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Follow his interests. Ask leading questions and explore alongside your child. This shows that learning can happen at all stages in life.
Move beyond the comfort zone. Find opportunities where your child can make a contribution to her community — volunteerism is a great way to learn how different political and cultural institutions operate. VolunteerMatch is a good place to start.
Seek out experiences that build skills. Find programs in your community that can help your child build skills he lacks. Think of your child’s educational weaknesses as muscles that can be developed instead of hurdles or deficits.
By Anne Marie Feld
Every parent has had the experience of asking children a question about their interests, only to get eyes rolling skyward or exasperated sighs. That’s not where it ends if you do the right thing to engage kids, says Leff.
What is the right thing? According to Leff, it’s a process of wearing children down until you find whatever “it” is and refusing to take no for an answer. It’s similar to how you introduce food to a baby — you keep trying things until something sticks, and eventually you’ve got a varied diet or, in this case, a range of interests and skills.
Helping your child understand and articulate his strengths and weaknesses can nudge him down the path to success.
“If you ask a kid in eighth grade what they’re good at, and they can’t answer that question, they’re going to have real trouble in high school,” says Leff. “It’s really important to help kids identify the things that interest them and to help them find positive outlets for those interests.”
Shared cultural experiences or volunteering together are good places to start — especially if you work and plan together. If you’ve got a TV addict on your hands, try taking her to the taping of a television show or a museum of broadcasting to spur conversations about how programs are produced and what makes for entertaining programming. Buy or borrow a video camera and put it in her hands. The idea is to expose your child to the notion that she can create as well as consume.
If your kid loves video games, see if you can get him interested in how animation is produced. Many tech museums have computers and cameras for kids to produce their own games and short animations. You can also take him to free gallery exhibitions of animation art. But follow his interests carefully — don’t take a kid who worships Japanese anime to a Disney exhibit, or more eye rolling may follow. Scour the papers for the right fit. Teachers, school counselors, and other parents can also suggest local programs to build on strengths.
“You teach skills through projects,” says Leff. For one such project, she invited her students to research public transportation problems in their neighborhood. After the case was built, they took it to the next level and presented their arguments to the Chicago Transit Authority. “When you do things like that, kids feel really, really excited and there’s a sense of urgency,” says Leff.
Help your child research something she cares about in her community and present it at an open school board or community board meeting. Local public radio stations often have opportunities for listeners of all ages to talk on the air about issues that shape their communities. Making something together — something with a definite beginning, middle, and end — can also provide the focus for an educational project. This could be as elaborate as building a tree house or as modest as creating a family tree.
In the end, feeding your child’s brain can be done at no cost around the kitchen table or walking in a park. Some of the work can be done in partnership with schools and community groups; some is done in libraries and museums. The good news is that none of it requires expensive toys or equipment. It’s about enjoying your time together; finding ways to expose your child to people, ideas, and experiences to help her grow; and, like Leff, never giving up.
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