One afternoon, when my daughter was two, I picked her up from day care, and her teacher couldn't wait to tell me the news.
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"Maggie knows how to spell her name!" she told me.
"Oh, yes," I said meekly. I wasn't sure whether to be proud or ashamed. "It's her iPad password."
Screen-time guilt aside, I realised kids learn things quickly when they're put in real-life scenarios, which naturally come with real-life incentives and consequences. For better or worse, my daughter's desire to play Toca Boca Hair Salon was much more powerful than flash cards or tracing letters in a workbook would have been. Now at her preschool, there are all sorts of situations that motivate her to learn. For instance, if kids want a turn riding the wiggle cars, they must write their name on the waiting list (if they don't yet know how to do that, they must try to at least write the first letter). No name on the list, no turn. The kids don't complain - instead, they're eager to figure out what to do to get thing they want.
Obviously, the idea that we learn by doing isn't new - Aristotle once wrote that "men become builders by building and lyre players by playing the lyre". (I've often had to remind myself that I can only become a writer by writing.) And yet we don't always teach kids this way. There's still a focus on memorisation and standardised tests and and "seat work", the form of instruction in which, as a report in The Atlantic explains, "a teacher carefully controls the content and pacing of what a child is supposed to learn." Any incentives to learn are not intrinsic, but rather imposed by adults.
Instead, what if kids can understand, at an early age, that knowledge will help them gain opportunities and independence throughout their lives? It can get them places, get them things, and help them to communicate what they need. To show children how this works, parents can give them simple missions in which they must work in specific skills. Here are some ideas:
Let them order the pizza. After trying different techniques to get her kids to learn their address and phone number, Reddit user carlinha1289 finally succeeded by having them order pizza. "I told them we were only ordering pizza if they could order it themselves," she writes. "In under 15 minutes they knew their address and phone number. Motivation was pretty high."
Ask them for directions. Say you will take them to a fun place, like a new park, but they must guide you there by using a map.
Give them cookies - that they must make themselves. Teach them to follow a simple recipe.
Have them write their requests. I like to have my daughter write out lists of the foods she wants to eat, friends she wants to invite over, places she'd like to visit. She needs a lot of help with this, but she's learning how to sound out words and assert what she wants. (And no, she doesn't get everything on her lists.)
Don't give them the answers - guide them to the answers. Teach kids how to do online research, find credible sources, and figure out how to learn more about the topics they're most interested in.
Give them an allowance. Teach them that they can get more if they learn to shop around for deals.
The idea is that real incentives, and the pride that comes with attaining them, are a more effective teaching tool than even the shiniest gold star.