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What can parents do to boost young children’s learning?

Sponsored by Swiss International School in Qatar

A few months ago, while holidaying in the English seaside town of Brighton, I attended a community festival held at the University of Sussex. While my children were learning circus skills and watching storytellers with their grand-parents, I sneaked away to attend one of the parenting workshops on offer. Dr Denise Kingston, a researcher in early childhood and lecturer at the university, was presenting a mini-lecture: “Supporting and Extending Young Children’s Learning Through Play”. The talk specifically addressed the needs of children from birth to five, so I was attending out of professional curiosity rather than personal interest, as my own children are now older. However, I found a lot of the advice Dr Kingston shared invaluable, both as a parent and an educator. As I observe young children at school on a daily basis, I am often reminded of her words.

Dr Kingston started by reminding us that children entering school now will probably retire sometime around 2080 and, let’s face it, we have no idea what the world will be like then. This is a concern that I have heard repeated many times in educational circles in the last couple of years. How do we prepare children for something we cannot possibly imagine? How do we train them for jobs that do not yet exist? How do we make sure they are ready to solve problems that have not even begun to emerge? Although these questions would make any parent anxious and are keeping schools very busy, there are answers starting to take shape. For example, it has become clear that, instead of imparting knowledge that can now be found on the internet in a few seconds, we are much better off teaching our children skills and character traits that will help them use this knowledge in an efficient and ethical way. Although schools are gradually making this transition, parents also have a crucial role to play in this type of education.

Learning at home

First, let us consider the things many parents out there are already doing right and should continue doing. When we consider essential traditional skills such as literacy and numeracy, Dr Kingston reminded us that the home environment children grow up in has an even bigger impact than the quality of the pre-school and primary school children attend. Research has shown that some home activities can make a real difference to children’s progress. These include:

  • Reading to children
  • Painting and drawing
  • Going to a library
  • Singing songs
  • Learning activities using alphabets and numbers

This list will reassure many parents: it seems that despite the world changing at unprecedented speed, some of the basic activities we have organised for our children for decades are still fully relevant and efficient. One of the most important elements these activities have in common, as Dr Kingston pointed out, is interaction between the child and an adult. This close one-to-one attention is what makes the home environment special.

Unlocking potential

However, if we want to go further and equip children with more elaborate skills and traits that will help them face an increasingly challenging world, simple interaction is only the start. In order to really unlock children’s potential, we need to provide opportunities for what some researchers call “sustained shared thinking”. This type of interaction between a child (or a small group of children) and an adult is of a higher quality and a powerful learning tool for parents. The key to sustained shared thinking is an interaction where adults coach children into becoming better thinkers, rather than feeding them information. Instead of suggesting games or providing material, adults follow the child’s lead and interests and then spend time entering the child’s universe, playing under the child’s terms and asking open, meaningful questions to help children reflect on the activity they have initiated. 

Traditional interaction

Sustained shared thinking

Adult takes the lead in the activity

Children take the lead in the activity

Adult provides information

Adult asks open-ended questions

Adult watches children play

Adult is willing participant in children-led activity

Adult suggests what comes next

Adult asks children what comes next

Adult provides possible explanations

Adult asks children for explanations

Adult asks questions to test children

Adult asks genuine questions she does not know the answer to and listens to children’s answer

Adult organises learning activity around school subjects (writing, counting etc.)

Adult subtly includes school subjects in children-led play

Adult forces children to complete tasks, making learning “not fun”

Learning is associated with fun, playing and interaction with others

In practice

Let’s imagine, for example, that a child is pretending to cook food on the beach, playing quietly with sand and bringing us the occasional “dish”. This fairly normal scene represents a wonderful opportunity for sustained shared thinking. While it may be tempting to keep reading our book and smile vaguely when presented with each new dish, there are ways to activate deep learning that are both easy and fun. We can, for instance, ask questions such as “what is your recipe?”, “what are you going to cook next?”, “is this a healthy dish?” or “what will you do if your oven breaks?” We can enter the child’s world by ordering more food, offering to be an assistant chef who will take directions from the child or including other adults or siblings in the game. In doing so, we develop the child’s abstract thinking, imagination, and problem-solving abilities. We also give the child confidence, importance and even leadership skills. With a slightly older child who has been used to such role play, it becomes natural to include more school-based skills. The child may want to take orders in writing, create a menu or give us a bill at the end of the meal, for example. 

Of course, this kind of role play based on children’s imagination already takes place in many families. What is wonderful is to know what research tells us about such interactions: they are extremely fruitful, lead to a love of learning and develop skills in a more positive and efficient way than the adult-led activities we normally associate with learning.

Studies: Sylva et al. 2004, Siraj-Blatchford et al, 200


Dr Nancy Le Nezet is the Director of Studies at the Swiss International School (Doha, Qatar). Nancy studied philosophy in France and in the UK, and taught languages in Japan, the US and Spain before starting her career as an IB educator. Nancy is passionate about international education and the IB programme. For more information about Nancy and the school, please visit www.sisq.qa.


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