Using everyday activities as a foundation for learning

Have you ever observed a child setting a toy car at the top of a ramp and watching it roll down over and over again? What is it that enables a child to do this for 45 minutes at a time when they won’t sit and listen to a story for more than five minutes?

They stick with this behavior because something about it is captivating them. Think of everything the child in this scenario is learning!

  • The car always rolls down easily, but rolling it uphill works differently
  • If there’s something in front of the wheels, it will change the direction or stop the car
  • The car changes speeds if you push it harder
  • The car goes faster down the steepest part of the ramp
  • If something gets stuck between the wheel and the car, it won’t roll as well
  • Different cars roll at different speeds—heavier cars go faster

All of this just from a ramp and a toy car!  By observing and following our child’s natural interests and curiosity we develop the kind of skills they really need to be successful: collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation, and confidence.


Motivation is critical to learning

When schools implement one standard curriculum using the same methods for all students, student motivation to learn decreases (<<this article from the Hechinger Report, an independent, nonpartisan organization that reports on education issues, is a real eye-opener).

Schools often try to boost motivation to learn by using extrinsic rewards (stickers!  stars!  grades!), but this is a short-term fix. And with schools in such disarray right now – with various combinations of in-person and Zoom-School working to a greater or lesser extent for different children – many parents are frustrated.  For the first time, parents are seeing what it takes to keep a child motivated to do work that doesn’t interest them – because parents now have to provide much of this extrinsic motivation.  It’s understandable that parents are concerned and looking for solutions.

The good news is that parents who are homeschooling or supplementing their child’s school-based education at home can have a substantial positive impact on their child’s motivation to learn.


The path of the Dark Horse

It might sometimes seem like there’s only one well-trodden path to success (get good grades in high school, go to college – preferably a ‘good’ one, get a white collar job, get married, buy a house, have 2.4 children…), but this is far from the truth.

According to Dr. Rose Todd Rose, whom I interviewed for the podcast, a Dark Horse is someone who uses a variety of unusual strategies like understanding their ‘micromotives’ and not worrying about their overall destination, and instead focusing on more immediate goals to create a fulfilled life.

Dark Horses usually find their ‘calling’ in mid-life – I consider myself to be a bit of a Dark Horse. I went to prestigious schools and had a career in sustainability counseling, but after I had my daughter everything changed.  I went on to study psychology and education and started the podcast.  I now structure the way I work to provide blocks of time interacting with people and then long stretches of time alone to think and write, which aligns well with my introversion.  Now I’ve gained a lot of confidence with a method of communication that doesn’t require that I fluff my hair up beforehand I’m broadening my horizons to include video.  And now I get up every morning knowing that the work I’m doing is making an incredible impact on the world.  That is motivation.

It’s an entirely different definition of success; one that isn’t measurable by the traditional metrics but that I feel deeply inside.

This is one of the typical paths Dark Horses typically take—they appear successful on the outside (at the college or even mid-career level) but find themselves unfulfilled on the inside, and they make a shift.

Other future Dark Horses struggle in school and find themselves bouncing around until they finally realize what they really want to do. Once they find what really motivates them, they take-off and seem unstoppable. Dr. Rose himself dropped out of high school with a 0.9 GPA (for those of you outside the U.S., that’s a grade F).  Now he has a Ph.D., teaches at Harvard, and studies the topic that drives his passion.

Tiger Parenting can get a child into an elite college, but that isn’t the only way to get there – or the only way that success should be measured either.

While I was talking with Dr. Rose, I thought: “wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could help our children identify their unique path to fulfillment and success when they’re young so they could avoid the often frustrating and painful journey that seemed common among the adult Dark Horses whom he studied?”


Child-led Learning

I think we can make this tough path to fulfillment obsolete by showing parents how they can discover and nurture their child’s uniqueness. If we can help our children find what fulfills them early in life, they can start on the path to fulfillment from the beginning. Dr. Rose agreed that this path would really be the ideal. Unfortunately, schools aren’t equipped to individualize learning in this way, and they often kill children’s creativity and curiosity.

(It’s important to note that most of the people working in education are incredibly well-meaning. Many who work inside the school system are disheartened by the current one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t allow for creativity from students, teachers, or administrators. Too often, teachers don’t have the freedom to pursue activities that expose children to ideas and experiences that aren’t specifically connected to their performance on a test.)

By following our child’s unique talents and interests rather than a curriculum, we can help them identify the path to fulfillment at a young age and eliminate the need for them to have a Dark Horse experience.

I had a classmate in middle school who was interested in music. He wanted to be a conductor. His parents weren’t musicians themselves. They were more comfortable riding horses than attending a symphony, but they supported him. They provided piano lessons and sent him to music camps. They didn’t object when as a teenager he coordinated an out of state trip for 20 high school friends to attend an opera performance in another state. Today he’s the principal conductor of an opera house. He’s had a distinguished career that he finds personally fulfilling. (And that’s not to say that following our child’s passions has to be expensive – they can rent equipment rather than buying, or find ways to trade labor for lessons.)

Our children aren’t always as clear and forthcoming with their interests and passions as my former classmate, and we don’t even know what opportunities the world may present to them when they reach adulthood. If your child is 4 years old in 2020, they will be 25 in the year 2041, and they’ll be 65 in the year 2081. The world is sure to look very different by then. Imagine if Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, tried to explain his work to someone in 1968 when he was 4 years old—it would have been unimaginable.

The opportunities available to our children – and the needs of our society – will look very different in 20 or 40 years. To continue thriving throughout life, we have to be willing and able to learn and adapt. We can prepare them to thrive in our ever-evolving world by helping them to do two things: hold a deeply intrinsic love of learning, as well as knowledge of how to learn.


Supporting Your Child’s Intrinsic Love of Learning

My goal with the Supporting Your Child’s Learning membership is to show you how to identify patterns in your child’s interests and continue helping them explore these at progressively deeper levels.

Some of you are thinking, “what if all my child is interested in is playing with toy cars? Don’t they have to learn their letters and how to count? There’s not much demand for toy car experts.” Never fear, this is actually a great place to start. We already saw how an interest in pushing cars down a ramp leads to the development of complex knowledge related to physics.

Maybe your child would like to time the different cars going down under different conditions (math!  scientific method!).

Maybe they would like to write signs for the drivers – or for you, to tell you not to put their creation away (literacy!)

Maybe they become interested in the cars themselves and how they’re built (mechanics!), or how their structure has changed over the years (history!).

When you follow the child’s interests, all of this becomes not just possible, but fun.  (And we’ll even help if your child is interested in everything they lay eyes on for approximately 30 seconds – and then they move on to the next thing.)


Is following my child’s interest enough?

Lots of parents worry that they need to drill their children on letters and numbers. After all, isn’t that what schools do?

While many preschools do focus on drilling letter names and sounds, counting, and learning how to hold a pencil, highly trained early childhood educators are rarely supportive of this model. They know that child-centered preschool and even school should not be filling out workbooks or memorizing letters.

They should be learning how their body works, how the world immediately around them works, and how they relate to the world. What they need is someone to scaffold their learning process.

This is exactly what you did when your child was learning to walk. You made sure the environment was safe. You shared their enthusiasm when they made progress toward their goal. You let them learn about their legs and experiment with balance—offering support if they needed it. You used a variety of techniques—sometimes you sat with them to boost their confidence, but other times you hung back and let them try on their own. You helped them feel better if they fell down and cried.

As we follow our child’s interests, there will be opportunities for them to learn more traditional subjects through the topics that interest them. If your child’s interests lead you to start a garden, you’ll be measuring the distance between plants, making signs so you know what plants you put in which location, and counting the number of seeds that sprout each day. These opportunities will happen naturally and your child will be excited about using letters and numbers to make their project a success. Your own child’s interests may lead you in a completely different direction, but whether you find yourself gardening, cooking, observing shadows, writing stories, or throwing a tea party, letters and numbers are sure to come up and your child will learn them more quickly and on a deeper level because it will be in an authentic situation.


How do I teach a child how to learn?

We’ll spend an entire module on this inside the membership.  Much of it involves bringing to the surface strategies your child is already using, so they can use them again.

My daughter Carys has been interested in estimation lately, which grew out of an interest in dinosaurs.  We were having a hard time picturing how long the dinosaurs were, so we measured out 25, 50, and 75 feet in our house (which is really long and narrow!) so we could ‘see’ how long a 50 foot dinosaur would have been.

Yesterday she asked me how many people live in a town, which led to a discussion about different towns and their sizes, and how we can know how many people live in one, and how street signs will estimate population sizes.  Sometimes a street sign will say there are 4,239 people living in the town…but what happens when someone dies?  Or twins are born?  What would be a better estimate of the number of people living in the town?

Today we went to a friend’s house to relieve her overloaded lemon tree of some of its burden and when we got home, Carys excitedly told her Dad about it and estimated that there were “about 50 lemons on the tree!”

I said “Did you see what you just did?  You used the estimating skill we talked about yesterday!  What would have happened if you said “there were 49 lemons on the tree!”?  Daddy would have thought you counted them.  But when you said ‘50 lemons,’ you gave him an idea of how many lemons there were and how precise your estimate was.  Now you know how to do that, you can do it next time you need it as well.”

This is called metacognition, or thinking about thinking, and it’s invaluable as we teach children how to learn.  It’s not that hard to do, if you have a little information on the tools and some support as you practice using them.


Joining the Supporting Your Child’s Learning Membership

In the Supporting Your Child’s Learning Membership you’ll get all the information and tools you need to make this shift.  You’ll learn how to observe your child so you can learn not just about their surface-level interests, but the deep questions they’re asking about their place in the world.

You’ll be guided step-by-step through your child’s first Learning Exploration, from selecting a topic that’s likely to be successful to documenting what you (both!) learned.

And you’ll go on to look at topics like Using Nature as a Muse (even if you know nothing about the natural world right now!), how to sensitively scaffold to keep your child within their Zone of Proximal Development, how to foster the development of critical thinking skills – and developing metacognition as well.

So you get knowledge – but you also get support.  The parents in our private community are curious and collaborative, and deeply invested in sharing ideas on these topics and learning from each other.  In this time when we’re so cut off from connections with other parents, you’ll also find community in the small groups of up to six parents who meet for 40 minutes each week to share your successes, stumbles, and progress toward a self-defined goal and determine your next step.  And you may also choose to join group coaching calls with me, where we get you unstuck from the specific challenge you’re facing.

This isn’t a curriculum, or a monthly boxed kit, or a toy subscription.  I’m not going to tell you what your child should know by certain milestones.  But whether you’re homeschooling, Zoom-Schooling or regular schooling, what you learn in the Supporting Your Child’s Learning Membership will help you to use your child’s interests to guide them on a life-long learning journey that is exciting, fun, and rewarding – for both of you.

Click here to learn more about the membership:

Get the resources, encouragement, and confidence you need to promote your child’s innate love of learning while still having fun – whether they are already in school and you want to complement their education or if they are homeschooling. It’s deeply aligned with your values as a parent, and you get to have fun while you’re doing it!

Join the Supporting Your Child’s Learning membership to enjoy these benefits and more! Enrollment will open in August. Sliding scale pricing is available, and there’s a 100% money-back guarantee. Check out this link to learn more and sign up:




Want to learn how to support your child’s intrinsic love of learning – for free? Join the FREE You Are Your Child’s Best Teacher workshop – workshop starts August 7. Click the image below to sign up!


About the author, Jen

Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (, which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.

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