I teach a Saturday class for families with kids age 3 – 7, called Family Inventor’s Lab. The parents are required to attend class one day a month when we have our parent education session, and they’re required to work in the classroom once a month. On other days, they can choose to drop off or they can choose to stay and play. Many stay and play.
How Parents Can Support Learning in Class
In order to learn, kids need a balance of: formal “teaching”, guided learning, free play, and rest. (Learn more: https://gooddayswithkids.com/2014/09/25/balanced-learning-methods/)
Free play: In class, we have several “stations” around the room with activities for kids to try. Some will test out everything in the room, and others will spend the full time doing one activity. Both choices are totally OK with us!!! We figure children spend the most time where they’re learning the most. So, if a child is engaged in an activity and learning and discovering, parents can either 1) sit back and watch them 2) “play” on their own – doing an activity next to their child – making their own project, or 3) play along with them, but letting them guide the play. (I prefer that parents not spend a lot of class time on their phone… paying attention and participating in class shows the child that the class is fun and valuable… paying attention to your phone shows the child that the important and fun things are on the screen.)
Guided learning: When kids hit the edge of their abilities and are ready to grow, parents might 1) scaffold: notice what they’ve been doing, then teach them a new concept to test out (like the new way to stack a cup pyramid) and then sit back and let them explore, 2) make a suggestion for how to extend their activity (“I see you made a pattern with the Unifix cubes of red, green, red, green… could you make a pattern with black and white?”) or 3) ask them a question about what they are doing. I have a list of questions to ask to extend learning, and an article on play-based learning which includes discussion of the parent or teacher’s role in that.
Formal teaching: Circle time is when my co-teacher and I do our formal teaching. We ask the parents that are there to participate. If the parents pay attention to the story, and sing along with the songs, it encourages the children to do so. Having a role model for appropriate group participation really helps!
Parents Play Along
I love that in my class, parents play too. Often they play with their kids, but sometimes when their kids are fully engaged in an activity, the parents know to let the kids play on their own and discover on their own. Parents take that as an opportunity to play too. Here are three creations from dads from our Towers class. (FYI, the structure on the right is the Space Needle in big blocks.) An aunt and a grandma also did lots of fun work at the Watts Tower project, but I unfortunately didn’t catch any pictures of that.
I think it’s fabulous when the parents play. First, because it makes class more fun for all of us. It’s Saturday, we should all be having fun!!
Second, parents’ work is generally more inventive or more sophisticated than children’s. Taking a project to a higher level, sets some examples for the kids of what things are possible with the materials. (Note, we need to be careful with this… it’s important that the parent is just playing, and NOT hinting to the any child that THEIR creation should look like the parent’s creation… we don’t want to hint that there is one right way of doing something and we don’t want to hint that their work is not as good as ours.)
But, most importantly, it sets an example for the child that even as an adult, you can have fun learning. When I was a kid, my mom was always learning new crafts and working on lots of projects she enjoyed. My dad also had an on-going collection of projects – bodywork on the car, building cabinets in the kitchen… But my dad “played” more than mom – he had a certain glee in experimenting and testing and discovering. I think that passion for learning in our parents helped keep the passion for learning aflame in me and my siblings.
It’s especially good when parents are doing something new and figuring something out for the first time, and even when parents make mistakes, because then our kids see us go through the same process of trial and error they do all the time.
Taking It Home
When parents spend time in the classroom, they get to see all our activities in person, and see which ones most engage their children. Sometimes they decide to do those activities at home – we have a few specialty toys and building materials we use that parents choose to buy for home, but as much as possible, we try to use household materials and recycled goods that they have easy and free access to. Parents will also sometimes take ideas we used in class and take them to a higher level at home, where they can work one-on-one with their child.
Participating in class also means that they hear the concepts we teach in circle time, and can take those home as well – in the next week, they can help their children notice where those concepts appear in their day-to-day life…they can point out the moving truck with the inclined plane ramp, and the dolly on wheels to make work easier to do. They can help their child notice a problem / challenge, and ask them if they can invent something to fix it. Reinforcing the class concepts in multiple environments really helps the child to grasp them.