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This week my granddaughters from Illinois visited my home and I had a chance to observe young sisters in action. The girls are four and six years old, which exactly matched that ages of siblings in a new study of children’s learning. Like kids in the study, my granddaughters shared information, helped each other learn new things, and acted as a learning-teaching team. See if your children do the same.

In the study, researchers sat in on 39 Canadian families for six 90-minute sessions, as children in the family interacted naturally. The kids weren’t given any sort of learning-teaching task, but simply did what kids do together. Like my granddaughters, the children in each family were ages four and six.

What the researchers saw was a whole lot of learning – far more than the lead scientist Nina Howe expected. She said she was surprised not only by how much teaching occurred of one child to another but also on the sorts of learning that was shared. Children not only taught each other how to do things, like how to make a block tower stable, but also concepts like the difference between a circle and a square or how to tell apart the days of the week.

Researchers also noticed that the teaching-learning process moved in both directions. Often the older sibling explained things to the younger child but sometimes the younger sibling did the teaching. There was a lot of sharing of knowledge and developing knowledge together.

Howe suggests that parents can capitalize on children’s willingness to learn from each other by making sure kids have lots of unstructured playtime. She says, “Give them the time and space to interact together, and have things in the home to promote teaching and learning, both toys and opportunities for kids to be together.”

Learning doesn’t always come from adults. Often learning is easier when the teacher is nearly the same age as the learner and can understand the learner’s point of view.

When kids are playing together, don’t interrupt or step in to do the teaching. It matters less that children get the right answer than that they consider the problem and come up with what seems right to them at the time.

Let your children play and figure things out. Listen in, if you like, but let the learning happen on its own.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

Your small child is trying to make a block stack and the blocks keep falling down. What are you likely to do?

  1. Help her align the blocks so they balance better
  2. Build the block stack for her
  3. Do nothing.

Does it surprise you to know that “do nothing” is the choice that contributes most to your child’s development? It is. Letting children work out their own problems and stretch their abilities is the key to learning new things and to feeling a sense of accomplishment and pride. Quite often, “do nothing” is the very best action a parent can take.

Just standing by, letting a child figure something out, seems counter to “good parenting.” But, in fact, letting a child learn by doing is important. Yes, of course, building a block tower is something you could do easily. If the objective is to have a tall tower, then helping your child make the tallest tower possible might make sense. But that’s usually not the objective. In just about anything a child does, it’s the doing that is important, not the actual outcome. And the only way to learn how to do something is to try.

We parents do tend to change the agenda. We see the outcome, not the process. So when a small child is trying to climb the steps to the top of a playground slide, we believe that getting up to where the child can slide down is the point. But actually negotiating the steps themselves is satisfying. Do you doubt me? Remember when your child was learning to go up and down the stairs in your home? Getting to the bedrooms wasn’t the point. Just figuring out how to go up and down was.

The only time it’s sensible to help out is when the child is obviously frustrated and mentally stuck. At that time, it’s helpful to point out that the blocks will stack higher when the child starts out on a smooth surface instead of on the carpet. It’s also sensible to help a child frame the problem. The child who can get two blocks to stack can see if he can stack three. Three stacked? See if he can stack four… It’s not height that matters but achieving a bit more than before.

Standing by, “neglecting” to help, can get you criticized by other parents at the playground. They may think you’re not involved and then they might step in to provide the assistance you were being careful to avoid providing. A quiet word with such parents – “please let him figure it out… don’t worry, I’m watching him” – is called for in such a situation.

Some parents hover to the point of interference. They are actually limiting their children’s growth. In addition, they are teaching their children to give up early and lean on somebody else. You won’t do that.

You want kids who are persistent and resilient. You know that to develop your children’s confidence you must let them figure things out.

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.