Encouraging passionate learners … even when it’s not your thing

The following post is by contributor Amanda Morgan of Not Just Cute.

I have vivid childhood memories of trekking down to the pond near our home and catching as many tadpoles in my bucket as my scrawny arms could carry.  I was fascinated by the process of metamorphosis and would check on them every day in the shed where I kept them, marveling over each limb as it appeared.

Once the tadpoles had fully transformed into tiny toads, my sibling and I would line them up in our driveway and race them down the lane as they made their way out in to the wild world of pastures, fields, and ditch banks that surrounded our rural home.

I was passionate about toads.

And my mother hated them.  But I never knew.

This was the woman I had seen pick up a snake by the tail and toss it out of her way.  She wasn’t afraid of anything.  At least that’s what I thought.  It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I realized toads made her feel skittish.  Repulsed.  Almost phobic.

As a child who was perpetually on the hunt for another amphibian, I never once remember her telling me that they were disgusting.  Or that nice girls don’t play with toads.  Or that I needed to find something “cuter” to spend my time on.

We have a powerful influence as parents.  Our words and our attitudes are often reflected back to us by our children.  This can be a great thing.  It’s often how we communicate what our family values and what our expectations are.

But our comments and actions can transmit negative attitudes as well, sometimes unintentionally.  And the significance may be greater than we realize.

In her book, Mind in the Making, Ellen Galinsky outlines seven essential skills every child needs.  One of those is self-directed, engaged learning.  One key aspect to building this skill is to encourage children’s genuine passions and interests and to guide and support them as they pursue them.  These passions are powerful motivators and efficient vehicles for so many positive learning outcomes.

The alternative, it seems, may be educational apathy.

We may not like math, or bugs, or messy art, or toads, but for our children they may be the sparks that kindle a fire of curiosity and a love of learning.

Photo by USFWS Pacific Southwest Region

My mom didn’t exactly throw on her galoshes and traipse down to the pond with me, but she never let her own attitude about toads get in the way of my curiosity.  Even if the interests of our children seem diametrically opposed to our own dispositions, there are ways we can still encourage them to be passionate learners.

Give Attention.

Listen to them describe their discoveries.  Ask questions and encourage them to take their exploration one step further.  If your fears make it hard for you to even hear about your child’s adventures (as genuine phobias may), excitedly encourage them to share their discoveries with another significant adult in their lives.  (“I bet Grandma can’t wait to hear all about the snakes you saw!  Let’s call her!”)

Give Supplies.

Help them find books, websites, and videos that will fuel their search for more information. Prepare them with simple tools like notebooks, collection boxes, magnifiers, or art supplies.  Small things can make a big difference not just in helping children extend their learning, but also in communicating your support.

Give Space.

Maybe your child could use a place to display his rock collection.  Maybe she needs a corner at the kitchen table for her writing center.  Giving your children space for their passionate exploration not only creates an open invitation for learning, but it can also give YOU the space you need.

I was never discouraged from collecting tadpoles, but they didn’t exactly have a spot at the kitchen table.  A shady corner of our shed was just right, not only for me and my tadpoles, but for my mom as well.

If you’re not a fan of messy art, set up an outdoor art table for easier clean up.  If you your child’s spider collection makes your skin crawl, set up a terrarium in a corner of your yard.

Luckily for my mom, I didn’t carry buckets of tadpoles around forever.  My passions shifted from toads to dancing, and on to cooking, the Civil Rights Movement, running, Spanish, and on and on.    Your children may not always be obsessed with the objects of your repulsion, but their love of learning will last a lifetime.

What are your kids passionate about, and how do you encourage their discoveries?

Kara here. I wanted to be sure to direct you to Amanda’s recent read-along series on Not Just Cute with the author of Mind in the Making, Ellen Galinsky. I think you’ll really enjoy it.

About Amanda

Amanda Morgan is a full time mom to three busy boys and a part-time trainer and consultant for a non-profit children's organization. She also writes at Not Just Cute, a blog full of ideas that are more than just cute, for preschoolers who are much more than cute too.

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  1. My daughter, Ada is almost three. A few months ago, she helped me plant our vegetable garden and we unearthed a lot of worms. She was fascinated just watching them. She wanted to know where their mommies were. She wasn’t touching them, though. I don’t especially like squirmy, slimy things, but I thought it was something she should experience. So I picked one up and let it squirm in my hand. Ada worked up the courage to poke them and then pet them. Finally, I put one in her hand and she squealed with such delight. Now she can’t get enough of them. She is always on the hunt for worms. After a rain storm, she goes around saving them from the pavement and putting them back in the grass. She even picks up dead ones, which I am not too thrilled about. I don’t regret encouraging her though. Her wonder and joy is worth it.

  2. What a really good post! It is true that we have to sometimes overcome our own disgust (ewww, bugs!!) or our own lack of passion about a particular subject just to make sure the kids get a balanced perspective. My daughter loves to poke around in brooks as well, and I am just happy to sit and watch. I find the best learning opportunities arise when my girls get a little bored and have to find their own passions!
    Steph´s latest post: Glass dreams

  3. My mom did the same thing with me. As a child I loved insects of all kinds. This interest has held true all my life, and now my kids are avid little etymologists. I only found out recently that my mom hates all bugs with the utmost passion. I always thought her dislike was confined to the stinging ones!

  4. Larryboy, from Veggie Tales, is my son’s absolute favorite superhero. Larryboy fights lying, temptation, anger– what parent woukdn’t love that? Me…sometimes. He draws and creates these little Larryboy figures constantly. While planning his upcoming birthday party the theme was a no brainier, UNTIL I started searching on Pinterest and blogs. I came up with a ton of beautiful ‘blog worthy’ ideas but they didn’t reflect my son. While working on his party I watched the documentary ‘Being Elmo.’ I was intrigued to see how much Kevin Clash’s mom encouraged him when others laughed! It made me think, rather than get frustrated when my son draws Larry Boy everywhere and reinacts the stories I should encourage him. Who knows, he could be the next big Christian animator! Thanks for this post!

  5. My mom was very good about not letting us know if she didn’t like something either. I’ve had a bit less success with it, and am so glad you reminded me of this. Sometimes words pop out of my mouth before I have a chance to stop them, so I am going to try to keep my thoughts to myself more. Thanks!

  6. I’ve had to look away whenever my two-year-old handles a snail or a roly-poly because I am not a bug person at all! But I don’t want my repulsion to deter him from exploring or worse, developing a phobia for bugs. Thankfully most of his interests are pretty interesting to me… just not the snails!
    Sleeping Should Be Easy´s latest post: How late is too late for your child’s bedtime?

  7. Dinosaurs. Ugh, I’m sick and tired of dinosaurs!! But my 8yo loves them. So, we visted the dinosaur museum. Bought a dinosaur t-shirt. Watch dinosaur shows on tv. Read about dinosaurs. Lapbook about dinosaurs. And hopefully all that he knows about dinosaurs (which is WAY more than me!) will someday be useful! All that aside, I am glad that he has a deep interest in something. I think it would be worse to flit from one thing to another and never really dig in to find out about it. (And at least they’re dead and gone, not crawling around in my backyard! lol!)


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