5 Tips to Make Great Learning Happen When Kids Least Expect It

Have you ever taken your kids to a museum and gotten frustrated because they spent more time sliding down the bannisters than looking at the exhibits? Returned from a vacation deflated because they spent the entire trip glued to their screens?

As parents, we want our kids to see the magic in museums and the thrill that new places have to offer. But we forget that children may not share our enthusiasm. It’s our job to prime the pump — to build anticipation and excitement and to help our kids engage with new experiences in terms they understand.

Here are five tips for making the most of excursions with your children. Learning will happen without them even being aware of it, and when it does, their screens will stay dark.

1. Do your homework.

While spontaneity can sometimes produce magical results, it’s a serious gamble. If you don’t check a museum’s website, you may find yourself there when the LEGO exhibit is closed for refurbishment or all the Calder mobiles are on loan to a gallery.

Many museums offer children’s games, scavenger hunts, and other interactive opportunities. Check their websites, and be sure to bookmark or print out their offerings. If you can’t find anything specific, create your own scavenger hunt. An art museum becomes much more interesting to a child when she is challenged to find the six different times an American flag appears in a given exhibit.

Better yet, look for exhibitions that are hands-on (especially at history or science museums); these are almost always a good bet for kids who want to try new experiences for themselves.

2. Build excitement.

In addition to doing your own research, give homework to your kids. If you’re planning a visit to Philadelphia, for example, find age-appropriate books or movies that feature the historical city.

The Addy Series by Connie Porter— based on the American Girl doll Addy — follows Addy from slavery to life as a free person in Philadelphia. Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine recounts the true story of Henry “Box” Brown, who literally mailed himself to freedom in Philadelphia in 1849.

Once you and your kids have read these books, you will then see the city through the eyes of Addy and Henry. Your surroundings will come to life for your family in a way that would have been impossible without a literary background.

3. Let your kids lead.

Imagine how boring your vacation would be if you were forced to do only what someone else told you to do. Work with your kids individually, and share the responsibility of planning the trip with them. If you have two children, for example, try visiting two different cities. Assign each child a city, and help them both do research.

What’s there? What’s interesting about it? What do they want to do once they get there? Work with each child to plan a day, then let her lead once you arrive. Let your child recount to you and the rest of the family the history of the Liberty Bell, or why there’s a big metal bean in the middle of Chicago’s Millennium Park.

If you’re visiting Ellis Island, say, help one of your kids do some preliminary research on immigration into the island at the turn of the 20th century. Once you’re there, ask her to explain the parts of the building to the rest of the family, along with what types of conditions immigrants experienced, and the ways in which families were sometimes separated.

It’s important for children to understand that education is a shared experience, and that as adults we remain lifelong learners. When they can turn the tables and share educational information with their parents, they feel empowered — and this, in turn, can fuel their passion to dig deeper into a subject and continue to share the knowledge they uncover.

4. See the world through your kids’ eyes.

Give your children a point-and-shoot digital camera, and let them explore. Don’t tell them what is or isn’t picture-worthy. Let them discover it for themselves. They will almost certainly love the technology, and it will offer them a way to engage in a new place without feeling lost or unsure.

They are likely to take hundreds of pictures, and many may be of the sidewalk, the doors, or even the bathrooms. But they will also zoom in on things that catch their attention — perhaps the intricacy in a certain piece of art, the squirrels in a park, or the different types of flowers blooming in a city at a given time of year.

When kids have the freedom to photograph whatever they want, patterns start to emerge. Take note of those patterns — either in the moment as kids share their images with you, or once the photos are imported onto a computer.

You may notice that your child is drawn to architectural shapes and designs, or to nature — trees, birds, clouds, gardens — or to people at work or play. Explore these specific interests with her. Ask her why she chose to shoot those particular scenes and what she finds compelling about them.

Work with your child to create a project that further explores her areas of interest. If you are visiting another state or country and she has taken photos of indigenous trees, for example, you and your child could conduct research together to figure out which species of trees she photographed. You may then come to understand why these trees do well in one region or climate but wouldn’t thrive in your home climate. If your child’s interests seem architectural, then you might explore a certain period of architecture and discuss what the thinking behind the design might have been. Delve into the reasons why period architects worked as they did — including environmental factors or land-use policies — and consider the ways in which what you observe compares to modern design templates.

The camera offers a lens into your child’s interests and affords her the opportunity to explore what grabs her attention. Leverage that lens to tap into those interests and collaborate with her, and you might just find you’ve sparked an interest that she’ll continue to explore for months or even years to come.

5. Let them play! (And repeat as necessary.)

Have you ever been at the playground and seen a child repeatedly returning to the same slide again and again, while mom or dad keeps encouraging the child to try the swings or the monkey bars? Children learn by repetition, and children’s museums understand this, which is why they often include hands-on activities that children can repeat.

As 21st-century multitasking parents, we may find this concept hard to grasp. We want to see it, do it, and then move on to the next thing. Children, particularly young ones, want to see it, do it, do it again, and then do it again. Once they’ve mastered a skill, are they ready to move on? Maybe. But more likely, they’ll want to do it again and again, proud that they got it right. It’s OK! That’s hands-on learning working its magic.

Children’s repetitive play sets the stage for science experiments, design, mathematics, and all sorts of educational pursuits that require students to build out from one experience before moving on to the next one. As educator–parents, our job is to recognize when this type of repetitive play is happening, and to encourage it — rather than insisting on moving on right away. Many teachers will tell you they are often unable to complete their entire lesson plan for a given day’s activity, usually because something in the course of study grabbed the students’ imaginations and they stuck with it, repeating it, because learning was happening in that moment.

It’s OK if you find yourself at the incredible Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and your child is completely captivated by the mirror maze. If she feels compelled to repeat an experience, don’t try to drag her away. Draw her attention to the many different reflections, count any patterns you can find, and point out the countless equilateral triangles that make up the maze. If your child doesn’t yet know what an equilateral triangle is, take this opportunity to teach her! Use the time after the exhibit to draw a few, and then look around the museum for other examples of the shape. What may seem repetitive to you is active brain engagement for your child, a true learning-in-progress moment.

The bottom line is that children are hard-wired to learn. They are curious by nature, and hands-on experiences offer the perfect laboratory for engaging that curiosity. Just give them the tools and the freedom to explore at their pace, and you’re likely to see incredible brain-growth going on right before your eyes. No need to tell them it’s learning! For them, it’s just having fun.