Inside: The most foundational thing we can do to nurture our children's love of learning.
As a preschool teacher, parents often ask me, “What can I do to make sure my child is prepared for _______?” (Insert whatever parent sees in the near, or even not so near, future….such as kindergarten, reading, writing, etc.)
My solo answer used to be play. Play, play, play.
The foundations of early learning can be found in free play. I stand by this assertion.
How to build the foundation for nurturing our children's love of learning
But I am now considering that there is something that really comes even before play, or at least stands equally as important next to play, and that is the quality of our relationship with our children.
Specifically, the safety, trust, and connection we create with our little ones nurture their developing brain in a way that makes deep, meaningful learning possible and retainable.
Let’s take a look at why this is true.
In terms of safety, a child needs to know that they can count on us to get their physical needs, such as those for food, clothing, shelter, and affection met. If a child is constantly experiencing insecurity around any of these, it will be difficult for them to focus on reading and writing and arithmetic. They need to feel safe in their environment, trusting that they are well cared for.
A well cared for young child that is experiencing a strong sense of physical and emotional safety won’t know on a cognitive level that this safety is creating such a strong foundation for them to stand on. Instead, they will be blissfully unaware of its profound existence and take it for granted, as is completely developmentally appropriate.
How Safety Encourages a Love of Learning
When they are emotionally safe, they know that they are allowed to feel any of their feelings without fear of punishment or disregard. They will have empathy modeled for them by an adult who understands the importance of allowing all feelings to exist, while setting clear and kind boundaries around hurtful behavior.
This will provide the child opportunities to practice emotional regulation with an adult who is capable of regulating their own emotions first, and then supporting their child with theirs. This kind of emotional safety fosters a sense of openness and curiosity in our children, freeing them up to try new things and challenge themselves rather than shutting down for fear of making mistakes.
This leads us into examining the influence of trust on a child’s learning brain. When a child trusts that they are safe with their caregiver and in their physical environment, they are able to explore the world around them with freedom and confidence. They know that even if they make a mess, make a mistake, misunderstand, break something, lose something, forget something, or fall apart, their safe adult can help them pick up the pieces, both literally and figuratively.
How Trust Encourages a Love of Learning
They learn to ask for help, ask questions and problem solve. They develop an internal sense of confidence and competence through discovering their capacity to correct their own mistakes. They learn to trust the process of learning and growing together, making them an asset to any community in which they are a part.
So, when a child experiences physical and emotional safety, and trusts the adults around them to take good care of them, they learn how to connect with themselves and with others. They learn how to be in relationships. And relationships are at the heart of learning.
How Connection Encourages a Love of Learning
When a child in my preschool classroom has a positive relationship with me, for example, they are interested in and willing to engage in the provocations I set up for them. They are highly motivated by a desire to learn and connect. We can explore the goopy cornstarch and water mess in the sensory table together, even if they feel a little trepidatious to stick their fingers in the unknown substance, because they know that they are safe and in good hands. They trust me.
Then, when they then have a positive experience exploring this new sticky substance that was previously anxiety inducing to them, they create a new pathway in their brain around curiosity and connection that can then be reinforced again and again.
If, on the other hand, they feel fearful and emotionally unsafe in their relationship with their caregiver, they miss out on this opportunity. Their mental energy is spent on protecting themselves instead, and on staying emotionally safe. If they are afraid of getting yelled at for making a mess, for instance, they may be unable to engage in the sensory table materials and miss out on the learning and connection that happens through that exploration. Their learning brain shuts down and the message that gets reinforced is that it’s not safe to explore new things.
Best ways to nurture our child’s capacity for connection
Some of the best ways to nurture our child’s capacity for connection are to practice our relationship skills with others and to communicate boundaries clearly and directly. When our children witnesses positive connections between ourselves and others, they are learning how to be safe in relationships. When we can set healthy boundaries, we are establishing safety and building trust, which deepens the capacity for connection in that relationship.
This has a lasting impact on how our child views connecting with others, and how safe they feel getting close to people. And in order to learn and grow, we all need our relationships with others.
Learn to parent in a way that nurtures your child's love of learning
Now, does all of this focus on safety, trust, and interpersonal connection mean that we have to be perfectly emotionally attuned to our child, 100% consistent and predictable in our capacity to emotionally regulate, and never falter in our capacity to communicate well in all of our relationships in order for them to be able to learn and grow optimally? Absolutely not!
What it does mean is that if we are able to do these things even just slightly more often than we are unable to do them, we will be nurturing our child’s development in a way that supports curiosity, confidence, and competence. It might help to consider learning to parent in this way a practice, just like learning to meditate or dance.
Think about this: When do you learn best?
I invite you to think about your own capacity to read, learn, and retain information. When you are feeling safe, relaxed, and emotionally fulfilled, do you find it easier to absorb new information and/or engage meaningfully in your work? When you are feeling well cared for and connected to others, are you more creative and energized?
Inversely, when you are feeling stressed, disconnected from yourself or others, and insecure, is the idea of challenging yourself or learning something new totally uninspiring? Do you find yourself reading the same paragraph of that book by your bedside over and over again, unable to concentrate on or retain what you read?
What we can do to nurture our children's love of learning?
This is the same phenomenon I am referring to in regards to your child and their learning process. It’s why I assert that the first and most foundational thing we can do to support our child’s learning and nurture their love of learning is to create safety, build trust, and nurture our connection with them.
In this way, we support our child’s deep capacity for exploration, learning, and creating, while truly giving them both roots and wings.
Kickstart a rewarding home learning journey with your children!
Here are some resources for you to kickstart a rewarding home learning journey. Check out this post to learn how to choose age appropriate and engaging activities for your children.
If you have a baby, try these fun activities from my list of Easy Activities for 1 Year Olds.
If you have children between 2 to 5 years old, join us inside our kids' activity membership The Happy Learners' Club!