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How to Teach Your Kids Without Even Trying

If you’re a parent or have spent much time around children, you’ve probably noticed their tendency to pick up on things you do before you even realize what you’re doing. You might have wondered why it’s such a struggle to teach children what we want them to learn, yet so easy for them to learn things we never intended.

Paradoxically, young children learn best when they aren’t trying to learn and when no one is trying to teach them—

what researchers call incidental learning. But among middle class families in the U.S., we seldom leave children to their own devices or give them opportunities to organize play with peers on the periphery of adult activities. This means that we’re missing out on a huge opportunity to guide our children’s learning.

In my research with young children in highland Peru, I found it was often through play that children appropriated norms of adult behavior. In other words, they looked at what people around them were doing and they made it their own. They reproduced what they’d observed, but under their own structures of peer authority and organization, without adults getting in the way.

Children imitate adults lassoing cows.

Children imitate adults lassoing cows.

Adults lasso cows. (Photo by Thomas Riddle)

A child imitates adult harp players.

A child imitates adult harp players in Ayacucho, Peru.

Professional musicians play the harp and violin in Ayacucho, Peru. (Photo by Thomas Riddle)

The children I worked with in the Andes learned skills like lassoing cows and playing the harp, values like reciprocity and collaboration, and social norms like taking turns and respecting authority. Sometimes adults taught these things on purpose, but much of the learning happened when children were just trying to play successfully without adult interruption, and when adults were just trying to keep kids out of the way so they could accomplish their own adult goals.

So how can we guide children to learn what we want them to learn,

incidentally, through their own peer-organized play? The answer, it seems, is deceptively simple—bring children along when we’re doing things we want them to learn, and tell them to stay out of the way and play.

So if you want your kids, for example, to pitch in with house cleaning, let them play together and out of your way while you sweep. If you want them to learn the skills, values, and social norms of Capoeira, bring them to the roda and let them play with siblings or friends while you practice your game. You just might find that this simple act of creating an opportunity for children to imitate through play is more effective than any formal training.

Children play together, imitating adults sweeping the floor.

Children play together, imitating adults sweeping the floor. (Photo by Frank McKenna. San Diego, United States)

Do you have a story of your kids picking up on something that surprised you?
Share it in our blog comments!

Grim-Feinberg, Kate. 2015, March 13. Understanding the Community through Play: Incidental Learning in a Peruvian Agricultural Community. Paper presented at Anthropology of Children and Youth Interest Group Conference. Long Beach, CA. View paper online.

Strauss, Claudia. 1984. Beyond “Formal” versus “Informal” Education: Uses of Psychological Theory in Anthropological Research. Ethos 12(3):195-222.

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