Last week, I had an idea, one that I think has the potential to be a great idea. Since October of last year, I’ve been self-employed which doesn’t really tell you much except that I have an awesome boss. In my case, I’ve spent the last several months splitting my time between consulting work (emails, phone calls, and reports) and research for a book project on how to improve the American education system (emails, phone calls, and writing). So, really I could be considered a ‘professional communicator’. If it weren’t for the fact that I am generally talking to some pretty amazing teachers and school leaders, who are at the helm of some extremely innovative education initiatives, I might just lose my mind. In truth,the last several years of my unusual career have given me the opportunity to work with and learn from programs from around the world that are having an amazing impact on kids.
So, what is this idea? Since this year is all about balance, and it is the first summer that I will have the luxury of sharing a good portion of it with my littlest kiddos (Little Son-8 and Baby Girl-4), I decided I wanted to try out some of what my research is telling me about how best to engage kids through informal learning experiences. I imagined sort of “home-brewed” summer camp. As I began to think about how I might be able to engage Little Son in a project, I immediately had a vision of him throwing a fit because he would much rather hang out with his friends! LIGHTBULB… Why not create a camp for Little Son AND his friends to engage the group in some informal learning experiences? And the spark was lit…
It took me less than an hour to put together an email that clearly articulated the idea and I sent it out to the parents of the friends of the Little Son. Within 3 days I heard from 13 families who were interested! The responses were pretty consistent, with an approximate 2:1 “brilliant to crazy” ratio, which made me think I may be onto something. So, I set to work coordinating calendars and came up with about 4 weeks where there were enough kids interested and available to plan a local DIY summer camp!
If you’re looking for ways to engage your own children this summer vacation, here are some tips to help nurture their curiosity through informal learning experiences. These techniques are all derived from educators around the US who are using interest-based learning, place-based learning, project-based learning, and service-based learning to ignite students’ natural curiosity about the world around them, to empower them to take control of their own learning, and ultimately to build the skills necessary to be successful in the global economy.
- Assess their interests and learning styles. What are they naturally interested in and how do they learn best? Research tells us that when a child is engaged in an activity that falls into their “interest domain”, they are more motivated to learn. It is this intrinsic motivation that has the greatest impact on a child’s abilities and achievements. Find out what interests them – it is the key to their motivation! (I’ve developed an Interest Assessment for use with K-5 grade level, feel free to access and use to help identify interests and learning preferences for your own kids)
- Get outside and explore! I recently posted on my own experience recognizing my disconnection with nature. My experiences with Nature University as well as conversations with teachers have convinced me that Nature has a unique power to fully engage your senses and to inspire creativity. I recently interviewed a teacher in Massachusetts who manages the Eco-Explorer program for elementary teachers. One of their techniques for teaching with the outdoors is a “10-minute field trip”, which is just enough time to sketch a flower, test some soil, or clear your head for that next great idea.
- Play lots of games (yes, including video games) and create new games! I am not a huge fan of video games, but I will admit my kids do enjoy playing them. And I tend to agree with the research that tells us that Games are NOT the enemy, despite the fact that so much of the world’s problems are blamed on video games. It’s hard to imagine there could be anything good about having our children spend hours staring at a screen and plotting and strategizing about how to reach the next level of Super Mario Brothers. But research tells us that process of learning how to play a new game actually develops the very skills we hope kids will hone by the time they reach adulthood. I am of the philosophy that if playing video games has some benefit, then designing video games must build useful skills as well. The fact is that there are few activities that will provide more training to solve real-world problems than designing a video game. Give kids a chance to play games and use the experience to create something new!
- Explore your community. A couple months ago, I spent some time talking with an amazing teacher in San Diego who took this approach with her science students; they spent one day a week out of the school building. And the results were astounding, kids made discoveries about the world just from observations in their own backyard. But even more important,this helps kids to understand what it means to be a part of a community. How are we all connected and how can we contribute to our community to solve a problem or serve a purpose? No matter where you live, there are rich experiences available to introduce your kids to different perspectives.
- Ask questions, research, and learn. Do people ever read a newspaper anymore? Well, in our community they do, though information overload is a very real problem and one that our children need to know how to manage. Access to information is no longer a luxury. For kids growing up today, digital natives, the critical issue has become how to cut through the overwhelming amounts of information to determine what is important, relevant, and accurate. Spend time reading and looking for information through available resources and build experiences around what you find. These experiences are building a foundation for lifelong learning, a skill that is necessary in the fast-moving economy we live in.
- Learn about another culture. Last summer , our family took an extended vacation to a small-town in Mexico. Instead of staying in a big resort, where we would have met lots of people from places just like our hometown, we rented a home in a small fishing town and attempted to integrate our selves in the local community. I can’t put into words how powerful it was to watch my children adapt to a new environment with a different language, different foods, and different challenges. Although the stay was only 2 weeks, it was long enough for all of us to appreciate that we are just one piece of the global puzzle, and it sparked a desire in the kids to learn about cultures different from our own. Travel is a wonderful way to do this, but it is not the only way, there are organizations and institutions everywhere that are dedicated to sharing their culture with the public. Take advantage of these opportunities for you and your children!
If you’re looking for ideas to keep your kids busy this summer, with worthwhile activities that will allow them to continue to grow, this should get you started. And stay tuned for more information about how to develop your own DIY Summer Camp with your kids!