. Because if your child likes and embraces homeschooling, it’s likely that your homeschool will continue far into the future.

Until next time…Be fearless.

The Way Learning is Supposed to Happen (At the Point of Need)

This past week my college-aged son, Jesse, had a doozy of a week. He had two major tests and a large presentation he had to fit in along with a multitude of other on and off-campus responsibilities. In the thick of it all, he called me and asked if I could help him study for one of the tests.

I was a little surprised to get the call, but also pleased that I could help. I immediately cleared my schedule that evening and waited for my son to make the 20-minute trek home to study.

As it turned out, Jesse needed help with his Business Law class. I’m not strong on “business,” but I’m pretty good with “law.” So Jesse pulled out a study guide for his test and we went over it together. There were two things that stood out to me about this study session:

First, it surprised me how little Jesse knew about basic governmental law and function. Given that I was Jesse’s homeschool teacher, I could have felt bad about that, but I refused to. I’m pretty sure I made an effort to teach these basic notions, but Jesse simply didn’t pick them up.

But the second thing that surprised me was far more significant (and positive): At 21 years of age and with a difficult test staring him in the face, Jesse could learn at lightening speed. Within an hour, Jesse had mastered the information on the study guide, understood it, and could apply it. He then promptly fixed himself a snack, thanked me, and hurried out the door.

Lest you think Jesse really didn’t have that much to learn in that hour, let me assure you he did. The first question in his study guide concerned the U.S. Constitution and Jesse knew little about it.  The second question mentioned the “balance of power” among the “three branches of government” and Jesse had never heard of either. When I used words like “judiciary,” “executive,” and “legislative” to describe the three branches, he looked at me with blank stares. Each term had to be broken down and further explained. We pretty much had to start from scratch when it came to understanding basic governmental function. Only after he mastered the basics could he move on to the more complex Business Law principles addressed in the study guide.

But what would have taken a long time to learn in fourth grade (the grade when the these concepts are typically introduced) took just a few minutes for a 21-year-old. Not only that, but Jesse immediately understood the principles involved and was able to apply them. By the end of our one-hour study time together, Jesse could explain the different facets of complicated business law cases. He could predict the outcomes of those cases based on precedent and case law. And he could identify the different schools of jurisprudence utilized by various judges and attorneys.

This brings home a point I have long made: People—both children and adults—learn best (and maybe only) when they need and want to learn.

Forcing children to struggle with complicated subjects like the balance of powers and constitutional law when they are 10 years old makes no sense at all. There is no interest and no ability to understand something so distantly related to the life of a child. Even memorization at this age is more difficult than it is later on.

Education would be far more simple and beneficial if we let children learn at their own pace and as they encounter the need for learning. It’s funny, but my kids don’t have any trouble figuring out how to work any of our home electronics. They surf the Internet and manage social media like pros. Complicated computer gaming is a snap. They learn these things because they either want or need to. They retain the learning because they utilize it every day.

This is exactly how learning works in the real world. I remember my daughter’s first day on the job in a professional position following her college graduation. Kelsey came home in a panic saying her college classes in graphic design had not prepared her for the expectations of her graphic design job. She was being asked to make decisions and do things she didn’t know anything about. So what did she do? That night, her first night on the job, she desperately called a man from our church who worked in the same industry and pelted him with questions. The next day she returned to work armed with a plan.

I have lots of mantras in my homeschool. One of them is this: “Why do something hard today when you can do it easy tomorrow?”

In other words, don’t spend long hours forcing children to learn things they can easily (and better) learn later on. It’s not wise to frustrate children this way and it’s not smart to waste their time either. If the subject matter is difficult and you are having to teach and re-teach, set it aside. The time is not right.

Some teachers get this concept and will delay learning for awhile, but they get nervous as high school graduation nears . So they re-tackle difficult and unnecessary subject matter. They are worried about “holes” and “gaps” in education, fretting about what will happen if they miss teaching something that will come up later.

Well, here’s what will happen: Your children will do what Jesse and Kelsey did. They will figure it out for themselves.

They may have to do a little extra work. They may have to stay up a little later studying for a test or preparing for a work project. They may even have to call you, or another family member or friend, and ask for help. But they WILL figure it out because now, and only now, they HAVE to. That need ensures success like your random school lessons never could.

Until next time…be fearless.

 

One Thing That Worked in My Homeschool This Week (Sept. 22-26)

My good friend, Tiffany, also happens to write my favorite food blog, which is Eat At Home Cooks. (Check it out here.) She recently started a series titled “Three Things That Worked in the Kitchen This Week,” which I think is an awesome idea.

So I stole it.

Today, I offer you my first installment of “One Thing That Worked in My Homeschool This Week,” which will be a series of posts about one single, usually simple, thing that happened in the past week that could be categorized as “a success.” Notice I’m not quite as ambitious as Tiffany in coming up with three successes. But I figure if I can come up with just one success worth sharing with others, I’ve probably had a good week.

This week I’ve realized that my unique choice for a science “curriculum” is working quite well. This past summer I purchased one of those big, learning workbooks you can find at Sam’s Club and other big box stores. This one was titled “Science Essentials.”

Most homeschool moms don’t purchase these kinds of workbooks to teach their children because they aren’t considered “real” or “full” curriculums. So that fact alone makes my choice of “curriculums” just a little odd.

However, what’s truly unique about my choice is the suggested grade level of the workbook. This workbook is suggested for Grades 5-6. My girls are in Grades 8 and 10.

What?

Yes, my girls are working in a science book 4 to 6 grades under their own grade level. And I’m glad. Because it’s working.

Here’s the trap a lot of teachers fall into. Either by mandate or choice, we do not match the learning experience to the child. We simply assume what a child needs to know (based on what we have been told) and what a child can do (based on age and/or grade level). Rarely do these two things match up.

Having taught hundreds of children over the years, I know most children are operating in content areas way over their heads. As they get older, the problem escalates quickly. Children often “succeed” because they resort to coping strategies (memorization, “work arounds,” even cheating). But, often they have no idea what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how to apply anything they have learned.

What I’m talking about are kids who are trying to write research papers when they can barely write a good sentence. Or kids who tackle long division who don’t know their math facts. Or high school students who do complicated advanced science subjects and they still don’t know how a cloud is formed. Or how a lever works. Or how the Earth’s movement affects our days and seasons.

So, when I chose a science “curriculum” for our homeschool this year, I tried to choose books and activities that teach only what my kids need to know and do it is a simple, systematic way that leads to at least some retention of the material.

This fall my children have been reading and learning basic scientific principles and having fun doing it. They are learning, but not struggling. I’m quite sure they are getting down many of the fundamentals of science and maybe learning some interesting science facts along the way.

With my older children we tried many middle school and high school science texts. But we didn’t like or finish even one, not even the homeschooler’s favorite—Apologia. Parts were interesting and informative, but there was simply way too much work involved, the applications were too complicated, and there was too much information presented to be retained going forward.

Most teachers continue to push through these kinds of curriculums because they think their children must know these things for the ACT/SAT college entrance exams and for college science classes.

But this is so not true.

College science courses do not require prior knowledge and science sections of college entrance exams only require common sensical application of very fundamental principles. The worst thing teachers can do to prepare their children for what lies ahead is overwhelm them with so many scientific details and theories that they never learn the needed basics.

That’s why I plan to stick to my simple, little science workbooks. And, lest you think I’m crazy, consider this:

With my three oldest children, we never completed a “real” high school science biology course. We never studied chemistry or physics at all. However, all three made A’s and B’s in their college science classes and did very well on the science section of the college entrance exams.

My children are no geniuses. But our approach to science turned out to be pretty smart.

Homeschooling in a Virtual Age Wrap-Up (Part 5)

For the past few weeks, I’ve been writing a series of blogs titled “Homeschooling in a Virtual Age.” Each blog addressed a different topic related to the overall subject. But how do the various topics fit together? Here’s a chronological summary of the main points:

1. The rapid advances in technology have completely changed the way we live and work in the world. Almost every career field in America has been changed at its very core by the fact that computer technology can put large amounts of information and diagnostic services at the fingertips of every American.

2. To succeed in this new environment, people no longer need specialized information or skills, but the ability to select, synthesize, manage, and apply mega amounts of information quickly and wisely. The ability to do this takes smart people. It takes people who can think. It takes people with well-functioning brains.

3. To help children prepare for life and career in this new world, parents and teachers should focus on providing instruction and activities that build the brain. Recent advances in scientific brain research have made it clear how this is accomplished: Brains are built through exercise. The more the brain is utilized and the higher the order of thinking, the faster the brain functions and the bigger it grows. In other words, brains don’t just “fill up,” they expand and contract and speed up or slow down based on the degree to which they are used.

4. Therefore, in homeschooling, parents should be seeking out assignments and activities that engage and stimulate brains, spark higher order thinking, and demand as much multi-level use and quick application of brain function as possible. These kinds of activities typically do not happen in traditional classroom environments where assignments rely on one or two steps of problem solving or focus on unnecessary acquisition of knowledge readily available to students via the Internet. Brains are built far better in places like backyards, playgrounds, studios, stages, ball fields, libraries, living rooms, and even bedrooms. Because these are the places where children live, work and play. The places where children solve real problems of complexity and are inspired to imagine and create new ways of playing, living, and learning.

Home schools are strongly positioned to engage in brain-building activities. Even if homeschool families teach and learn using the same methodologies employed in traditional classrooms, they are still far ahead of their public and private school counterparts because they do it for less time each day.

Instead of the six-hour brain drain that most school children go through each day (not to mention the hours of homework each night), homeschool children complete their assignments in a fraction of that time. Afterward, they are free to engage in the types of activities that truly build brains.

One of the most interesting research studies I encountered while preparing for this blog series involved London taxi and bus drivers, two very different occupations requiring very different skills and preparations.

The difficulty of being a taxi driver in London is legend. People seeking a taxi license must demonstrate they have memorized the location of 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks, as well as all the routes between them. This gargantuan task is made even more difficult by the fact that London streets twist and turn and follow no grid pattern at all. After memorizing this information, London taxi drivers must employ it by picking up any number of different clients each day and transporting them to where they want to go, expertly navigating a city of 8 million people without GPS.

On the other hand, London bus drivers must pass a far simpler test, and then follow it up by driving the same, simple route each day.

When scientists looked at the brains of the two groups, they saw that, as a group, taxi drivers’ brains were much different from those of bus drivers. Specifically, the hippocampus in the posterior region of the brain was much larger, a critical finding considering this area is where short-term memory is transferred into long-term memory. The conclusion? When large amounts of information are sorted and applied regularly, the brain physically grows. This, in turn, increases the opportunity and capacity for even more complex learning in the future. Simply put, London taxi drivers, by virtue of their daily activities, are smarter than London bus drivers.

If homeschoolers want to get smarter they should avoid the simple tasks and routine of the London bus driver and open themselves up to the complex, real world of the London taxi driver. Their brains will be bigger and better because of it.

Until next time…be fearless.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thirteen Splendid Activities to Build the Brain (Homeschooling in a Virtual Age Part 4)

In the past two decades there have been some amazing scientific breakthroughs in understanding how the brain works. Advances in technology have enabled scientists to see and isolate what physically happens in the brain at the cellular level when new tasks or problems are addressed. And here’s what they found: The more people learn and the faster people learn, the more the neurotransmitters in the brain strengthen and grow. New connections form and the neurons transmit faster and more accurately.

This is not supposition by scientists. New imaging techniques have enabled scientists to track each of the 85+ billion neurons in the brain and the trillions of connections they make. The results have been surprising. Instead of the brain being “static,” as scientists previously thought, they now know we can actually “build” brains.

This has huge implications for learning and education. In the past, we only thought we could “fill up” a brain. We could teach it about things and have it experience things, but the capacity of the brain would remain the same through it all. We thought the brain was simply a genetic gift we were either stuck with or blessed with.

Now we know the brain is like a muscle that can be physically increased and strengthened with exercise. People learn to learn by learning. They learn to think by thinking. The more complex and stimulating the learning, the more the brain changes and adapts to handle even more complex learning in the future. The entire process is not all that different from building muscles by lifting weights. It really doesn’t matter what you lift—bar bells, sand bags, canned vegetables–because the benefits are derived from the exercise itself. The same is true for brain building. It’s not the content of the learning that matters, but the nature and intensity of the workout.

What does this mean for homeschool teachers?

First, we should not spend 13 years of our children’s lives entirely focused on transferring content from books and curriculums to the brains of our children. We will literally put our children’s brains to sleep by slowing down the neural activity. Instead, we should challenge them daily with new and complex activities that stimulate their minds and, ultimately, lead to new brain development.

Sound hard? Not really. There are thousands of activities and pursuits that build brain activity better that traditional school lessons. Just look for activities and tasks that require the brain to:

  • Process new information
  • Analyze and evaluate information
  • Apply learning to new situations
  • Make decisions quickly

Some formal school lessons can touch the tip of the iceberg when it comes to building brainpower, but it takes more complex activity than just “studying” to really boost brain function. Here are some of my favorites:

1. Organized Sports

Organized sports build the brain because they require players to constantly be incorporating new information into old to make rapid-fire decisions about how to play a game. Competition and team-based elements escalate learning.

2. Playground and Lawn Games (Unorganized Sports)

Games like tag, hide-go-seek and other recreational sports aren’t as good as team sports because they are less complex and are typically played at a much slower pace. But they are still good mental workouts.

3. Music Creation

Creating music requires mental and physical dexterity and boosts many specific brain functions, including attention, decoding, recognition of patterns, creativity, visual discrimination, auditory processing, and memory. The cognitive benefits of playing a musical instrument have often been studied and the results can be found here. Listening to music also has cognitive benefits, but not as many as creating it.

4. Card Games

Card games teach more than just math skills. They boost brainpower as players consider strategy based on how the game unfolds from one moment to the next. Card players must make a new decision each time a card is played in a game. Good card players actually play several games at the same time because they understand and consider what other players are thinking and doing throughout the game.

5. Strategy Board Games

These hold similar cognitive benefits as card games. Among the best? Dominos, Chess, Checkers, Risk, Mastermind, Scrabble, Backgammon, Settlers of Catan, Axis and Allies, the list goes on and on.

6. Video and Computer Games (Strategy and Simulation)

Don’t let popular sentiment about computer games sway you. Most carry some cognitive benefits and many carry a lot. Strategy and simulation games are the best. Check out their cognitive benefits here.

7. Video and Computer Games (Brain Building)

The full cognitive benefits of these are debated, but most studies are showing at least some considerable benefits from playing computer-based games that exercise specific brain functions. The popular web site Lumosity currently has 60 million users, including myself. Based on my own experience, these games are beneficial. But the benefits are limited by very defined objectives and lack of broad-based thinking required.

8. Reading

Schools destroy the cognitive benefits of reading by requiring students to answer questions about what they have read when they finish. Smart kids quickly figure out they need to isolate pieces of information and notate possible test answers when they read, rather than engage in the open-ended, creative process of embracing a complex story as it unfolds. When people read for pleasure, they explore and interact with the story, developing new ideas as they go along and predicting the outcomes as the details of the plot are unearthed. This is higher order thinking that builds the brain. Read more about the cognitive benefits of reading for pleasure here.

9. Watching Video, Television, and Film

Similar to the benefits of reading, stories played out on the small and large screen stimulate brain interaction with the plot and characters. Obviously, complex and sophisticated video stories require much more brain function than others. Keep in mind; some shows require so little brain function they may be of no cognitive benefit at all. Also, compared side by side with reading, visual media is typically not as beneficial. Readers have the advantage of being able to slow the story down in order to explore and interact more with the characters and plot. They also must use more creativity to fill in all the visual details of the printed story.

10. Telling or Writing Stories

Communicating a story, event or an idea takes a lot of brainpower. An experience must be recalled or created. It must then be ordered and organized in a manner that makes sense. Finally, it much be delivered with impact. Encourage children to write and tell stories. The more creative the better. Today, there are many ways to tell stories–journaling, letter writing, email, creative writing, blogging, videos, or the old-fashioned way, which is sharing with family around a dinner table.

11. Art

Any art activity that encourages people to be creative has cognitive benefits. The more open-ended and creative the project, the better. But even coloring books build brains because they require attention, discrimination, and a modicum of creativity. 

12. Creative Play

Playtime can be the most important, brain-building time of the day. Any play that involves moving, thinking, creating, imagining, and/or the five senses is superb. Think cowboys and Indians, princesses and action heroes! Avoid toys. 

13. Performing Arts

Drama, dance, vocal music, and other performing arts are all wonderful platforms for building brain function.

As I look through this list of 13 activities two thoughts and two questions come to mind. First, these are activities that most children would classify as fun. So why frustrate children with boring school lessons and homework when they can be engaging in activities that not only are more fun, but also build the brain better anyway?

Second, for most children, even homeschoolers, these 13 activities are typically done AFTER school. It seems a shame to keep children at the kitchen table all day “doing school” and then hoping they’re not too tired later to participate in the activities that would teach and build their brains far more. Maybe homeschool parents should pencil into their schedules the activities listed here FIRST, and then do traditional school lessons in the time they have left over?

Until next time…Be fearless.