Getting a Jump on Learning
April 1994

“Getting a Jump on Learning,” Ensign, Apr. 1994, 72–73

Getting a Jump on Learning

A surprisingly high percentage of children who start school have disabilities—but not in the traditional sense. They may not have mental or physical impairments, but they find school overwhelming for the simple fact that they have not learned how to learn. The truth is that learning itself is a skill that requires forethought, practice, and attention. Parents who understand a few basic learning principles about the art of learning, and who are willing to spend the necessary time and concentration, can help provide their youngsters with a precious gift: the capacity to learn.

Because there is such a wide variety of learning problems, there is no simple formula for increasing a child’s learning potential.

But if you have a pre-schooler, there are some simple ways you can help him or her develop in the conceptual, visual, and hearing areas. Before we talk about those activities, though, let’s review a few basic teaching principles.

First, remember that learning is active, not passive. We don’t receive knowledge: we experience it. A child’s learning capabilities may be impaired unless he or she has some freedom to test the world and its great variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. This might mean putting the pans back in the cupboard every half hour, placing fragile knickknacks out of reach, or a dozen other cleanup activities that tire and frustrate mothers. It doesn’t mean, of course, that you should allow your child to do anything he or she wishes. Exploration should help him or her learn the responsibility of freedom: the cause-effect relationships of the world, the arrangement and order of things, and the consequences that come from making decisions.

Second, make learning fun. Somewhere along the way, people have adopted the notion that learning and drudgery are synonymous. But the opposite is true. A child learns faster and more efficiently if he or she is having fun. I think children learn just as much about math from playing jacks at recess as they do reciting times tables in a classroom. Games, visual aids, field trips, and other activities that you will also enjoy make learning pleasurable.

Third, teach your child using all five of his or her senses. Show her pictures while you read her a story, have him trace the shape of a letter with his finger while he looks at it, or have her touch a furry kitten in addition to hearing and seeing one. Smelling, touching, hearing, tasting, and seeing all work together to help a child form complete concepts about objects.

Fourth, point out detail and differences in objects. Children aren’t naturally able to discern detail and variety. So don’t just point out a cow in a field; describe the yellow-and-brown spotted cow that is standing in a cornfield. Add detail to your instructions around the house: “This plate is round, but our table is square: or “Will you please put your black shoes on the shelf in the bottom of your closet?”

Fifth, and perhaps most important, program your child to succeed. Failure is learning’s greatest enemy. Give your child chances to feel successful. If she can’t catch a ball, then teach her to first catch a pillow. If he can’t get his shoes on the right feet, paint a mark on the sole of the left shoe so he can see the difference more easily.

Once you have these basic principles in mind, you can plan activities that will strengthen specific areas of learning. In the area of conceptual development, an activity like sorting socks helps a child learn to categorize. Helping set the table lets him see patterns. Learning a simple recipe helps her develop a sense of order. And helping put tools away or weeding the garden helps a child distinguish and organize.

Visual skills can be enhanced with any activity that helps a child notice differences in size, shape, or color. Hobbies such as bird-watching or gardening are excellent visual activities. Looking for specific items at the supermarket will also contribute to a child’s visual awareness. Activities that combine visual and motor skills, such as coloring or painting, are especially helpful, since they help a child develop coordination.

Your house and neighborhood are filled with a variety of sounds that you can use to help your child develop hearing perception. Ask questions like: “Is that the doorbell or the timer on the stove?” “Is that Daddy coming up the stairs, or your sister?” You can also make up games that will help in this area. For example, blindfold your child and let her guess which of several people is speaking.

Like other worthwhile achievements, preparing children to learn successfully requires time, patience, and love. Both parents need to give continual and sensitive attention. But the rewards are priceless—in fact, they are eternal.—Michael L. Robinson, public information officer and writer, Alpine School District; and LDS counseling specialist, Utah State Prison