Teaching Kids Real Things

Today was the best trip to the grocery store of my life. Yes, after motherhood it’s really the little things!

I finally got the nerve to take Larsen’s real shopping cart to the smaller grocery store by our house. I did get many stares, but sweet smiles to go with them.

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I told him a list of things we needed that I knew would be within his reach. Some parents even print out a little food guide children can cross off, but I wasn’t that nifty today.

The results were amazing. No toddler breakdowns. No whining for food with stupid cartoons on them. No running around the store.

I think it comes down to this: kids want to do real things.

They want to do what we do, what they witness as important. Our adult world has tangible outcomes – we grocery shop in order to prepare food. There’s a real life connection there.

This idea – using real world activities to educate a child- is on the forefront of education. And yes, I believe even a two-year-old will benefit from doing things with a purpose:

“An important idea that emerged from learning theory and research is that students construct more useful, robust, and integrated knowledge when they are engaged in their learning and helped to develop sophisticated understanding. Requiring students to merely carry out a task will not ensure learning. All too often, classroom tasks result in the acquisition of discrete information that is not very meaningful, memorable, or usable. Psychologist David Perkins (1993) calls such information, which often results from rote memorizing and is not easily transferred to other situations, inert knowledge. For meaningful learning to occur, students need to be cognitively engaged, or intellectually invested, and active in applying ideas. Cognitive engagement depends not only on the task itself, but also on the context in which the task is situated. This idea is referred to as situated cognition (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989). Situated cognition emphasizes that the activity and the context in which the activity unfolds are integral to what is learned.

Situated cognition also suggests that when students participate in authentic tasks, they acquire information about the conditions and situations in which it is useful to know and apply what they have learned. As a result, they are more likely to be able to take what they have learned in one situation and transfer it to another. Additionally, students are more likely to make relevant connections between their academics and their personal lives. As viewed through the situated cognition lens, authentic tasks engage students cognitively by providing opportunities to actively think about, integrate, and apply ideas in situations that are relevant beyond the classroom. This experience often results in learning that is personally meaningful and motivating for students.”

Larsen knows how to cook eggs – to crack them, stir them, and use the spatula very carefully next to the hot pan. He can use the blender, mixer, toaster. He knows how to hammer nails, use a screwdriver, use a shovel or rake. He can turn on the washing machine and dryer, load his clothes, and put in detergent.

These things, of course, happen under my guidance. Real things are not the kind that I can hope will entertain them while I check email. I need to be present. I show him how objects function as tools, and if he doesn’t use it properly, he doesn’t get to use it that day. We can try again another time when he’s ready.

I think there’s an important connection to teaching young kids what Maria Montessori calls “practical life skills.” I want Lars to learn how to function as an adult without the help of mom or dad as he ages. I want him to realize a home is made up of a family who supports each other with household tasks. It’s not just Mom’s job to make food or do laundry. We are a team.

And while these practical skills are important to me as a feminist mother, they are powerful in building his confidence. His intense concentration during the task shows me so.

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Sometimes giving Larsen a “simulated” or “child-size” world backfires. When we were potty training, we bought this potty at first:

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It was simple for him: he did his business, then put it in the real toilet, and flushed it goodbye.

I saw this potty, thinking it was cute, and put it in the other bathroom:

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It confused the hell out of him. When it flushed, his business didn’t disappear. There was no real consequence when flushing this potty. It looked somewhat like the real thing, but it didn’t function properly. He didn’t understand he had to still dump his pee in the toilet, and now flush TWO different potties- the simulated one- and the real adult size one.

I see a difference with engagement when we are cooking real food in my kitchen versus his wooden play kitchen. Yes, he likes to pretend some times, but mostly he wants real things that do real work.  He is a different child when he doing something authentic with a concrete outcome. He would much rather make blueberry muffins than pretend to do so.

I saw a difference when my media studies students showcased their work to businesses outside of school. They worked harder, were more “intellectually engaged,” and felt their work had meaning. This is true education.

I believe that children will rise up to meet our expectations, so why not expose them to opportunities to do real things from early ages?  I’ve learned this through teaching, and now I’m learning this through motherhood.

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