Preparing Our Kids for a Challenging Future, Part 2: Raising Eager Learners

The new economy is a completely different environment from the one our parents and grandparents knew, the one that's disappearing. It's no longer the norm for someone to work for one company for 40 years by doing what they're told and behaving themselves so they can be rewarded with a gold watch and a nice pension. The length of the average job has already dropped to a little over four years.

Workers are laid off on a regular basis. Entire industries become obsolete and disappear, or simply move to the other side of the world where labor is cheaper. Change is coming at us more rapidly than ever, and those who are willing to adapt to these changes by learning new skills will thrive.

To raise children who eagerly learn new skills, we need to give them the opportunity for free exploration, hands-on learning and real-life experiences where they learn to fail. This isn't easy for us as parents, because we weren't allowed to learn this way. We went to school, where we were told what to learn, and we had no choice in how we learned it. But we must do better by our children, because they need to be prepared differently than we were.

Free exploration is important for people of all ages, but in our society it seems that only babies are allowed the privilege. They crawl everywhere, chew on new items they discover, and absorb every experience like the little sponges they are. But before long, they're sucked into the world of school, where their learning is "guided." Goals are set by educators, and free exploration comes to an end.

How sad and how unnecessary! It seems like we've taken a step backwards when it comes to early education by taking away children's freedom to explore and learn. Today, two-year-olds are put in preschool, but when I was a child, we were free to learn through our play until age five or six. (The public school I lived next to didn't even offer kindergarten.) And for generations before us, children didn't go to school until they were older. Among American pioneers of the 1800s, children went to school sporadically if at all. But they learned what they needed to know while working with their parents to set up homesteads in an unfamiliar environment. Pioneer travels were the ultimate free exploration.

Homeschooling gives children the time and opportunity to learn through free exploration, if their parents don't force them into the public-school-method learning mode. The children of today who are free to read what interests them, explore computers, and learn about the world by visiting museums and other sites of interest will be tomorrow's eager lifelong learners.

Hands-on learning is the primary way babies learn, and used to be the way everyone learned. But the pervasive influence of school turned us toward attending classes and reading books as the preferred way of learning. (There's nothing wrong with reading books, but some subjects cannot be learned by merely reading about them. There's a huge difference between reading a recipe and actually baking the cake.) And of course, since schools contain large numbers of children, hands-on learning experiences are minimized because they're so cumbersome.

But this is another area where homeschooling shines. Homeschooled kids can learn with their hands every day. They bake, paint, build and create whenever they feel inspired. Logistics don't allow this to happen in school. Think about it: there's a big difference between the mess created by a couple of siblings finger-painting and 35 school kids finger-painting. So finger-painting happens at home a lot more than it does at school, and it's usually initiated by the kids' desire to finger-paint, not a directive on the teacher's lesson plan.

Kids who work with their hands all the time not only learn better, but also become accustomed to being creative. If there's anything we're going to need to solve our formidable economic and technological problems in this world, it's creativity!

Next month: Part 3, Why Your Child Needs to Fail