How to Create a Positive Learning Environment at Home - The Ultimate Guide for Parents
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In this guide:
- What is a positive learning environment?
- The 3 core elements of a healthy learning environment
- Who needs a positive learning environment and why?
- Get started! 9 ways for parents to create a healthy, positive learning environment at home
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Where should parents begin creating a positive learning-and-learner friendly environment at home? Most parents start with the physical space, but this is secondary to the emotional safe space of asking questions, experimenting, making mistakes, failing, and trying again. If you know where to look, every corner of the house and every single interaction with the child presents learning opportunities - for both learners and parents.
Since children spend a considerable amount of their first 18 years at home, with parents as the anchors through that time, it's safe to say that a positive learning environment at home goes a long way in helping develop children’s emotional, physical and intellectual learning ability.
Not just the right learning skills and a healthy relationship with learning, but also better and more effective learning outcomes - for the academic and non-academic skills they are picking up every day, every moment.
What is a Positive Learning Environment?
A learning environment that encourages curiosity, questions, exploration, immersion and collaboration is not just a happy physical space full of bright colors and inspiring posters. While the physical suitability of the space, in terms of accessibility, safety and comfort are important, we also need to create the intellectual and emotional learning environment our children need to truly follow their curiosity and develop their learning to learn skills.
I’ll discuss each element below, but before that let me outline what I mean by creating a learning environment at home.
Leave the Education (what to learn) to School. Let the Home be Just About Learning to Learn.
Learning at home is not about turning our homes into a mini-school. It’s about replacing the environment of ‘fear-led studying’ with ‘healthy learning’ that empowers our kids to imagine, ask, think, connect, apply, do, and problem-solve in diverse contexts.
I don’t use ‘healthy’ as an euphemism for ‘happy’ in the sense that we need to create a space that's free of struggle, disagreement or confusion. In fact, there will probably be a lot of that if real learning is going on.
By healthy, I mean that learning is self-directed, enriching, collaborative, ongoing and leads to growth. I mean a space that allows plenty of time to focus on reflection, to process learning, to connect the dots, at each individual's own pace.
I mean a space that radiates its openness to possibilities, inspiring everyone in it to do the same. That gives everyone the space to voice the agreements, disagreements, fears, doubts, hopes and ideas without fear of judgment or censure.
And a space that helps enjoy the journey - the process of learning - rather than chases a destination or goal - be it an exam or evaluation or even a finished project that’s just waiting to be oohed and ahh-ed over on Instagram.
The 3 Core Elements of a Healthy Learning Environment
1. Physical Learning Environment
A safe space that’s comfortable and lets all members of the family access learning resources. For example, if your kids are small, place books and toys where they can reach them and explore them. If your kids spend time with you in the kitchen, fill the lower shelves and drawers with tools, lids, and jars they can play with, bang around and experiment with. Of course the safe also needs to ensure physical safety - that means a minimal threat to their physical safety and no threats to their sexual safety.
I’ve written about why just protecting children from dangers and threats by removing them is not realistic. After all, there is a world outside the home that you can't control and you won’t always be physically present with them to protect them either. However, working with the child to become aware of and exercise their own power, to help them believe they are in control of themselves and can take necessary steps if they feel threatened is an important part of creating an open and judgment free learning environment, where they can feel safe and empowered.
Creating a physically sound learning space at home also means rich sensory stimuli for kids to respond to - opportunities to see, taste, hear, smell, touch and play with things abound in any normal home. It is also about the 3 secret ingredients: rest, play and food, that so impact our child's learning outcomes.
Also read: Mistakes to avoid when creating a learning environment at home
2. Emotional Learning Environment
A space where a child feels safe to express emotions such as being tired, feeling overwhelmed or depressed is so important, as the learning process can be taxing and the child needs to feel like it's okay for them to stop when they want, without being labeled or judged. We have all heard words like don't quit, or go the distance - and these do put pressure on the child to perform when they are not motivated.
Instead, it helps to create an environment where they can express their fears safely, and know that the option of changing their mind is a valid choice, as long as they are aware of why and have some ability to reflect on the experience. That is when true learning occurs. Not just by finishing tasks but being able to reflect on a task whether finished or unfinished. Both have something to teach us about ourselves, our learning style and our learning goals.
Emotionally positive learning environment also means the child has the security and confidence to take risks and feel challenged and excited to try something new. Emotionally safe learning environments can be created by actively encouraging all members of the family to share feelings, reflect together (maybe at the dinner table) and modeling a no-labels lifestyle with each other.
It's also important that we as adults watch our self-talk. When you drop something, for example, instead of chiding yourself, be kind to yourself. Remember the kids are watching and will tend to expect recriminations if they drop something.
Some degree of daily rhythm, pattern, and structure to the day also lend predictability and emotional stability to younger learners.
3. Intellectual Learning Environment
An intellectually stimulating learning environment is key to learning, perhaps more so than any other element of the environment. We have all seen genius inventors come out of very difficult childhoods, and learn despite the least safe physical and emotional spaces. They may have had none of that, but almost all had one mentor, one angel who guided them - be it a parent or a teacher or a friend - to do much more with their learning ability than believed possible. An intellectually stimulating environment does not need expensive gadgets or computers or those ‘DIY’ genius boxes or ridiculously overpriced Montessori blocks and beads that claim to turn your child into intellectual giants. The greatest tool of an intellectually positive learning environment, in my opinion, is conversation.
Yes, really. Engaging the child in conversations, stories, discussions, critical investigations and explorations of concepts, using questions as a tool are all the gadgets an intellectually sound learning environment needs. The best part? They cost nothing except your time and attention as a parent.
Who Needs a Positive Learning Environment and Why?
I'm often asked if a healthy, positive learning environment is something that is especially needed by homeschoolers or unschoolers, or stay at home and alternate education learners. I always answer with the same question: where does your child spend the most time? If the answer is home, it doesn't matter if they are homeschooled or go to a private school, the fact is all parents need to create a conducive learning environment at home.
Schools of course have to lay disproportionate focus on the physical aspects of the learning environment: the stuff you see as parents when you go for admissions or PTA meetings, such as the lovely science labs or the colorful art and craft rooms, the large and airy gyms and so on.
What is not so easily visible is the emotional and intellectual environment that is created for learning. To repeat an oft repeated point of mine, learning is not only about studying. Yes, doing what the curriculum needs and demands is one part of the learning process.
However, by learning I mean the ability to absorb, understand (make meaning), recall, connect and apply the learning to further their learning and doing goals. And this sort of learning needs an effective learning environment, especially at home, where all children spend the most time in the early and formative years.
Others ask me if there is an age for creating a learning environment. Well, of course, learning starts from the moment a child is born and ends when we leave the earth. So the answer is no - there is no age to start creating a positive learning environment. But remember not to confuse this with investing in equipment, gadgets and yellow wooden chairs. All this needs is your attitude, as parents, to be in tune with the learning needs of the child.
But if you need science to back that up, then this research study from ScienceDirect shows how important a parent's role is in creating a learning environment at home, irrespective of where the child studies or is being educated.
The development of scientific literacy is understood as a life-long process, starting in early childhood. Learning opportunities support children to develop a basic knowledge of concepts and first inquiry skills, which is the foundation for subsequent cumulative learning processes. The study concludes that for young children, the most important learning environment for various educational processes is the family context. The home learning environment has a significant influence on children's emotional and intellectual growth, school readiness, and their subsequent academic achievement
How to Create a Positive Learning Environment at Home?
9 Ideas for Parents of School-Age Kids
Let us approach the idea of learning from a whole different lens than we have been used to. Consciously co-creating a healthy, joyful learning environment for our children is a change that involves the whole family.
In a child-led and child-centered learning space, it's important to design for accessibility so kids can easily get to the things and places they want to. Without making it too easy, but ensuring there is no physical danger, bookshelves should be at the appropriate height, toys should be stored in a way that they can access (and tidy up) themselves, and so on. This physical accessibility is crucial to helping them move around safely, without being told every minute ‘don’t go there’ or ‘don’t touch that’ because such talk can create a paralyzing fear of the unknown as well as the sense of needing instructions to decide what is safe and what isn’t.
Language has a very important impact on cognitive development - the more languages children are exposed to from an early age the better. If you do not have a multilingual household like I do, encourage your friends who speak different languages to engage with your kids and maybe even teach them short easy poems in their language.
3. Experiential learning
Exposing children to as many diverse experiences at home and outside can go a long way in opening up their minds to the possibilities and connections. From rock climbing to redecorating the house and the diversity in foods cooked. During the lockdown, one of the things we tried as a family was to pick a country each month. That entire month was dedicated to that country - from the food we cooked, to using simple phrases from their language for good morning, good evening, and please and thank you; to trying to adapt clothing at hand to look like traditional clothes from that country, to listening to their music, taking a virtual tour of its major tourist destinations and finally discussing the history and culture of that country.
Also read: How to Embrace and Enjoy - not Fear - Math
4. Activity based / Project based learning
Everything from weekly groceries to laundry and gardening can be used for project based learning while also including children in the running of the home. It helps them become resourceful, learn to ask for help, and learn from mistakes by realizing the practical consequences of making them, all in a relatively low-stakes environment. A project doesn’t have to be ‘a project’ to be honest. For example, when I see all the Youtube videos on physics experiments, I get tired just thinking about all the materials to gather and set up before the child and actually get engaged. Instead, either enlist the kids to go find the materials needed or find replacements, or just use normal day to day activities to talk about the science concept - wiping the table is all about force, motion, pressure, and gravity, for example.
Another important element in activity or project based learning can be to add constraints. For example, making a dish without any measures but only using guesswork; or trying to wear their clothes with one hand tied behind their back, or arranging their books blindfolded. The constraints can be physical, or intellectual but they will help the child experience the entire activity in a very new way, and also force them to use their ingenuity in problem solving.
Kids are natural experimenters (is that a word!?) and pushers of boundaries.
The famous polymath Buckminster Fuller said, “Everyone is born a genius, but the process of living de-geniuses them.”
So let us not play a role in de-geniusing our kids by taking away their sense of experimentation. When they are splashing water or smearing food on their cheeks, they are experimenting, seeing how far they can go, seeing how the water or the food behaves and feels and reacts. Let them.
A mess can be cleaned away, but a lost learning opportunity is never coming back. But more than the learning opportunity, creating a safe space for experimentation and making mistakes is a critical part of a healthy emotional learning environment. Experimentation never looks safe, tidy or organized. Be prepared for that. Creating an experimental mindset - one that does not fear failure - is also key to creating intellectual safe spaces.
Also read: Why Failing and making Mistakes is a 21st Century Super Skill
6. Co-operative and collaborative spaces
A key human need is to be included, a part of something, a community. So letting your kids into the running of the home and making key decisions will not only help them develop their team and collaborative working skills, but also help them feel like they are an important part of the team.
In such an environment where everyone in the team plays a unique role and has a say in decision making, one feels more empowered to learn, take risks and speak up when they see things are not quite right. Being able to work collaboratively with a team is a key 21st century skill.
Like I’ve said before- mathematicians don't work in silos - they work with climate change scientists or archeologists. Marketing professionals work with sales and media and journalists- all of whom work in very different ecosystems but share a common goal.
7. The role of questions (and answers)
In my day, asking too many questions in school got you labeled as either over-smart, a troublemaker or really dumb. I’m hopeful things have changed in schools, but at least on paper, all schools claim they encourage curiosity and questions. At home though, as parents we need to seriously introspect on how we handle questions from our children.
Sometimes, we parents are too keen to answer questions, either because we want to appear super smart to our kids or we are so keen for them to know the information that we just hand it to them.
But actually, while asking questions is great, a sign of a positive learning environment is not just handing out answers or making it too easy. This article from the world of business suggests that the top-down system which believed that all the answers exist at the top of the organization and flow down from there to others is outdated.
Here is why parents should not directly answer every curious question their child has.
As parents try to create an environment that invites learning, handing out answers is detrimental because it deprives kids of the opportunity to work out the answer themselves, it takes away their ‘ownership’ of the problem, and finally, it kills the possibility of new and improved solutions emerging. At a deeper level, handing out answers shifts the focus to the solution rather than the process of understanding.
Parents should instead think about what it is that is stopping the child from arriving at the answers themselves, and address that instead. So what can you do instead of giving direct answers every time? (Some context may warrant direct answers and there is no formula, so use your discretion!) Ask another question back, give an analogy or ask them to think about the question from a different perspective (reframe the question) so as to invite new thinking on it.
Also read: The 6 Types of Questions Every Student Should Learn to Ask
8. Decision Making
Children need to realize that they have rights and duties and this only comes when they are allowed to have choices and make decisions for themselves. At home, we have a relatively low-stake decision making environment, but the impact of this can be high in the long run. Usually, I find children today have little to no agency about how their day is run. From what time they have to wake up, what they eat, what they wear, what they study in school (and when, for how long and how) - are all decided for them by others - especially parents, teachers, and other authority figures.
So how are they supposed to feel in control and empowered enough to learn and create independently? A key learning skill is to be able to think critically in order to make informed choices and decisions.
Try my 5F/A technique to warm up to this idea - for any choice the child wants to make next (for example, the child says they do not want to eat dinner) ask them to give you 5 reasons FOR and 5 reasons AGAINSTS (5F/A) their choice - and then ask them to make the most informed choice. (Or offer to be the referee and choose based on the merits of the argument, or put the decision to vote for the whole family based on the merits of the argument).
Not only will this help them become aware of the many ways decision-making can happen in a group, it will also help them deal with disappointment in a more healthy manner, assuming they still don’t get their way, without feeling entirely powerless.
9. Give Technology its Rightful Place
It is said that in any culture and generation, children are naturally drawn to learning how to use the tools of their society and culture. While in ancient times it may have been spears and swords or even agricultural implements, in our present modern-day middle class society and culture (I've found the middle class to be curiously similar anywhere in the world), digital devices and gadgets are the tools of choice.
And children naturally are drawn to learning these - it's a natural self-preservation instinct almost. They observe parents and they realize these things are clearly indispensable, and then they want to use them and master them. Ignoring technology and turning it into a sticking point is not really productive.
Think instead about creating an environment where children can use technology with purpose and mindfulness, in the right context, to aid productivity and speed up outcomes. This can include technology such as phones and computers, but also bring their attention to cars, washing machines and electric irons as a way to discuss what the earlier alternatives were and how humans have evolved these technological advancements to free up time for higher order thinking tasks.
Also Read: How Parents and Learners can Co-create an Effective Learning Strategy
Closing thoughts on Creating a Learning Environment at Home
Ultimately, learning is about finding or creating meaning in the content, and being able to connect it or apply it in different contexts. So, as parents, our job is to help children find meaning in the learning content - otherwise it's just words, concepts and ideas that have no bearing in real life (for them), and they will never be able to do anything with it.
Creating learning opportunities is all about helping them explore the possibilities in a situation and suggesting how they may look at a problem differently to find a solution to make a more informed decision (even if it isn’t the right one, remember this is about the process of arriving at an informed decision, not the outcome of always being right.)
And while the house gives us ample space to create learning opportunities or even use the ones presented to us in abundance, take time to reflect and let the child process the learning with enough down time, including a lifestyle that encourages great sleep, nourishment and exercise!
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