When I picked up Mariah Bruehl's new book, Playful learning I found myself nodding with agreement with so much of it. The book is so much more than a 'how to' book and is filled with great ideas and amusing anecdotes, Mariah writes in an honest and no nonsense type of way, you feel like she has written the book while you are sitting with her having a chat over coffee.
Playful Learning is split into seven subject areas, nurturing young authors, the joy of reading, mathematicians at work, scientific investigations, exploration of art and growing globally and there are 58 learning experiences to share with your children. Not only that Mariah has covered everything from tips on how to be prepared ahead of time, to book and website recommendations and a set a printables in the back of the book. Although the book is marked from four to eight year olds I think you can learn much from it when you still have younger children.
I got the chance to ask Mariah a few questions about the book and her child rearing experiences...
How old are your children now? How do you think that the playful learning foundation that you have already given them will help them in the future?
My daughters are now seven and eight years old. I feel that engaging in playful learning experiences with them over the years has helped them to develop lifelong habits of heart and mind. Although learning facts and developing specific skills are very important, a positive disposition towards learning and the desire to take on intellectual and creative challenges are characteristics that will serve children throughout their lives. The work I do with my girls and all of students in my courses focuses on developing passion and teaching children how to effectively express themselves and their understanding of the world. Children’s voices can be very powerful and as adults we can learn a lot from them when we take the time to listen.
When I was reading through the book, I noticed a lot of parallels to the Montessori philosophy, are you heavily influenced by any one educational philosophy? Why?
Maria Montessori is one of my primary influences. When I discovered her work I could not get enough of her ideas and read every one of her books that I could get my hands on. What struck me most about her philosophy was her view on the potential of children. She felt that the world had not yet seen the true potential that children hold and that with the right environment they could thrive in ways we have not witnessed before.
Later in my career I discovered the work of the schools in Reggio Emilia, Italy. The Reggio Emilia philosophy holds the same view of children and has the most innovative approach to curriculum development and implementation I have ever seen. Both Reggio Emilia and Montessori also emphasize the important role that the environment plays in education, which is another one of my passions as both an educator and parent.
While I have many inspirational influences, I have learned over the years that there is no “one size fits all” solution to education. Both parents and teachers need to start with the child in front of them and find the approach that best suits his or her needs at that particular moment.
So far, I have had it fairly easy with my son, he basically taught himself to read in English and Japanese and he is going through a writing spurt at the moment but not all children share the same love of books and written work, although I think how it is presented can make a big difference to the outcome. What advice do you have for parents of children who are reluctant readers/writers?
Good question! In my view a parent’s interaction with their child, when it comes to engaging in playful learning experiences, should be light and joyful. I believe that most learning (especially in the younger years) should feel like play to children. So rather than believe that a child simply does “not like” reading or writing, I recommend trying to find a different playful way to introduce the concept or skill by building it into their current interests.
One lesson that I had to learn when it came to reading with my oldest daughter was that I had to get off of my “high horse” when it came to the books she was selecting. I kept trying to encourage her to read some of my favorite “classics” and she had no interest in my recommendations or in reading independently for pleasure. Once I let go of my own preferences and started helping her find books that related to her current interests (even if they were all about princesses) she started to enjoy reading on her own. The important lesson that I learned is that you have to meet your child where he or she is at and work hard to meld your goals and their desires. Parents know their children better than anyone and if given the right tools, are perfectly poised to capture their child’s interests and passions and create meaningful learning experiences.
All the teachers that I know are super organized, they need to be and in your book you have the 'one step ahead' tips can you tell us more about this idea?
It is important for us as parents to realize that we do not need to be experts in any given topic to engage in learning with our children. A great teacher once told me that in order to start teaching young children a new topic, we simply need to be a few children’s books ahead of our students. This is what I refer to as the “one-step-ahead” parent.
Literally, I really do mean that parents simply need to be just one step ahead of any learning experience. I have been known to read a book aloud on a topic on the way to a museum or while at the beach—talk about one step ahead! Yet that little bit of preparation makes the difference between an experience and a learning experience.
I must also admit that the girls have taken on spontaneous interests in topics that I know nothing about. During these times, I encourage their curiosity and may even generate a few questions myself (which is great for modeling the scientific method). Later, the process of fact finding and researching the answers to our questions becomes the experience itself. These moments allow me to model using books and other resources to find specific information, and to demonstrate first hand that learning truly is a lifelong endeavor.
For each activity listed in the book, I include a section called “One Step Ahead” to provide parents with facts, thoughts or preparations that will help them to take that one step, which makes for a more meaningful shared experience.
Which is yours and which are your children's favorite projects from the book?
I mention in my interview with Maureen at Spell Outloud that the learning experience I feel has had the most profound impact on our family is on put-ups and put-downs.
Your question prompted me to ask the girls what their favorite experience was from the book, and after flipping through the pages again together, they both agreed that alphabet photography was one their favorites. I think the reason that they both hold such fond memories of this experience is that it explored the right concept at the right time for them. Children feel an intrinsic need to master specific developmental milestones at different stages of their development. Teachers and parents can learn a lot by observing the way children interact with different materials and activities. If a child remains engaged and focused on an activity for a long period of time and wants to repeat it over and over again, it is a positive sign that it is a good developmental fit for them. Understanding these milestones can help both parents and teachers plan projects that speak to this internal drive that every child has. It is for this reason that I provide a developmental overview for each subject that I cover in the book.
Just so we know you are as human as the rest of us, is there a project or idea that you came up with to use with your children that turned out to be a disaster one way or another?
I am so glad that you asked that question! I must say that many of my project ideas have not gone over well (or at all) with my daughters. Writing the book took a lot of trial and error and only the activities that I had success with made it into the book. There were many complete failures that did not make the cut!
My advice to parents is to let go of pre-determined expectations that you might have about the outcome of any given project. Be open to your child’s interpretation of the activity and if they want to take it in a different direction, follow her or his lead. I found this very hard to do in the beginning because I had an end product in mind. Yet, children are radars for manipulation and the moment I tried to “direct” a project in a certain direction my daughters would instantly lose interest.
The good news is that the more your children feel listened to, the more open they become to your suggestions. Over time we have developed a mutual respect that is now the foundation for the experiences we share. Do my projects still flop at times? Yes! But, we have come a long way.